Teaching Ontologies and Activism with Sophie Chao

Photo by Sophie Chao.

This post builds on the research article “In the Shadow of the Palm: Dispersed Ontologies among Marind, West Papua,” which was published in the November 2018 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

The pedagogical approaches presented in this post and the author interview with which it concludes highlight the article’s contributions to two important conversations in contemporary cultural anthropology: ontologies of a multispecies world and activism in contexts of ecological destruction. The minilectures and suggested activities would be appropriate for introductory undergraduate courses on these themes.

Approach 1: Ontologies


In philosophy, ontology encompasses the study of what is—in contrast to epistemology, which concerns what can be known. In anthropology, scholars associated with the so-called ontological turn insist on multiple possible ontologies as a way of understanding the complexities of different realities. That is, differences between cultures may not be merely differences in perception of an underlying, uniform reality but actual differences in those realities. This conversation, in which the works of Bruno Latour and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro have been especially influential, has gained prominence in recent years. It developed as an analytical challenge to prior work that assumed a priori what is “natural” and what is “cultural.” This central idea, of breaking down such assumptions and categories, has inspired much ethnographic work. Proponents of the ontological turn argue against conceptions of opposed dichotomies and reject the idea that while ways of knowing can vary, there is only one form of being or existence (Heywood 2017). Anthropologists have long studied difference along various axes, but the ontological turn points toward a radical new way of doing this.

Closely related to the ontological turn is multispecies ethnography, which debunks human exceptionalism and calls for analysis of the effects of human interaction with other organisms. In recent decades, multispecies ethnographers have explored the lifeworlds and subjectivities of diverse nonhuman species and their entanglements with humans (see Kirksey and Helmreich 2010). The concept of agency is important here because multispecies ethnography posits that every living being is a creative agent. Like the ontological turn, this approach is quite radical and its emergence has been linked to a variety of other disciplines, such as the environmental humanities, ecophilosophy, and science and technology studies. Multispecies ethnographers study the lives of organisms whose presence affects and is affected by the human social world.

Sophie Chao addresses these overlapping conversations in her article “In the Shadow of the Palm.” Here, she presents us with a new way of thinking and looking at the interplay between different actors, both human and nonhuman. The concept she advances is that of a dispersed ontology—an understanding of the lives of persons, human or nonhuman, that encompasses a full range of life phases, interconnections, and frictions.


Have students create a map or visual representation of the dispersed ontology of sawit. Before beginning, ask students to do a close rereading of pages 637–639 of the article to ensure that they understand the concept. (For further explanation, you may also wish to refer them to the third question and response in the Author Interview below.) Then, in groups of three, have the students create a visual representation that maps out the heterogeneous ontologies of the oil palm. Depending on available time and resources, this visual representation could take the form of a collage or drawing, a diagram on chart paper, or a virtual representation on Miro, Prezi, or a similar platform. Ask each group to present their picture or diagram to the class, indicating how each different actor enrolls the oil palm to give it a new meaning.

Through the activity, groups should demonstrate that they have thought about the interrelations among some or all of the following: the Indonesian state and military, palm oil corporations, Papuan forests, waterways, soil, and wildlife, oil palm nurseries and plantations, palm oil mills and refineries, scientists and seed breeders, Marind as an indigenous community and as palm oil consumers, internal (non-Papuan) migrants, international supermarkets and consumers, and palm oil products (fuel, foods, cosmetics).

Sample RealTimeboard (now miro.com) diagram by Isabel M. Salovaara

Discussion Questions

  • How would you describe the different relations of sawit?
  • Are the relations beneficial to each other? Why or why not?
  • What does it mean for a dispersed ontology to lack a center? How does your representation reflect this?
  • What other aspects of the dispersed ontology of sawit did you notice while undertaking this activity?

For further reflection or a take-home exercise, ask students to do some research on another plant or plant-based substance that is a part of their lives. Have them create a similar representation of its dispersed ontology, accounting for the (multispecies?) persons, institutions, and environments involved in its production, distribution, and consumption.

