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MC5.4 Indigenous Concepts

The Global Career of "Indigenous Concepts"

Koordination: Joachim Kurtz, Dhruv Raina


Appeals to include "indigenous concepts" in global discourses have gained in both urgency and frequency over the past decades. Responding to the real, if at times overstated, discursive hegemony of Euro-America and the notions coined to describe its peculiar experiences, concerned scholars in both Western and non-Western countries have repeatedly called for an expansion of the international conceptual lexicon. So far, the success of these efforts has been very limited, especially in the academic realm. If at all, non-Western concepts like tao, yoga, jihad, iki or fengshui seem to have taken root in popular and political discourses, while the conceptual tools for scholarly analyses of social, religious, philosophical, historical, economic or political phenomena continue to be derived from a globalized vocabulary of Western origin, supplemented on a case-by-case basis by insertions of "authochtonous," "native," "emic," or "indigenous" notions that remain stubbornly immobile, tied to their local or regional contexts.

The reasons for this failure are not yet very well understood. To be sure, entrenched asymmetries of political and economic power as well as social and cultural capital play decisive roles in frustrating even the most recurrent calls to correct the glaring imbalance. However, in view of the much discussed "decline of the West" and the "provincialization of Europe," it is difficult to accept these historically contingent asymmetries as the only causes. Perhaps, and this is the point of departure of the present project, the problem lies, to a certain extent at least, with the idea of "indigenous concepts" itself—a notion that, somewhat ironically, seems to be one of the few "indigenous" concepts that have indeed become globalized today, even if its programmatic contents is yet to be realized.

The studies suggested here interrogate the notion of "indigenous concepts" both historically and theoretically. Despite its precarious standing, the concept has had an important role in raising central questions regarding the plausibility of existing global narratives, whose very existence today rests on the incorporation of the "multitudinous indigeneous" into the global. But at what point, theoretical and historical, did the indigeneous begin to assert its presence and enforce a revision of social theory, insisting upon its incorporation into the global as the very precondition for achieving any robust theory or history of the global? When, why, and how did it become prominent in Western and non-Western discursive arenas, and what are the different hopes and expectations attached to it by its most fervent proponents? How, finally, is the postulate of a radical alterity of the local that the notion seems to imply problematized, or instrumentalized, within and outside of Euro-America?