Humanity has been having an enormous impact on Earth and its various systems such that Anthropocene has become a catchword for many researchers and policymakers for several decades now. Anthropocene is an informal term popularized by Paul Cruzen to refer to a proposed period of time during which human activities have caused far-reaching effects on the planet’s processes including climate change (Steffen et al., 2011). The realization that the degradation of the natural environment also spells doom for the safety and survival of the human species has led to discussions on appropriate mitigating measures among members of communities advancing science and philosophy including, in particular, eco-philosophy. Eco-philosophy is geared towards substantiating rules and thought processes involved in environmental protection activities (Dudzik, 2017).
Eco-philosophy operates on the assumption that sciences and humanities work in tandem to arrive to a better understanding of socio-ecological issues and how to resolve them. The movement started with the foundation of the natural sciences that focused on the aspects of the nonhuman world while the humanities focused on the people’s behavior and the economy. Recently, however, a pattern arises where the natural sciences are concentrating more on people while the humanities are increasingly discovering the nonhuman world (Head, 2011). As a result, a number of eco-philosophies dealing with ecological humanities such as political ecology, environmental history and multi-species ethnography, have taken form to tackle said socio-ecological issues that were traditionally natural sciences territory.
This paper looks at some of the innovative ways that ecological humanities researchers go about with their investigations and the eco-philosophies that reflect their strategies. More specifically, this essay explores the principles behind and implications of multi-species ethnography through the perspectives of two eco-philosophies, namely: more-than-human and eco-feminist philosophies.
Ethnography has evolved from its fundamental utility in the context of colonization and has since then gained elements that include political, philosophical, aesthetic and spiritual kinds. These elements have been at times applied to classify people, define cultures and explain their identity and their future tendencies. However, this primitive form of ethnography no longer exists (Clair, n.d.). There has been a significant shift in the practice and expression of ethnography, having been relieved of its exclusivity to human subjects. The birth of multi-species ethnography is a sign of this shift and arose from the inherent interest of ethnographers in relations of people, animals, plants and other entities. The understanding of ethnography has even moved beyond the study of living organisms, including other entities (Ogden et al., 2013).
In addition to animals and plants, contemporary multi-species ethnographers also consider the relationships among fungi and viruses. Any entity can be included long as the lives and deaths of these entities can be associated with human social worlds. Multi-species ethnography focuses on how a number of organisms’ existence determines and is determined by economic, political and cultural forces (Kirksey & Helmreich, 2010). Multi-species ethnographers are also investigating and reframing political issues such as how capitalism, colonialism and related power dynamics interplay with a wider web of life (Van Dooren et al., 2016). In other words, multi-species ethnography is a study which aims to understand the world through material, knowledge, cultural, natural and emergent interpretations that are dependent on the relationships of many living organisms and entities (Ogden et al., 2013).
Multi-species ethnography is defined by Ogden et al. (2013, 6) as: “ethnographic research and writing that is attuned to life’s emergence within a shifting assemblage of agentive beings.” According to these authors, beings cover those with biophysical characteristics as well as the mysterious ways that life is animated by things. They also note that the study of multi-species ethnography involves various approaches within social theory and philosophy that aim to understand nature and humanity; these include hybrid geographies, object-oriented ontologies, structuralist political ecology, post-humanism and effect and nonrepresentational theory.
Munster & Locke (2015) endorse the concept that multi-species ethnography is but a rubric of an equally known approach to ethnographic research and writing – the more-than-human ethnography which is discussed below. Therefore, the authors note, multi-species ethnography needs to be viewed as a component of a larger effort in the humanities and social sciences to challenge anthropocentrism through emphasis on the essential agency of nonhuman beings and to illuminate the connections between ecological dynamics, cultural depictions and political economy.
Ethnographers using more-than-human philosophy utilize data analyses of information gathered from interviews, focus groups, field diaries and other related documents and material. A universal characteristic of these more-than-human ethnographies is the understanding of particular political and socio-ecological dynamics from the perspective of animals and other organisms including humans. These practitioners strive to achieve more in their quest for understanding the mechanisms of more-than-human ethnography by finding multiple avenues to decenter human dominion over research methods and welcoming the complexity of the interlocking domains (Dowling et al., 2016).
More-than-human ethnography deals with the appreciation of agencies and various intelligences to illustrate the physical connections to earth as well as the different ways that these can be deemed valuable, according to Lorimer (2010). The author also adds that the foci of more-than-human ethnography are the kinds and ways of relations and cosmopolitics that are subject to modification and the unpredictability of life.
Ethnographers within the more-than-human movement are highly invested in the abovementioned objectives of decentring the human role in the generation of knowledge. A method that illustrates this is the adoption of a voice or view of the non-human in the conduction of an experiment or analysis. In this way, researchers are creating new exciting ways of documenting more-than-human collectives, thus, defying traditional anthropocentric authority (Dowling et al., 2016).
