The knowledges and their theories


   The texts “The knowledges and their contexts”, “The knowledges and their languages” and “The knowledges and their practices” sought to advance toward understanding the knowledges involved in the hybrid narratives, but it must be noted that the scientific knowledge actually does not integrate the knowledge and practices of the women who make the ash soap or those from the orange wine producers. The hybrid construction of the narratives was intentionally created in order to facilitate simultaneous access to both knowledge and thenceforward to explore their natures. Now, it remains to highlight an aspect that is, perhaps, the one that most distinguishes the knowledges: the theoretical. What is theory? What does it serve or consist? What are the features of scientific theories? Is there theory in the local cultural knowledge?

   Some authors used to ground the texts aforementioned provide useful and not divergent explanations for the meaning of theory. They did it by considering the role of theory in science. Cobern and Loving (2001), for example, defined science as a naturalistic explanatory system used to explain natural phenomena, where the explanations are constructed within a theoretical system of thought. Explanation and theory are not equivalent, however, and comprehend complementary levels of scientific knowledge. The explanations are located in the first level and have more relationship to the world of experiences or to what is directly observed, while theories comprise a second level of systematic and formal ideas, which is more dependent of culture. An important observation is that the science explanations are not any explanations, they are explanations to be tested, both in relation to phenomena, to validate their empirical consistency, as compared to other explanations, to ascertain their theoretical consistency.

    When they analyze the traditional knowledge, these authors mention that its explanations can show cause and effect relations that make sense and in this respect they are not so different from those built by scientists. The most significant differences are on the second level or in the “webs of significance” (Geertz, 1973 quoted by Cobern & Loving, 2001, p. 59): the systems of thought that guide and give meaning to the meanings in the first level. That is why Mrs. Aparecida says that “the dicuada cuts fat”, for example, while chemists explain the phenomenon by chemical reactions. Similarly, while Mr. Zé says that “It´s on to ferment that gives the alcohol, it turns there inside, its fermentation is that creates this alcohol”, the scientific knowledge will say that the Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast is who converts glucose into ethanol and carbon dioxide through a complex sequence of reactions producing ATP and energy for use in its vital processes. In these two cases explanations of cause and effect are formulated, but the system of thought of Mrs. Aparecida is not that of the theory of chemical saponification reactions, neither the Mr. Zé’s is related to the mechanisms of glycolysis. Their explanations show other relations and differ also by keeping a closer relationship to reality, while the scientific explanations tend to generalization.

   Two other authors, Lederman & Lederman (2012), mention that the scientific theories are part of the body of the knowledge of science, which is also constituted by other aspects: it uses specific processes and methods; it is tentative (it changes by new evidence, technological advances or due to the reinterpretation of the theories or laws); it is based on experimentation; it is subjective, involves the personal experience of the researcher that is dependent of a theory; it involves conclusion, imagination and human creativity (involves the invention of explanations) and develops itself within a context entrenched in social and cultural relations. Two important additional features reside on the distinction between observations and inferences and the relationship between theories and laws.

   In the case of observations, they comprehend descriptions derived from interactions between the senses and the phenomena (or using extensions of the senses), while inferences are the explanations for what was observed or its interpretation. It is very difficult to have no consensus among different observers, since senses do not differ from one person to another. However, different interpretation can occur in the field of inferences according to the personal experience of the observers and the theories that guide their thoughts. A scientist and any person can observe the same things in a phenomenon but can assign different explanations in accordance with their experience and knowledge. This can happen even between two scientists with different theoretical backgrounds. In the case of laws and theories, Lederman & Lederman (2012) say that people often confuse them holding a hierarchical view, where theories will become laws sooner or later as evidences show. Laws and theories are different forms of knowledge, they say. While the laws describe relationships between the phenomena (the Boyle’s law, for instance, which relates the pressure to the volume of a gas at constant temperature) the theories comprise explanations/inferences. The molecular kinetic theory, for example, joins explanations for what the Boyle’s law describes.

   In the writings of the four authors cited above they demonstrate to converge on the purpose of the scientific work: to build explanations, inferences or interpretive conclusions for natural phenomena. These, in turn, are molded by, and configure, a system of wider cultural thought that gathers explanations and ideas: the theory. Considering the level of formality and systematization of theory in science, it seems correct to say that there is anything tantamount in the knowledge and practices of the people who prepare the ash soap and the orange wine. We could think in the existence of another kind of theory (second level) on their knowledge or only explanations (first level)? What guide the proposition of their explanations? For the women it is worth remembering that there are also explanatory components associated with magic, the supernatural, as the belief that when a soap “diswalk” it is because it was influenced by a “bad eye”. So we would have an explanation based on the belief in “invisible forces”, but there are also those cause and effect explanations, as exemplified in “The knowledge and their languages”.

