ASA15: Symbiotic anthropologies: theoretical commensalities and methodological mutualisms

Collaboration and partnership in human-animal communities: reconsidering ways of learning and communication
Location Room 7
Date and Start Time 14 April, 2015 at 09:15
Sessions 4


  • Sara Asu Schroer (University of Aberdeen) email
  • Jan Peter Laurens Loovers (University of Aberdeen) email

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Short Abstract

In this panel we invite contributors to critically engage with notions of collaboration and partnership in human-animal relationships. We aim to discuss and compare these topics through a variety of themes from different ethnographic contexts.

Long Abstract

In this panel we invite speakers to contribute papers stemming from fieldwork within human-animal communities that critically engage with notions of collaboration and partnership. We take as starting point that animals are active participants in the formation of mutual relationships with humans. Doing so may allow us to rethink domestication by investigating the complexity of relationships that becomes evident when considering collaborative practices and the notion of human-animal partnership. Part of such examination could be a focus on the place and use of tools, architecture, and artefacts in such relationships. It could also be a consideration of questions of learning, shared knowledge and communication. Investigations may consider 'working animals', for instance, in husbandry, herding and hunting. Other possibilities might be related to practices of shamanism, narratives of 'mythical' animals, or in terms of human-animal relationships not conventionally included in domestication literature. Contributions to this panel may engage with these aspects but should not be limited to them.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Symbiotic Ethnographers: Fieldwork with a Dog as a Research Assistant

Author: Karen Lane (University of St Andrews)  email

Short Abstract

I have developed a fieldwork method working with my dog as a way to engage with people. Together, we elicit information that would be unavailable to an anthropologist working alone. The dog offers a liminal, creative ambiguity that opens up a space for engagement.

Long Abstract

My research seeks out muted narratives that struggle to be heard in the contested city of Belfast. My dog, Torridon, accompanies me, and together we form an ethnographic team. Torridon vastly increases the random-stranger-to-anthropologist encounter ratio; people engage with her when we walk the city streets and surrounding hills of Belfast. She illustrates Horowitz's claim that 'dogs are anthropologists among us' (2009:163) , as she closely observes human behaviour and participates in human activity. Meanwhile, I have learnt to pay close attention to her relationship with humans to further my anthropological inquiries. Torridon communicates in a way that is not available to me (sniffing, tail-wagging, enthusiastic greeting etc.), but from which I benefit when people respond positively to this canine intervention. I argue that the relationship between dog and stranger is simultaneously simple and complex: through merely greeting the dog, physiological and social information is exchanged that disregards human social and cultural categories. My fieldwork data demonstrates our ethnographic symbiosis: working together, Torridon and I sometimes elicit stories that otherwise would not be told, and we participate in encounters that would not happen, if I were working alone. I propose that in a city where the act of ascribing an ethno-religious identity to the other is a deeply ingrained (and often subconscious) act, the dog's liminal position provides a creative ambiguity that opens up a space for engagement.

Science with sentience: recognising animals as whole expressive beings in studies of animal welfare

Author: Francoise Wemelsfelder (SRUC)  email

Short Abstract

This paper will critically consider the mechanistic language routinely used in scientific models of animal sentience and welfare, and present research supporting the value and validity of qualitative appraisals of animals as whole expressive beings.

Long Abstract

There are many ways in which human societies use animals for their own benefit, and are likely to cause animals discomfort and suffering. Animal welfare science is a rapidly growing field of study focused on how animals experience their world, and how we can improve their lives. A complicating factor in this work, however, is that scientists routinely use a mechanistic language which objectifies experience as a private 'internal mental state' that cannot be addressed or understood directly. Such a conception keeps alive debates of whether or not animals are capable of 'having feelings' at all, and delays effective action. This paper will argue that to resolve this impasse, scientists must recognise the primacy of our relationship with animals as whole sentient beings, with whom communication is possible, and whose demeanour has immediate psychological meaning - an expressive 'body language' that speaks to us. The paper will summarise several years of animal research in support of this stance, based upon development of a methodology called 'Qualitative Behaviour Assessment (QBA). QBA research has shown that judging animal expressivity can be a valuable part of scientific assessments of animal welfare, providing indispensable insight on an animal's perspective. The paper will consider these outcomes in context of the anthropological literature on human-animal communication, and conclude with some points for discussion.

Therianthropy; the integration of animal and human identities

Authors: Helen Clegg (The University of Northampton)  email
Elizabeth Roxburgh (University of Northampton)  email

Short Abstract

Therianthropy is the belief that one is part non-human animal. I will present results from 3 studies considering therian identity, mental health, and altered states of consciousness. Cognitive differences and human interactions with other animals may account for the ontogeny of therianthropy.

