In the Weeds: Teaching Weedy Anthropology and an Interview with Caroline E. Schuster

Weeding a sesame field, November 6th, 2018. Photo by Caroline E. Schuster.

This post builds on the research article “Weedy Finance: Weather Insurance and Parametric Life on Unstable Grounds” by Caroline E. Schuster, which was published in the November 2021 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

For this supplementals post, Janita Van Dyk and Caroline E. Schuster created a sample syllabus, which includes discussion questions, pedagogical exercises, and a final assignment for a course on “Weedy Anthropology.” This syllabus is partial and could feature additional weeks and readings based on interest and familiarity. Instructors can also fold selections of readings and exercises into existing syllabi—on the more-than-human and multispecies, the political ecology of agrarian and agricultural landscapes, and settler ecologies and plantations.

Following the sample syllabus, this supplemental post also features an interview with Schuster, where she discusses the numerous ways that farming and insurance are entangled with “benevolent development” in the Global South, financial speculation in agricultural settings, the commodification of food, and the intersecting temporalities of finance and agriculture.

Weedy Anthropology: Sample Syllabus and Pedagogical Exercises

Syllabus Overview

What do weeds have to do with anthropology? Weeds offer opportunities to critically examine theoretical and conceptual fascinations with the peripheral, ambivalent, interstitial, resilient, and non-productive. While weeds grow and thrive in sites of human disturbance, they also shift in meaning and value—in the case of lawn grass, from a non-domesticated weedy nuisance to a thriving domesticated plant. Weediness cultivates critical modes of attention to politics, projects, and beings that don’t play well with the order of things or can’t be pinned down.

Through engaging selected weekly readings and themes, students will have the opportunity to explore the histories and possibilities of anthropological engagements with weeds, weedy things, and weediness. In doing so, students will have the opportunity to reflect on how weeds and weediness become methods for building subjectivity, landscapes, and political projects.

Course Design

This syllabus is designed for an advanced undergraduate course or graduate seminar. Some prior experience with political ecology and/or multispecies ethnography may be beneficial. We have included sample weekly themes and readings; these can be shortened or adapted to suit pedagogical purposes. We have included pedagogical materials for teaching Caroline Schuster’s “Weedy Finance: Weather Insurance and Parametric Life on Unstable Grounds” (2021), recently published in Cultural Anthropology, and the subject of this Supplemental post. Finally, we created a final assignment, inspired by the recently published Feral Atlas (2021), to generate a student-run weedy field guide.

Weekly Readings and Activities

1. Weeds in Recent History (Part I): Archaeology of Domestication and Agriculture

Key Questions:

  • What do the origins of cultivation reveal about human landscapes and how weeds emerged in agricultural settings?
  • How do the complex relations between weeds and crops challenge progressive narratives of agricultural development?
  • If the archaeological record suggests that humans and their food crops have a long history of cohabiting with weeds, what cultural logics and economic conditions have led to the desire for weed-free modern landscapes?

Recommended Activity:

  • Ask students to gather definitions of weeds from the readings and from other sources.
  • Discuss (compare and contrast) these definitions as a large group.
  • In small groups, ask students to discuss historical changes to these definitions and how social context has contributed to these definitions.


Snir, Ainit, Dani Nadel, Dani, Iris Groman-Yaroslavski, Yoel Melamed, Marcelo Sternberg, Ofer Bar-Yosef, and Ehud Weiss. 2015. “The Origin of Cultivation and Proto-Weeds, Long Before Neolithic Farming.” PLoS One 10, no. 7: e0131422.

Langlie, BrieAnna S., Natalie G. Mueller, Robert N. Spengler, and Gayle J. Fritz. 2014. “Agricultural Origins from the Ground Up: Archaeological Approaches to Plant Domestication.” American Journal of Botany 101, no. 10: 1601–17.

Harlan, Jack R., and J. M. J. demWet. 1965. “Some Thoughts about Weeds.” Economic Botany 19, no. 1: 16–24.

2. Weeds in Recent History (Part II): Environmental History and the Production of Weed-Free Landscapes

Key Questions:

  • How are weeds constructed in our social imaginations? How have they been defined over time?
  • What role do weeds play in the shaping of place, history, and environment?

