Qualifying Exam Essay: Attending to Animals in Anthropology

I have passed my qualifying exams and so am making my essays available on my blog.

The other essays can be found: Power and Politics Within and Beyond the Human and Javelinas in SPAAAACE and Time.


In a recent essay, Laura Ogden argues “that the biological species is a limited lens for understanding the ways sameness and difference shape trajectories of loss and change in the world” (2018:78). If “species” is a limited lens for understanding, how can we know the worlds of animals? In your answer consider the following:

  • The historical development of human-animal studies in anthropology
  • The strengths and weaknesses of methodologies for understanding animal worlds
  • What approaches to multispecies worlds do you value and why?
  • How will your research contribute to this body of knowledge?

Attending to Animals in Anthropology

Anthropology has prominently situated other-than-human animals (henceforth animals) as significant figures in human life throughout its history. For example, Evans-Pritchard’s (1940) writings on the Nuer—an Indigenous people of South Sudan—is necessarily filled with discussions of their relationships to cattle as cattle interpenetrate much of Nuer social structure. Likewise, Douglas’ (1957) discussion of animal symbolism among the Lele—an Indigenous people of the Kasai River region of the Congo—demonstrates that classification systems shape human attitudes towards animals. These classic ethnographic examples of multispecies connections have been greatly expanded upon, and animals figure into anthropological research in all sorts of ways: as companions and kin (Haraway 2013), predators (Knight 2003), prey (Brightman 1993), industrial products (Garcia 2019), symbols (Geertz 2000), commodities (Collard and Dempsey 2003; Comaroff and Comaroff 1990), and proxies (Sharp 2011). Furthermore, anthropologists have attended to animals with great diversity, from periphery characters in human stories to central motivating actors.

“Species” tends to be the primary concept through which the analysis of human-animal relations is framed. However, as Ogden (2018) argues, “the biological species is a limited lens for understanding” animal worlds (78). “Biological species” as a framework for understanding animals and animal worlds neglects the broader relations between beings that are not reducible to evolutionary histories. As such, in this paper, I will trace the historical development of human-animal studies in anthropology and the “turns” that shifted the anthropological gaze to attend to animal worlds in inventive ways. Human-animal studies across anthropological history have provided key insights into animal worlds. However, it is also necessary to elucidate the limitations that the various approaches discussed in this paper have imposed on our ability to understand animals, both in relation to humans and as beings tied into larger lively assemblages.

Situating Animals in Anthropology

Animals have found themselves written into a great deal of literature throughout anthropology’s short but productive history. This section aims to elucidate the role of anthropological inquiry in understanding animal worlds. I will trace the development of ideas concerning animals through the history of anthropological thought, with attention paid to discourses that led to conceptual shifts in the field. It is important to note that I will be primarily focusing on developments within social and cultural anthropology. I have chosen to designate the 1980s as a demarcation for narrative purposes. However, this demarcation is not wholly arbitrary as important texts that I will discuss below are published during the 1980s that attempt to resituate the animal in anthropological inquiry. An important note is that anthropological work engaging with animals after the 1980s is not discontinuous with prior research. Instead, the intellectual shift in the 1980s results from discourses that occur throughout the history of anthropology and beyond.  

Social and cultural anthropology has tended towards treating animals as objects for resource exploitation or as objects for the inscription of human meaning. Nevertheless, parallel, sometimes contradicting approaches are found in primatology—another subfield of anthropology in which animals are engaged—treats animals as the subjects of research, albeit through a very different lens: evolutionary theory. Scholars are currently challenging anthropocentric frameworks for understanding animals and their worlds by rejecting traditional nature/culture binaries and models of relationships that overemphasize biological factors and neglect other ways that lively assemblages are constituted (Mullin 2002).     

Animals in Anthropology Until the Eighties

This section will explore animals in classical anthropology, ending with the 1980s. It seems apt to begin in the 1880s with Franz Boas, the progenitor of the American strain of anthropology. Boas (1888), in his early work with Inuit communities in Baffin Island, includes a great deal of information on many animals that the Baffin Islanders encounter. In addition, Boas provides descriptions of the uses of animals, such as for food, clothing, habitation, and work. In these descriptions, Boas demonstrates how animals functionally articulate with the Baffin Islanders. In this account, animals are little more than resources to be extracted or used, and humans are central figures in the ethnography.  