Long Abstract

Therianthropy is the belief that one is part non-human animal. The theriotypes experienced traverse all species and can be extinct or extant. Opinions vary in the academic literature as to whether it is a mental illness or a spiritual belief. However in the West it is almost always placed within the psychiatric arena. Nevertheless, a growing online community of therians, many of whom appear to be functioning well, suggest that this is a poorly understood phenomenon. I will present results from 3 research studies considering the identity, mental health and well-being, and the experience of phantom limbs and mental shifts within the therian community. A combination of cognitive differences, such as higher levels of schizotypy and autism, along with encounters with non-human animals, and the responses of humans to other animals, and therianthropy itself, may impact on the ontogeny of therian identity. Therians interpret their experience using a variety of explanations; spiritual, biological and psychological, and as such they develop a more holistic interpretation of their experiences than the academic literature currently allows. Since our findings suggest that any differences in mental health between therians and non-therians is small we therefore call for the academic community to also move away from pathologisation and towards a more complete and complex understanding of therianthropy.

The animal strength as means of the police force. Work and fabrication of the patrol dogs of the national police in France.

Author: Sébastien Mouret (INRA)  email

Short Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to clarify how actors use the concept of work to qualify the participation of animals in human activities, and to redefine the boundaries between the humanity and animality. We will take the case, in France, of the work of the national police dogs

Long Abstract

Into the french national police, the category of « patrol dog » is defined by the policemen from the actual work that they do with their animals. The use of the concept of work by these actors is part of a dogs qualification process that has a normative dimension. Patrol dogs are defined as some « dogs at work » in situations where the police forces are deployed in public space. Animals must satisfy the normative requirements, based on practical rules of the expression of their strength and their aggressiveness. These rules define a cop frame, in the sense that E. Goffman gives the frame concept, produced by a training process that transforms the previous social frames of animals, based on docility. The mobilization of the cop frame by animals, in situations of police work, is both situated, informed, coordinated and evaluated. She is not a mechanical application, but a concrete fulfillment of the rules made by animals depending on local circumstances. Conventionalized brackets - such as the release of the cop car - inform the dogs of the spatio-temporal opening and closing of the cop frame. The coordination at work reposes on a communication based primarily on a physical control of dog's aggressiveness by policemen. Finally, the work of the animals takes the form of a test of courage, a constitutive value of human collectives of work in the police, and shaped by public policies based on the security reason.

Mutual sustenance and animals as co-workers: water buffalo and women in the Indian Himalayas

Author: Heid Jerstad (University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

Who sustains who in the caring or exploitative mutual substance exchanges between water buffalo and women in the Indian Himalayas? This paper approaches this question through asking why the door to the animal house is left open in the hot season, despite the deadly risk from the leopard.

Long Abstract

Some argue that domestication is akin to slavery of animals. Others that it consists of a form of manipulation of human activity to tend to the needs of the species. This paper is a response which investigates experiences which may not resonate with either extreme, rather considering the two-way nature of this co-working. Women in Gau in the Indian Himalayas spend their days cutting and carrying fodder, fetching water, clearing out manure and tending to the illnesses of the water buffalo. The hard work is a sustenance, a caring for. 'They are like us, only they don't speak.' The buffalo process the grass and leaves inside their bodies into milk and manure, providing nutrition, cash and the fertility of the land. They are large-eyed beings, with preferences, vulnerabilities, and a strong association with a household. The woman and the buffalo exchange substances, their female bodies sometimes metaphors in the hierarchical household labour relationships. The women are not precisely there in order to sustain the buffalo, but on the other hand their life's work consists of sustaining the buffalo, whose body substances are more acceptable than those of low-caste neighbours and with whom amicability and intimacy promote a relationship almost of colleagues, in the larger project of sustaining life. This paper will look at these questions through asking why it is that the door is left open to the buffalo house during the hot season, despite the risk of the leopard killing the buffalo calf.

Elephant Companions: apprehending human-elephant working communities in Northeast India

Author: Nicolas Lainé (Collège de France)  email

Short Abstract

The paper outlines an integrated approach for understanding the working union of humans and elephants in Northeast India. Considering their different physical and cognitive capacities, it asks how their respective subjectivities can meaningfully engage with each other through forms of interspecies communication.

Long Abstract

The goal of this presentation is to propose an integrated approach to uncover a human/elephant working together. During labour activities a mahout and his elephant have to act and communicate according to their own physical and cognitive capacities. To what extent can we say that they engage their subjectivity?

Based on ethnographic data collected in Northeast India, I will focus on two different tasks performed by the Tai-Khamtis and their elephants in logging wood operations: digging the logs and charging the truck. In order to understand how human and elephants manage to collaborate, I will describe the modes of communications (vocal, tactile) called upon, trying to depict the way they perform their tasks in terms of engagement (individual and collective) and envisaging it as singular ways of sharing a common world.

