More-than-Human Politics

In this episode of AnthroPod, guest producers Stine Krøijer and Astrid Oberborbeck Andersen take up a debate that is central to current environmental and political anthropology: namely, how ethnographers can identify and describe the political when earth beings, spirits, or nonhuman others become part of the ethnographic equation? How can we methodologically and theoretically engage with these beings as they become entwined in political processes? The episode is built around a recording of a workshop on “More than Human Politics,” which was held in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen in April 2015.

Marisol de la Cadena’s 2015 book Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds is the point of departure for the conversation, which also takes the listener to the ecovillage of Damanhur in Italy, where residents have devised a machine that translates between plant and human beings, and to the Danish island of Bornholm, where subterranean beings become involved in political debates over public research funding. In asking how the concept of politics can be rethought in odd encounters with nonhuman beings, the participants in this episode consider how concepts work as methods, if translation always entails a loss or can be considered productive, and the relationship between nonhuman affectors and political effects.

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Marisol de la Cadena is Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of California, Davis. She is author of two major books: Indigenous Mestizos: The Politics of Race and Culture in Cuzco, Peru, 1910–1991 (2000) and Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds (2015). Her research sits at the boundaries of science and technology studies, where she works through what she calls ontological openings (fellow travelers with, but different from what has been called the “ontological turn”). Her interests include the study of politics, multispecies (or multientity) ethnography, indigeneity, history and the ahistorical, world anthropologies, and the anthropologies of worlds. In all these areas her central concern is the relationship between concepts and methods, as well as interfaces as analytical sites.

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Ester Fritsch holds degrees in anthropology from the University of Copenhagen and is currently enrolled as a doctoral student at the IT University of Copenhagen. Her research engages with energy, ethics, and technological development among dDamanhurians in Northern Italy, as well as European developers of Internet of Things (IoT) sensing technologies.

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Lars Christian Kofoed Rømer is a doctoral fellow at the Danish Folklore Archives, the Royal Danish Library, and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. Within a Danish context he has worked at the intersection between folklore and anthropology around issues of dying and the experiences of the dead. In his current research project, he uses legends of a subterranean being to explore the concealed ways people engage with the local landscape on the Danish island of Bornholm.

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Morten Axel Pedersen is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. He is author of Not Quite Shamans: Spirit Worlds and Political Lives in Northern Mongolia (2011) and The Ontological Turn: An Anthropological Exposition (with Martin Holbraad, 2017). He is also coeditor of Comparative Relativism (2011) and Times of Security: Ethnographies of Fear, Protest, and the Future (2013), as well as the book series Ethnography, Theory, Experiment, which is published by Berghahn Books.

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Stine Krøijer is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. Her key research area is political and environmental activism, in both Northern Europe and the Amazon Basin. When not sitting in or thinking like a tree, she is theoretically concerned with human-tree relationships, climate change, and the forms of politics emerging from human engagements with their environment. Krøijer is the author of Figurations of the Future: Forms and Temporalities of Left Radical Politics in Northern Europe (2015).

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Astrid Oberborbeck Andersen is Assistant Professor of Techno-Anthropology at Aalborg University. She holds a PhD from the University of Copenhagen, and while producing this podcast she was employed there as a postdoc. Her research focuses on human–environment relations, with a special focus on the intersections of knowledge, expertise, and politics. Her doctoral research was on water and urban ecology in Arequipa, Peru, and her postdoctoral research examined human societies and living resources in northwest Greenland. Of late, she has contributed to The NOW Project, which examines living resources and human societies around the North Water in the Thule Area.

Guest podcast team
AnthroPod guest editing team Sidsel Marie Henriksen (left) and Katrine Andrea (right), during a work session at the Ethnographic Exploratory, University of Copenhagen, April 2017. Photo by Astrid O. Andersen.

Interview with Guest Producers

AnthroPod: What inspired you to produce this AnthroPod episode on more-than-human politics? How does it connect to your research?

