Ethnography

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Featured image: Art orienté objet (Laval-Jeantet & Mangin), Félinanthropie, 2007

by Jeff Bussolini (City University of New York) & Ananya Mukherjea (City University of New York)

Ethnography comes from the Greek ethnos (people), and graphie (writing), and is a social science method of observation and participation research. But ethnos in this context bears some further scrutiny, because the term almost always refers to human people, as in a number of people living together, a nation, or a class. But the term can also refer to a swarm or flock of birds or insects. The bulk of the ethnographic studies in anthropology and sociology, the main disciplines to use the method, are indeed studies of human cultures, groups, practices, and life. Perhaps it is little surprise that the two disciplines maintained such an anthropocentric focus; anthropology draws on the Greek anthropos and indeed refers directly to the study of humans, and sociology’s focus on the socius of “companionship” has assumed almost universally that this is human association and bond. Yet neither area of study has been entirely devoid of the study of animal relations. The very first sociology dissertation in France, at the Sorbonne, was on animal societies. And complex interactions with various animals that form hybrid human-animal communities have been part of many classic anthropological studies, even if somewhat in the background. Animals figure in the studies of Claude Levi-Strauss, and Marcel Mauss – Émile Durkheim’s nephew and famous writer on the gift – already included reflections on human-animal cultures and interactions. And, physical and biological anthropology have long studied nonhuman animals, especially primates, as a means of better understanding humans.

Jane Goodall with chimpanzee

In the last few decades, sociology and anthropology have also increasingly turned away from an anthropocentric solipsism into increasing appreciation of complex interrelationships with different parts of the “natural” world. An increasing number of studies have treated animals as cultural beings who make meaning in their own right. In anthropology Tim Ingold has studied many aspects of animal culture and the meshwork between nonhuman and human animals and the larger world. Deborah Bird Rose has studied the complex interrelationship and interface between humans and other animals. Donna Haraway has studied encounters, interfaces and interrelations between nonhuman and human animals. Clint Sanders furthered sociological inquiry into nonhuman animals, especially (but not only) dogs, as partners in sociological interaction. Janet and Steven Alger used ethnography to study feline-human interactions in a cat shelter. Leslie Irvine has used ethnography and symbolic interactionism to study human-animal bonds and intersubjectivity. Scholars have increasingly sought to use the techniques of ethnography, longterm observation and participation, as a means of studying nonhuman animals and their interrelations.

Growing numbers of ethnographers and ethologists have recognized that many of their techniques and approaches have strong parallels, and that the two disciplines can enrich one another. Both share practices of longterm field observation with painstaking notes, and both study behavior and interactions. Increased appreciation of humans as animals through Darwinism and other posthuman discourses has cultivated interest in human ethology. And, now that the existence of culture among animals is widely accepted among western ethologists, many realize that they can benefit from the extensive methods and experience for studying culture from sociology and anthropology. The fact that Japanese ethologists had observed and accepted animal culture decades before, since they approached their studies as cultural rather than physical anthropologists, only highlights the importance of ethnography in the area of study. Some scholars have pursued the integration and mutual reinforcement of these fields in approaches such as Dominique Lestel’s “etho-ethnography” (or “ethno-ethology”) that accompanies what he calls a “cultural zoology” that will increasingly characterize ethological studies. Vinciane Despret has pursued an “ethology of ethologists” in studying how culture and knowledge are made in interactions between human researchers and nonhuman animals, and how animals “recruit” and “invite” humans into research. Roberto Marchesini has extensively outlined and applied a practice of zooantropologia that incorporates elements of ethology, ethnography, and cognitive science. Marchesini’s teacher Giorgio Celli undertook an “ethology of the household” that included human and nonhuman animals in complex interactions and meaning-making relationships.

Drawing on these and other aspects, Stefan Helmreich and Eben Kirksey and others have described a “multi-species ethnography” that can include human-animal interactions as well as relations between a number of different types of organisms of wildly different types. Again, they place an emphasis on using the meticulous observational and theoretical skills of ethnography together with biological knowledge and approaches that can give insight into these types of interfaces, as well as on building methods in cooperation with biology and other colleagues.

 Further reading

Tim Ingold (1994) What is an animal: Routledge.

Clint Sanders (1999) Understanding dogs: Temple University Press

Janet and Steven Alger (2002) Cat Culture: The Social World Of A Cat Shelter (Animals Culture And Society) : Temple University Press

Dominique Lestel (1995) Paroles de singes: L’impossible dialogue homme-primate: Decouverte

Leslie Irvine (2004) If You Tame Me: Understanding Our Connection With Animals (Animals Culture And Society): Temple University Press

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a companion to the book