Supported by my PhD results, the paper will finally stress the centrality of labour in human-elephant living together, and shows what working with elephants implies both for humans and pachyderms.

In the perspective of anthropology beyond the human, it aims at showing how within an interspecies community a common inter-intelligible world is built. The latter takes into consideration the abilities and cognitive capacities of each of them, their reciprocal influences, and the representations arising from specific contexts in which the cooperation is expressed.

Human and Reindeer: Co-survival strategies (Tofalars' and Evenks' reindeer herder communities in modern Siberia case-studies)

Author: Konstantin Klokov (Saint-Petersburg State University)  email

Short Abstract

Human and reindeer co-existence in Siberian rural communities study has shown differences in reindeer herding. Tofalars ride reindeer while hunting but they can replace them with horses. In contrast Evenks do not so much keep reindeer as reindeer support people giving them opportunity to live decently

Long Abstract

Up to the present there are many indigenous communities in Siberian taiga whose life is connected with reindeer herding. However, the role of reindeer in different communities is significantly different. The research carried out in three settlements: Alygzher in Irkutsk area (about 1000 people, 700 of which are Tofalars, keep 400 reindeer); Tiania in Yakutiya (500 people, 410 of which are Evenks, keep 2700 reindeer in 3 herds); Surinda in Evenkiya (470 people, 450 of which are Evenks, keep 3000 reindeer in 8 herds), has shown the difference in reindeer herding. It is not steady in all the three communities; the probability of its loss in the nearest future cannot be excluded.

Tofalars ride reindeer while hunting but they can easily replace them with horses. Tofalars living standards are high and they are almost independent of reindeer as well as their reindeer don't need much human management or care.

In Tiania reindeer herders are poor and constitute a separate social group supported by the local authorities as reindeer herding gives the community an opportunity to receive state subsidiaries.

In Surinda, Evenks live in extreme poverty and are highly alcohol addicted though reindeer herders don't turn to it while staying in taiga. Here people do not so much keep reindeer as reindeer support people giving them opportunity to live decently. The one who loses reindeer turns poverty-struck.

As interviews and observations showed different methods of reindeer herd management and caring are used in the three communities. The reindeer behavior also differs greatly.

Reindeer husbandry among the Eveny: from domestication to collaboration

Author: Nicolas Bureau (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Siences Sociales - Laboratoire d'Anthropologie Sociale)  email

Short Abstract

Among the Eveny, located in Yakutia (Russia), reindeers herding is based on different kind of tasks where reindeers play a crucial role. In addition to a specific herd’s structure, relationships between herders and specific animals seems to appear as forms of collaboration.

Long Abstract

Reindeer husbandry among the Eveny (Yakutia, Russia) includes many various techniques. By pointing out how the different kinds of techniques used by the herders are inherent to specific forms of communications and relationships, we will describe different types of relationships existing between herders and reindeers. In this way, the observation of techniques and the herd structure will lead us to the analysis of the dynamics and distances between herders and men, which includes the different categories distinguished by the herders. Then attention would be given to the specific forms of relationship among those categories and distances, from domestication to partnership and collaboration. To this purpose, various tasks such as reindeer riding, milking and research would be studied, in order to compare the different ways of acting with a reindeer.

Conflict, Peace, and Mutual Accomodation in Tlingit Human-Animal Relations

Author: Thomas Thornton (University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the complex nature of conflict, peace, and mutual accommodation between Tlingits of Southeast Alaska and keystone predator species, including brown bear and wolf.

Long Abstract

This paper examines the complex nature of conflict, peace, and mutual accommodation between Tlingits of Southeast Alaska and keystone predator species, including brown bear and wolf. These relationships include intermarriage, competition for resources and habitats, mutual tracking, stalking, killing and consumption, totemism, animism, and interspecies transformations. An indigenous theory of human-animal relations and conflict management is developed from these cases.

Reading Wolves

Author: Alexander Oehler (University of Northern British Columbia)  email

Short Abstract

This paper uses ethnographic and ethnohistorical data on human-wolf relations among Soiots of the Eastern Saian Mountains in southern Siberia to examine how wolf behavior leads to human perceptions and practices, while displaying how humans and wolves attempt to predict each others movements.

Long Abstract

This paper works with ethnographic and ethnohistorical data on human-wolf interactions among Soiots of the Eastern Saian Mountains in southern Siberia. It attempts to answer Lescureux's call to examine more closely how wolf behavior is affected by human practices, and "how the behavior of this predator exerts an effect on human perceptions and practices [...] during a history common to both species" (2006:466). With an overview of some of the ways in which human perceptions of wolves may have fluctuated in the Eastern Saian Mountains over the past 200 years, the focus lies on how contemporary wolf packs and human households learn from each other by reading each others movements within a shared landscape. The differing ways in which acquired knowledge of the other is transmitted to members of each community are examined. In the case of humans, the paper explores how wolf behavior is explained in religious and secular terms today. While working from an anthropological perspective, the paper incorporates observations of wolves by ethologists, arguing that an 'anthropology beyond the human' has much to gain from interdisciplinary sharing that will deepen our understanding of hybrid communities.

