Multispecies ethnography has become a popular area of research in recent work concerned with nature/culture relationships and moving beyond anthropocentric perspectives. As Kirskey and Helmrich (2010) explain “multispecies ethnography centers on how a multitude of organisms’ livelihoods shape and are shaped by political, economic, and cultural forces”. Furthermore, how now “creatures previously appearing on the margins of anthropology—as part of the landscape, as food for humans, as symbols—have been pressed into the foreground. Animals, plants, fungi, and microbes once confined in anthropological accounts to the realm of zoe or “bare life”—that which is killable—have started to appear alongside humans in the realm of bios, with legibly biographical and political lives”.
Multi-species researchers are interested in working beyond previously defined sets of ideas within anthropocentric discourses in which humans are conceived as occupying a higher position to ‘other’ life forms. This effort has opened up a space for an enlivened body of work that moves between human and other lives that matter. Van Dooren and Bird Rose put forward the concept of “lively ethnographies”, which they describe as “a mode of storytelling that recognises the meaningful lives of others”, in which they mean ‘other’ than human. An interest in species beyond our own, and a curiosity about our entangled engagement with them, offers a different set of stories that can open up a new set of possibilities for thinking about the present and future of life on earth.
In Anna Tsing’s (2012) famous multi-species work, she explores the lives of fungi and through this reflects on the phenomena of domestication of species and our tendencies to try and create mono-crops and farmed spaces that are disconnected from ‘nature’ (seen as set apart from the human realm). She states that “Domestication is ordinarily understood as human control over other species” however humans are also affected by these same species and their behaviors and tendencies and this is usually ignored. The idea that one is either in the realm of the human or of nature she explains “supports the most outrageous fantasies of domestic control” whereby on the one hand we find ourselves subjecting other species to life imprisonment and on the other we preserve wild species in gene banks “while their multi-species landscapes are destroyed”. Further, she argues that we need to explore how despite our efforts and habits towards compartmentalizing ourselves there are complex relations of interdependency at play and attention to this can perhaps “be the beginning of an appreciation of interspecies species being.” .
James McCann in his book Maize and Grace (1999) explores relationships between people and maize in Southern Africa between 1500 and 2000. Before McCann’s work, much of the story of how maize came to be such a pervasive crop was left unwritten. In order to write this (without a lot of written records) McCann explores the history expressed by maize “through its genetic make up, its varieties, its agronomic imperatives, its qualities as food, and its own peculiar symbiosis with its human hosts and the land they inhabit”. In this way, the maize species becomes the protagonist in the book. McCann explores maize as a species with particular character and ability to relate to humans as well as a crop that lent itself to mono-crop agriculture (linked to concentrated state and corporate power) and that these characteristics were important for it becoming such a successful crop in South Africa. This provides an insightful and creative approach to thinking beyond the human while at the same time offering insights about human-maize connections that would not have unfolded without this vantage point. This book is a foundational resource for the work I am hoping to undertake over the next few years looking at small-scale maize systems in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Recently I have been working on the idea of incorporating a multi-species approach into this work.
Beyond maize as a protagonist species though, I would like to explore a diversity of multi-species nature/culture relationships within maize agri/culture. By paying close attention to a range of protagonist species I hope to unfold new narratives concerning nature/culture interactions, how these shape and are shaped by agricultural systems and how the replacement of seeds with new seed technologies may disrupt or alter the complex interrelationships at play.
As I am at the very beginning, I have just started to map some of the species that are likely to play a part in the story, however, I also look forward to exploring this in the field and meeting some unlikely protagonists there.
One emerging protagonist is the corn borer Ostrinia nubilalis. This species has definitively shaped the history of GM maize and been the catalyst or ‘poster’ bug driving the development of GM Bt Maize. I am curious to explore the prevalence of this insect, the human relationships with it, the traditional ‘control’ methods in KwaZulu Natal where small-scale farmers are being encouraged to adopt Bt crops. Do the ways of the South African relative of the corn borer Busseola fusca (often termed the stem borer in South Africa) warrant the use of GM Bt maize varieties on small-scale farms? What other non target insects native to these regions play a role or may be threatened and what are the human connections and knowledges of and with these species?
As I start to map the multi-species that play a part in the story of maize as it moves through the supply chain, the list keeps growing, from Bacillus thuringiensis – the bacteria that lends its genes to scientists to insert into the DNA of Bt Maize, to molds that grow on maize cobs, to mice and weevils who threaten stored maize, to the pigs who produce good manure to boost the soil fertility on traditional fields to the cows who are fed on GM maize. I am excited to begin developing and applying this multi-species approach to my work to map maize agri/cultures and highlighting the stories that connect us together.