Societal dilemmas: The
genesis of knowledge systems

Charles Nuckolls, assistant professor of anthropology, first encountered the Jalaris-a Hindu fishing caste living in a small village on the southeastern coast of India-when he was an undergraduate studying abroad in 1977. Since then, he has lived with these Telugu-speaking villagers off and on for a total of about six years and has become a member of one of their largest clans.

Now age 40, Nuckolls is considered a family elder, with accompanying responsibilities such as participating in marriages and funerals and organizing sacrifices to clan goddesses. His experiences and observations are the basis of a new book, The Cultural Dialectics of Knowledge and Desire (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997).

Part of his book examines the cultural knowledge system of divination that is used in India. Divination involves the use of spirit possession and other methods to consult spiritual entities about the causes of events in everyday life such as illness, death and misfortune.

"But the overall objective of the book is not just to illuminate an interesting exoticism like divination in south India, but to show that in respect to that knowledge system, and maybe others too, problems that cannot be solved are basic," Nuckolls said.

"Every knowledge system has as its core a paradox-an insoluble dilemma-and in our efforts to come to terms with that dilemma and to solve it, we generate systems of knowledge," he said. In this particular village, the paradox arises from sibling relationships, which are the primary axis through which people affiliate with each other, he explained.

Brothers are fishing partners, and married sisters serve as their chief trading allies, taking the fish to market. The culture demands that the individual get the most out of relationships with both male and female siblings, but this balance is difficult to achieve, because favoring one relationship is usually at a cost to others. For example, sisters always demand special trading terms, and these terms are detrimental to brothers, who must be equally valued.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that in this culture first cousins marry. "Since there are usually more than one brother and sister, all are in competition with each other for marriage partners for their children, and somebody's going to end up feeling short-changed," Nuckolls explained. "So everything is directed to achieving a goal that cannot be reached. And that's the paradox." Divination is the way in which people in this culture try to come to terms with that dilemma, he said.

Nuckolls said his book implies that conflict is good, because that's how knowledge is created. "We have to learn to put boundaries around conflict, but that's what a university is-a bounded space within which conflict of a certain kind can unfold. And I think every society creates within itself these bounded domains in which good conflict can happen."

-Linda Klein

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