Recommended Activity:

  • Before Class: Invite students to take field notes at their local gardening supply or hardware store.
  • Ask students to pay particular attention to how lawn “care” is marketed, how products are displayed, the cost of various lawn “inputs,” and anything else of note.
  • In class together, discuss the history of the suburban lawn introduced by the readings.
  • In small groups, ask students to compare field notes. How do lawn care products, the way they are displayed, or their cost and upkeep relate to the readings? Students can also reflect on people's investments in the suburban lawn.


Falck, Zachary J. S. 2010. Weeds: An Environmental History of Metropolitan America. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press. (Selections)

Robbins, Paul. 2007. Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are. Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press. (Selections)

Neale, Timothy. 2019. “A Sea of Gamba: Making Environmental Harm Illegible in Northern Australia.” Science as Culture 28, no. 4: 403–26.

3. On Weeds and Weedy Things

Key Questions:

  • How do weeds reveal social problems? Why might this be so?
  • What is the relationship between weeds, capitalism, and the myth of human control and management?

Pedagogical Exercises for Teaching “Weedy Finance”

  1. Caroline Schuster’s “Weedy Finance” (2021) features many forms of weeds and weediness. Collectively or in small groups, identify 2–3 examples of how weeds, the weedy, or weediness feature in her article. After identifying these examples, discuss collectively how examples correspond or depart. What frictions do weeds and attention to the weedy impart in different elements of the article (methodological, conceptual, epistemological)?

  2. With students, return to the “weediness” of finance. Discuss as a large group what the heuristic of weediness reveals about financial relations. What forms of ambiguity and ambivalence do weeds introduce when reflecting on the material and social conditions that financial, speculative, and capitalist relations cement or root themselves into? What difficulties are introduced when trying to “pin down” and define the logics of speculation? How do we sit with, think with, and live with the weediness of capital?

  3. For graduate seminars, discuss together weediness as a methodology: What problems and complications does weediness provoke in anthropological research? Just as sesame farmers and parametric insurers skirt around or grapple with the excesses and unknowabilities that weeds might generate, how do anthropologists deal with the weediness of relations or materials they may encounter and generate in the field? How do anthropologists engage in acts of weeding (such as determining the relevance of data or narratives)? Is this an apt heuristic? Is ethnographic excess weedy? In what sense do “weeds” push through the cracks in ethnographic writing and analysis? In our relations with people in “the field”?


Schuster, Caroline E. 2021. “Weedy Finance: Weather Insurance and Parametric Life on Unstable Grounds.” Cultural Anthropology 36, no. 4: 589–617.

Tsing, Anna. 2017. “The Buck, the Bull, and the Dream of the Stag: Some Unexpected Weeds of the Anthropocene.” Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 42, no 1: 3–21.

Optional extended reading:

Swanson, Heather Anne, Marianne Elisabeth Lien, and Gro B. Ween, eds. 2018. Domestication Gone Wild: Politics and Practices of Multispecies Relations. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. (Selections)

4. Heuristics of Weediness

Key Questions:

  • How are agency and activism weedy?
  • What qualities in general define weediness? Is it an altruistic or political ethos? Anarchical? Unrecognized? A form of politics that falls through the cracks?
  • How does weediness help illustrate particular social processes and ecological challenges?

Recommended Activity:

  • In order to begin identifying a weed or a weedy thing for the final assignment, brainstorm together or in small groups some weeds and weedy things that are related to students' own experiences or are identified from the readings (for example, weedy plants, weedy activism, specific weedy conditions of the Anthropocene, or entries from Feral Atlas).
  • As a group, discuss what makes these things, processes, actors, or activities weeds or weedy. Have they always been so? Are their weedy qualities specific to particular people, languages, or histories? Are there discrepancies in how participants would characterize this as weedy or as a weed? What might be the significance of these differences?

Readings (Two Thematic Options):

(Weediness As Agency)

Kawa, Nicholas C. 2016. “How Religion, Race, and the Weedy Agency of Plants Shape Amazonian Home Gardens.” Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment 38, no. 2: 84–93.

Paredes, Alyssa D. 2021. “Weedy Activism: Women, Plants, and the Genetic Pollution of Urban Japan.” Journal of Political Ecology 28, no. 1: 70–90.

