The May 2016 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Taking Love Seriously in Human-Plant Relations in Mozambique: Toward an Anthropology of Affective Encounters,” by Julie Soleil Archambault, who is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford. This Teaching Tools post, compiled by contributing editors Julia Sizek and Ned Dostaler, is designed as a resource for using the article to explore the topics of multispecies ethnography and/or affect in a single, discussion-based session. The post is intended for use in upper-level undergraduate courses in anthropology and related disciplines. It begins with a lightly edited transcript of a brief interview that Sizek and Dostaler conducted with Archambault, and it includes learning goals, classroom exercises, discussion questions, and supplementary reading recommendations.
Ned Dostaler and Julia Sizek: When and how did it occur to you that you might be able to put the literature on multispecies ethnography and the literature on affect into productive conversation?
Julie Soleil Archambault: It all started with ethnography. During my earlier work on youth, intimacy, and the uptake of mobile phones in Mozambique, I developed a side interest in gardening as a number of the young men with whom I was working were avid gardeners. I already had several entries on the topic in my fieldnotes, but it was only a couple of years ago that I managed to carry out in-depth research with some of the gardeners I already knew well. What my ethnography revealed was how their engagement with plants was experienced as profoundly affective. I had already started engaging with the literature on affect for another research project designed around an ethnography of cement, also in Mozambique, and found that the notion of affective encounters seemed to offer a useful way of making sense of the transformative potential of gardening. Here, I owe much to Yael Navaro-Yashin (2012), whose work on affect and the built environment in Northern Cyprus has inspired my understanding of affect and materiality.
It was, however, only after writing a first draft and following the suggestions of reviewers that I developed an interest in the multispecies ethnography literature—it’s not really a big thing in the United Kingdom. Although I found the approach highly stimulating, I also found it problematic in several ways and, in order to stay true to my ethnography, I was unable to embrace some of its more provocative propositions. The essay does not, for example, engage with a reflection on love from the plant’s perspective. Given my wider interest in everyday engagement with the material world, I am also reluctant to see plants as fundamentally different to other things that may be just as moving. This intellectual genealogy explains, I think, how I ended up proposing an understanding of the transformative potential of everyday engagement with things that is equally interested in the politics and the affects at play in such encounters. For diehard multispecies ethnographers, the anthropology of affective encounters that I put forth will likely come across as rather conservative. For others, I hope it will offer a way of productively reconciling competing theoretical perspectives.
ND and JS: What would you want to highlight in a lesson for undergraduates about posthumanist and multispecies ethnography? What would you want them to understand after that lesson?
JSA: As a response to posthumanist critique, the multispecies ethnography literature is self-consciously provocative and therefore particularly inspiring as a taught subject. Ethnographies of multispecies relations are not only fascinating in and of themselves; they also raise important and potentially unsettling methodological and epistemological questions. A lesson on multispecies ethnography should therefore encourage students to interrogate what it entails to be human and, just as importantly, what it means to do anthropology. I find it crucial to situate the multispecies endeavor, first, in relation to more classic ethnographies in which other-than-human-beings figure prominently—The Nuer comes to mind—to help highlight how multispecies ethnography is more than a question of focus, and, second, in relation to the wider material turn, to show how multispecies ethnography is part of a broader response to posthumanist critique. Multispecies ethnography offers a useful entry into the production of anthropological knowledge and, more specifically, into the articulation between theory and ethnography. In a lesson on multispecies ethnography, I would want students to gain a clear understanding of the importance of always putting ethnography first.
Using this article, students should be able to:
- Identify how socioeconomic transformations can change understandings of gardening
- Define affect and explain how everyday affects can be expressed through relations to plants
- Understand how one might “take seriously” the propositions of others, whether the other is a plant or any other being or thing
- Explain why gardening offers a lens into understanding other issues of nature/culture
Suggested In-Class Exercises
- Ask students to diagram gardens, either as they are described in the article or as they have seen or experienced gardens. If possible, the instructor could ask students to visit a space of gardening or to look at gardens in their own neighborhoods. Using the article, ask students to: describe the vertical spaces of their gardens, such as the roots of the plants (see Archambault 2016, 252), discuss the distinction between “tidy” and “manicured” gardens (254), and reflect on whether or not their garden drawings include objects other than plants (253). Discuss what is included in a garden and what understandings of gardens are hard to represent in these diagrams.
- Collectively look at the photograph below from Julie Archambault’s fieldwork, and examine the differences between natural flowers and artificial ones. Discuss how the distinctions between natural and artificial inform how we talk about plants and our affective feelings toward them. When and why is it important that plants are natural? How are ideas of authenticity related to understandings of the natural?
Suggested Discussion Questions
Plants and Economies
- How are plants related to economies at different scales (e.g., household vs. town)?
- How are plants commodified and exchanged (in market economies, bartering, etc.), and how do these understandings of exchange relate to anthropological studies of exchange?
- What are the values of plants for their growers, and how do plants signify socioeconomic positions or ideas of status?
Plants and Affect
- How is the characterization of relationships between people and between people and plants related to authenticity, intimacy, and the commodity form?
- How do affective relationships with plants change the ways that people interact with each other? How do new ways of being and relating emerge and take shape?
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