May 5, 2021

The surprising truths wild horses teach us about the power of ritual, social durability, and surviving the Anthropocene with John Hartigan Jr.

The surprising truths wild horses teach us about the power of ritual, social durability, and surviving the Anthropocene with John Hartigan Jr.

In today’s episode Adam and Astrid Countee are joined by multispecies anthropologist John Hartigan jr. John is an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. In his latest work, Shaving the Beasts: Wild Horses and Ritual in Spain, John studies the social lives of wild horses in Spain and Catalonia and the Spanish ritual dating back to the 1500s of “Rapa das Bestas”- in which villagers heard wild horses together into public ceremonial rings and shave their manes and tails. Why is an anthropologist studying horses you ask? John’s work dives into the complex social lives of these horses, what happens with human ritual causes violence and social breakdown - in this case amongst horses - and asks the question of how we can learn about human culture from other species?

In this episode we focus on:

  • What studying nonhuman species like plants and horses tells us about being human
  • How to do rapid ethnographic fieldwork
  • How the sociality of humans shapes and is shaped by other species
  • Why ecology needs anthropology and vice versa

Where to Find John Hartigan:

John Hartigan Jr. is an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at Austin who focuses on multispecies ethnography, media, and race. He has done fieldwork in Spain, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Detroit, Michigan. Hartigan’s latest book is Shaving The Beast: Wild Horses and Ritual in Spain, in which he explores the ritual of rapa das bestas in Galicia, Spain where villagers heard wild horses together to shave their manes and tails. Through multispecies ethnography, Hartigan tells the story of this ritual through the horses’ eyes, experiencing the traumatic event as he tells the story of the horses and their society. Hartigan has also authored Care of the Species: Cultivating Biodiversity in Mexico and Spain (2017), Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit (1999), Odd Tribes: Toward a Cultural Analysis of White People (2005), What Can You Say? America’s National Conversation on Race (2010), and Aesop’s Anthropology: A Multispecies Approach.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/aesopsanthro

 

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Transcript

The surprising truths wild horses teach us about the power of ritual, social durability, and surviving the Anthropocene with John Hartigan Jr.

Adam Gamwell: [00:00:00] Hey everyone. And welcome to This Anthro Life, as always this is your host, Adam Gamwell. In today's episode, I'm joined by Astrid Countee in conversation with multi-species anthropologists, John Hartigan Jr. Now John is an anthropology professor at the University of Texas in Austin. Much of his work focuses on race and multi-species ethnographies and in his latest work, Shaving the Beasts, Wild Horses and Ritual in Spain, John studies wild horses in the Spanish ritual dating back to the 1500’s called rapa das bestas. In which villagers herd horses together and shave their manes and tails.Now you might be asking yourself, why is an anthropologist studying horses, John’s work dives into the social practices of these horses and asks the question, what, and how can we learn about human culture from other species? John breaks down how we set up research with ethologists, that is the people who study and track wild horses to get a grounding on how they learn to see and understand the complex and rule bound world of horse social life. He then undertook ethnographic research on the violent and disorienting shaving rituals. Exploring the people who carry out such rituals and the horses themselves. He reveals where the ritual gets infused with violence and causes a breakdown of social life. Just a heads up, it gets a little intense at times but we  don’t just cover the awesome insights from John’s research. Get this, we  also unpack John's position that you can do ethnographic research in short sprints.Over a few days or scattered across a few weeks. He’s been developing this approach across his research for Shaving the Beast and  his previous work, which we also cover in which he conducted research on botanical gardens and plants in another part of Spain. Now as John says in this episode, it’s crucially important as people’s schedules get busier, it becomes more difficult, if not unrealistic for all social scientists to head out and do a year or two of in field research and that somehow long term research is the only actual quote, unquote form of ethnography. 

Now as humans, we like to think that we're special and perhaps more worthy of praise as organisms.We have an innate anthropocentric view about our status as above all other life forms on the planet. And as much as we like to tell ourselves this, ultimately it's not true. In this episode the three of us discuss the importance of ethnography and relationship to ecology and the value of having those two conversations together. John, Astrid, and I talk through the importance of human culture and relationship to  a larger ecological world and how a multispecies approach may just help us deal with larger ecological issues like climate change and pandemics. In this episode, John, Astrid and I talked through the importance of acknowledging human culture in relationship to the larger ecological world. Through John's work as a multi-species ethnographer, we find that there's a great deal to learn from non-human subjects, the questions and predicaments that unveil themselves as one examines, the cultural dynamics of different creatures can actually help us understand what it means to be human ourselves.

When we decentralize ourselves humans and we look at the other being surrounding us. We can expand our view of the Anthropocene at large. We've got a ton of great stories in this episode, so grab your field notebook, your horse shears and let's get to it, trust me it's a wild ride. 

Adam Gamwell: [00:01:47] So we are really excited today. We're talking with John Hartigan the author of Shaving the Beast and as well as Care of Species. So these really interesting multi-species ethnographies that are looking at the more than human world. So John, thanks so much for joining us on the program today.