Chudakova, Tatiana. 2017. “Plant Matters: Buddhist Medicine and Economies of Attention in Postsocialist Siberia.” American Ethnologist 44, no. 2: 341–54.

(Living with the Weeds in the Anthropocene)

Hetherington, Kregg. 2019. “Introduction: Keywords of the Anthropocene.” In Infrastructure, Environment, and Life in the Anthropocene, edited by Kregg Hetherington, 1–13. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Tsing, Anna L., Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman Saxena, and Feifei Zhou, eds. 2021. Feral Atlas: The More-Than-Human Anthropocene. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. (Engage as you see fit).

Optional Extended Reading

Gibson-Graham, J. K. 2006. A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (Selections).

5. Weeding and Weeding Out: Race and Colonization

Key Questions:

  • How are planting and weeding co-constituted in colonial and settler logics?
  • How are weeds implicated in racist, nativist, and/or eugenic categories and structures (such as the plantation)?
  • Is “weeding” foundational to anthropological epistemologies?

Recommended Activity:

  • Before class/as homework: Ask students to identify an example of a plantation. This could be in their community or a commodity (tea, cacao, coffee, bananas, rubber, palm oil) that they commonly use.
  • In class, divide students into small groups and ask each group to select one example and one representative to present their group's work to the class.
  • Each group will then create a timeline of key events in the development and consolidation of this plantation logic. Consider encouraging students to use a free timeline application like Sutori or Tiki Toki to make their group-based plantation timeline.
  • Ask students to reflect on the following questions as they are creating their timelines: What forms of life were weeded out? How can they be incorporated into the timeline? How might the erasure, eradications, and uprooting of some forms of life be depicted in our cultural-historical accounts?
  • As a class, ask the representative from each group to briefly present on their timelines and include selected reflections in response to the activity questions.


McKittrick, Katherine. 2013. “Plantation Futures.” Small Axe 17, no. 3: 1–15.

Wynter, Sylvia. 1971. “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation.” Savacou 5: 95–102.

Neale, Timothy. 2016. “Settler Colonialism and Weed Ecology.” Engagement (The Anthropology of the Environment Association blog). November 2, 2016.

​​Nongbri, Natasha. 2016. “‘Plants out of Place’: The ‘Noxious Weeds’ Eradication Campaign in Colonial South India.” The Indian Economic & Social History Review 53, no. 3: 343–69.

Optional Extended Readings:

Jegathesan, Mythri. 2021. “Black Feminist Plots before the Plantationocene and Anthropology’s ‘Regional Closets.’Feminist Anthropology 2, no. 1: 78–93.

McWilliams, James E. 2011. “Worshipping Weeds: The Parable of the Tares, the Rhetoric of Ecology, and the Origins of Agrarian Exceptionalism in Early America.” Environmental History 16, no. 2: 290–311.

6. Weedscapes: Ecologies of Weeds

Key Questions:

  • How do weeds and weedy agents build landscapes and relations between humans and the more-than-human?
  • How are weeds or weediness situated in ethnographic attention to the multispecies and the more-than-human? Does weediness play well with this literature?

Recommended Activity:

  • As a large group, ask students to choose one of the weeds identified in groups in previous weeks.
  • Then, break the students into small groups.
  • Collectively, the class will conduct a collaborative “implosion project” (Dumit 2014), focusing in particular on how weeds are in the world. Each group will be conduct some brief online research and brainstorm one aspect of this weed's connection to the world. These aspects could be concrete or abstract, including the weed's ecological, agricultural, epistemological, urban, and infrastructural relations.
  • As a class, come together and map these connections into a large mind map, using an online tool, such as Google Jamboard. Working group by group, collect the relations students brainstormed and researched.
  • Then as a large group, identify some connections between the group's work, for example, between epistemological and agricultural aspects.
  • Discuss together some of the challenges of creating and identifying these connections. How many of these connections can be mapped?
  • Out of this exercise of tracing connections, discuss together how landscapes, infrastructures, and people are intimately connected to the domain of the weed.


Argüelles, Lucía, and Hug March. 2021. “Weeds in Action: Vegetal Political Ecology of Unwanted Plants.” Progress in Human Geography 46, no. 1: 44–66.