Approach 2: Anthropology and Activism


Anthropology has a long and sometimes controversial history of engagement with structures and relationships of power. However, in recent decades engaged anthropology has coalesced as a diverse but self-conscious subfield within the discipline (see Low and Merry 2010). Advocacy and activism, which imply a commitment to a particular political agenda alongside a research agenda, are among the activities that might comprise such an engaged anthropology. Some anthropologists, like Nancy Scheper-Hughes, have called for anthropologists to take an active role in combating forms of violence and injustice they observe in the course of their work. Others have contested this approach, advocating for a more distanced stance that avoids casting judgment on anthropological subjects or universalizing an often essentially Western approach to human rights.

The question of engaged or activist anthropology has taken on new urgency in the face of current and impending environmental crises, especially those related to climate change. The concept of the Anthropocene, an age in which humans are the dominant force in shaping Earth’s environment, has provided space to examine whether anthropological approaches can help expose and possibly remedy environmental injustices and inequalities. “In the Shadow of the Palm,” written by an anthropologist who has also worked with advocacy organizations contesting the destructive effects of oil palm plantations, offers new insight into anthropology’s potential role in advancing campaigns for environmental justice.

Civil society organizations are challenging palm oil production in Indonesia, including through a street art campaign and the occupation of a refinery by Greenpeace activists. In this context, Chao argues that nonhuman species, including plants like oil palm, can also enact forms of violence on people. This is a significant intervention into a longer anthropological discussion of physical and structural violence. At the same time, Chao explores the challenges of embracing indigenous understandings of plant agency and multispecies interaction when other key actors, such as states and corporations, recognize only technoscientific approaches as valid. This classroom activity will invite you to think about how the engaged anthropologist might negotiate between these divergent perspectives.

Native forest razed to make way for oil palm plantations. Photo by Sophie Chao.


Divide the class into small groups of three or four students. Ask each group to do some research on activism related to palm oil production, with a focus on Indonesia. For a shorter in-class exercise or as a starting point, consider the press release for the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) report “Conflict or Consent? The Oil Palm Sector at a Crossroads,” this overview of the FPP report “‘A sweetness like unto death’: Voices of the Indigenous Malind of Merauke, Papua,” and this summary of complaints recently lodged against an Indonesian palm oil company.

Then, using a piece of chart paper or a digital platform such as Miro, ask each group to create a Venn diagram to compare and contrast Chao’s academic article with the activist reports. Students should consider questions of style, argument, and audience, as well as how the particular points of emphasis and conceptual frameworks differed between the two types of writing. Ask each group to make a brief presentation on their findings and analysis, using the discussion prompts below as a guideline.

Discussion Questions

  • Did reading the activist reports change your understanding of the effects of oil palm on Marind communities? In what ways?
  • Which of the two types of account do you find more persuasive? Why?
  • What insights from the ethnographic research article do you think could enhance the impact of the claims made in the activists’ reports?
  • If you were working as an engaged anthropologist in this area, can you think of any advice that you might want to give activists?
  • What other kinds of questions would you want to explore in your ethnographic research if your aim was to support activists’ efforts?

At the end of the discussion, you may wish to invite the students to read the Author Interview below and reflect on how the author’s first response deepens their understanding of the dual pressures of activist writing and ethnographic integrity.

For further individual reflection or a take-home writing assignment, ask students to write about a social or environmental issue in which they have been personally involved or would like to take action. How might the understandings of those most affected by this problem differ from the understandings of institutions or actors with the greatest ability to ameliorate it? What role could engaged anthropology play in bridging these understandings?

Author Interview

Isabel M. Salovaara: This article, “In the Shadow of the Palm,” draws attention to the agency of the oil palm plant as a destructive force. However, your previous activist writings understandably focused on the agency of the corporate entities that are producing palm oil. In the context of activism around this issue, what are the benefits and risks of emphasizing the agency of the oil palm itself?

Sophie Chao: Marind communities among whom I undertook my fieldwork frequently debated the potential benefits and risks of portraying oil palm as a destructive plant-being—to state and corporate actors, and also to the Indonesian NGOs and Church organizations actively supporting Marinds’ land rights struggle. Those who stuck by this depiction believed it allowed their advocacy efforts to be reframed in culturally Marind terms, rather than in the discourse of human rights and economic progress advocated, in different ways, by NGOs and state-corporate actors. In other words, representing oil palm according to a distinctly Marind worldview constituted a form of self-determination for peoples whose rights to cultural and political freedoms have long been denied. At the same time, attributing the destructive socioenvironmental impacts of agribusiness to a plant enabled some Marind to depoliticize their land rights struggle by focusing on the foreign crop—rather than the foreign humans—taking over their lands and forests.