John Hartigan: [00:02:01] Thanks. It's a delight to be here. I'm really enthused.

Adam Gamwell: [00:02:05] So one place we wanted to start was with your approach to fieldwork. Cause we've had a few chats before a recording and you have a really interesting way that you've been rethinking things such as how long field work has to be and what kind of goes into doing it. So I wonder if you could talk to us a bit about your approach and how it's evolved over the years and how you are approaching ethnographic fieldwork today.

John Hartigan: [00:02:25] Yeah. Great. Cause I'm really enthused about the potential for ethnography, but I think we get stuck in some pretty narrow notions of how it's gotta be conducted. And I started my graduate work. I did your typical kind of year in the field. Ethnographic project on whiteness in Detroit . I looked at whites in three different class neighborhoods in order to understand how their social position inflected race for them.

And yeah, it took a year but for various reasons, I've tried to work in the field in shorter bursts and most of them are out of necessity initially, but they all have intellectual advantages in the bigger picture. When I finished up the ethnographic project, I wrote a cultural history of white trash, the stereotype.

And then I did a media ethnography; What can you say about the national conversation on race? And a textbook on ethnography of race generally. And that, I was feeling  tapped out . I've covered this in the U.S. as thoroughly as I can.

And so I started to think about working on racial questions in another country, for instance, Mexico and because I'm in Texas, that makes a lot of sense. And it, as I got going on that I wanted to get back into some of my science and technology training from grad school. Donna Haraway  was one of my mentors.

And I imbibed a lot, but hadn't really been able to apply it. And I started thinking about genetics, which is so central to debates about race. And so this kind of all steam rolled together, I thought let me look at a Human Genome Project in Mexico. And so a couple of things happened. One as I started spending time there,and in  discussions with colleagues in Mexico city, I got interested in a Maize Genome Project.

Corn basically, which was going on simultaneously with this Human Genome Project. And I was struck that they were talking about race as well. I'm like wait a minute, that's corn, it doesn't have race and pretty quickly I realized my understanding of race was very skewed. One, by being an American, I've got a particular sensibility about it.

But two, by being an anthropologist. What I had learned about race was this idea that emerged with science in the 1700's but it's actually much older. And it comes from rasa which is similar in Italian and Spanish probably emerged late 1400's for agricultural entities. Breeds of horses, of dogs and wheat. And then eventually rasa worked its way into French, which is where we get the English race. So, it starts on non-humans and then the other thing I learned is that, Oh, wow.  Genetics is really not mostly about humans.

Most of the practicing geneticists are in agriculture.  It was developed on Maize. Most of the great breadth of genetics is applied to agricultural species. I had to very quickly rethink my cultural orientation basically. And as I got going, Other things started slipping. I had gone into this as a steadfast social constructivist, I thought race is a construct, facts are a construct.

All of these are just representations and that didn't actually work very well at this research Institute where I was studying long ABO in Guanajuato, kind of central Mexico. And it didn't work because it didn't, let me talk about the thing that most interested these geneticists and that's the species maize.

And I had this very unnerving experience because midway through the project, I was doing a talk about my research here in the U.S. and I was like saying, okay they think maize as these, 63 different races. But if you talk with an agronomist, it's 43 and so I said obviously this is a construct.

Cause, cause they don't know how many races there are, just as we don't know how many races there are in humans, because there is nothing biologically fixed to determine that.  And I looked up at these pictures that I was showing of these different races and I realized, wait, I can't explain anything about why they're different.

I can't explain the difference between a low land variety or a Highlander race. I can't talk about the difference in kernel size, a good number of colonels, all these very important morphological variations. And it was at that moment, I said, Oh wow, I've got to actually learned something about this particular species. And a whole series of cascading effects basically followed from that.

Adam Gamwell: [00:07:28] That's so interesting too. Listeners might know it. And I think I mentioned this to you too, but I did my PhD research on quinoa production and biodiversity of quinoa. And it was very inspired by your work. And I found some similar things too, that really struck me was that you.

The names of the races of, la raza de la quinoa, they say these different kinds of quinoa and it depends on who you talk to the indigenous farmer might use a different name or an agricultural scientist might use the third name, or an indigenous agricultural scientist. Both might use it in a different name too.

And so it was really interesting to realize this too, that they have plants in this case, they have morphological differences that are phenotypically different. But then we can't necessarily say You're right in the idea that social constructivism doesn't help us explain those differences. I don't know. How'd you find yourself dealing with that conundrum?

John Hartigan: [00:08:11] Yeah. Things are still constructed through language. We don't get away from that. But no, that's not going to explain most of what people find interesting about differences among humans or varieties of maize or quinoa. And this is where this opens up into the larger kind of multi-species question.

Cultural anthropologists now are starting to engage non humans as ethnographic subjects. Yeah. But it's got to come with an untethering from the idea that all we ever can talk about are representations, all we ever get at are interpretations of interpretations they're out there.

There's gotta be some way to talk about the substance of these entities. I ended up characterizing raza at least as a social tangle of care and life. Instead of saying raza, as a social construct, what I bring it to view is what the humans are doing with it. And these are forms of care.

