Ethnography of Life Forms

By John Hartigan, University of Texas §

One of the pressing concerns in multispecies research is how to extend and apply our analytics across species boundaries. The difference between, say, “a cultural history of plants” and an account that purports to render plants as ethnographic subjects is rather stark. The former is interested in these lifeforms as they’ve conformed to cultural uses; the latter begins from the recognition that much human thought is materially and metaphorically dependent upon plants, as well as the way many of them can be seen as manipulating us to further their species-extension through domestication. With such entanglements, how can we formulate reliable accounts of the world that don’t just include nonhumans but that become a basis for confronting anthropocentrism?

Interview subject, Cetranthus ruber (red valerian)
Interview subject, Cetranthus ruber (red valerian). Photo by author.

The answer lies in understanding how ethnography, as a method and mode of analysis, can be applied to nonhumans. The history and development of this technique in relation to people should not be a barrier to its broader application to lifeforms more broadly. But much will have to change in the process, perhaps most prominently the singular focus on meaning. That suggestion will be too much for many practitioners and aficionados of ethnography, but it’s in line with the broad array of “turns” that are unified by a rejection of (or deep discontent with) text-based analytics. From speculative materialism and affect to multispecies research and ontological approaches, meaning no longer reigns supreme as the grail of cultural analysis. And this opens up new subjects and settings for ethnography.

The value of ethnography lies principally in its attention to place-making dynamics, and many nonhumans make place. These range from the eusocial species (bees, wasps, termites, etc.) who build elaborate nests and hives to the variety of creatures who engage in niche-construction—most famously, perhaps, beavers; but plenty others tweak and twist evolutionary selection through creating built environments. Not surprisingly, most of these species are decidedly social, which raises a crucial point.

For too long we’ve defined both society and culture—intergenerational templates for transmitting local ways and knowledge—in terms of humans. So many lifeforms are social or are shaped by culture. We humans have culture because it was evolved first by our various primate predecessors and cousins; and this lineage of culture is paralleled by similar developments in a host of taxa, from cetaceans to spiders. Since ethnography is about the cultural dynamics involved with place-making, it is perhaps the best-suited social science or humanist technique to apply across species lines. For that matter, there is a powerful fusion to be achieved in this move by engaging with and updating ethology—the study of animal behavior. Where ethologists have reified behavior as a “natural condition,” ethnographers can turn attention to the social dynamics by which many behaviors are learned and transmitted (often through kinship) to a new generation. For starters, see Karen Strier’s Primate Ethnographies (2013).

The cross-species applicability of “social” or “cultural” can be buttressed by an analytical attention to form—as in the very term, lifeform. Stefan Helmreich’s ethnography, Alien Ocean, provides a starting point for thinking this through. Helmreich works with a well-honed distinction of life forms and forms of life: “By ‘life forms,’ I mean those embodied bits of vitality called organisms, variously apprehended as ranged into species…” Then, “when I write ‘forms of life,’ I mean those cultural, social, symbolic, and pragmatic ways of thinking and acting that organize human communities” (Helmreich 2009: 6). This distinction is what makes this an ethnography of oceanographers rather than an anthropology of microbes. But the clarity of this distinction allows for both a revision and transposition.

A cultural analysis of life forms focuses on the fact that copious nonhuman communities of life are organized in various “cultural, social, symbolic, and pragmatic ways…” This is a way, for instance, to frame quorum sensing in bacterial communities in ethnographic terms. So I suggest placing human here “sous rature” or under erasure, in a deconstructive manner: the term that holds us back but that we cannot entirely do without in thinking about culture across species boundaries as well as recognizing the risks of anthropocentrism. Then the formulation would construe “forms of life” as “those cultural, social, symbolic, and pragmatic ways of thinking and acting that organize human communities.” Communities of nonhumans—such as microbes, indigenous or cosmopolitan—open up as direct ethnographic subjects (Hartigan 2015: 9-10). Whether these may provide the basis for human sociality, their forms of organization—social, communicative…thinking and symbolic?—can become the focus of cultural analysis unmoored from the human.

Plant Publics
Plant publics. Photo by author.

Form, though, is clearly central both to understanding life and the plasticity of species through selection—“natural or artificial,” terms deeply torqued by expanding understanding of nonhuman forms of domestication. As Dorion Sagan (2013: 29) writes, “Life is a complex thermodynamic system”; its forms stay stable as energy is used and matter is cycled. The interesting question is how forms are tied to, constitutive of, and transmitted via place-based social dynamics—tied to ecosystems as much as to species. This mode of attention is already impacting ethnography—see Timothy Choy’s (2011:146) account of “four forms of air” in Hong Kong in Ecologies of Comparison, or Eduardo Kohn’s chapter, “Form’s Effortless Efficacy,” in How Forests Think (2013). “The goal,” he suggests, “is to see what it is that the living ‘do’ with form and the particular ways in which what they do with it is infected by form’s strange logics and properties” (Kohn 2013: 160). The resulting account highlights biosocial dynamics linking river networks and rubber trees to “Runa attempts to make sense of the forest’s semiosis” (Kohn 2013: 174). In my own work, I use ethnography both to understand the role of plants in constituting cultural forms such as the public sphere and to pose plants as direct ethnographic subject; in each case developing a formal analysis rather than opting to analyze the ideological “content” that plants might represent.

These are a few examples of the surging interest in applying ethnography to nonhuman lifeforms, and even sociologists are making this shift. See Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut’s Buzz, “an api-ethnography that considers bees as cultured beings that traffic between worlds of the hive and of the urban landscape” (2013, pg. 36). There is much work to do!

Works Cited
Choy, Timothy. 2011. Ecologies of Comparison: An Ethnography of Endangerment in Hong Kong. Durham: Duke University Press.
Helmreich, Stefan. 2009. Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hartigan, John. 2015. Aesop’s Anthropology: A Multispecies Approach. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Moore, Lisa Jean and Mary Kosut. 2013. Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee. New York: New York University Press.
Sagan, Dorion. 2013. Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches from the Edges of Science. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Strier, Karen. 2013. Primate Ethnographies. New York: Routledge.

This post is part of our thematic series, Multi-Species Anthropology: Becoming Human with Others.