Power, Emma R. 2005. “Human-Nature Relations in Suburban Gardens.” Australian Geographer 36, no. 1: 39–53.

Jones, Bradley M. 2019. “(Com)Post-Capitalism: Cultivating a More-than-Human Economy in the Appalachian Anthropocene.” Environmental Humanities 11, no. 1: 3–26.

Myers, Natasha. 2017. “Ungrid-able Ecologies: Decolonizing the Ecological Sensorium in a 10,000-Year Old NaturalCultural Happening.Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 3, no. 2: 1–24.

Optional Extended Readings:

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2016. “The Three Figures of Geontology.” In Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism, 1–29. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Final Project

For the final project of this course, students will collaborate in creating a Weedy Field Guide (inspired by Feral Atlas), as well as an individual long-form paper. Drawing on weedy elements of students’ research interests (be it weeds, weedy things, or weediness), each student will design a field guide entry that features original research or a critical intervention into “weedy anthropology.” Students should focus on something weedy, in other words, non-charismatic, non-productive, toxic, or a compromised form of life, relation, and politics that break through the cracks, that is difficult to pin down or define, that arises from or due to the contradictions and violences of capital, the plantation, and colonialism. Students will also write a research paper that expands on their field guide entry.

Students will conduct independent research on their chosen topic. They should feel free to use an eclectic variety of sources—journal articles, books, archival materials, ethnographic data, popular media, film, photography, among others—to craft their entry to the field guide and the final paper. In the full research paper, a minimum of three external scholarly resources should be used, in addition to a minimum of three sources from the syllabus.

Sources from the course should help frame the approach on the chosen topic (in addition to independent research). However, and especially for graduate students, try not to just apply a conceptual framework from these sources directly on the topic. Instead, reflect on the interplay between the weediness of the chosen topic and the weediness of conceptual frameworks and sources themselves. What forms of uncertainty and ambiguity lie in both of these subjects (one a topic, the other an academic source)? Does the weediness of the topic unsettle a neat conceptual or anthropological explanation? What “weeds” can one identify in academic sources that could be read out of these texts, perhaps against the intentions of the author(s)?

In general, the final entry and full research paper should endeavor to address some or all of the following questions: In what sense is the topic proposed “weedy”? What data or media had to be weeded (out) when finalizing the entry and paper? How were decisions about weeding made? What broader historical and contemporary structures or processes is the topic embedded within? In other words, how is the weedy topic in the world?

For undergraduate students, the length of the field guide entry should be 500–1000 words; for graduate students, the entry should be 1000–2000 words. For the full paper, a maximum of 3000 words for undergraduates and a maximum of 6000 words for graduate students is recommended.

Interview with Caroline E. Schuster

Janita Van Dyk: Your previous research focused on gender, microfinance, and microinsurance in Paraguay. How did you first become interested in parametric insurance in agriculture? What have been the affinities and divergences between this project and your previous work?

Caroline E. Schuster: With the clarity of hindsight, I can see the through-line of research on economic interdependency under conditions of collective indebtedness. Insurance promises a formal risk-pooling mechanism, so in many ways, it is an obvious outgrowth from the earlier work on microcredit “social collateral” and group-based lending. In fact, I even crossed paths with microinsurance while I was working with a local NGO, Fundación Paraguaya, in the late-2000s. They began to include debt-cancellation insurance in their microloans. At the time, I was confronted with the social and emotional ramifications of coping with the death of a group member through the shared bonds of a complex financial product. The women who wrestled the unpaid debts of the dead while mourning a friend and colleague challenged me to reconsider how I understood gendered kinship, mutual incorporation, and loss.

I recall that I really took notice of insurance—as a question in itself, not directly tied to women’s microfinance—while following news reports of devastating flooding in Paraguay. Amidst wider conversations about disaster risk management, calls for humanitarian aid, and rescue operations, I was surprised that the policy that gathered momentum was for a state-backed property insurance scheme, not (as I’d expected) for environmental management or public investment in infrastructure. Given Paraguay’s long history of making recourse to liberal market-based approaches to anti-poverty measures (free trade! microcredit! entrepreneurship!), I saw similar thinking being put to use in the context of environmental devastation.