And then the actual life form itself, which responds variously to those practices of care, as well as to its various environments which within Mexico are hugely varied. And so it, it's not like I would say you can't talk about constructivist aspects of it, but they're very limiting to how far we can go with a cultural analysis.

Adam Gamwell: [00:09:42] Yeah, it makes sense. Cause even to the plants themselves, obviously, and then we'll get to animals as well. Like they have their own, they have their own way of pushing back. They have their own biological needs and requirements. And it's funny, one of the, like one of the. I don't know if it's an urban legend or a rural legend, but in Peru, it's said that you could at one time trace the limits of the Inca empire by where quinoa grew in the Southern Andes.

Just based on the idea that's cause it's one of the, one of the sacred crops that the Inca would require it to be planted. It's just this funny idea that the Andes themselves can go from sea level to over 15,000 feet at some super high elevations. And so different kinds of quinoa grow. There's kind of five, they call them land races, which is something that really struck me too. And I'm curious if you saw this with corn similarly or maize, which is different than corn. And that they talk about them as a land race, which I think was one attempt to try to differentiate how they might think about raza or like race, especially if it snuck into the idea of describing people or even, it does, it's similar with dogs, right?

That they might say, it's we say a breed in English, but you might sometimes see raza also in that case. And so it was interesting to just even how this classification of a, that's like a mix of biology and then they try to get towards a phenotype or a morphology also has this classification. So it is really tricky to think about how one describes that space. I really like your definition of raza as this kind of bio-social tangle of care and life forms.

Cause it, it says both that there is an actual biological entity out there that exists, and it has its own requirements. Then also the notion of care of how humans interact with and change the destiny is too strong of a word by it. But how it happens,

John Hartigan: [00:11:12] Yeah. Yeah, no, you're exactly right. And first I'll say that quinoa and Maize sound very similar in terms of it's, morphological group variation by altitude. And yeah, that the rural legend is probably pretty accurate. There's a limit to how far maize extended in Mexico, early on, and it didn't get much past the large States where you get into the more kind of dramatic groups in the North of Mexico. Maize really pretty much dropped off, at least early on. But then yeah, he, this idea of the land race, there's a lot of very dense history there. I go back to Darwin who used race to talk about cabbages and pigeons and dogs.

If you read the origin of the species, the only time he uses race is non-humans. That use drops out in the early 1900's basically. And these agronomical terms like landrace come in partly to translate raza. So when people from the Rockefeller Institute were working in Mexico, they were dealing with raza as a concept there.And so they tried to translate that into something more mundane in the U.S. and land race is what they came up with.

Astrid Countee: [00:12:31] John, one of the things that I find really interesting about reading your work is how without forcing it, you make it really clear that humans are a part of this bigger environment and that we as anthropologists need to start really thinking about this bigger environment, not as the backdrop to, our social lives, but as something that we emerged from still participate in something that makes up what we do.

When you were about the Human Genome Project, I was in high school when that was happening. And I remember some of the sort of bombastic claims that were coming out of science Oh my gosh, you'll probably be like a hundred thousand genes. And we'll finally figure out why humans are so different than everything else.

And then once they finished, and then we found that we share like, the majority of our genes with chickens and with bananas. And it's only like 23,000 genes that make up our genome. It was shocking because we think of ourselves as very special and very different from everything else, because I guess it's because we're talking about ourselves.

But when I was reading through Shaving the Beast and then even some other, papers of yours, I think one of the things that stands out is you can't think of humans as special when you're looking at an entire ecological spectrum of other actors that we don't normally think of as actors, but also that, because you can't do that, then your approach to ethnography obviously has to evolve because.

Oftentimes, I know, like I was trained to really pay attention. Look, listen to what people are saying and doing, learn the language, watch all behaviors. No one ever pointed out to me to pay attention to the plants or to think about the animals except as anything, but what humans use them for.

But I wanted to ask you, if you could elaborate a little bit more on how you, even your concept of what ethnography is has evolved, because when you do start looking at a much more granular level, like what you were speaking of, like looking at genetics, and this is something that we share with all living things, it's really hard to make humans be exceptional and special and somehow different than everything else.

John Hartigan: [00:14:42] Yeah, geez, you covered a lot there and thanks very much for reading that closely. I appreciate it. And yeah. What we deal with, I think as anthropologists broadly, is the challenge of anthropocentrism, the idea that just the, where you are unique because all species are but that you were, as you said, separate from all of those other realms.

And, this really goes back to the early origins, I'll say the discipline in the U.S. at least like Alfred Kroeber's work, which was foundational for him. And, he and Franz Boas were arguing against cultural evolution, from Spencer and you have this very misguided sense that cultures can be hierarchically, ranked in terms of how it evolved there. So kind of misapplying Darwin. But the foundation of the distinction that you had that Kroeber drew was that the human mind is  inaccess of the sort of functionalist dictates of evolution that it has somehow achieved a kind of  escape velocity.