Another approach, espoused by Panelli (2010), concerns the influence of social geographies in dealing with life’s complexity and interrelationships. The author describes how the involvement of three ways that the study of society-nature interactions can be accomplished: through post-human, post-structural and indigenous centers.
In reference to the ‘exciting’ ways that more-than-human ethnographers research the multi-species dimensions of nature and society, according to Dowling et al. (2016), the following approaches can be considered as outstanding examples. The first is Tsing’s (2012) exposition of the Donna Haraway’s concept of companion species by focusing on how fungi impact humans just as cereals are thought to have domesticated humans and plantations drove the development of the human race. According to the author, the histories of the world can be learned from nonhuman species such as the mushroom with its complex role in the environment, the chemical cycle and as companion to other species. Instead of human conditions determining the status and future of the human world, mushrooms and other fungi are framed as the indicator species for the same humans. Power (2005) forwards a familiar concept of gardens being a combined achievement of humans and plants and not of humans alone.
Another interesting approach is through the use of cosmoecology in discovering the different ways shepherds, sheep and other nonhuman agencies interact and interconnect (Despret & Meuret 2016). It is not only the perspective of the shepherd that is elaborated but also of the sheep with its experience with humans and dogs, food and pasture lands. The idea was not for shepherds to become sheep but for these humans to become with them as members of a flock. In other words, the goal is to discover all the infinite ways that each can be affected or can affect others, according to the authors. A parallel argument is forwarded by Wright (2014), this time with the thunderstorm or lightning and other natural forces as the focus and not humans.
Gibbs (2009) also offers an innovative way to look at the multispecies ethnography through more-than-human as well as cultural and social geographies using the concept of water places. The author enables a multilayer analysis of the different interactions that occur around water places. The effect is an elucidation of the different processes that transpire around and because of the presence of the body of water while transcending time, transformation of the landscape and associated complex interrelationships for the understanding of a more-than-human world.
According to a review by Warren (2015), the birth of eco-feminist philosophy was influenced by the tenets of deep ecology which refers to the conceptual origins of the environmental crisis. However, the connection between the two philosophies has since then been refuted by some researchers. There are three separate positions inside eco-feminist philosophy, according to the same article. The first one posits that its historical origins are positioned in Western environmental philosophies that are non-feminist. Second is its previous association to ecofeminism which eventually evolved into eco-feminist philosophy. And third is those not included in the first and second positions and provides new and distinct views on women-nature links.
Warren & Cheney (1991) define ecological feminism as a form of feminism which aspires to assimilate women movement demands with the ecological movement to create a realm and a general perspective that is independent from socioeconomic and theoretical structures of domination. The authors add that proponents of eco-feminism have called for an ecology that is feminist and a feminism that is ecological while demonstrating that ecology, often considered as environmentalism, is in many ways a feminist concern.
An interesting way that eco-feminist philosophy is used in understanding multi-species ethnography is presented by Gibson (2018). The author attempts to utilize the discussion of artworks that dwells with plants as a way of introducing humans to nature. A return to the elements of nature, according to the author, is essentially a return to meaningful thought. As an example the water lily is introduced as a living becoming-woman and as an object of eco-feminism and as an art motif.
Another approach is using Shakespeare’s works as subjects for investigating ecofeminism can be used to advance multispecies ethnography as Munroe & Laroche (2017) demonstrate. The authors use archival digging to find chapters or scenarios where applications can be obtained for the current or historical contexts of the multispecies world. According to the authors, Shakespeare’s poems, plays and other texts can provide a window to how gender and nonhuman dynamisms influence worlds of various periods.
Ecofeminism has also found its role in compassion and empathy as discussed by Adams & Gruen (2014). Their work has shown the attention of ecofeminists to responsive bodies through affective connections, the agency of nonhuman animals can be better understood. Therefore, ecofeminism can enable an exciting new way to investigate the interconnections between animals, environment, ethics and affect. This approach even extends to novel ways of tackling grief and mourning, for example.
Spurred by the alarming condition of the global environment due to human activities, eco-philosophies arose to understand the origin of and sought resolution for the socio-ecological issues that plague the contemporary period. The development of multi-species ethnography enabled the investigation of the intricate dynamics of the world beyond the human perspective and experience. The result is the proliferation of various approaches under ethnographies such as more-than-human and eco-feminist philosophies that range from interesting to extraordinary experiments and writings. Obtaining a worldview from the lens of unconventional agencies such as sheep, fungi and Shakespeare’s text among other strategies described in this paper is a clear indicator of the exciting new way the field of eco-philosophy is growing.