I also learned a valuable lesson from that early policy discussion: the flood protection scheme was never put into practice because the public/private financing arrangement was too complex. So, though I began the Australian Research Council fellowship intending to study “the endangered city” (Zeiderman 2013; 2016), that effort never materialized. But insurance was gaining ground within social policy discussions at a national level through a National Strategy for Financial Inclusion (ENIF), and regionally through financing from multilateral aid agencies like the Interamerican Development Bank and Australian Aid.

I suppose that my earlier research on microfinance was propelled to some extent by the moment in which I found myself—in the midst of the sub-prime financial crisis, the collapse of credit markets, a devastating global recession. So I should not have been surprised that the research on parametric agricultural insurance would also be driven by the pressing concerns of its moment, too—anxieties about climate financing, weather disasters, and climate change.

JVD: It’s troubling and yet perhaps unsurprising that microinsurance and parametric insurance schemes are sold to producers in the Global South as a form of benevolent development; for example, you write, “The capacity to define the ever-shrinking grounds of parametric life through climate-based redlining is sold back to the public as a social good” (Schuster 2021, 606). To what extent are the sesame farmers with whom you work suspicious or aware of the violence of risk that is being sold to them as a form of benevolent development? And how do parametric insurance’s forms of risk intersect with or depart from farmers’ own understandings and practices of risk?

CS: These provocations go precisely to the heart of the ethnography. The parametric move of simultaneously dialing in the climate index, while expanding the types of agrarian perils enfolded into insurance cover, is really a commitment to a model. When farmers fail to appreciate that developmental uplift and the elegance of its “promise of access” (Greene 2021), they are blamed for “insurance illiteracy” and “fatalism” (Al-Maruf et al. 2021).

And Wilfrido was very aware, I think, of the violence of the model’s loss algorithms. It was apparent even in the vernacular used to speak about claims. For instance, the insurance term for “claims” is siniestros—a technical term that was rarely used outside of the financial sector. Curiously, the more common meaning of siniestro is “sinister” or “ominous,” which was closer in meaning to the experience of risk in agrarian settings. Meanwhile, locals preferred to talk about pérdidas, or losses (tellingly, plural), which was a much more expansive concept and was irreducible to contracts or balance sheets. It could be alternatively conjugated to mean “the lost ones” (las perdidas), which touched on the complex histories of migration out of the impoverished countryside. And Wilfrido was very clear-eyed about how binding obligations were experienced—narrowly through a contract whose terms were favorable to the insurer, or deeply such as the human and more-than-human interdependencies of kinship and human-crop entanglements.

And your provocation about benevolent development goes to the heart of the issue. It was almost impossible to tease apart the parametric insurance—whose premium was added to seasonal agricultural credit to plant and commercialize sesame—from the ways even very small scale commercial agriculture has been financialized.

JVD: In your work, climate models perform modern practices of data collection, management, and agriculture (mirroring the work of Flachs [2019] and Solanki [2019]). They are both aspirational and yet unachievable and set the terrain for future forms of cooptation, speculation, and financialization. How do sesame farmers and parametric insurance employees contend with the charismatic impossibility of the model to reflect and respond to agricultural life?

CS: The burgeoning conversation about anthropology and data infrastructures (Douglas-Jones, Walford, and Seaver 2021), algorithms (Fourcade and Healy 2017; Besteman and Gusterson 2019), and models (Flachs and Solanki as you cite above) intersects with some longstanding research in the anthropology of finance on the performativity of capitalist devices. Financial models, such as the yield curve (Zaloom 2009) and Black-Scholes options pricing (Lee and Martin 2016; LiPuma 2017), have caught the attention of ethnographers immersed in the worlds of analysts, traders, and fund managers. Their focus on the internal logics of capitalist devices can offer profound insights about the wider operations of the financial markets, but reveals less about how particular data are harvested, cleaned up, and put to use by various local actors (see for example Biruk [2018]). And here I mean “local” in the sense of the Paraguayan sesame belt, but also the Florida campus of the academic agrometeorologist, the back offices of an insurance broker in London and Munich, the Hilton Hotel ballroom in Lima for an industry summit on microinsurance, and so on. So how do these various “in-between” financial actors (Schuster and Kar 2021) deal with both the seductions and frustrations of their model?

