Science and Morality in Tibet: Translating "Research" Across Cultures

Investigator: Vincanne Adams, PhD
Sponsor: National Science Foundation (NSF)

Location(s): China


This research proposes to study processes of scientific research as they are negotiated and debated in and around secular versus religious conceptions of truth in cross-cultural collaborative biomedical studies in Lhasa, Tibet. Although the concept of empirical study is not new to Tibet, the basic methods of clinical scientific biomedical research had no precedent in this locale until recently. In particular, the idea of secularist approaches to knowledge by way of experimentation or contemplation of the empirical world in what can be labeled "research" has only a very short history there. Tibetan approaches to medical truth were historically embedded in Buddhist discourse, in which morality constituted a foundation for knowing both the empirical world and how it worked. Today, biomedical research is being undertaken in collaborative research programs, and observation of them suggests that the transfer of scientific methodology from Western to Tibetan culture requires intensive negotiation and debate not only in terms of basic research concepts but specifically in and around ideas of morality and secularism in relation to truth claims and empirical results. This research will further our knowledge of how science travels and translates across cultures, particularly cultures in which empirical approaches to nature are still mediated by religious worldviews. It will add to our general knowledge of the constitutive role played by social and cultural contexts in creating shared meaning and practical bases for doing "research" in transnational forms of biomedical science. In particular, it will add to our knowledge of the subtle ways in which moral possibilities are variously enabled, denied and debated in and through scientific endeavors as they cross cultural borders.