“Ethnography among the Multispecies” – Lab Report

On 1 October 2021, the GAA WG “Umweltethnologie” invited participants to present their multispecies projects and discuss methodological and representational challenges in engaging with various non-human actors and entities.

In the context of the 2021 GAA virtual conference “Worlds. Zones. Atmospheres. Seismographies of the Anthropocene” the working group Umweltethnologie – represented by the convenors Jeanine Dağyeli (University of Vienna and Austrian Academy of Sciences), Sandro Simon (University of Cologne) and Maike Melles (Goethe University Frankfurt) –invited participants to explore the potentials and challenges of more-than-human anthropology during the lab “Ethnography among the Multispecies”.

Case studies: What does ‘non-human’ mean?

The lab was opened by the presentations of six participants who introduced their multispecies research projects, among which are a proposal on the role of small front gardens in the home-making of Syrian and Turkish migrants in Germany, a doctoral research on the affective dynamics between humans and plants in the Botanic Garden of Berlin, another on multispecies relations in an Amazonian forest and the forest as a subject of rights, a postdoctoral project on animal communicators as interpreters in multispecies relations, reflections on the unrecognised potential of digital ethnography in approaching invisible and otherwise non-encounterable species such as viruses and parasites, and, finally, shared epistemologies of a humandog collective in urban Montenegro. In an exchange over follow-up questions to the ethnographic case presentations, reflections are raised on whether the terms ‘non-human’ and ‘species’ are actually apt since they suggest a lack (of humanness) and do not, respectively, capture all kinds of beings but leave out spiritual or non-animate beings.

Two small-group discussion dealt with methodological and representational aspects. In the small group on representation, two further case studies are discussed, first that of an aquaponic farm and how to represent the ‘whole process’, drawing on the concept of metabolism, which may either be understood in a Marxian way as controlled by human actions or as an empirical heuristic with a more organic connotation. The other case study focuses on a less classic case of multispecies studies: humanoid robots in the context of sports game simulations. The project’s aim is to demystify robots and carve out their status as non-human, non-living objects – while taking into account the many descriptions of humanoid robots in human-like terms, as can be found in sci-fi literature. The two case studies converge on questions about the reliance of anthropological research on technological mediation and scientific knowledge, given that measurements and stress testing are often the only approaches to the behaviour of fish shoals. This together with the inexorable trend of datafication is an unpleasant finding in view of the divergence of the different epistemologies in natural science and social or cultural anthropology.

Methodological perspectives

In the small group on methodological questions of multispecies studies the use of plant names in the two garden projects are discussed: employees in the botanic garden of Berlin, for instance, sometimes use common names and sometimes the botanic terms to refer to the more than 20,000 different plant species. Either way, the gardeners claim that they know the plant, and how to take care of it. Applying this insight to the project on migrants’ home-making through small front gardens in Germany, it could make sense to investigate the names used to designate the plants, whether they are the Arabic, Turkish or German names, and which meanings their use implies. A major finding from the project on Intuitive Interspecies Communication (IIC) is that contrary to what the name suggests, interspecies communication is not intuitive in the way that it just comes naturally but needs to be learned and trained. Although some people might find it easier than others at the beginning, intuitive animal communication can be learned by anybody and also be applied to plants (see, for example, the works of anthropologist Sarah Abbott, University of Regina). In the case of the shared fieldwork of the humandog collective the research was sometimes actually guided by the dog which encountered stray dogs and interacted with them, while the anthropologist and owner of the dog stayed in the background. In this way, they discovered corners and parts of the city the researcher alone wouldn’t have noticed. This way of doing fieldwork also encouraged conversations with the people nearby, who started to share their views on the stray dogs.

Further ideas on multispecies methodology focus on two strands: firstly, those methods which enable collaborative ethnography with other human participants with the aim of integrating their perceptions of the interspecies relations they are part of, as in the front garden project which is planned to include a workshop with the research participants in which they will be asked to draw their gardens with watercolour. Many of the small group members have experienced good results with the sharing of photographs with their research partners, e.g. via social media, asking them to send them their pictures while at the same time sharing their own pictures with their research participants. The second strand of novel methods revolves around approaching other species for doing more-than-human ethnography: a special interest and challenge is perceived in the development of methods regarding smell and touch in the case of sensual encounters. How can we grasp and (re)present these sensations in other ways than verbally or visually?

Final discussions

In the plenary, the increasing reliance on technology and the question of whom and what to in- or exclude in multispecies studies are shared concerns. One member of the methodology discussion group raises the question what it means if we cannot perceive beings in immediate encounters; another participant responds that for him it comes down to the perspective one adopts, guided by the other species: most of the time that he was doing multispecies ethnography, the other species were not even ‘there’, or at least couldn’t be seen, for example, during hunting and fishing. However, one could follow and learn from the human research partners and regard the environment, ‘everything around the other species’, through their eyes. Empathy here means to ‘try to imagine’, or, for example, ‘to try to think like a fish’, so that the whole surroundings turn into an ‘extended fish’, granted that this may be more difficult to realise in the case of domesticated animals. It may also be useful to look out for tracesof the other species, to enhance the knowledge about their behaviour and the extension of one’s sensitivity towards the more indirect appearance of beings. In this context, the question of the role of matter in multispecies ethnography arises, particularly in the case of beings without metabolism.

Another issue that was raised during the plenary discussion is that of implications for feelings about killing an animal, which in some cases may be inhibited because of an intimacy that develops particularly in the context of domesticated species, while in other instances this sentiment is actually the indispensable precondition for the ‘right to kill’. After the participants agree that the only way to encounter nonhuman species is actually by tracing, one participant puts up for discussion whether this is really completely different in the case of ‘human-only’ settings, where, after all, many aspects of subjectivity and personality, too, remain hidden from the anthropologist, calling for elements of empathy, imagination, speculation or experimentation in our work.