So we're no longer bound to evolution. And that was an important idea to articulate, but we're at the point now, I think where we can, get some detachment from it and you rework that formulation. Things like language, human language are exceptional. And yet we are seeing increasing forms of parallel complexity in terms of the communicative characteristics of a range of species, as well as their cognitive complexity and very importantly, the social dimensions of that complexity.

Yes, it's through this kind of ethnographic trajectory where I began trying to take these non-human life forms as my subject, I realized what I was bumping up against was this idea that a cultural analysis begins when you detach from an evolutionary theory. And getting back to your broader point about the Anthropocene and this current moment I think that you can see that now on a large scale.

We are recognizing through the perils of climate change and resource depletion, et cetera, that we really are not escaped from evolution. Our species will go extinct at some point, like all others have. And that then becomes a very crucial basis for starting to re-engage with things that are founding intellectual figures were distancing themselves from.

Adam Gamwell: [00:17:24] That's fascinating too. And so I think one of the things that, were at this interesting historical moment now with, we call it the Anthropocene to describe the immense amounts of ecological and even geologic change that humans are wreaking across the planet.

And in that, it changes. Cause I, I think it's really interesting to tie this idea to the way that you said that cultural analysis begins when you detach from an evolutionary perspective. And it's just important I think to point out that's on part, we have to do that mentally.

And anthropology has helped us do that. But then at the same time we're now in 2020. And it really just means, since the industrial revolution, but really have made such large scale changes to the planet that when we are talking about a human culture even, it is in relationship to the larger ecological world. It always has been, but it feels like it has an extra amount of oomph or an intensity right now, given the scale and the velocity at which change seems to be happening. And on that note, I just want to, I want to jump a little backwards to go forward about your fieldwork approach to cause you've even sped up that process, right?

In terms of how quick fieldwork can happen, which is quite interesting. Cause both Astrid and I work in an industry and like yourself, I've done a year plus field work. And now I do week or two long sprints of stuff, I'm not in the field as much, but that's something that both Astrid and I would love to do more of, but even this idea, like the idea of what does the timescale at which we need to do ethnography, I think is quite interesting and important to point out that the rich framework of ethnographic analysis one can do, but at the same time, By not spending an entire year or even months upon months, you can still get quite rich data that can then on one level we might say, I cringe at this term, but having it be a little bit more actionable or that people can do something with it because you're not stuck behind five years of research and then something finally comes out. So I wonder if you can talk a bit about this process too, and how you evolved the timeline, in, in terms of, and also what you're doing while you're in the field, in these cases.

John Hartigan: [00:19:20] Yeah. Gladly, because I think that this is so important to making ethnography more broadly relevant. So yeah, with the Care of Species I probably spend at the most, maybe three weeks in the field at any one time. And I was working both in Mexico and Spain. And again, there were a lot of practicalities that kind of dictated it.

But what I found was that three weeks was plenty. And when I was a graduate student, my dissertation advisor, Susan Harding said, 95% of what you collect as an ethnographer you're not going to use. You really only use a small portion of it. And it was probably, actually a smaller portion than even she and so that's exactly what we want to key in on. And we all know, anybody who's done ethnography knows it's the first few days that are the richest. And that's when everything's still weird. And you ask these stupid questions and you find, Oh, wait, that's not how people think.

That's the ideal thing to tap into and to maintain that kind of clarity, the ethnographic project that goes for greater richness and depth is absolutely wonderful, but often very hard to read. I find it very difficult to assign ethnographies to undergrads.

They just can't get it through the sort of density of these 30, 40 page introductions, and they're very theoretical and, explaining all this stuff and they just can't read that. The short bursts, I think work well in my case, because I'm dealing with geneticists in these labs or I was in Care of Species.

It was an advantage to come back a year later because I can read their articles. I can see how the research is developing and I can kind of, bop in and get caught up pretty quickly. But then also, because I've been away when I'm back there, I noticed things that  have changed or, they would probably be so incremental that I would have been oblivious to them initially.

That was actually an advantage instead of me just being there for a whole year. I'm sure they would've gotten tired of me, frankly.

Astrid Countee: [00:21:35] So I actually really loved that you were talking about species, typical behaviors. Once you understand some of these species' typical behaviors, it makes it easier for you to go to the field and not have to spend months and months.

And one, one thing that made me intrigued by this is. It totally made sense when I was reading it, that obviously it would be useful and helpful, but we tend to not do this when we do this field work with people, because we're totally scared of going back to these kind of racist roots of anthropology, but it seems like such a valuable thing that I wonder if there's a way for us to incorporate this in even thinking about what we do as humans, because we're human, biological, human, and how having that be a part of the way that we rethink approaching field work. So I wanted to hear your thoughts on that.

John Hartigan: [00:22:25] Yeah. Gladly and there's a lot there too. First off with Shaving the Beast I describe it as an ethologically informed ethnography. So I learned how to do ethology first. That is observations of animal behavior. And as you just said, there's so much we already know about these species.

