The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography: A Special Guest-Edited Issue of Cultural Anthropology

Abstract

Anthropologists have been committed, at least since Franz Boas, to investigating relationships between nature and culture. At the dawn of the 21st century, this enduring interest was inflected with some new twists. An emergent cohort of “multispecies ethnographers” began to place a fresh emphasis on the subjectivity and agency of organisms whose lives are entangled with humans. Multispecies ethnography emerged at the intersection of three interdisciplinary strands of inquiry: environmental studies, science and technology studies (STS), and animal studies. Departing from classically ethnobiological subjects, useful plants and charismatic animals, multispecies ethnographers also brought understudied organisms—such as insects, fungi, and microbes—into anthropological conversations. Anthropologists gathered together at the Multispecies Salon, an art exhibit, where the boundaries of an emerging interdiscipline were probed amidst a collection of living organisms, artifacts from the biological sciences, and surprising biopolitical interventions.

Editorial Overview

In the November 2010 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Eben Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich explore how creatures previously appearing on the margins of anthropology — as part of the landscape, as food for humans, as symbols — have been pressed into the foreground in recent ethnographies.  Multispecies ethnographers are studying the host of organisms whose lives and deaths are linked to human social worlds. A project allied with Eduardo Kohn’s “anthropology of life”—“an anthropology that is not just confined to the human but is concerned with the effects of our entanglements with other kinds of living selves” (2007:4)—multispecies ethnography centers on how a multitude of organisms’ livelihoods shape and are shaped by political, economic, and cultural forces.

“Becomings”—new kinds of relations emerging from nonhierarchical alliances, symbiotic attachments, and the mingling of creative agents (cf. Deleuze and Guattari 1987:241–242)—abound in this chronicle of the emergence of multispecies ethnography, and in the essays in this collection.“The idea of becoming transforms types into events, objects into actions,” writes contributor Celia Lowe.

The work of Donna Haraway also provides one key starting point for the “species turn” in anthropology: “If we appreciate the foolishness of human exceptionalism,” she writes in When Species Meet, “then we know that becoming is always becoming with—in a contact zone where the outcome, where who is in the world, is at stake” (2008:244).

Anna Tsing's scholarship also provides a charter for multispecies ethnographers.  In an forthcoming essay, "Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species", she suggests that “human nature is an interspecies relationship” (Tsing n.d.; see Haraway 2008:19).  Displacing studies of animal behavior used by social conservatives and sociobiologists to naturalize autocratic and militaristic ideologies, Tsing began studying mushrooms to imagine a human nature that shifted historically along with varied webs of interspecies dependence. Searching familiar places in the parklands of northern California for mushrooms—looking for the orange folds of chanterelles or the warm muffins of king boletes—she discovered a world of mutually flourishing companions. Aspiring to mimic the “mycorrhizal sociality” of mushrooms, Tsing formed the Matsutake Worlds Research Group—an ethnographic research team centered on matsutake, an aromatic gourmet mushroom in the genus Tricholoma, a “species cluster.” Following the matsutake mushroom through commodity chains in Europe, North America, and East Asia, this group has experimented with new modes of collaborative ethnographic research while studying scale-making and multispecies relations.

Multispecies ethnography has emerged with the activity of a swarm, a network with no center to dictate order, populated by “a multitude of different creative agents” (Hardt and Negri 2005:92). The Multispecies Salon — a series of panels, round tables, and events in art galleries held at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association (in 2006 and 2008) — was one place, among many others, where this swarm alighted. In November the Multispecies Salon will travel to New Orleans.  Here, at the 2010 AAA meetings, a lively group of interlocutors—wild artists and para-ethnographers—will come together to discuss the multispecies zeitgeist that is sweeping the social sciences and the humanities.

The “Twins,” a chimerical pair of grubs with wings, graces the cover of the November 2010 issue of Cultural Anthropology. This ceramic piece was created by Marnia Johnston, who joined Eben Kirksey in curating the Multispecies Salon.  Only adult insects have wings. Their juvenile forms, larvae, do not. “Humans are acquiring adult characteristics, such as breasts, at an early age,” Johnston told us. “Endocrine disrupting chemicals, like Bovine Growth Hormone,” she continued, “are working on the bodies of humans and multiple other species. I want people to think about how our chemical dependencies change us and the world we live in.”

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essay that map new directions in anthropology, including George Marcus’s “The End(s) of Ethnography: Social/Cultural Anthropology’s Signature Form of Producing Knowledge in Transition” (2008); Michael M. J. Fischer’s “Four Genealogies for a Recombinant Anthropology of Science and Technology” (2007); Daniel Segal’s “Editor’s Note: On Anthropology and/in/of Science” (2001); and Gary Lee Downey, Joseph Dumit, and Sarah Williams’s “Cyborg Anthropology” (1995).

Cultural Anthropology has also published essays on art and/as cultural analysis. See Kenneth George’s “Ethics, Iconoclasm, and Qur’anic Art in Indonesia” (2009), and Liam Buckley’s “Objects of Love and Decay: Colonial Photographs in a Postcolonial Archive” (2005).

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Untitled. November 2010 via Eben Kirksey and Stefan Hemlreich.

About the Authors

Eben Kirksey is a cultural anthropologist at the CUNY Graduate Center who studies the political dimensions of imagination as well as the interplay of natural and cultural history.  As a graduate student at the University of Oxford, and UC Santa Cruz, he published four articles in peer-reviewed journals and two chapters in edited books on these themes.  His doctoral dissertation and first book, "Freedom in Entangled Worlds", is about an indigenous political movement in West Papua, the half of New Guinea under Indonesian control (forthcoming 2011).  As a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow (2008-2010), he conducted an ethnography of place at multiple biological research stations in Latin America.  Following the movement of people and organisms—across national borders and through a fragmented landscape—he studied oblique powers at play in global assemblages.

Stefan Helmreich has worked as a Postdoctoral Associate in Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University, an External Faculty Fellow at the Center for the Critical Analysis of Contemporary Culture at Rutgers University, and as Assistant Professor of Science and Society at New York University. The National Science Foundation and the Wenner-Gren Foundation have funded his research. Helmreich's research examines the works and lives of contemporary biologists puzzling through the conceptual boundaries of “life” as a category of analysis. He has written extensively on Artificial Life, most notably in Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World (University of California Press, 1998), which in 2001 won the Diana Forsythe Book Prize from the American Anthropological Association. His latest book, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (University of California Press, 2009), is a study of marine biologists working in realms usually out of sight and reach: the microscopic world, the deep sea, and oceans outside national sovereignty.

Relevant Links

The Multispecies Salon 3: Swarm
An Innovent panel at the AAA Meeting in New Orleans

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. What were the Science Wars?  What distinguishes emerging conversations about nature and culture in anthropology from this earlier historical moment?

2. What does anthropos mean?  As the facts of life are being remade by the biosciences, what is anthropos becoming?

3. In the Anthropocene, a new epoch in Earth’s history, are there elements of nature that exist outside of culture?

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