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I didn’t know what I didn’t know

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By Natalie, MSc Environment & Development 

On my first week of classes here I was introduced to the word epistemology. Simply put (according to the encyclopedia Britannica) epistemology is “the philosophical study of the nature, origin and limits of human knowledge”. As someone with an engineering background, I understood science to be fact, and these facts to be the foundation of…. well, everything. Why would we need to study knowledge? It just was…wasn’t it?


McEwan Hall/Bristo Square in the main part of campus

McEwan Hall/Bristo Square in the main part of campus


Oh how wrong I was. As people, our backgrounds and feelings and biases touch everything we produce, even knowledge. The result, is varied bodies of knowledge, some that complement each other and some that don’t. The idea that there were bodies of knowledge outside of the science I loved (such as indigenous knowledge) was groundbreaking for me. Even more impactful, was the knowledge that over the centuries and decades we in the “west” or “global north” have routinely prioritized out bodies of knowledge over others simply because we can. We have asserted their legitimacy only through our own power.

This concept of epistemologies and their power and impact set the stage for the rest of my semester as everything I thought I knew was called into question. During my courses I was taught to look critically at everything, even topics I had assumed were cut and dry. I had been expecting to walk away from my time here with not only a degree but a tidy little handbook of how to solve the world’s problems (okay not really, but I was hoping for some solutions to a few) and though I’m not done with my degree program yet, I can confidently say that will not be happening.

Myself during a break in my Understanding Environment and Development class

Myself during a break in my Understanding Environment and Development class (the one that started it all)


It is such a privilege to be able to continue to invest in my education and though it’s been a hefty investment, it has certainly been worth it. When I leave Edinburgh, I’ll be walking away looking at the world a lot more critically and thoughtfully than I did when I arrived. While I had hoped I’d be walking away with answers, I’ll likely be leaving with even more questions. Much of what I learned prompts me to questions assumed truths and generalizations, consider the origins of systems and power structures and knowledge, and look at the broader impacts of actions taken in the name of good. While it’s not always satisfying to look at situations critically, because it makes it a lot more difficult to develop a solution, it hopefully leads to a more effective and positive impact.

I’ve been so humbled during my studies so far. The more I learn, the more I know I need to learn! My program has taken my American arrogance and promptly squashed it into smithereens. If this sounds like something you’d enjoy, you can learn more about MSc Environment and Development here: MSc Environment & Development


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