In this regard, framing the plant as the destructor allowed Marind to engage in negotiations with state and corporate actors while minimizing the risk of being accused of separatist aspirations, as is often the case with grassroots movements in West Papua. Representing oil palm as the destructive agent also enabled Marind to communicate to state and corporate actors the ways in which the adverse effects of agribusiness expansion transcend the human. Here, destruction wrought by oil palm affects forest organisms, soils, and waters alongside their human inhabitants. These effects, for Marind, are not solely material or economic, but rather moral and cosmological, within and across species lines. I should add that Marind are well aware that the reason why oil palm is so destructive also has something to do with the particular way in which it is cultivated—in other words, as a large-scale, technoindustrial monocrop—rather than solely the attributes of the organism itself. Whether and how oil palm cultivation could be reconfigured to minimize its destructiveness—for instance, through polycropping and the establishment of conservation and buffer zones—thus became a central matter of discussion during their negotiations with state and corporate actors.

In practice, however, portraying oil palm as a destructive being often backfired dramatically. For instance, Marind were routinely labeled as primitive and uneducated by both their opponents and supporters for sustaining the possibility that plants have a will, agency, and volition. When such statements were not outright ignored, they were dismissed as evidence of Marinds’ limited knowledge and superstitious beliefs. Such perceptions were in turn cited by corporate actors to further justify the need for developmental projects like oil palm plantations in rural Papua. Furthermore, many Marind—and the organizations supporting them—worried that representing oil palm as a destructive being would remove the onus of responsibility from corporate and state actors to provide remedy and redress for the destruction wrought by their operations. Finally, it must be noted that the destructive facet of oil palm is but one of several perceptions that Marind hold about this foreign crop. While many resent oil palm for the havoc it wreaks on native ecosystems, others express pity and compassion toward oil palm in light of its subjection to totalizing human and technological control. Many more express great curiosity about the foreign crop colonizing their lands: its origins, home, and kin. Representing oil palm solely as a destructive agent therefore does not do justice to the heterogeneous and emergent ways in which Marind themselves conceptualize the ontology of this proliferating plant.

IMS: You use the term unloving (in contrast to unloved) to describe oil palm and similar “foreign others” whose incursions have affected the lives of Marind. How do you address the concept of love in your teaching? In activist contexts?

SC: In my teaching, I address the concept of love primarily in relation to that of care. In particular, I deploy Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s concept of care as at once an ethical stance, a practical labor, and an affective disposition, in order to rethink interspecies and intraspecies relations in the current era. For instance, how does one love—in epistemic, affective, and ethical terms—an organism like oil palm that wreaks havoc on particular forest habitats and particular humans, yet which is itself exploited by hegemonic agro-industrial assemblages? Whose lives and loves matter in capitalist ecologies where the flourishing of some species drives others to the brink of extinction? How does one theorize capitalist natures in ways that attend in equal measure to the politics within, and not just the poetics of, more-than-human lovings and unlovings?

The importance of these questions, I argue, extends far beyond the care and violence enacted toward cash crops in remote areas of the tropical belt. They invite us to reflect critically on our own enlistment in oil palm’s lifeway as global consumers of palm oil. They call for interdisciplinary investigations into the social worlds and loving/unloving aspects of capitalism’s more-than-human protagonists. They require a nonidealized vision of interspecies love that recognizes the often necessary, if obscured, violence inherent to interspecies relations in capitalist landscapes. Last but not least, these questions demand critical attention to the perspectives of indigenous peoples who are most directly and deeply mired in the fraught predicament of interspecies care. Such perspectives, I believe, are central to imagining the form that an interspecies love emancipated from human domination and its life-negating effects—or what Roberto Esposito calls “positive biopolitics”—might take within contemporary agro-industrial assemblages.

