Multispecies Methodologies and Human-Elephant Relations

Piers Locke, University of Canterbury and Paul Keil, Macquarie University  §

The recent ferment of multispecies research and writing in the humanities and social sciences has redirected our focus to the materiality of lived experience in the biophysical world we share with other species. In so doing, not only has it opened up exciting challenges of intellectual synthesis, but also of methodological reconfiguration. With metaphorical mirth, Eben Kirskey and colleagues (2011) speak of “poaching” as a strategy of subversive borrowing and reworking by which an eclectic range of intellectual resources can be brought to bear on the project of a decentered humanism concerned with nonhuman agency and interspecies intersections. Similarly, ethnographers of interspecies relations, such as those of us concerned with humans and elephants, are finding it helpful to draw on the sciences of animal behavior, ecology, physiology, and cognition.  These disciplines and their methods can certainly enrich an otherwise purely humanist ethnography. At the same time, they still leave us grappling with the methodological combination of divergent disciplinary traditions focused on either humans as cultural beings or elephants as natural animals, even as we aspire to an approach that  circumvents the exclusionary logic of the nature/culture and human/animal oppositions and that makes the interspecies relationship the unit of analysis. The program of ethnoelephantology (Locke 2013), inspired by posthumanism and the multispecies turn and modeled on Agustin Fuentes’ articulation of ethnoprimatology (2010, 2012), motivates us in this regard.

Khorsor 2011
A community of elephants and their handlers leave their stable at the Khorsor Elephant Breeding Center for their daytime grazing in the forests, grasslands, and rivers of the Chitwan National Park, Nepal. (Source: Piers Locke, 2011)

Consequently, in our respective work on communities of captive elephants and their human handlers (mahouts) in Chitwan, Nepal (Locke), and on encounters with free roaming elephants in Assam, India (Keil), we have sought to address the subjective agency and complementary world-making activity of elephants, as featured in our contributions to the forthcoming volume Rethinking Human-Elephant Relations in South Asia (Locke and Buckingham, eds.). “Poaching” has certainly helped, making us sensitive to historical and scientific research that often complements the knowledge and experience of humans living intimately with elephants, which our ethnographic skills equip us to explore. Still, despite our attempts to become more inclusive of the nonhuman in our ethnographies of human-elephant communities and social landscapes, our attention has remained unequally divided. We may argue for elephants to be properly recognized not just as objects of human concern or as generic moving bodies, but also as individual acting subjects who inhabit a world of matter and meaning mutually shaped and shared with humans. However, it seems our research practice does not yet match our theoretical conviction.

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In order to pass between the forested hills and the nearby Deepar beel wetland, Assam, India, elephants must negotiate with a number of anthropogenic developments that fragment habitat, including this deadly railway line. It is uncommon for elephants to emerge from the forest during the day; this makhna (tuskless male) in the throes of musth, does as he pleases. (Source: Paul Keil, 2015)

To illustrate, during ethnographic fieldwork, Keil was better equipped to follow the footsteps and chart the relations of villagers than elephants. Human-elephant encounters along the forest fringes were frequent but fleeting. Keil lacked the methodological expertise to identify and discern different herds and individuals, to map their familial relations, and to trace their migratory habits as they negotiated a multifaceted landscape fragmented by anthropogenic activity. Tools of investigation and modes of analysis from biology and ecology would have helped produce a richer account of interspecies encounter by facilitating improved understanding of local elephant lives. Similarly, Locke commenced a project originally conceived purely in terms of the human expertise, apprenticeship, and occupational subculture involved in managing captive elephants. However, he not only found himself reconceiving his research in terms of interspecies subjectivity in a hybrid community of human and nonhuman life forms, but also confronting his methodological inadequacy for better attending to his elephant subjects as skillful, conscious beings with different bodily and sensorial capacities. Greater familiarity with the practices and skill sets of the animal behavioral sciences would have proven useful. While we as anthropologists may theoretically recognize the hybrid entanglements of humans and other species, with few exceptions our framework and methodology remains thoroughly non-hybrid.