There's a kind of privileging of naivete and some of the multi-species work, oh, I don't know, you know what science says, I'm going to go do these, different kind of, of sensorial techniques and try to get out of my condition and my views, but wait, let's figure out what we already know.

And we know a great deal about the horses in particular. But yes, species typical is what's key there. And my variation on that, that I hope will be useful to ethologists I say let's use ethnography to create a species local account. That is where you get into these variations of behavior within a species that are reflective of particular places and time, which is what ethnography is very good at.

And so I was able to observe very unnatural behaviors among these horses and arguably that's an advantage because the sort of species typical view of, these sort of undisrupted natural settings probably obscures our attention to the greater degree of plasticity, social plasticity within species, which you only see when they respond to a disrupted situation. But then yes, this gets to the species level view of humans which we've been, really you're terrified of or you resist it for, as you said, many good reasons. But it's crucial to talk about it. One, in terms of the Anthropocene and two, without ignoring the great forms of social variation among humans.

But if you look at what's happening now with COVID it's very clear that the reliance on technological forms of mediation have shown how dependent we were on all of these nonverbal cues of communication, you just can't get them in zoom. And so there's lots of misunderstandings and it, and as well, I'll point out the a lot of recent work on race, talking about microaggressions. These are things that transpire interactionally, largely in nonverbal registers.

So you know, this dimension of sociality is so crucial to grasp. And there's some very interesting parallels now between how sociality is being discussed or assessed, say in terms of AI and the digital forms, but also then with non-human animals. We see AI spinning off these forms of sociality, like these social bots that are so good at mimicking conversation.

And then as well, we see forms of turn-taking et cetera in non-human animal communication. So sociality is coming into view, I think in the sort of parallel domains in the center of it, or some important anxieties about what's happening to human capacity to socialize when you have these things like para sociality in games where, this sort of mimicking and manipulating of human sociality is so stark. And yet we don't quite know how to talk about it because we're a bit anxious still about say what you hear as a species is how we basically socialize. And then, moving on from there.

Adam Gamwell: [00:26:18] It's even interesting to flip that a little bit. Cause there's this idea that's been in my head. That I've chatted about here and there but just this funny idea, from Rousseau and the idea of the social contract, and even like the European enlightenment as speaking of areas of racial thinking and that the and genderism and that the, the most enlightened being are these like rational calculating self-interested beings that are not overly emotional.

And yet when we flipped that to AI we find that the most basic AI is actually just cold and calculating and we don't like that. We actually think the higher form of being is actually something that can emote with us. And so I love the way that to me, anyway, AI challenges this sort of rational economic person, that's being the heightened form of being for humans.

Adam Gamwell: [00:26:58] And we don't know it until we see it. And we're like, wait, this is terrifying. This thing does not respond to me. Or even how we find ourselves railing against bureaucracy. Because it's I'm sorry, I can't help you, the person up the chain would have to do something for you to help get your phone fixed. And it's infuriating to be treated like you're talking to a wall, even if you're talking to a person. And so to recognize these, it's cool. Like I don't, we don't always think about these on a species level of how we might all deal with certain kinds of things when our social interactions get thrown out the window a little bit or social norms get thrown out. It is quite interesting. And even I caught this wind too, obviously in the Shaving the Beast where I really appreciated the take of both having an ethological perspective of what do we already know, what a species, typical behavior, right?

And then we attach that to this sort of species, a local account of how our certain situations in particular place in time affecting behavior and knowledge and how, what we think horses normally would do in this case. But I don't know. It's really just curious to, because humans, in this case and Shaving the Beast are the ones that are putting the horses into these rapas and getting these sort of, shaving corrals are intentionally messing with the social order that they know exists, that they may not talk about it the same way an ethologist does, but they know it's there. Social distancing and mixing up the mares and the stallions, for example. And that was, I don't know, that was quite striking. The account is disturbing, which I think, too. But it's interesting. How I don't know that we see humans messing with social order also on purpose.

John Hartigan: [00:28:12] Yes. Yes. So arguably, this is how the horse gets domesticated. This style of herding and then shaving the horses, there are petroglyphs in this part of Spain.

You know, probably about 3000 years old, that shows the same kind of practice of herding horses into a corral, basically. And do you know what humans figured out? You'd like, so I was incredulous about this at the beginning. Like that humans on foot could catch a bunch of horses. I'm like, there's no way, but they do it by encircling them by scaring them.

And you're closing in on them with a recognition that they don't, that their desire to stick together is stronger than their desire to escape. A horse could simply run over a human. There's all these gaps between the people but they're herding instinct overwhelms that and humans probably recognized that and said, Oh, okay, this is how we can catch them. And then, they're eventually domesticated. So yes. Like you said, they wouldn't describe it in the same terms but there was comparable recognition of sociality on the part, not just of horses, most of the domesticated species, farm animals are very social, from cows on, down through the chickens and such, the sheep as especially so it's very interesting that our domestic are also highly social creatures and we probably figured out how to manipulate that pretty effectively.