Keywords: Soiots, human-wolf relations, hybrid communities, mutual anticipation, social learning, southern Siberia

Talking to animals: human-animal communication as collaboration among Mongolian herders

Author: Charlotte Marchina (INALCO)  email

Short Abstract

This paper addresses some aspects of the human-animal oral communication as a mean of collaboration in daily pastoral activities in Mongolia. Yells, sounds, words and songs are used accordingly to the animals’ skills in order to affect their behaviour and involve them in collaborative activities.

Long Abstract

This paper addresses some aspects of the human-animal oral communication as a mean of collaboration in daily pastoral activities in Mongolia.

Mongolian herders practice extensive multispecies husbandry of horses, camels, cattle, sheep and goats. As the herds pasture in a large fenceless environment, herders often use their voice or audible signals to control their movements on the steppe. Yells, sounds, words and songs are used to affect animal behaviour and involve them in collaborative activities, both on the steppe and on the encampment.

Although human-animal communication is not restricted to verbal or acoustic signals, the analysis of oral communication forms between the herders and their animals shows a differentiation process among both species and individuals. The wide range of terms and yells used in various situations with different herds or specific animal individuals highlights a fine tuned knowledge of animal's perception and behaviour. More implicitly, it reveals Mongolian conceptions of animals' emotions and cognitive skills, varying with species and individuals within the species, and which the herders use to make of their animals efficient working partners. In a dynamic approach, this paper will also provide an analysis of how herders interpret the oral signals from their animals.

Welcoming migratory birds in urban parks. Mutual learning and adaptation.

Author: Marine Legrand (Muséum National D'histoire Naturelle)  email

Short Abstract

While biodiversity conservation policies start to affect urban areas, local authorities make landscape design choices aimed at cultivating an ecological heritage. Some landscapes tend to be shaped by the collaboration between parks managers and migratory birds, when the expected nesting of the birds becomes a source of political and economic benefit.

Long Abstract

The gradual switch from nature protection to biodiversity management, following the 1992 Rio conference, has led to a multiplication of public policies focused on ordinary wildlife management outside protected areas. In urban areas biodiversity conservation is integrated to urban planning, under the banner of the “urban ecology” movement. The introduction of biodiversity conservation in urban parks leads to new ways of engaging with natural entities in order to give them a place to stay in town alongside citydwellers. With the perspective of environmental anthropology, we conducted an ethnographic research in an urban park situated in the North East suburbs of the French capital, which welcomes more than two million visitors per year and also shelters rare bird species (wetland migratory herons, wood peckers, prey birds…). We based our study on participant observation and semi-directive interviews of workers, visitors, and scientific advisers of the local administration.

Focusing in the interactions between the actors involved in the technical choices concerning landscape management and the birds, we came to the conclusion that a form of collaboration takes place that imply mutual learning and adaptation: on the one hand, knowing the needs of the birds is necessary to give them good conditions to nest in order to “make” them come back them back every year, and thus guarantee institutional investment, and fight against real estate pressure. On the other hand, the birds learn from their urban experience and adapt to the context, showing behaviours that wouldn’t be expected from them in rural areas.

A proletariat of diggers. Worms as engineers in practices of soil construction

Author: Germain Meulemans (University of Aberdeen / FNRS-ULg)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the kind of collaboration at play in Ecologist’s attempts to construct soils by relying on worms as ‘ecosystem engineers’. It unpacks the contrasting and asymmetrical notions of ‘making’ that these entail, and considers how more symmetrical ones might impact our concept of collaboration.

Long Abstract

This paper seeks to attract attention to the capture of organisms and materials in certain kinds of human-animals collaborations. It studies the case of ecological engineers' (EI) practices of soil construction, in which large parts of the operatory chains are left to non-human organisms -namely worms. Ecological engineering has recently come to take the idea that all organisms are 'ecosystem engineers' as central to its approach to ecosystem design and construction. In the field of soil construction by EI, worms are convoked as allies in projects aiming at coping for the loss of fertile and stable soils resulting from classical human engineering practices described as asymmetrical. This paper will examine the claims of a redistribution of agency in making in EI's convoking of worms, question the different, notions of making and engineering at play in them, and argue that they too are asymmetrical. It will also argue against the classical definition of EI as the intentional manipulation of other organism's practices of niche-construction. In doing so, I will avoid the trap of presenting EI as a practice that entails domination over worms and nature, but envisage it as an experimentation of novel bounds between humans, worms, rain, earth and rock.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.