However, Boas also attends to stories that describe the origins and relationships of some animals to the Baffin Islanders. In one example, Boas (1888) communicates the story (without accrediting its source) of the origin of narwhals (625-627). A boy and his sister plot to murder their mother by having her pulled into the water on a whale hunt. After spearing a large whale, the mother was pulled into the water and, after resurfacing, was transformed into a narwhal. Boas does not provide any analysis, but the symbolic relevance of narwhals is evident in the tale. The telling of the origin of narwhals points to another engagement with animals in the text.   

Boas’s two postures towards animals in The Central Eskimo (1888)—functional and symbolic—are the primary means of approaching animals in ethnographic writing for the century that follows. However, it is important to note that there are hints of other ways of attending to animal worlds that are never explicitly engaged but become apparent in the text with a bit of teasing. For instance, Boas’s discussion of hunting patterns includes descriptions of seasonal animal behavior that could, with some imagination, be seen as agency, broadly understood as the ability to act in ways that shape the world (see Watts 2013 and Latour 2005 for discussions of more-than-human agency). Animals move with the seasons, and as a result, from the perspective of the Baffin Islanders, they become more or less common at different times of the year (Boas 1888). The animals decide where to be when, which affects how the Baffin Islanders can engage with them.

Boas’s (1888) ethnographic data provide entry points into animal worlds. However, he never follows those paths. He instead focuses solely on the ways that animals pass into human worlds as homogenous and static beings; homogenous because, apart from Inuit tales that tell of specific other-than-human beings (e.g., a dog, a bear), the animals are lumped together as species who are engaged based on their membership to a particular taxonomic classification. They are static because each homogenous collective is acted upon in specific ways without regard to historical or other contextual considerations. In short, Boas is not interested in understanding animal worlds as they seem to be passive recipients of human action. Understanding animals in this way is emblematic of subsequent anthropological attentiveness to animals.

The Central Eskimo (1888) is a classical text that, at the very least, writes animals into the story, even if only as objects of human interest. Boas’s treatment of animals reflects typical roles that animals take on in ethnographic work in anthropological literature for much of its history. However, an earlier work by Lewis Henry Morgan (1868)—best known for his work on kinship systems—explores American beavers (Castor canadensis) as whole beings, imbued with value as a living being. Morgan writes:

It is not, however, the whole of the science of zoology to furnish a systematic catalogue of animals, with its exposition limited to the frigid details of anatomical structure. This would restrict it to dead rather than to living forms. Each animal is endowed with a living, and, also, with a thinking principle, the manifestations of each of which are not less important and instructive than the mechanism of the material frames in which they reside (v-vi).

In this text, Morgan centers beavers as subjects rather than background objects in a human story while acknowledging their agency. He spends much of the text—after describing what beavers are and their position among other animals—outlining how beavers engineer their environment and describing in poetic detail the entanglements of forests and beaver meadows and their burrows and dams. He also uses intricate drawings of all sorts of matters related to beavers, such as their anatomy and their practice of dam/lodge building and their effects on rivers and the surrounding area. Tsing (2010) refers to the practice of integrating various forms of knowing (e.g., science, art, literature) “arts of inclusion.” Through the practice of “arts on inclusion,” Morgan draws the reader into beaver worlds. Beavers, as such, are not objects merely to be acted upon according to human interests but are themselves agentive beings that shape their world and human worlds as well. Morgan’s attention to beavers is a different approach than Boas’s (1888) two decades later.

Humans do not substantially figure into Morgan’s writings on beavers until the last two chapters of the text, one of which discusses modes of trapping beavers and the other exploring animal psychology relative to humans. Much of the themes are also found in zoological studies, but Morgan’s anthropological sentiment brought to the topic demonstrates an attempt to explore beaver worlds while neither reducing them to merely biological beings nor to objects in human stories. Instead, Morgan hints at another way of attending to animals and offers methods drawn from zoology (i.e., anatomy, ethology, ecology) as a tool for exploring the worlds of other beings. However, Morgan is still captured by biological taxonomic classifications that obscure the diversity of beaver lives and neglect other potential entanglements that could redefine the boundaries of beaver. As is true with the animals of which Boas (1888) writes, Morgan also homogenizes beavers even while treating them as subjects in the text.