But yeah, you know I wanted to get back then too, talking about STS a little bit and we were just talking about there. You also arrive at this point where I could say, okay, I'm going to privilege ethology as the basis for doing ethnography. That's where there's been a real substantial shift in how I started thinking about, science and technology studies approaches and where I'm at now.

I think in STS broadly, there's still a great deal of anxiety about succumbing to science to privileging what the scientists say about the world. For me what happened in Care of Species, as I tried to engage plants ethnographically, I realized I needed to acquire some of the expertise of botanists. And I found that fairly easy to do, one because botanical gardens where I was doing field work, they're designed to impart that kind of knowledge that we have of seeing these species. And then as well, because I'm doing ethnography, I get this great kind of open channel with these experts and they're reflecting on their craft and their training and their application of it that makes their forms of expertise very accessible.

And with Shaving the Beast I go all the way over. I'm going to do an objectivist description and generate data based on these well-established sampling techniques. But I'm going to twist them a bit by being attentive to what falls out of view from those techniques.

There's this basic practice of allogrooming and that's where one horse and you know two horses get at each other's hard to reach spots, basically about behind the head and neck. And this is a very important form of affiliative behavior. I could go through and pretty easily quantify, okay, there's four acts of allogrooming and these are the horses but what I noticed was everything that falls out of view from that , where were those horses before that? Who had they been socializing with? What kind of relationships were ongoing and relationships are exactly what falls out of view typically in a lot of objectivists techniques, based on the individual, what the individual is doing so, I haven't gone all the way over to you're just doing science.

I'm not equipped to do that. And it wouldn't be very interesting  my take on it. I'm fusing that with a distinctively ethnographic perspective, but I am foregrounding the scientific method, basically.

Adam Gamwell: [00:32:36] It's funny too. I really appreciate that. And that's such an interesting thing to note in terms of how do we both do ecological and ethnographic observational research, but then write what it is that you're paying attention to is we can see like this again, the act of allogrooming there, but then also who were they spending time with beforehand?

And was this horse allogrooming the same horse previously the next day or in a different area? And it's curious, like that's something, I did not know that in terms of my, I've never studied ethology, but what kinds of things that would get noticed, or that will be part of the observational techniques and then what things don't.

And so I think what your work does really well is it highlights actually the value of ethnography in relationship with ethology. That shows the value of these two kinds of conversations together. And that's even, we talked before about the idea of a species local account, and why that's I think so important, especially as we're, and rapas das bestas is gives us some idea of what happens, how do we pay attention to relationships when the social order is intentionally dissolved, but then it's just as important for us to think about that.

Both for ourselves, COVID is an example of this for us, as a human species and how have we adapted or not. When our common social world gets upended and for us, it's like for some people it's massive, some people it's less, but then for all of us, it's just over time too.

And it just builds. And so you can see adaptation happening in real time, which is interesting. But at the same time, a lot of things just don't work as well. And so I don't know to me it's a good case of why ethnography and ethnology can work well together. And that we need it.

More and more today, again, as we cause even rapas das bestas is on its way out, as you said too, right? It's that there's not as many people practicing it anymore. And a lot of the villagers were afraid that it's going to go away soon. Yeah.

John Hartigan: [00:34:10] Yes. Yeah. And

Yeah. Yeah. Go ahead.

Astrid Countee: [00:34:14] No was just going to comment that in addition to what you're saying, Adam, like as a practicing anthropologist who works in mostly science and technology based companies. I found this method really useful to give a voice to what it is that I end up doing, because I do spend a lot of time going very deep on different types of technology or learning different types of science.

Like currently I work in biotechnology, so I spend time reading scientific papers to try to understand types of bacteria and in the traditional view of what an anthropologist does, like that's literature review maybe, but not necessarily my expertise, but it's, I really found this interesting. I think you mentioned somewhere in the introduction for Shaving the Beast, or maybe it was another paper, this idea of computer human interaction being juxtaposed with computer machine, I believe it was interrelatedness or something along those lines, because I think that is the little slight difference that an anthropologist would have versus maybe a different type of expert is that interrelatedness of the relationships between different things. And talked about that a lot when it comes to humans and the relationships between humans, but I actually find in my regular just everyday work that I am the one on the team who says, Hey, I noticed that when we're looking at this thing keeps happening.

Maybe we should do something about that. Or maybe we should build some way to better document. That's the thing that helps, my, my regular everyday job and that's part of the reason why it can be effective on these science and technology teams. But until I was reading through this, I'd never could find a name or have some sort of comradery around the fact that's what I'm doing. I have to figure out how to explain it. But when you were writing about that, I was thinking, Oh my gosh, that is what I do. I spent a lot of time learning somebody else's expertise. And then once I have this kind of worldview systems level view of what that is now I can say, Oh, there's this relationship here that maybe you didn't notice, or there's this connection over here, that's affecting this outcome that you didn't notice. And that's where this kind of value of having an anthropologist on the team comes in.