“Weeds are quite literally complications in domesticated agrarian settings. The active process of weeding points us back to the forms of labor at the heart of these drought indices and the derivatives they underwrite.”

I think a partial answer lies in their weed-work. I began tracking weeds in the insurance models to get at the contradictions latent in the project of parameterization—its constitutive incompleteness, its disorder, its wild promise of generating value. Weeds are quite literally complications in domesticated agrarian settings. The active process of weeding points us back to the forms of labor at the heart of these drought indices and the derivatives they underwrite. It is in this practical sense of focusing on labor that I position speculative financial practices such as climate modeling as collective ecological acts and conjugate weeding as an active process.

JVD: I feel a sense of unease about how distanced the realities of producing food are from the value and capital that circulates out of agricultural settings, especially when reading your analyses of parametric insurance. It almost felt like a violation—how can the value of food be so divorced from feeding people? I have to remind myself that food is a commodity and traded as such, but I also question if food is really ever fully commodified, if these attempts at rendering agricultural life parametric can ever be complete. How do you work between these two registers—the increasing speculation of foods such as sesame and the material realities of agricultural production? And how is weediness reflected in or between these two registers?

CS: Rocío and I spent nearly eight months working at both Wilfrido’s farm and the Centro de Investigación Regional (CIR; Regional Experimental Center). Throughout, I was consistently surprised by the casual disregard with which sesame seeds were treated. In my own cooking, sesame is a real treat—I indulge by buying small packets of seeds, carefully stored so that their oils don’t go rancid. In my kitchen, I take pleasure in marveling at their aroma when toasted and enjoying the creaminess of sesame butter (tahini) or the rich nutty flavor of a dash of sesame oil to complete a dish. Meanwhile, abandoned and moldering forty kilogram (!) sacks of sesame from past harvests, often stored in repurposed animal feed bags, seemed to be tucked into corners and store-rooms all across Paraguay’s sesame belt. When discovered by womenfolk who looked after domestic provisioning, the excess sesame was often fed to chickens and ducks to supplement their diet of kitchen scraps and garden waste.

All that is to say that sesame simply was not part of Paraguayan cuisine and was not treated as human food, though farmers were aware that most of their sesame seeds were exported to Japan, a market renowned for its exacting food quality standards. The abandoned sacks of sesame seeds were what pressed me to consider this crop as a thoroughly financialized form of life—one that depended on a complex life-support system of credit and insurance to survive in the otherwise hostile Paraguayan countryside. Agronomists for the Multiactiva cooperative drew this sharp distinction themselves, noting that financing for the subsistence crops was not really viable since, if prices were too low, farmers would often choose to consume their harvests (such as manioc, maize, and beans) rather than commercializing them. And consequently, they would default on their loans, since the crop brought in no revenue. Niche cereals such as sesame and chia were particularly amenable to parametric logics of loss triggers since they were culturally and gastronomically entailed with commercialization and its scaffolding of credit and insurance services. Low yields and low prices were both serious financial risks, but primarily in the cash/credit nexus.

And I think this is where it’s especially useful to think creatively alongside farmers with the multiple registers of weediness—that is, of agrarian complications—and their efforts to weed out undesirable forms of life. Wilfrido griped constantly about sesame as a difficult and temperamental invasive species, one with no discernible food-like qualities, and which displaced culturally valued (and delicious) crops such as maize and manioc. In many ways, sesame presented as a weed to the farmers who tended it. But it was a weedy plant that opened the spigot of financing, and which engineered the weather model to its own growing conditions. But I think you are absolutely right that these efforts to render agricultural life parametric were always incomplete. The weed killer received as an intergenerational gift of filial piety from Wilfrido’s son, the cash revenues from selling sesame seeds that sustained the farm as “home” for a family scattered by migration, the deliciousness of chicken stew (pollo casera) from poultry fattened on waste seeds, all point to an uncertain future and limits of survivability for humans and their food crops.