Boas (1888) and Morgan (1868) offer three potential ways to understand animal worlds. Accordingly, animal worlds are contained within human worlds, and their being is tied to human action. Morgan provides a divergent perspective that centers beavers but fails to expand beyond their membership as a particular species. However, in Boas’s account, animals are material or conceptual resources for humans. Their worlds are thus beyond the scope of anthropological inquiry, at least in this formulation. Furthermore, they lack any meaningful agency apart from what comes from their interactions with humans. Finally, Morgan illustrates that animals can be subjects and act according to their will and shape their and others’ worlds. However, Morgan does not escape the constraints of one particular way of knowing through a particular set of categories and concepts. As such, the richness of animal worlds is obscured.   

In accordance with Boas’s treatment of animals as material resources, functionalist anthropology—a school of thought that situates phenomena in relation to their function for maintaining society (Jarvie 1973)—locates animals within human worlds as material to be extracted, exchanged, and for humans to act upon further. For example, in Evans-Pritchard’s (1940) account of Nuer, cattle play a prominent role in social relations and societal function. As a pastoralist society, cattle are an important asset as they provide milk and meat, are exchanged as a form of bridewealth, sacrificed, and provide home goods (e.g., bags, clothing). Thus, Nuer cattle are framed in terms of what they do for Nuer society.

Evans-Pritchard does not neglect to mention the affective relations that cattle and humans have. For instance, men take on the names of their most favorite ox (18) and have to be convinced to eat the meat of a cherished ox (26). However, Evans-Pritchard fails to explore the affective relationship the humans have with the cattle in their care. He laments that he “never discussed anything with the young men but livestock and girls, and even the subject of girls led inevitably to that of cattle” (19); the cattle are certainly important beyond their mere material and cultural value, and, despite alluding to the richness of the relationship between cattle and the Nuer, Evans-Pritchard never follows up on this aspect of the relationship. Furthermore, there is no accounting for the ways that the cattle participate in the relationship. They are ushered around, exchanged, milked, and eaten, but the cattle’s role is not deeply explored.  

While Evans-Pritchard neglects to entertain aspects of Nuer cattle apart from their function in society, he avoids a total reduction of cattle to their biological species by paying close attention to how the Nuer attend to the various permutations of color, horn shape, sex, and other features that are indicative of the cattle (Evans-Pritchard 1940: 41-44). As such, each ox, with their unique combinations of features, comes to have its own designation through the elaborate descriptions. Thus, Evans-Pritchard can attend to the variety of kinds of cattle, despite belonging to a singular species, by adopting the understanding of difference and sameness that the Nuer uses to understand their cattle.  

Evans-Pritchard (1940) provides an example of a way in which functionalist approaches attend to animals. He offers a rich ethnographic account and places cattle at the forefront in a most literal sense as the first chapter of the monograph is “Interest in Cattle” (14-50). By emphasizing the role of cattle in Nuer society, Evans-Pritchard reflects Nuer sentiments towards cattle. They have the capacity to be individuals with agency that participate with the Nuer in multispecies entanglements apart from a mutually parasitic relationship (Evans-Pritchard 1940: 30), but this is never brought to fruition. Even as prominent figures in the text, cattle worlds are never explored; instead, Nuer cattle in the text exist solely within human worlds as cultural artifacts to be acted upon by humans. However, within the functionalist idiom, there was a diversity of animal understandings. Harris (1978), for instance, discusses Indian cattle in relation to their value as beasts of burden. As such, killing and eating them would impede other, more sustainable subsistence practices. On the other hand, Radcliffe-Brown (1952) discusses animals as ritual objects that arise from material subsistence practices (132). Thus, animals gain cultural relevancy based on their place in “natural productions of subsistence” (132).

While there is some variety in understandings of animals’ roles in human lives, functionalist thinkers do not attend to animal worlds. Animal worlds are instead subsumed into human worlds through human need (of one sort or another). A primary commonality shared by these thinkers is that animals are material resources for human use and consumption. Lévi-Strauss (1963) critiques this line of reasoning, arguing that animals are not simply just “good to eat” but are also “good to think with” (89). For Lévi-Strauss, animals serve as conceptual objects for understanding how fundamental structures of the human mind influence cultural forms. He explores the relationship between animals (and plants) and humans through totemism (Lévi-Strauss 1963). Any particular group of people’s relationship to any particular animal is irrelevant to understanding the human mind as Lévi-Strauss argues that the animal is itself arbitrary.   

