Why multi-species ethnography?

A very good question! I've been reflecting on this burgeoning field the past month as I delve deeper and deeper into the literature surrounding this emergent (and exciting) approach to anthrozoology. I first discovered anthrozoology, or "human-animal interactions" (HAI's) as an undergrad in 2013. Having spent the previous three years studying in the biological sciences (including a year working as a zookeeper), I was surprised to find a subject so in tune with my own views. Views which I was afraid (or let's say "hesitant" at least) to express to colleagues and professors, as they did not quite fit with the rhetoric of the conservationist and even ethologist schools of thought. What am I talking about? Anthropomorphism. The tainted word that so many scientists fear. Do not, at any cost, attribute human emotions and feelings to our animal kin. And so the false dichotomy prevails- "us" versus "them". This, coming from evolutionary biology which readily accepts our relatedness to other animals (a minor detail apparently). In one of my first lectures in my first year of Animal Science, the class were told that if they believed elephants cry due to emotion, they should leave the class. Well, what was I to know? I stayed put. Yet, even then, I was confused by the illegitimacy of anthropomorphism. Of course I see the dangers- a chimpanzee fear grimace can easily (and understandably) be considered as a smile to the untrained eye (and so we have a disturbing historic legacy of chimpanzees in media).


Fear grimace, often misinterpreted and misrepresented as a smile

But why not redefine anthropomorphism? It could even be considered that it is anthropocentric to assume an animal cannot feel emotions as humans do. What if we thought instead about the animality of the non-human, and instead interpreted emotion based upon their species communication. I.e. the chimpanzee is scared because it is expressing a fear grimace. From where I was sat, it was clear there was no room for such philosophical thought in biological science.



Thankfully, by my third year I found anthrozoology. So there are academics out there researching the ways in which humans view, interact and compete with animals! Yet there was still a big emphasis on the human within this inter-species relationship. Why companion animals are good for human health. Why animals transgress between pet, research fellow and pest (again depending on how much benefit, risk, or sheer inconvenience these animals present to "us"). I learned a great deal, and I began to question and explore my own interactions with animals.


I began thinking about my role as a farm hand, where I valued the sheep above moles, who I helped kill, to protect the land from mole hills. You see, sheep had a habit of falling into mole hills and breaking their ankles. As a zookeeper I attributed most value to the endangered animals, as if this gave justification to their ex-situ lives. Zoo animals that were too old or sick for good quality of life were given a "kind death" of euthanasia, yet we laid traps for the rodents and shot intruding foxes that were a risk to our stock. The way you were treated was very different if you were on the wrong side of the fence. And then there was the issue of conservation and individual welfare- which was more important?

I started exploring my own personal traction with the issue of animal welfare versus conservation in a blog post in 2014 when studying my MSc in Primate Conservation. In this post I explored the cognitive dissonance which I felt studying conservation. I found it difficult to psychologically accept what I describe in the post as "the bigger picture". How within conservation, it is the numbers that count. What about the moral obligation to provide fulfilling lives to those animals which we have displaced from their ecological niche, who cannot return to the wild, who are now obsolete to conservation and so are no longer a concern of conservationists? I became obsessed with the individual lives and welfare of animals no longer able to return to the wild and therefore "contribute" to their species survival. One day a wild spider monkey of conservation value, the next a pet (often loved but ultimately abused) and then on to a sanctuary, "saved" yet stripped of it's conservation importance.


So where does multi-species ethnography come in? Multi-species ethnography challenges the false dichotomy of "us" and "them" by studying both the human and the non-human within HAI's. This is an important step in scientific discourse. Multi-species ethnography includes humans, non-human animals, plants and even microbes! An ecocentric approach that values all biological agents within a multi-species relationship.


Left: anthropocentrism. Right: ecocentrism

I've chosen to apply multi-species ethnography to my PhD research into human-civet interactions because it is clear that the ways in which we interact with these animals impacts (and in some cases biologically alters) the lives of civet species. A civet in a zoo experiences a dramatically different relationship with it's environment (and surrounding organisms) than a civet pet, a civet utilized for kopi luwak production, and civets living in the wild. What are the implications for civet species within these scenarios?



White civet. Captive breeding of civets as pets is resulting in new morphs, distinct in physical features, from their wild counterparts. It is likely this individual has inherited traits of the white-coated brown palm civet


I am interested in understanding the variety of ways civets have integrated into modern society, out of choice or otherwise? I argue that if you have never met a civet, but have tried kopi luwak- you have entered into a HAI with civets through the biotic mechanistic nature of it's production. The coffee you enjoy (or perhaps not) has passed through a non-human animal, it's digestive enzymes have altered the biotic make up of the coffee bean, altering the taste and the aroma. In parallel, the coffee bean has altered the livelihood of the civet. All of which is through human intervention. And so, the relationship is between civet, human and coffee bean. Kopi luwak would not be, should you remove any one of these organisms from the equation. Therefore it is important, in my view, to account for each within the ethnographic investigation.


Multi-species ethnography goes one step further still. As a qualitative approach, it allows researchers to analyse the impact of politics, economics, culture, religion and globalization on HAI's. And what is more political than the global coffee trade? I think multi-species ethnography is well placed within human-civet interaction research.



For those interested in learning more on multi-species ethnography:

Govindrajan, R., 2018. Animal intimacies: Interspecies relatedness in India's central Himalayas. University of Chicago Press.


Haraway, D.J., 2013. When species meet. University of Minnesota Press.

Kirksey, S.E. and Helmreich, S., 2010. The emergence of multispecies ethnography. Cultural anthropology, 25(4), pp.545-576. #multispeciesethnography #HAI #anthrozoology

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