Stine Krøijer: The inspiration for the podcast came from a workshop that I organized with my colleague Astrid O. Andersen. We had read Marisol de la Cadena’s book Earth Beings in a reading group at our department, and were lucky enough to have her join a workshop in which we hoped to dig into the themes that the book brings up, which are also relevant to our own research. In recent years I have conducted fieldwork in the Ecuadorian Amazon and on environmental activism in Germany, with a distinct attention to the forms of politics that emerge from human interaction with trees. What has struck me is how trees are mobilized in across very different political projects in our current era and in ways that are unlike previous symbolic mobilizations of trees, in German nationalism for example. By bringing together an amazing group of people, including students doing their first fieldwork on the topic, we wanted to engage in dialogue across partially connected worlds on the various redefinitions of politics that an attention to nonhuman beings might offer.

Astrid Oberborbeck Andersen: In the workshop we wanted to address these themes, while centering the discussion on ethnographic work and analyses in their becoming, rather than dealing with finished papers and polished arguments. We thought that it would be valuable for a wider audience of students and others to get insight into the way anthropological knowledge production is done in practice, through such workshops. That is why we decided to produce an AnthroPod episode based on the workshop. In my work on water politics in Peru and on human–animal–environment relations in northwest Greenland, different beings and configurations articulate forms that are hard to grasp, categorize, or qualify as either political, social, technical, or religious. It has been rewarding to think through the ethnographic materials of others in the workshop, and to craft concepts that work as machines of translation/relation.  

AP: Where do you hope that your research takes you? Where do you think research on more-than-human politics might go in the future?  

SK: At the moment I am in the midst of several writing projects connected to my research on the political lives of trees. Instead of focusing narrowly on the political effects of nonhuman agency, though, the workshop on more-than-human politics brought home to me the importance of affect. Social interaction between humans and trees generate bodily affect, which is key in politics, as I have also described in some of my previous work on political activism. Nonhuman beings move people and vice versa, and this does not only seem to be the case in societies that are very different from my own. My current research shows how environmental activists in Europe look to indigenous peoples for inspiration in their efforts to re-enchant and repoliticize nature. They engage in odd forms of cross-cultural comparison and translation that might spill into and generate new political debates—about the rights of nature, for example. In this light I think there is every reason to take the study of politics and nonhuman beings home to the United States and Northern Europe.  

AOA: One theme that is clearly foregrounded when taking the theme of more-than-human politics home to Scandinavia is the role that robots, smart systems and artificial intelligence are increasingly playing in our present-day and future society. I teach in a program on techno-anthropology at Aalborg University. Such programs educate professionals to analyze and work in human–technology interfaces of different kinds. Students and researchers of techno-anthropology are facing the challenge of how to make ethnographic methods suitable for engaging with technological, more-than-human socialities of the future: how, for instance, can we use ethnography to assess what social life and politics will look like in near and less near futures with the widespread coexistence of robots and humans in and with smart systems? This is one area where I see that more-than-human politics will be relevant. My research focuses on human–environmental relations, and I would like my research to take me further in the direction—with or without technology as such—of working to make multiple kinds of human–environment relations visible and real, in political and nonpolitical realms.    

Credits

Production: Astrid Oberborbeck Andersen and Stine Krøijer

Editing: Katrine Andrea Vintov and Sidsel Marie Henriksen

Sound: Recording of dandelion by Ester Fritsch and the community of Damanhur (Italy)

Workshop participants: Marisol de la Cadena; Morten Axel Pedersen; Stine Krøijer; Astrid O. Andersen; Mattias Borg Rasmussen; Ida Sofie Matzen; Janelle Baker; Ester Fritsch; Lars Rømer; Kathrine Dalsgaard

We thank the participants not appearing in this episode for their contributions to the exchange and debate at the workshop. Thanks are owed to the Danish Research Council for financing the workshop (Independent Research, grant no. DFF–1321-00025) and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen for hosting the event, as well as providing financial support for the production of this episode. Thanks to the AnthroPod team at the Cultural Anthropology website for constructive feedback during the review process.

AnthroPod features interviews with anthropologists about their work, current events, and their experiences in the field. To pitch your own episode ideas or to offer feedback, email us at anthropod@culanth.org.

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