   If we were to ask the philosophers of science Jean Ladrière and Lewis Wolpert if it is possible to consider the existence of theory in such knowledge, they would probably say that to understand this better is necessary to understand the difference between science and technology. When we think on technology it is common to associate it with something modern, advanced, able to perform feats: the computer, mobile communication devices and 3D televisions, for example. However, the development of technology is very old and precedes science itself. In antiquity, the technology was essentially practical but not exempt of critical thinking and of observation of cause and effect relations. Its problem, according to Ladrière (1977, p. 40), is that its know how was not systematized neither had authentic theoretical justifications. Wherefore, it had a slow development. Our ancestors knew how to produce a desirable effect, but at least in general they were unable to explain why it was produced. Many reasons were mythological and naive, but were  socially accepted. They convinced people.

   Wolpert (1994, p 26, 27, 30) cites several examples of these technologies or “practical arts”: the artifacts created by primitive man, the agriculture in its early stages of development, the conversion of minerals into metals, the production of glass materials , the building of the great churches and cathedrals, the steam engine invention and even the invention of glasses and the telescope were done through trial and error processes disconnected of understanding or explaining. When the latter two were created, their inventors had no optical knowledge. Another invention detached of explanations was the wheel. This philosopher says that practical experience is not synonymous with science. The technology may involve hypothesis and conjectures, but is directed entirely for practical purposes and not for their understanding. In Wolpert’s view, the “science of the concrete” of Lévi-Strauss is actually synonymous with technology because there is no evidence of theorization in the processes involved neither the elucidation of the reasons by which they operate, as there is no search for generalization.

    However, the absence of theory does not mean that it does not exist scientific attitude on doing these arts. Gerdes (1994) and Pomeroy (1995) mention the possibility to find “scientific practices”, “scientific traditions” and “activities present in the daily lives of people with scientific components” – the ethnociences. These authors are talking about a kind of coherence with scientific knowledge and in similar attitudes regarding scientific observation, control of variables, formulation of hypotheses, testing ideas and others. In their most part, the knowledge of the women who make the ash soap, as well as that of Mr. Zé and Mrs. Ná on the orange wine are consistent with the scientific knowledge. In the case of this latter, supernatural beliefs were not observed and although most women believe in the influence of a “bad eye” over the ash soap, we saw Mrs. Rosa testing an idea empirically to solve the problem of one containing excess of dicuada. The fact is that there are different motivations behind science and technology: while the final product of science is an explanation, confirmation of a theory or experiment, the production of information or scientific articles, the final product of technology is a material good, as a clock, an electric motor, the ash soap or the orange wine. Science produces ideas while technology results in useful objects.

   Modern technology, however, is quite different. One aspect is its relationship to the industrial mode of organizing production, the division of labor, the economy and the integration with administrative sectors and those which produce knowledge. One result is the production of goods in mass scale (cars, televisions, etc.) and the development of highly sophisticated projects (spatial travels, building of nuclear plants, etc.). Currently the technological change is increasingly rapid, systematic and consciously controlled because of its connection with science, and this has major effects on the technology compared to what happened in the past. Another difference is that many aspects of technology are visual and non-verbal, while in science the written language and the mathematical symbols are privileged. The technology also tends to “keep secrets”, while the exposure of ideas in science is a need for their acceptance and improvement. Regardless of these aspects, we have to admit that science ideas are strange for most people; they are “unnatural” in the words of Wolpert (1994). This is because scientific ideas are counter intuitive and not acquired by simply checking the facts. What principles govern the production of these ideas?

   In Ladrière’s view (1977, p 21, 22) the scientific theories seek to understand the totality of all beings, qualities and events and reach a generalized correct view. He calls this by contemplative vision. What is behind is the idea of truth associated with wholeness, completeness and maximum disclosure of the world. The fundamental aspect of this vision is to be above the forms of seizure, the sensitivities and imaginations or thoughts restricted to visible things, as they only isolate fragments of reality or are superficial. An analogy would be to consider the scientific theory as being predominantly formed by the submerged or hidden part of an iceberg in the water and the part above the water surface would be only the sensorial fragment perceived, but the theory is not something that is present in the natural world, it is an interpretation created by scientists.


