Northern theories for Southern contexts?

Over the last two years, I have thought a lot about the use of ‘Western’ scientific theoretical frameworks to analyse phenomenon in the developing world. This question has been particularly relevant for me as an African student, studying African innovation in a European university, and mingling largely with European scholars throughout my doctoral work. Much of the scholarship in my general areas of interest – innovation studies, science and technology studies, and sustainability transitions – has been done, and to a large extent continues to be done in European institutions. Many of the top-tier journals and conferences in this area are also domiciled in Europe, although there are efforts to build up reputable journals and research communities in these areas elsewhere (see for example the work of GLOBELICS). Therefore, much of theory in this area has been developed around dynamics of innovation in Europe. Any student of innovation in the Global South faces this dilemma: can I, and should I use these ‘European’ frameworks when studying innovation in my non-Western context? I presume this question also applies to research students in other fields of social science.

A few months ago, I attended a conference which had a dialogue session on “Sustainable transitions in developing countries”, where participants were discussing whether and how theoretical frameworks in transition studies can be applied in Asia, Africa and Latin America. There were varied opinions, but in general, there were two major camps: one that argued that these frameworks can be transferred, but have to be tweaked or extended to account for dynamics in developing countries that differ from those in Europe, the other asserting that these frameworks do not in any shape or form describe innovation in developing countries, and should not be used outside the contexts they were developed in.

I see some merits to the first perspective. We are living in an increasingly globalised world, which means that there are now many shared ideals about how modern societies organise themselves (e.g. democracy and capitalism). There’s increasing convergence in world views and culture. One can argue that there are convergences in philosophies of knowledge too, with different societies adopting similar perspectives on nature, economics, development, welfare, etc, and now, innovation. Therefore, universal theories of innovation may exist at a highly abstract level. However, as there is variation in how these ‘knowledges’ are appropriated or enacted in different contexts, one must enhance or extend these theories to account for local specificities. It follows that innovation theories developed in foreign context can be abstracted to first-order principles, then applied to new contexts.

The second perspective suggested that when studying innovation is the global South—which itself is highly diverse—one has to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. Alternatively, one could to go to these contexts, discover the local philosophy of knowledge about ‘innovation’ which likely differs from Western epistemology, and build theory on that basis. This means completely discarding the Western analytical lens that defines what ‘innovation’ is and how knowledge about innovation can be acquired and organised. While quite extreme, there is also some merit to this perspective. Using a simple example on innovation indicators: it is widely accepted that R&D investment as a conventional measure of innovative activity in the global North cannot be effectively used to measure innovation in Africa for instance. This is because R&D is not analogous to innovation in this setting. Granted, R&D investment as a proxy for innovative activity is problematic even in the North, but R&D does account for a substantial portion of innovative activity here. Not so in Kenyan firms, even the relatively highly innovative ones. Therefore, we need different theories of innovation for developing countries.

While I have yet to settle on an answer for this question, I find it useful to stay aware of both perspectives while I go about my research. My work currently borrows heavily from European and North American theory. However, I have become more reflexive in my work, and now I constantly examine the assumptions and preconceptions embedded in the theories I am adopting to analyse inclusive innovation. I am however deeply curious about the likelihood that indigenous (Kenyan/African) theories of technology and innovation exist. Knowledge in the communities I come from were not documented in written form, but passed down through tacit forms: apprenticeship, folklore, material objects, song, practices, etc. If we look hard enough (and this means looking at anthropology, and going beyond books and journal articles), there may be a philosophy behind how artefacts and practices changed or improved over time either due to endogenous or exogenous factors. Food for thought!


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