A herd of elephants spend the day in the Deepar Beel wetlands, situated on the outskirts of the major city of Guwahati, Assam, North-East India. Passing onlookers, and constant traffic prevent the cautious herd from returning to the cover of forest. (Source: Paul Keil)

However, there is scope for methodological integration, already inherent in ethnographic practice. Dominique Lestel (2006) argues for the continuities between ethnographic and ethological field research, commenting on the ethnographic qualities of Jane Goodall’s fieldwork. Marcus Baynes-Rock (2015) demonstrates the possibilities of combining the ethological with the ethnographic in his study of relations among and between hyenas and humans in Harar, Ethiopia. On the other hand, Vinciane Despret (2013) reminds us not only that ethology was founded on a positivist objectivism that made anthropomorphism and interaction taboo, but that this kind of research has not always been as purely observational as ideally claimed. Whether it is Konrad Lorenz becoming “parent” for baby geese who imprinted on him, or Shirley Strum learning to act like a baboon, she shows us that ethologists have allowed themselves to be drawn into the social worlds of their animal subjects, with productive consequences. Perhaps generalized prejudices about epistemological incommensurability with the natural sciences should not deter us then?

An orphaned juvenile at the Elephant Transit Home arrives for his morning milk at Uda Walewe National Park, Sri Lanka. This program of rehabilitation concludes at the age of five, when he will no longer receive human care and nourishment, and will be expected to make a life for himself, roaming freely in the National Park. (Source: Piers Locke, 2013)

Rather than just appropriating scientific knowledge pertaining to nonhuman others, instead we suggest combining and integrating research practices beyond the conventional purview of ethnographic methodology, some of which may not even be as dissimilar and incompatible as has so often been claimed. This means we must do more than decenter the humanism from which ethnography developed, which served to sequester the figure of the human, and instead also decenter the humanist values that continue to configure our research practice. Relevant to this challenge is the distinctive character of our acquired disciplinary habitus, resolutely persistent in an institutional world that still values the highly differentiated intellectual identities produced by the modern university (Bourdieu 1988). This raises political and pragmatic questions regarding our capability to overcome disciplinary limitations, and to combine multiple skills, knowledges, and modes of activity. Here, collaboration may suggest a productive way forward, not just among anthropologists at multiple sites, as with the pioneering work of the Matsutake Worlds Research Group on human-mushroom assemblages (Choy et al. 2009), but among researchers from multiple disciplines combining their respective expertise. Indeed, with Anna Tsing’s (2015) subsequent Anthropocene Project, multidisciplinary collaboration has become pivotal, bringing together anthropologists and biologists around a common concern with planetary livability. Similarly, ethnoelephantology seeks to bring together researchers from humanist and naturalist traditions, engaging with the latter not through disciplinary critique but as allies mobilized around a common concern with the dynamics of human-elephant coexistence. New collaborative projects await…

Works Cited:
Baynes-Rock, Marcus. 2015. Among the Bone Eaters: Encounters with Hyenas in Harar. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1988. Homo Academicus. P. Collier, transl. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Choy, Timothy K., Lieba Faier, Michael Hathaway, Miyako Inoue, Satsuka Shiho, and Anna Tsing. 2009.  A new form of collaboration in cultural anthropology: Matsutake worlds. American Ethnologist 36(2):380-403.
Despret, Vinciane. 2013. Responding Bodies and Partial Affinities in Human–Animal Worlds. Theory, Culture & Society 30(7-8):51-76.
Fuentes, Agustin. 2010. Naturalcultural Encounters in Bali: Monkeys, Temples, Tourists and Ethnoprimatology. Cultural Anthropology 25(4):600-624.
Fuentes, Agustin. 2012. Ethnoprimatology and the Anthropology of the Human-Primate Interface. Annual Review of Anthropology 41:101-117.
Keil, Paul. Forthcoming. Elephant-Human Dandi: How Humans and Elephants Move Through Forest and Village. In Locke, Piers & Jane Buckingham (eds.) Rethinking Human-Elephant Relations in South Asia.
Kirsksey, S Eben, Craig Schuetze, and Nick Shapiro. 2011. Poaching at The Multispsecies Salon. Kroeber Anthropological Society 100(1):129-153.
Lestel, Dominique. 2006. Ethology and Ethnology: The Coming Synthesis, A General Introduction. Social Science Information 45(2):147-153.
Locke, Piers. Forthcoming. Animals, Persons, Gods: Negotiating Ambivalent Relationships with Captive Elephants in Nepal. In Piers Locke and Jane Buckingham (eds.) Rethinking Human-Elephant Relations in South Asia.
Locke, Piers. 2013. Explorations in Ethnoelephantology: Social, Historical, and Ecological Intersections Between Asian Elephants and Humans. Environment and Society: Advances in Research 4(1):79-97.
Tsing, Anna. 2015.  In The Midst of Disturbance: Symbiosis, Coordination, History, Landscape ASA Firth Lecture 2015. Available from:

Piers Locke is senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

Paul Keil is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Macquarie University, Australia.

This post is part of our thematic series: Multispecies Anthropology: Becoming Human with Others