JVD: One of my favorite quotes from your work encapsulates how you responded to the temporalities of agriculture: “To understand the success of these weed-infested enclosures as an insurance infrastructure even as they failed as a local performance of modern farming, I had to attune to the rhythms and cycles of policy coverage and premiums rather than the agricultural cycles of sesame” (601). I read this as though the rhythms of insurance become a part of the rhythms of agricultural ecologies. How do you think through the multiplicities and intersections of agricultural temporalities, particularly when they don’t so easily “sync up”? What are the analytical stakes and limits of incorporating the rhythms of weather derivatives as forms of speculative financialization into agricultural settings?

CS: I love this question because it reorients two of the most common critiques of financialization in agriculture—that it’s an overly technical approach to risk (Isakson 2015), and that it turns farmers into self-responsible risk-bearing subjects (Johnson 2013). These are crucial entry points. But the causal connections of accumulation and exploitation don’t always line up so neatly, particularly because the speculative temporalities of agriculture and insurance don’t easily mesh.

I think that weeding provides a powerful conceptual tool to both characterize this disjuncture and to make something of it. I enjoy thinking with weeds because they are real bastards (so damn prickly, sticky, problematic), while also being a given, in fact, a generative entailment of domestication. Weather derivatives may also be real bastards, but like weeds, I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to simply write them off as “bad.” They are a generative entailment of our capitalist way of life. So, rather than postulating that climate insurance swoops in to take advantage of environmental devastation, we can think of insurance as thriving in particular damaged and domesticated environments, just as other agricultural practices do. These rhythms and cycles of labor also would suggest that there may be a season for sesame (or not) and for insurance (or not) and that the choices we make as we weed out pests and perils shouldn’t cast either crops or contracts as inevitable. There are ways of living otherwise than parametric life.


Al-Maruf, Abdullah, Sumyia Akter Mira, Tasnim Nazira Rida, Md Saifur Rahman, Pradip Kumar Sarkar, and J. Craig Jenkins. 2021. “Piloting a Weather-Index-Based Crop Insurance System in Bangladesh: Understanding the Challenges of Financial Instruments for Tackling Climate Risks.” Sustainability 13, no. 15: 8616.

Besteman, Catherine, and Hugh Gusterson, eds. 2019. Life by Algorithms: How Roboprocesses Are Remaking Our World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Biruk, Cal. 2018. Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Douglas-Jones, Rachel, Antonia Walford, and Nick Seaver. 2021. “Introduction: Towards an Anthropology of Data.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 27, no. S1: 9–25.

Flachs, Andrew. 2019. “Planting and Performing: Anxiety, Aspiration, and ‘Scripts’ in Telangana Cotton Farming.” American Anthropologist 121, no. 1: 48–61.

Fourcade, Marion, and Kieran Healy. 2017. “Seeing like a Market.” Socio-Economic Review 15, no. 1: 9–29.

Greene, Daniel. 2021. The Promise of Access: Technology, Inequality, and the Political Economy of Hope. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Isakson, S. Ryan. 2015. “Derivatives for Development? Small-Farmer Vulnerability and the Financialization of Climate Risk Management.” Journal of Agrarian Change 15, no. 4: 569–80.

Johnson, Leigh. 2013. “Index Insurance and the Articulation of Risk-Bearing Subjects.” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 45, no. 11: 2663–81.

Lee, Benjamin, and Randy Martin, eds. 2016. Derivatives and the Wealth of Societies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

LiPuma, Edward. 2017. The Social Life of Financial Derivatives: Markets, Risk, and Time. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Schuster, Caroline. 2021. “Weedy Finance: Weather Insurance and Parametric Life on Unstable Grounds.” Cultural Anthropology 36, no. 4: 589–617.

Schuster, Caroline, and Sohini Kar. 2021. “Subprime Empire: On the In-Betweenness of Finance.” Current Anthropology 62, no. 4: 389–411.

Solanki, Aakash. 2019. “Management of Performance and the Performance of Management: Getting to Work on Time in the Indian bureaucracy.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 42, no. 3: 588–605.

Zaloom, Caitlin. 2009. “How to Read the Future: The Yield Curve, Affect, and Financial Prediction.” Public Culture 21, no. 2: 245–68.

Zeiderman, Austin. 2013. “Living Dangerously: Biopolitics and Urban Citizenship in Bogotá, Colombia.” American Ethnologist 40, no. 1: 71–87.

–––. 2016. Endangered City: The Politics of Security and Risk in Bogotà. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.