In loose terms, “ethnoscience” is a way to describe an educational trend toward programs that provide more generalization in the sciences. The “ethno” prefix partially pays respect and attention to the indigenous knowledge that people have, because that indigenous knowledge has a way of providing understandings that will never happen in the confinement of devotion to European and western thought, scientific speciality and scientific method.
Indigenous knowledge is fragile and complex knowledge that is passed on through oral traditions. It is infused with linguistic, mythical, strategic and other issues. Mythical content has mixed in with concealed content over time in order to give political and social power, to soothe the group’s need for explanations of the unknown, and to protect trade and political secrets.
In the current era of globalization in just about every science, from military and political science, to world health and biological prospecting, local and indigenous people’s knowledge about their parts of the world is taking on more respect simply because that knowledge is valuable and powerful. It is based on thousands of years of observation, trial and error and lessons learned. In many cases, the knowledge is accompanied by lifetimes of training and education that are a dedicated and intelligent as anything that comes from a university.
“Ethnoscientists” are scientists who have expanded their studies to include anthropology, sociology, linguistics, and other social understandings in order to work with people directly, rather than to strip out their input and to deal only with raw numbers or facts.
The people who have lived in the Gulf oil spill region have centuries worth of experience and knowledge that will have to be respected and mined as scientists seek to fully understand the impact of the BP oil spill on man and nature. The plants, animals and humans of the region are only fully understood by the plants, animals and humans who have lived and who will live in the region, and only the humans are able to do the talking.
A Vietnamese immigrant family, for example, will have brought their existing understandings of marine life together with decades of daily interaction with the waters and biomes of the Gulf in ways that are priceless. Centuries old familes of sea fishermen, wetlands dwellers and residents of all races and ethnicities will know more about the land before the oil, during the oil and after the oil than any scientist can know. Native Americans will have the oldest knowledge of all, especially about the fact that the Gulf has natural oil seeps that have been going on since the arrival of humans.
As a result, even the most laboratory bound economists, physicists, botanists, biologists and engineers will benefit from those special representatives of their science who can mix it up with the people and get the fragile, indigenous, oral knowledge from those who have the most complete, steady and long term exposure, interaction, experience, knowledge, trial and error, and observation to offer.
Finally, some examples of sciences with the “ethno” prefix include ethno-economics, ethno-botany and ethno-environmental science. The real issue might be that there is a new major era in science where the extreme specialization of the past century is loosening up to allow a new, or “neo modern” era of more generalization in scientific education and practice.