John Hartigan: [00:36:30] Yeah. I think Anna Tsing characterized ethnography as the art of noticing where you pick up on these things that sort of fall from the view of practitioners in any particular field but yeah. Exactly that process is not just learning the literature, but coming to recognize these entities, whether they're organic or digital, that these various experts are engaged with. And not just to be always stepping back towards the discourse. Let's just explain the discourse here. That's our purview. And then yes, exactly that process of, imbibing it, developing some confidence around in recognizing those entities.

And then yes, you know probably what's fundamental in ethnography is just thinking about relationships in a particular place and, something like the natural sciences broadly for them. It's just the individual, that's the unit of analysis. And arguably, social analysis is predicated on the idea that the social constitutes the individual, the sort of always already that's conditioning it.

And you can recognize that in many different settings but it's very hard for somebody with scientific training generally to think that way, that the social proceeds the individual and constitutes it. But that's probably a, I think a very consistent perspective as an ethnographer and as a cultural anthropologist.

Adam Gamwell: [00:37:58] I think one of the pieces of that methodology that, that really struck me too, in, in Shaving the Beast you talk about is, and I think you mentioned it in the, at least in the last chapter of how to interview a plant from Care of Species too, but the idea of thin description, versus thick description as a way to, I don't know, it's, I don't know.

It's to get past just the individual, even when it comes to interviewing with a plant, never just the plant even. I even appreciate you describing the bugs dancing around you that you wouldn't otherwise see even. Yeah. I was curious about this process too, and like how the idea of thin description might also inform this idea that how did we get past just an individual perspective on behavior

John Hartigan: [00:38:32] Yeah.  What's really fascinating about that, so like I've had to go back and engage Clifford Geertz very closely on this because this is where we get the contrast of thick and thin description. And he took it from Gilbert Ryle and, what Geertz was responding  to in terms of social analysis, late sixties, 1950s even was, behaviorism was really prominent.

And the kind of thick version of analysis that he offered, what it is, it opened up the realm of interpretation and, but it brought with it, this idea that you only ever get to interpretations, it's turtles all the way down. But I think now so much has changed in the study of animal behavior and behavior broadly since the 1950s, 1960s, and this is something I've learned from my biological anthropology colleagues that say we really don't talk about instinct anymore. We are recognizing that all these behaviors are generally learned somehow. Instinct as a concept is central to the, it comes from individualism as a philosophy.

And Adam, you very quickly went through that rendition of the enlightenment, but that's where we get this belief in confidence in the individual. And that begins to be unthought with Durkheim and the rise of industrial society. Lots to talk about there, but what I see in the natural sciences is a lot of talk about culture.

Animal cultures, it starts, it was recognized first with the chimpanzees. And now you see it in, the cetaceans, the dolphins, the whales, they have very local traditions of communicating and migrating. If you take a killer whale from its pod at infancy, it's gonna speak a different dialect, they're very interested in culture. They just aren't very good at talking about it yet, because again, there's this investment in the individual. But it's very. Important to take stock of whether we're jousting against these kinds of straw figures, when we say, Oh you know natural sciences, mechanistic and reductive, it's changing rapidly.

Evolutionary theory is changing rapidly. And this is where I think there's a lot of generative potential for this survey. Your cross-disciplinary discussion.

Astrid Countee: [00:40:58] John, of the things I was thinking about as I was reading some of your work was I just wanted to get your opinion on, do you think that it serves our discipline to have distinctions between, who's a cultural anthropologist, who's a biological anthropologist, et cetera. Because when I was reading through just how you were formulating, how you were going to approach your field work and how you were going to solve some problems, you weren't necessarily planning to solve or things that were a little bit out of your realm of what you had been trained to do. It seems like a really great representation of picking from all these different parts of what an anthropologist can be. And I know that there's a little bit of a little movement towards not being so siloed in our own subspecialties and paying more attention to just all the ways that anthropology can be used. So I just wanted to get a little bit of your opinion on what you think about that.

 

John Hartigan: [00:41:54] Yeah. I'm  glad you brought it up. And as you're indicating, it's a very fraught matter. I could not have done the work I did either in Care of Species or Shaving the Beast without my colleagues in biological anthropology in particular. I talked as well with cultural anthropologists, but I learned so much from them. And yes, there's a long standing set of antipathies and anxieties to keep these things distinct. They're not going to go away anytime soon, but I find it so crucial. Certainly in my research, but also my teaching to draw on biological anthropology.

And this is something I would never have done, 20 years ago when I was always drawing a contrast with biological anthropology. But, like when I address my intro students I know what they've been exposed to. They've been exposed to a lot of evolutionary psychology with all this, men are from Mars, women from Venus and the paleo diet and all of this stuff.

Those are the dominant narratives in our society to explain things like gender or what the human is. We have much better stories to tell evolutionarily within anthropology, you look at what makes humans distinct as a species is that we're hyper social. We're enormously bent towards collective action, beginning with food sharing.

And when you tell those stories, you have a very different sense of the human from a, the kind of. As a rational actor from the business school, the economic or from evolutionary psychology. And I think that's very generative for students to get that. And I begin with the kind of, here's the hunter-gatherer stage, the foundation of our species and it causes disquiet amongst some of my cultural anthropology colleagues like, Oh, that's so old.