In activist contexts, Marind sometimes describe their relations to the land and forest as a form of love—both for nonhuman and elemental others, and for the human selves that the survival and wellbeing of these others enables. Loving the land, or caring for it, is a way of loving one’s human and nonhuman kin, as well as future generations. Loving the land is also a means of expressing respect toward one’s ancestors—human and other—whose actions and relations are inscribed in the living landscape. However, the concept of love is often difficult to deploy effectively in activist contexts. In my experience, this usually comes down to a problem of translation. Love frequently comes to connote a solely romantic, interhuman kind of attachment rather than the distributed, intergenerational, and interspecies kind of love that Marind communities express toward the forest plants and organisms with whom they entertain mutually reciprocal relations of care and respect.

IMS: You observe in this article that “vegetal beings incarnate the dividual par excellence.” How does your concept of dispersed ontologies expand upon Melanesianist anthropology’s concept of the dividual?

SC: My concept of dispersed ontologies takes the concept of the dividual beyond the human by highlighting how the existence and relations of diverse other-than-human entities enable (or undermine) the emergence of the human: plants, animals, elements, and oil palm, for instance. Among Marind, becoming human (anim) entails corporeal cobecomings with persons human and other-than-human, riparian and estuarine, geological and meteorological. Humanity thus involves the processual generation of meaningful and agentive bodies in relation to other bodies—only some of which are human. At the same time, the concept of dispersed ontologies reveals the limits of self-constitutive relations. Oil palm in Merauke, for instance, refuses to engage in mutually beneficial relations with the human and other-than-human constituents of Marind cosmology, even as its presence profoundly affects their world and relations. Not all relations, then, are wanted, beneficial, or reciprocal. Whether or not relations exist matters just as much as the kind of relations at play and their inequitably distributed effects.

The concept of dispersed ontology also invites attention to the role of the imagination in the making of relations. In this, I draw from the heterogeneous ontologies attributed to oil palm by Marind. From resented driver of ecological destruction to pitied victim of human exploitation, oil palm accrues new and different meanings across the range of affectively charged discourses that surround it. At the same time, the ontology of oil palm disperses beyond Merauke as a vegetal nexus of disparate corporate, governmental, financial, and socioenvironmental interests and agendas. In this regard, oil palm constitutes a heterogeneous boundary object (Star and Griesemer 1989) enacted into meaningful being through the practices and perspectives of situated individuals, communities, and institutions across space and time.

Furthermore, the concept of dispersed ontology allows us to think about plant–human relations beyond the realm of life itself. For instance, attending to the dispersed ontology of oil palm as plant, part, and product draws attention to the distributed afterlife of plants as they are transformed and travel as global commodities. The concept of dispersed ontologies also refuses the boundaries of the local, or of a particular social group. As consumers, we participate in the social world and relations of oil palm, a growing global commodity of worldly consequences. In doing so, we become enlisted in the lives of plants and people in seemingly out of the way places—for better or for worse. Thinking in terms of dispersed ontologies beyond the human, and beyond the living more generally, thus enables us to appreciate the ethically fraught relations that we, too—albeit often unknowingly—entertain with organisms human and nonhuman through our everyday forms of consumption.

Supplemental Reading

Archambault, Julie. 2016. “Taking Love Seriously in Human-Plant Relations in Mozambique: Toward an Anthropology of Affective Encounters.” Cultural Anthropology31, no. 2: 244–71.

Palmer, Christian T. 2017. “Culture and Sustainability: Environmental Anthropology in the Anthropocene.” In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, edited by Nina Brown, Laura Tubelle de González, and Thomas McIlwraith. Arlington, Va.: American Anthropological Association.

Serafini, Paula. 2014. “Field Notes on Activism.” Correspondences, Cultural Anthropologywebsite, May 4.


Heywood, Paolo. 2017. “The Ontological Turn.” Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology, May 19.

Kirksey, S. Eben, and Stefan Helmreich. “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography.” Cultural Anthropology 25, no. 4: 545–76.

Low, Setha M., and Sally Engle Merry. 2010. “Engaged Anthropology: Diversity and Dilemmas.” Current Anthropology 51, S2: S203–226.

Star, Susan Leigh, and James R. Griesemer. 1989. “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907–1939.” Social Studies of Science 19, no. 3: 387–420.