Lévi-Strauss draws a sharp distinction between nature and culture, animal and human as these concepts are set into binary oppositions. Binary oppositions are crucial to his structuralism, as his interest was in uncovering the universal structures of the human mind (Lévi-Strauss 1955). While Lévi-Strauss’s critique of purely functionalist understandings of human-animal relations is well-founded, he abandons much of the particularity found in functionalist ethnographies. While the functionalists miss much of the dynamics of particular human-animal relations, they can still speak to particular instances in which human and animal lives intertwine. Lévi-Strauss critiques the overly utilitarian read of human-animal relations but gets farther away from exploring animal worlds. Nevertheless, he is also unable to escape his assumptions that nature and culture/humans and animals are in juxtaposition.  

Douglas (1957) provides another alternative to functionalist understandings of human-animal relations by exploring the symbolic meaning that animals come to have in human cultures. The particular cultural conceptions that a group has to order the world factors into the ways in which animals come to have meaning and are thus treated. For instance, the Lele distinguish humans from animals by an appeal to character traits: “humans are mannerly” and “animals satisfy their natural appetites uncontrolled” (Douglas 1957: 47). Douglas pays special attention to the Lele understanding of pangolins as they violate common assumptions about the division between humans and animals. Lele understand pangolin behaviors through their own cultural idiom as they does not behave like other animals (e.g., it does not run away, its reproductive behavior) and because of its unique anatomy (e.g., scales), pangolins are understood as distinct from other beings. Furthermore, due to the pangolin’s unique characteristics, they shape the ordering of Lele social structure (i.e., the pangolin cult). While Douglas does not explicitly explore how pangolins themselves shape Lele-animal relations, the attitude in the text is evident.

Attending to the symbolic relationships that particular animals have to particular people resolves some of the abstraction that occurs in Lévi-Strauss’s treatment of animals in his work. As Douglas (1957) illustrates, attending to the specificities of animals is informative for understanding the meanings they come to have for particular peoples. However, while Douglas brings this human-animal relation back into view, the abstraction that follows from symbolic analysis further obscures other aspects of the relationship. This issue is evident across much of symbolic anthropology where animals come into play. For example, Geertz’s (1972) attention to roosters in Balinese cockfighting as means for Balinese men to play out masculinity in a public spectacle treats the roosters as objects through which human sociality is enacted while also neglecting how the roosters experience and shape the practice. However, thick description—a process for engaging contextual detail with rigor—opens possibilities for exploring animal worlds through an attentiveness to all participants, human and otherwise (Geertz 1973).      

In the canonical anthropological literature discussed above, there is very little insight or investigation into animal worlds. The scholars are concerned with explicating human worlds and, as such, animal worlds are incidental at best. These human-centered approaches reflect underlying human exceptionalism that locates humans in a separate and dominant domain to other animals due to perceived differences in cognition and one particular understanding of culture. Assumptions about the nature of human-animal relations and adherence to nature/culture binaries that still serve as a foundation for much thought on the subject certainly shaped the attention given to animals. To echo Levi-Strauss (1963: 89), anthropologists saw animals as being “good to eat” and “good to think” but not as agentive beings worthy of being subjects of anthropological inquiry.

However, the erosion of anthropological approaches that hold animals as auxiliary to humans occurred throughout the middle-late 20th century set the stage for new insights into animal worlds previously neglected. For example, Bateson’s (1972) metalogues “Why a Swan?” and “What is an Instinct?” upturn assumptions about our understanding of animals. In “Why a Swan?” Bateson discusses the ballet Swan Lake with his daughter, and they determine that the dancer is “sort of” a bird and “sort of” a human. The postures adopted by the dancer blurs the boundaries between human and animal. “What is an Instinct?” calls into question our understanding of animal behavior as attributing some behavioral pattern to instincts creates a “black box” that requires no further investigation. As such, animal worlds are made inaccessible by the concepts that are brought to bear on them.

Bateson blurs conceptual boundaries as what is human and animal becomes unclear by practicing what Deleuze (1986) later call becoming-animal “where all forms come undone” (13). Bulmer (1967)  further troubles Western scientific taxonomic categorization by describing a classificatory system used by the Karam—a group who lives in the Kaironk Valley in New Guinea—for interfacing with the other beings that occupy the forest. In comparison, Western science recognizes cassowaries as birds based on their evolutionary relationships; the Karam key in on other characteristics that place cassowaries into a distinct category apart from the birds, affecting their relationship with cassowaries. Thus, the Karam provide an alternative understanding of taxonomy that draws attention to animals in a different way that does not operate on the self-contained notion of biological species (as an effect of evolutionary history: diachronic) and instead focuses on a relational conception of taxonomy (in relation to humans and other beings: synchronic). Bulmer (1967) reflects an insight that Douglas (1957) illustrates: allowing local categories and understandings into the text troubles the underlying assumptions the researcher brings to the study. The unsettling that this creates provides new avenues into understanding animal worlds. Animal worlds are no longer merely subsets of human worlds, at the behest of human interests. Although not explicitly addressed, there are, to some degree, hints at how other beings shape human-animal relations. In contrast, multispecies participation is nearly or wholly absent in texts from other approaches discussed above.

Before the 1980s, seeds were planted for new ways of attending to animals in anthropological research. For instance, while not as mainstream as the canonical works discussed above, Ingold’s (1978; 1974) early work with reindeer and Laplanders provides rich accounts of human-animal relations absent in many other texts. In addition, other anthropologists that do not explicitly engage with animals provide vital insights into challenging the underlying frameworks that relegate animals to the margins. For example, challenges to the naturalness of taken-for-granted categories and phenomena provide tools for thinking about the nature of human-animal divides (Ortner 1972; Douglas 1972; Strathern 1979) and attending to the local ways of knowing, relating, and categorizing (Deloria 1978; Berlin, Breedlove, and Raven 1973; Strathern 1969).

Other disciplines were also grappling with ontological and epistemological issues. For example, early 20th-century biologist von Uexküll (2013) challenged anthropocentric notions of perception and knowing. Similarly, von Uexküll’s (2013) concept umwelt—the perceptual world in which an organism operates as a subject—informed phenomenology (Merleau-Ponty 1962), which challenged taken-for-granted epistemological assumptions; knowing was resituated into the bodies of sensing beings instead of being a purely mental phenomenon (Merleau-Ponty 1962). In addition, feminist theory challenged dominant narratives of the objectivity of (masculine) knowledge production and objectivity in practice (Harding 1975; Smith 1974; Kuhn 1962) and the naturalness of binary thinking (Haraway 1978). Many of the approaches that scholars advocated coalesced in the 1980s, which is why I decided to impose a boundary here.

Animals in Anthropology Since the Eighties   

Animals figured into anthropological literature significantly throughout its history. However, as humans were the central focus of early anthropological inquiry, animals were relegated to the margins. Moreover, even in cases where animals are central to the texts (e.g., Evans-Pritchard and the Nuer; Geertz and Balinese cockfighting), they were treated as objects on which humans acted, without the ability to act on their own. As such, animal worlds were subsumed into human worlds and so remained invisible for the most part. However, many of the ideas and approaches leading into the late 20th century primed the discipline to rethink the more-than-human world within anthropology. Furthermore, animal agency, subjectivity, and alternative frameworks for understanding the world all contributed to dramatic shifts in academic understandings of animals that follow.

Literature in anthropology and adjacent fields explored animals with a new understanding and incorporated a broader conceptual toolset for engaging questions of alterity and belonging, at least in academia. The critiques of scholarship that marginalizes animals and their being are expressed in Midgley’s (1983) treatise of the “animal question” (7). The distinct delineation between humans and animals and an overemphasis on reason obscure the value of animals and thus animal rights. Midgley argues that conceptions of animals and questions of animal rights are intimately tied to questions of sexism, racism, and the “humanity” of other-than-human beings. Furthermore, animals are sensing, feeling beings that are worthy of respect and belong to our broad “mixed communities” (Midgley 1983: 112-124).

Anthropology, too, has taken up the “animal question” as well. For example, Ingold (1988) troubles both human-animal distinctions’ naturalness and heuristic value and argues that humans are not substantially different from the other animals. Of particular interest is his discussion of “thinking, feeling, and intending” (95). If we acknowledge animals as thinking, feeling, and intending beings, our attention to them is changed. They cannot be mere objects in human activity because they also participate in and shape worlds of their own.

This understanding of animals is the foundation for the “animal turn” in academia. What has been (rightly or wrongly) labeled the animal turn refers to a general pattern of resituating animals in academic work (Weil 2012). Animal studies in the wake of the animal turn challenge us to think with and across difference and make earnest attempts to know and let ourselves be known (Weil 2012: 6-7). Animals thus are meaningful subjects in stories of their own that become entangled with others (living and otherwise). Works that entangle human-animal histories (Ritvo 1987), power dynamics (Faier and Rofel 2014; Berger 1980; Haraway 1989), and what it means to be human (Latour 1993; Haraway 1991) led the way for a proliferation of research exploring animal worlds and their articulations with others.

Outside of animal studies, Deleuze and Guatarri (1987) have made a profound impact with their concepts of assemblages. Assemblages are dynamic, heterogeneous interrelationships at are neither fixed nor stable. Assemblages undergo territorialization, deterritorialization, and reterritorialization as bodies enter and exit the relationship. This constant flow results in all participants having agentive effects on the overall relationship. As such, they are always in the process of being made and unmade; they are always in a state of becoming. Humans form assemblages with other kinds of beings, which are constantly being negotiated through the participants’ actions (Tsing 2012). Participation in multiplicitous assemblages shapes identity. Identity itself is formed in relation to others (Deleuze and Guatarri 1987: 8). Furthermore, Deleuze and Guatarri (1987) hope to free humans from the confines of language that impose human-animal distinctions and obscure other articulations of such relations. They are, in effect, deterritorializing human “to become aware of the animal otherness within the human” (Weil 2012).

Deterritorialization is not reserved for rethinking humans and can be equally applied to deconstructing other taken-for-granted notions used to evaluate human-animal relations. For instance, while useful for certain analyses, the species concept obscures other arrangements that arise in heterogeneous multibeing configurations. Ogden (2018) challenges the usefulness of the species concept as a universal unit of analysis by pointing to diversity overlooked in Tierra del Fuego by viewing beavers as homogenous singular species. The beaver assemblage in Tierra del Fuego is constituted of lenga trees, the flows of rivers, histories of settler colonialism, conservationists, and multinational corporations. To view these beavers in the same light as beavers in their historical range is to obfuscate the possible effects they have on the ecosystem. As an abstracted species, “the beaver” is described in certain universalizing terms. The beaver in a particular place at a particular time is only vaguely reminiscent of the beaver as a species because its effects and entanglements are unique to its particular context.

Ogden (2018) demonstrates the confusion created through homogenizing categories that neglect the diversity that occurs within a category such as “beaver.” In The Mushroom at the End of The World (2015), Tsing demonstrates another issue that arises from relying too heavily on the species concept: ambiguity. Matsutake mushrooms—the main subjects of the text—form mycorrhizal assemblages with other species by making water and nutrients available to the plants with which they live. Matsutake cannot grow except in the presence of specific kinds of trees and are bound together in a relationship that blurs the boundaries between one and the other. The trees and fungi mutually rely on one another for their existence.

While the animal turn—and associated turns (e.g., ontological turn, affective turn)—represent shifts in the academic conceptualization of more-than-human relations, these understandings have long been present in Indigenous understandings (Tallbear 2011). However, the animal turn and the species concept miss how other lively (although not always living) agents shape assemblages. Expanding multispecies ethnography—one popular approach to animal studies—into multi-being ethnography provides fruitful insights into the dynamics of diverse assemblages (Ogden, Hall, and Tanita 2013). “Multispecies ethnography is a project that seeks to understand the world as materially real, partially knowable, multicultured and multinatured, magical, and emergent through the contingent relations of multiple beings and entities” (Ogden, Hall, and Tanita 2013: 6).

Nadasdy (2007) provides an example of how human, animal, plant, and other lives articulate as “sentient and intelligent persons” (29) by attending to local conceptions of the participants within particular assemblages as they understand the relations. Through these interactions, hunters “incur reciprocal obligations” (27; 38-39) with those that they hunt. A richer understanding of the relationship is revealed by taking seriously what local collaborators express, using the frameworks that make the relations meaningful to those involved. As Tallbear (2011) expresses in response to Nadasday (2007), “animal studies or the rhetoric of human/non-human may be an inadequate construction for capturing relations between beings and across cultures…” (4). Nadasdy adopts this posture, to a degree, which elucidates other subtleties of the relationship that go unseen using traditional Western human/animal, nature/culture frameworks. However, animals are understood within the frameworks of Nadasdy’s collaborators and not as agentive beings on their own.

While Nadasdy (2007) explores animal worlds through the frameworks of his non-Western collaborators, Kohn (2013) attempts to elucidate animal worlds by exploring the semiotic nature of more-than-human relations. To do so, Kohn (2013) introduces the “ecology of selves” (16). “Ecology” emphasizes the relational dynamics of living and perceiving beings of interest to Kohn. Thus, Kohn argues that landscapes are populated by many selves (human and non-human) that perceive and engage in semiotic communication within and across ontological differences. Kohn’s “anthropology beyond the human” opens communication up to other non-linguistic (non-symbolic) forms that are attended to in moments of encounter. Kohn further emphasizes the materiality of such encounters and avoids reducing other-than-human beings to mere symbolic representations while also rejecting utilitarian accounts of human-animal relations. Furthermore, he avoids blind abstraction as he describes specific encounters that illustrate the semiotic nature of multispecies encounters. However, while there are glimpses of animal (and plant) worlds throughout the text, they are often only expressed through human interpretations. Very little of the animals themselves come through, and as Descola (2014) writes, “we have to rely on what the anthropologist says the Runa say about non-human semiosis” (272). Thus, instead of exploring animal worlds, Kohn adopts another human (Runa) framework to think about animals. Moreover, the “ecology of selves,” while relational by definition, does not leave sufficient room for non-living or non-corporeal entities to participate in the assemblage.

Object-oriented ontology decenters the human in assemblages in ways that Kohn does not attend to and holds that all objects—sensuous and otherwise—shape the reality of all things in association (Harman 2018). Furthermore, objects come to know those with whom they share assemblages through cause and effect. Morton (2013; 2010) expands on this idea to include transcendental objects (hyperobjects) that interpenetrate others across space and time (e.g., climate change). Thus, there is a sense of symmetry between things for object-oriented ontology that permits explorations of other sets of relations extending beyond the human and beyond sensuous beings. However, a shortcoming that undermines its usefulness for exploring animal worlds is reifying objects. For object-oriented ontology, an object’s being is a priori; it exists as an entity before its relations to others. This approach contradicts other notions that hold things as coming into being through their relations, in a perpetual state of becoming-with (Haraway 2016; Deleuze and Guatarri 1987). Moreover, object-oriented ontology fails to acknowledge the permeability and impermanence of things as they are being made and remade within assemblages. As Barad (2012) writes, “phenomena-in-their-becoming, where becoming is not tied to a temporality of futurity, but rather is a radically open relatingness of the world worlding itself” (148). For Barad, objects and phenomena do not precede their relations but are emergent from their entanglements.

Object-oriented ontology neglects that beings emerge out of their associations and do not exist a priori. While this conceptualization is a problem for exploring animal worlds, phenomenological and affective approaches provide an opportunity to investigate moments in which more-than-human worlds intersect. These approaches focus on moments of intimate encounter (Abram 2012; Merleau-Ponty 2012) and the resulting felt effects (affect) (Garcia 2019; Archambault 2016; Parreñas 2012; Deleuze and Guatarri 1987). For example, Govindrajan (2018) demonstrates the richness of attending to the intimacy of multispecies relationships while not erasing the ontological boundaries between species. According to Govindrjan, the nature of multispecies relations is shaped by ontological distance and advocates for attending to “not only to how interspecies connection can take different forms depending on the kind of non-human animal that is engaged but also to understandings and experiences of what it means to live a life in relation to another” based on many factors (29). Furthermore, Govindrajan moves from sites on intimate relations between individuals to relations between classes of humans and animals. Doing so elucidates the many experiences of those involved in the relations of interest and their affective consequences that co-shape participants’ lives (Maurstad, Davis, and Cowles 2013).

Phenomenological and affective approaches are powerful tools for understanding the dynamics of certain human-animal relations but are designed to explore an intimate level of analysis. However, multispecies researchers are not confined to merely small-scale, intimate encounters. The Mushroom at the End of the World (Tsing 2012) exemplifies a multi-scaled, multi-sited multispecies ethnography. Tsing explores the intimacy that matsutake mushrooms have with their pickers, host trees, and nematodes while also scaling up to situate them within global supply chains, American discourses on freedom, and refugees. Moreover, Tsing (2012) demonstrates that decentering humans in ethnographic writing can elucidate further relationships that might be neglected otherwise (Pacini-Ketchabaw, Taylor, and Blaise 2016). Since assemblages “coalesce, change, and dissolve” (Tsing 2012: 158) and “are performances of livability” (157-158), by centering matsutake mushrooms Tsing (2012) can explore many relations in which matsutake participates: with trees, pickers, buyers, nematodes, soils, disturbance, climate change, human practice, in local and global markets, and interpersonal relations. These relations, in turn, reveal subsequent relations that arise as assemblages are constituted and reconstituted. Thus, Tsing richly explores matsutake worlds while also connecting them to human worlds in generative and sometimes surprising ways.

Concluding Thoughts

In this paper, I have not provided a comprehensive account of the many roles animals have played in anthropological literature. Instead, I have attempted to highlight some common ways animals have found their way into anthropological texts and the approaches that have modified anthropological attentiveness to more-than-human worlds. While animals have always been a part of the anthropological literature, they have not always been treated symmetrically, like whole beings with their own agency. However, anthropological research is beginning to rethink animals and consider them as worthy subjects in anthropological story-telling. Anthropology has long written of animals but too often relegated them to the margins of human stories. Multispecies ethnography and associated approaches strive to remedy this sleight. Moreover, multispecies remediation of this sort is a necessary step for “staying with the trouble” as humans and other beings face a myriad of ecological disasters (Haraway 2016). Haraway (2016) suggests that we become-with and make-with other beings with which we are entangled as our fates are inextricably tied together as “embodied knots of multispecies time” (Rose 2012: 136).

While “assemblage” has been the metaphor that has gotten most traction when conceptualizing multi-being groupings, I prefer the metaphor of entanglement (Haraway 2016). There is a level of passivity implied by “assemblage” that undermines dynamic relationality in which we view “humans and non-human as coparticipants in meaningful worlding” (Govindrajan 2018:20). In multispecies/multi-being entanglements, threads can be traced to uncover the points where the rhizomes intersect with other threads (Deleuze and Guatarri 1987). Thinking of multispecies relations as entangled enables researchers to attend to the messy indeterminancy of dynamic becomings-with (Haraway 2016).

My work on human-javelina relations in Texas will explore the dynamics of the relationship across multiple levels, at sites of intimate encounters, histories of entanglement, divergence, and ambiguity. As such, phenomenological and affective approaches will allow me to explore the experiences of javelinas and humans in intimate encounters (Abram 2012). In addition, these approaches will provide me with tools for exploring javelina worlds by considering their perceptual modalities and experiences of negotiating encounters across ontological difference (Govindrajan 2018; Kohn 2013). Moreover, practicing, in earnest, “arts of noticing” (Tsing 2012)—becoming embedded in the sensorial ongoings that human-javelina relations bring into being—makes javelina worlds more accessible in creative ways. I will also consider how moments of intimate encounter articulates with more extensive cultural and structural dynamics. The presence of feral hogs (Sus scrofa), their classification as game species, the destruction of pear cactus (Domico 2018) and mountain cedar (McGreevy 2021), and divergent evolutionary histories all shape human-javelina relations across multiple levels. Tsing (2012) provides a productive model for exploring the various levels in which the relation plays out.  

I have selected a specific species as my entry point in understanding a complex set of shifting relations. However, as discussed above, confining oneself to species-thinking can obscure other dynamics which unfold as relations are reconstituted around other identities (e.g., native/invasive: Helmreich 2005). Tsing (2012) states that “for living things, species identities are a place to begin, but they are not enough: ways of being are emergent effects of encounters” (23). Just as the mushroom’s species identity dissolves under scrutiny in relation to other beings, the presence of feral hogs in Texas obscures javelinas. Letting go of the rigidity that comes with homogenous and static categories will (hopefully) liberate me to explore other ways javelinas and humans are made through their encounters.


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