This article defines multispecies ethnography and links this scholarship to broader currents within academia, including in the biosciences, philosophy, political ecology, and animal welfare activism. The article is organized around a set of productive tensions identified in the review of the literature. It ends with a discussion of the “ethnographic” in multispecies ethnography, urging ethnographers to bring a “speculative wonder” to their mode of inquiry and writing.
A Review of Multispecies Ethnography
Laura A. Ogden, Billy Hall and Kimiko Tanita
Toward Multispecies Ethnography in Melanesia
This article reviews two strengths of Melanesian anthropology that could make a significant contribution to anthropological research on human-animal relations, specifically to multispecies ethnography. The first strength is an analytical approach to comparative research on gender developed in response to challenges from feminist theory in the 1980s; the second is a wealth of ethnographic detail on human-animal relations, much of it contained in texts not explicitly concerned with them and thus largely inaccessible to nonspecialist readers. The article sets up an analogy between the challenges faced by feminist anthropologists and those currently faced by multispecies ethnographers. It demonstrates how pursuing the analogy allows multispecies ethnographers to draw together analytically, and to reinvestigate a broad range of ethnographic resources containing details on human-animal relations, whose convergence so far remains hidden by divergent theoretical interests.
This multispecies ethnography of red-tailed hawks and of the humans who observed and cared for them investigates everyday engagement with nature and culture in an urban setting. The proliferation of anthropogenic biomes and their attendant human-animal relations is one of the defining social-ecological features of our day. This transformation has caused many ecological disasters but has also created some opportunities, including for thinking more imaginatively about what it means to protect urban nature. Through their activities, interactions, and travels the hawks questioned where belongings are drawn, prompting humans to debate how the city does, can, and should include other animals. And by monitoring the hawks’ activities, the hawk watchers learned to imagine how things might be different if people acted as if the hawks had chosen to live in the city for reasons that made sense to them, if not necessarily to humans.
A Critical Review
Hannah Gibson and Sita Venkateswar
The Anthropocene refers to the planetary scale of anthropogenic influences on the composition and function of Earth ecosystems and life forms. Socio-political and geographic responses frame the uneven topographies of climate change, while efforts to adapt and mitigate its impact extend across social and natural sciences. This review of anthropology's evolving engagement with the Anthropocene contemplates multifarious approaches to research. The emergence of multispecies ethnographic research highlights entanglements of humans with other life forms. New ontological considerations are reflected in Kohn's “Anthropology of Life,” ethnographic research that moves beyond an isolated focus on the human to consider other life processes and entities as research participants. Examples of critical engagement discussed include anthropology beyond disciplinary borders, queries writing in the Anthropocene, and anthropology of climate change. We demonstrate the diverse positions of anthropologists within this juncture in relation to our central trope of entanglements threaded through our discussion in this review.
Heeding Headless Thoughts
This afterword reflects on how the Matsutake Worlds Research Group project can be considered as ontological. The multispecies ethnographic engagements presented in this special issue manifest not only the concepts inherent in the worlds of others that defy the categories of Western metaphysical thought (e.g., life forms seen as ‘events’ rather than mere things), but also the way in which non-human life forms themselves can demand that we practice another kind of thought and embrace another vision of our own selves. By succumbing to the allure of the matsutake fungus, the Matsutake Worlds Research Group has begun one of the most suggestive and original conceptual enterprises today, a practice that perhaps could be named ‘heeding headless thoughts’.
Thinking with Salmon Otoliths and Scales
Heather Anne Swanson
This article proposes that multispecies anthropology and its curiosities about non-humans constitute a ‘minor anthropology’ that poses challenges not only to anthropological categories, but also to anthropological methods. Through attention to Pacific salmon, I probe why and how anthropologists might explore the ways non-humans know and enact worlds via collaborations with natural scientists. Working with biologists, I examine salmon scales and otoliths, or ear bones, whose crystallization patterns act as a kind of fish diary, recording a fish’s migrations and relations. I take up these methods with an anthropological eye, asking how one might use such practices to learn about multispecies encounters that classical ethnography often misses. Lastly, I demonstrate how anthropologists can engage natural science tools while remaining alert to the politics of knowing.
Koto as an ‘Ontology’ of Living
This article explores how matsutake, with its elusive characteristics that evade human senses, guides humans to cultivate a sensitivity to multispecies entanglements. It analyzes the concept of koto, developed by psychiatrist Bin Kimura, to describe how people learn to notice the events and happenings that a variety of beings are engaging in at every moment, even though these practices often elude human consciousness. Drawing examples from a manga series and two ethnographic cases in Japan—a grassroots satoyama forest revitalization movement and a forest biomass study—the article discusses koto as an ‘ontology’ of entangled life. At the same time, koto raises questions about ‘ontology’, as it indicates the traces of struggle in translating the term itself.
Sarah Besky and Jonathan Padwe
In this article, we use plants to think about territory, a concept that is at once a bulwark of social theory and an under-theorized category of social analysis. Scholarship on plants brings together three overlapping approaches to territory: biological and behaviorist theories; representational and cartographic perspectives; and more-than-human analysis. We argue that these three approaches are not mutually exclusive. Rather, different epistemologies of territory overlap and are imbricated within each other. We further argue that these three approaches to territory inform three distinct domains of territoriality: legibility and surveillance; ordering and classification; and exclusion and inclusion. Through examples of how plants operate in these three domains, we illustrate the analytical potential that a more-than-human approach to territory provides. We conclude, however, that attention to the particularities of plant ecologies can help move multispecies discussions more firmly into the realm of the political economic.
Social, Historical, and Ecological Intersections between Asian Elephants and Humans
Humans and elephants have lived together and shared space together in diverse ways for millennia. The intersections between these thinking and feeling species have been differently explored, for different reasons, by disciplines across the sciences, humanities, and social sciences. Such disciplinary divisions, predicated on oppositions of human-animal and nature-culture, are integral to the configuration of modernist thought. However, posthumanist and biocultural thinking questions the underlying epistemological conventions, thereby opening up interdisciplinary possibilities for human-animal studies. In relation to issues of conflict and coexistence, this article charts the emergence of an interdisciplinary research program and discursive space for human-elephant intersections under the rubric of ethnoelephantology. Recognizing continuities between the sentient and affective lifeworlds of humans and elephants, the mutual entanglements of their social, historical, and ecological relations, and the relevance of combining social and natural science methodologies, the article surveys recent research from anthropology, history, and geography that exemplifies this new approach.
Living Species and the Latency of Biological and Environmental Threats
Discourses and practices of anticipation occupy a hypertrophic space in contexts where uncontrolled industrial growth has inflicted grave damage on peoples and territories, even triggering environmental disasters. This article explores the use of nonhuman species as anticipatory devices in a petrochemical terminal in Sicily, focusing on public representations of three species: scavenger bacteria that play a cleansing role and underline citizens’ moral responsibility to secure their best possible futures through bioscience; migrating flamingos that breed under the petrochemical chimneys, raising the possibility of hopefulness by highlighting ecosystem resilience; and fish affected by spina bifida, which reveal human health status in advance, communicating the need to live in preparation for potential diseases. The analysis reveals the highly contentious character of these anticipatory devices and the contested ideas about possible futures they imply, thus shedding light on the ecological frictions that have repercussions locally and globally, in discourse and social practice.