Skip to main content

The Work of Interspecies Ethnography

Published onAug 16, 2023
The Work of Interspecies Ethnography

Radhika Govindrajan’s Animal Intimacies is an exploration of the entanglement of lives of human and non-human animals in rural Uttarakhand, India. Govindrajan uses the concept of relatedness to define these entanglements, leading her to focus on the affective labor of building and embodying relations between her human interlocutors and the non-human animals they live with or around. In Animal Intimacies, both human and non-human animals are acknowledged as “persons whose inner lives and affective states are critically shaped by their experience of life in a world they inhabit in relation to a host of others” (p. 20), resulting in a very rich ethnography in which both Govindrajan’s human interlocutors and their non-human family members, neighbors, and foes are taken seriously as ethnographic subjects.

Taking non-humans seriously as ethnographic subjects is a task in which post-human or more-than-human anthropology has a very mixed record on. Govindrajan best sums up her approach to this task when she writes that “a productive and open anthropomorphism” – as she calls her approach – “that begins with the awareness that not all chasms are bridgeable can challenge our hubris about the distinctiveness of human animals” (p. 181). The author’s direct experiences with non-human animals, as well as the contents of her human interlocutors’ relatedness with non-human animals, are often reflected upon. Do the goats consent to die (ch. 2)? Do the lowland monkeys indeed choose to obtain their food differently from pahari monkeys of the same species even when put in the same habitat (ch. 4)?

Govindrajan’s reflexive approach allows her to avoid two important pitfalls. On one hand, Govindrajan does not stop at talking to her human interlocutors about their interspecies relations. Instead, she recognizes that it is possible for an ethnographer to observe that a cow is in distress over a recent traumatic event (ch. 1), and that monkeys (ch. 4) and pigs (ch. 5) have preferences with regards to what and how to eat; or to build relations herself with the non-human animals residing in her fieldsite, whether it is empathizing with a cow (ch. 1), becoming a companion of a dog (Epilogue), or fearing being bitten by a monkey (ch. 4).

But on the other hand, Govindrajan does not go further than possible in this direction. Anthropomorphism as a method for more-than-human ethnography, as is pointed out in the Epilogue (p. 181), relies on taking our instincts as a tool of learning about our non-human ethnographic subjects, and it can only go as far as we are able to understand the instincts of other species in relation to ours. To do otherwise would be to posit ethnographer’s instincts as superior, rather than to take the non-human animals seriously as subjects. Govindrajan uses anthropomorphism as a method carefully, and it is a part of the tapestry of other materials – archival and news sources, narratives of the human interlocutors, studies of non-human species by biologists and biological anthropologists – which tell us various perspectives on how the multispeices worlds presented in the book got built.

Govindrajan’s approach to ethnographic work with non-human animals is in an important part relying on the fact that we are also animals, and the certain level of mutual understanding resulting from it. Such approach is a significant contribution to the anthropological study of human-animal multispecies worlds. The perhaps obvious broader question is if a similarly methodologically responsible approach would be possible in a different anthropological study, one focusing on non-animal parts of more-than-human assemblages. Would our instincts still be trustworthy as a method? Would studies of botanists or material scientists still be as meaningful ethnographic material as ethological studies are for Govindrajan? Would multimodal ethnographies help by transmitting more all-encompassing experience of the field setting/subjects, or would they simply let the audience be failed by their own instincts instead of ethnographer’s?

Author Biography

Aleksandar Kostić is a Graduate Student in the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University. His research is on biodiversity conservation in postsocialist Kyrgyzstan. His main foci are on how the interactions of governmental agencies, international NGOs, and local activists redefine the scope and the meaning of the state; and on walnuts and snow leopards influencing past and present understandings of mountain ecosystems of Kyrgyzstan.

Billie JOllie:

Writing culture in the suika game pc anthropocene entails attending to the remaking of anthropos as well as its companion and stranger species on planet Earth.