It is like the submerged part of an iceberg was equivalent

the scientific theory in the field of natural sciences

    Cobern & Loving (2001) say there are two types of scientists: the realists and the instrumentalists. The firsts believe that scientific theories reflect what actually happens in reality, whereas for the seconds the instruments are created or invented for understanding. In terms of doing scientific work, these authors also emphasize the issue of objectivity in science. Lederman & Lederman (2012) note that this is something scientists look for and it means no interference of prior beliefs in the scientific work, the fair and accurate collection of data and development of methods with fidelity. However, the personal experience and the background theory of the researcher or scientist influence the knowledge, producing a mindset that affect the issues investigated and the way that research is done: what is observed (and what is not) and how to make sense or interpret the observations. Objectivity is a goal, but subjectivity is an inherently human feature.

   Anyway, the theory joins this in an effort to raise man above life to chance. It crystallizes this idea establishing a discourse that is not descriptive, but conceptual. It is an interpretive recreation that is not adhered to appearance, to its superficial texture, but that seeks to reveal meanings through intangible, immaterial and impalpable elements that circulate and relate objects and which are built in speech (Ladrière, 1977, p. 23). Some examples of those theoretical elements can be observed clicking here. Notice how they are exclusive of science. By building such elements, the scientific theory requires their conceptualization to display their dynamic force and demonstrate the movement that supports and surrounds them. In its final form, the theory is a system or a conceptual configuration that is consistent, complete and exhibits high interdependence among its elements. Howsoever, the scientific knowledge is nothing less than a collection of fragmented data, says Ladrière, and even being partial the theory is a discourse that attempts to reconstruct, in his own way, the overall operation of a particular sector of reality; it rebuilds, at least conjecturally, the secret life – not visible – of reality, its basic principles. Its operating shaft is demonstrate the revealing governing principles.

   Much of this approach is governed by the process of building models. It is through them that the theory joins the experiment, suggests interventions and advances. It is through them that experimental results can be interpreted in terms of the theory used. The model in science is an abstract construction designed to provide a schematic and idealized approach to concrete. It is intermediate between practical experiment, perception and construction of theories. The model assists in the construction of theory, which in turn is usually composed itself by several models. The theory establishes a body of propositions that describes the properties of their models and makes it possible to reason about them, predict their future behaviors or how they will react if their structures are modified.

    Some aspects that make science so effective are: its technical precision, its creativity and explanatory power (Cobern & Loving, 2001, p. 62) and the process of self-organization or continuous renovation (Ladrière, 1977, p. 36). The available information or explanations and plausible ideas (theory) lead to the definition of a problem. To solve it a hypothesis is elaborated or a set of hypothesis that give rise to the concrete action to test them. The hypotheses may be rejected or accepted, a new element may be added and lead to a complete reinterpretation of the situation. On this basis, a new problem can be formulated and the cycle begins again. The theory is at all stages: it suggests the problem, the hypotheses and it is on this plane that the verification experiments operate to finally return to theory to interpret the results of the experimentation. It is not surprising that the central problem of the internal dynamics of science is the transformation of theory. The principle is that the theory is modified with the modification of the hypothesis in what it was based and this definitively is not something sought or of interest of the ash soap and orange wine makers.

Go to: The knowledges and their representations

Back to: The knowledges and their practices


Cobern, W.W., Loving, C.C. (2001). Defining “Science” in a multicultural world: implications for science education. Science Education, 85, 50-67.

Gerdes, P. (1994). Explorations in Ethnomatematics and Ethnoscience in Mozambique. Moçambique: Instituto Superior Pedagógico.

Ladrière, J. (1977). The challenge presented to cultures by science and technology. Paris: UNESCO.

Lederman, N.G., Lederman, J.S. (2012). Nature of scientific knowledge and scientific inquiry: building instructional capacity through professional development. In: Fraser, B. J.; Tobin, K. G.; McRobbie, C. J. (Eds.) Second International Handbook of Science Education. New York: Springer Dordrecht Heidelberg, 335-359.

Pomeroy, D. (1994). Science education and cultural diversity: mapping the field. Studies in Science Education, 24, 49-73.

Wolpert, L. (1994). The unnatural nature of science. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *