Writing/Power/Story: Why and How to Do Ethnography of Nonhuman Beings and Things

Photo by James Wainscoat.

Why study nonhuman beings and things? For physical anthropologists, there is no doubt that studying nonhuman things is an essential route to making sense of the anthropos. But when and why do nonhuman beings and things like dogs, insects, forests, trees, rocks, and knives come to take center stage in our ethnographic projects? How can we best handle these actors?

What follows is a conversation between Hugh Raffles and three young ethnographers, born out of a Society for Cultural Anthropology student–faculty workshop at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. The workshop’s theme, “Human-Animal-Nonhuman Relations,” brought together scholars who work in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, Central, and South America on a range of themes from pepper farming to lead exposure. As we pulled apart half-chickens and french fries and struggled to hear one another over the noise of the lunch crowd, we started some interesting conversations.

After the workshop we connected across oceans via email, each recalling one question that had come up at our in-person meeting. We circulated the questions among the group as a sort of digital round-robin exchange, allowing each contributor to add their thoughts to the whole. That digitally enacted conversation is below. In addition to explaining why we each engage with nonhuman beings and things, we discuss writing, power, and the role of story in anthropology.

Hugh Raffles: Why think about nonhuman beings and things?

Kara Wentworth: We are outnumbered! It seems necessary in my field sites (small slaughterhouses in the United States) to be attuned as much as I can be to the pigs and the knives and the water temperature as much as the humans who are there. And the microbes! They are everywhere—covering the insides and outsides of the "tubes within tubes"—the human and nonhuman animals and their mouth-to-anus digestive tracts. I try to think about nonhuman beings and things less when I am in public restrooms, but in my fieldwork, they are insistent. Their specific demands are guiding so much of human action.

Liron Shani: I come to the question of the nonhuman from the analysis of environmental campaigns. It surprised me, but in many analyses of environmental campaigns and in a lot of writing about environmentalism, there is a missing reference to a central component of the field—nature itself. It seems to me that an analysis of cultural and environmental change without an integration of nature itself is analogous to a dramatic play without its main actor. So, I turned to the literature of the human and nonhuman, hoping that through a focus on the nonhuman and human–nonhuman relations, I could achieve a better understanding of conflicts and environmental change. I think this is a promising area. If we hold the nonhuman as well as the human in the analysis of the social (without missing essential analysis and mapping of power relations), we can better understand the world in which we live.

Ruth Goldstein: I came to this question from the other direction and it provoked my interest in studying anthropology: Why don't people think about nonhuman beings and things? Why does it bother some people to see animals, plants, and insects beaten, rejected, discarded? It's a delicate line to write about concepts and events that emotionally stimulate intellectual exploration and evaluation. I am reminded of Virginia Woolf's declaration in A Room of One's Own that women needed to lose the emotion in their writing if they were to gain respect for their words and have a political voice. So much of my thinking about nonhuman beings and things stems from thinking about voice, about language, about how people perceive themselves as connected or not connected to the world around them. Ignoring Woolf's advice, these questions come from feeling a visceral pain at seeing Amazonian rainforest disappear for gold mining, rendered sand through the application of mercury.

Question from the group: What is the role of story in anthropology?

HR: This is the question that I have the least idea of how to answer—good choice! As I said at lunch, I’m not crazy about the word story: it’s become so attenuated. I would tend to think more in terms of narrative, as that opens us up to a whole set of established theoretical concerns about language, discourse, and text. But thinking about narrative in its most “story-like” form, that is, as in something like narrative nonfiction, I’d argue that the question is one of strategy. Narrative in this sense is a form of writing one might deploy to stimulate identification and commitment in a reader. Ethnography lends itself to this form of writing but anthropologists tend to reduce story to anecdote, illustration, or vignette, partly because of deeply ingrained rhetorical hierarchies in which the language of theory is the language in which important things are said and partly because it is assumed to be mobile/convertible/generalizable, etc.—even though theory itself is in many respects just another story.

KW: Perhaps this reveals how undisciplined I am, but I really like story as an organizing unit of what we are making in doing academic work; for me, it encompasses theory and data. As a communication scholar, I think a lot about mediation in the practices of doing scholarship: When I go "there," what do I bring back, in what form, how, and to whom? What sorts of translations and technologies are doing this work with me? I don't think of story as individual anecdotes, but as the woven somethings we might carry with us and offer in some form to others. When I am in my field sites, I often have an audio recorder, a digital video camera, a pen and paper, and my goal is to be a good and faithful storyteller—to try to understand what is happening here, to make sense of it and make something to share with those who were and weren't there. I think of that process—which for me includes writing, formal performances, and film editing—as modes of working with and crafting sense-making stories.

LS: I, like Kara, like the idea of stories. This is what we do in anthropology—we tell stories. That is why I joined the club! I think of stories not as anecdote, illustration, or vignette, but a as a way to weave all the theories, observations, and analyses into something readable, something that flows through an interesting phenomenon, describing and analyzing it. The idea of a story that binds everything together appears also in other disciplines, even in the natural sciences. I hope that we social scientists might still lay claim to story, that we might be better at that.

RG: I hear, read, and think story not as a lack of theoretical rigor. I think it is relevant to ask what anthropologists think story means before or along with asking what the role of story can be in anthropology. I think the danger is in the ambiguity. At the AAA meetings I heard the question: "But what kind of story are you trying to tell by employing X theorist in Y analysis?" I wondered what that meant. Anthropology can allow for different narrative forms to enter analysis, changing our understanding of an event, a self, an enduring or ephemeral moment depending on the order and form of the language. Some anthropologists have turned to an "eco-poetics" as a form of writing storied anthropology. But lyricism and poetics, do those make a story? I read the question about the role of story in anthropology to be about how the form and style in which we write affects the delivery and comprehension of our analysis. From my own personal investment in social science, I wonder about the political consequences of what one says or writes about others, and if the question about story might create a space for thought that does not incite or require (political) action.

LS: How can we integrate analysis of power relations into the ethnography of human and nonhuman Relations?

HR: Well, I’d say this really depends on how you conceive of power. You could make the Foucauldian argument that it is never absent anyway, because it’s constitutive of the configuration of relations—and even the notion of relations—in anything you think or write. The question can then become the extent to which power as an object of concern in itself is foregrounded and, of course, what elements of it you choose to focus on.

KW: I appreciate Hugh's pointing to Foucault here, and it makes me think of Kathleen Stewart's (2012) reply to the question "how can you have durable social forms like racism when you are insisting everything is emergent?" I think, in this case too, the question might have it backwards—choosing to focus on human and nonhuman relations is not ignoring power. Quite the opposite—the move is inherently political because it turns attention to the less powerful and less typically represented elements of any scene. I understand the focus on animals and objects to be one way of looking at relationships of power and understanding the details of how power manifests. But I agree with you, Liron, that some work incorporating nonhuman animals and things does leave readers asking "but what about power?" There is a decent body of feminist science studies scholarship critiquing Bruno Latour and others for exactly that (e.g., Star 1990). But it doesn't have to be that way, and choosing a different set of theoretical fore(mo)thers might bypass the apparent problem altogether.

RG: I think that where the line between human and nonhuman lies matters for thinking about power, integrated or not. The Foucauldian formulation of power has permeated all disciplines, itself an arterial network of relations and connections that is never entirely absent. This is part of the brilliance (and annoyance?) of such productive analysis. The questions that arise for me are: how to think power relations differently than Foucault and whether there are ways of viewing power differently from within a human–nonhuman project.

RG: In thinking about the ways in which information can be organized, how can the writing style inform or solidify the analytical point? I am wondering about how to write differently from a strict academic voice without losing my audience.

HR: To me, this is a question of understanding your audience—its interests, concerns, and reading practices. Are you saying you want to write for a nonacademic audience in a non- or supra-academic way? Or that you want to appeal to a nonacademic audience but retain an academic readership? In either case, it might not be about style so much as orientation to the text: what kind of relation you establish with readers, how you try to bring them into the text, and what you want them to take away.

KW: If you had permission to write however you wanted to, what would you write? I wonder if starting there and building structures around it to make the work legible to each particular audience might be a productive way to do this. I know some faculty say that their posttenure book was the one that they really wrote the way they wanted to, and that may be a smart way for all of us to juggle institutional demands alongside our most playful, out-there ideas. But I think ideally, you would get to answer the question yourself. You'd write exactly how you want to write, however the work or the site or the questions or analysis demands. And then if it needs to be a certain format or number of words or style for an article or specific submission guidelines, then you make it work. And maybe that would draw exactly the right sort of audience and attention to the work.

KW: Are there specific exercises, strategies, or models you have found useful for writing through animal–human interactions in creative ways (staying especially attuned to the nonhuman)?

HR: The best advice I can give is to read well-written work (much of which is not academic), to read it carefully, to read it with your own concerns in mind, and to read it as a writer. It’s true that human–animal interactions have their own specificities but the general problem is the same as with any interaction: how to capture the ineffable connections, detachments, and displacements that characterize all relationships.

LS: The best advice I have for this question is to stay focused on the thing Itself. That it will be the center, and to build all the story/ies) around it (or him or her). It is not easy, and it sometimes seems artificial. But when it works, I think it sends the message. Without saying what you focus on, you show by doing. This is actually an anthropology of the nonhuman.

RG: This may be another variation of the question about the role of story in anthropology. I do not come from an anthropology background but have always had a practice of writing for myself, for as many hours as I can, every day. What I write for myself is not always entirely different than what I write into a dissertation; that is perhaps entirely for myself as well. Writing this makes me realize that I have an answer to my own prior question, too. I don't know that worrying about an audience is necessary if the point is to write for my own quest to try to make sense (or make entropy) of the world around me. I asked the question thinking about how to think and write within an academic structure. The anthropological authors who I admire do create a sense of opening for thinking about the world differently through their writing.


Star, Susan Leigh. 1990. "Power, Technology, and the Phenomenology of Conventions: On Being allergic to Onions." Sociological Review 38, S1: 26–56.

Stewart, Kathleen. 2012. "Precarity's Forms." Cultural Anthropology 27, no. 3: 518–25.