Actually, there's a lot of good, interesting new research and it gives us this sort of authority to challenge the dominant, but badly misconstrued versions of our species that we get from some of these other disciplines. So yeah. Biological anthropology, I think is a huge resource, both in teaching and as well in my research,

Adam Gamwell: [00:44:18] That's good. I think the dream is to get more, more holistic anthropology conversations happening.

John Hartigan: [00:44:22] Yeah. And Adam, I just want to keep, to get back to you raised the specter of though you rapa das bestas, going away. But then also, this is what happens when this sort of apparent collapse of sociality on the part of the horses and there's two things I want to get there.

I'm trying to engage horse activists in the U.S. with this book and I'm emailing them and calling them. And you're trying to get into their conversations because you know what they're actively protesting, our Bureau of Land Management practices of herding that involve helicopters and are often very lethal for some of the horses.

And I want them to like, see, okay, there's a kind of ideal that the horse should just be free. And it's very infused with these notions of the wild and freedom. But there's an argument made in Spain, certainly over through rapa das bestas which can seem very rough and brutal, but it's the only way to maintain these populations, living independently on these open ranges.

If they don't do that they will overpopulate. They'll and then they'll be eradicated by the government who doesn't want them getting out on highways and wrecking cars. But that's a very difficult conversation to have if you've got this idea that they should just be free and wild.

And the second part is that when we talk about social collapse, when we think about calamities as we've been facing with COVID and in thinking about the Anthropocene more generally there's a very strong kind of narrative of it just collapses, and then it's all gone.

What I was able to observe in these horses is that, okay? Yes, their forms of social distance, their communicative patterns collapse, but they very quickly re-establish themselves in this very challenging circumstance. And I think that's probably something we can try to characterize about sociality generally. It's not quite as fragile as we tend to imagine it being when we have these movies, these apocalyptic movies and it's all of a sudden Manson family gangs running everywhere, all apocalypse, but actually you look at this sort of the aftermath of the big Mayan civilization.

People still live there. People still carried on, you, you didn't have the big state, but people managed it. And that's probably because of the immense power of sociality to bring people together again.

Adam Gamwell: [00:47:01] That's a great point. And it's funny, it actually is as much as we like, have to look at it in a scenario of dissolution or an apocalyptic film. It's actually a positive thing, right? Like our social capacity is actually what helps us carry on in these moments. And certainly afterwards, too, it doesn't mean you're going to go through a tornado in the meantime

John Hartigan: [00:47:18] You know this idea that you're going to survive by hunkering down in a bunker. It's absurd. If you understand how our species survived and thrived in the first place, it was based on establishing forms of sociality. You're not stockpiling cans down in the basement.

Astrid Countee: [00:47:37] Yeah. What's also interesting about that is that we don't really have to look to movies to see that, especially due to climate change and more intense storms. And, we had wildfires all last year and I live in Houston, so we have lots of hurricanes and you already know that when something like that happens, what's going to save you is like your neighbor who's going to ride by in a boat and pick you up. Or someone who has extra food is going to drop it off. So you already know that it's about relationships. That's what gets you through it versus, some sort of I guess like doomsday, zombie apocalypse sort of planning, but I guess we like to forget that and it's more fun to dramatize our own like Rambo moments.

John Hartigan: [00:48:21] Exactly. Yes. And you're so right, there are many, almost now mundane examples of people responding in the face of crisis in very social ways.

Adam Gamwell: [00:48:35] I think that's a beautiful note right there. So John, I just want to ask what's next, you actually mentioned the end of Shaving the Beast. You're working on a kind of a trilogy-ender the return of the Jedi as it were of multiple species.

John Hartigan: [00:48:44] Yeah. Yeah. The next book is going to be a social theory for non-humans. And so the like logo or, a motto for is plants, animals, theory, as plants take Care of Species and animals and Shaving the Beast. And now the dreaded theory. Yeah. I am writing that as a way of guiding people in the social sciences to engaging with evolutionary theory.

And you know, trying to develop ways of thinking about sociality across species. One of the interesting things about it is I'm live writing this almost or writing in stages online. The university of Minnesota press participates with this manifold platform and one of several academic presses engaged with it.

And it started out as a way to publish, if you will, all this material that didn't make it into the book. Photos, videos, material generally, but I'm using it to write the book. And so the technique I've developed is to pick a couple of journal articles from the natural sciences, something on giraffes and how they socialize or zebrafish.

And then I write a commentary on that where I'm both using their findings as a basis for thinking, and those will continue to advance. But then also saying here is how, if you framed it from a kind of social science perspective, you would see some dynamics in the situation that aren't evident.

If just because I'm able to move across taxa instead of being like I'm just doing giraffes or I'm just doing elephants. That's a pretty exciting project. So it's accessible to people, if you just type in it, there's a link in the book and I'll send you one as well.

So you can see my commentaries, the chapter drafts are moving along a little bit slowly. I will admit. This format for writing is one of the exciting features of it. Not just the sort of, finished book.

Adam Gamwell: [00:50:59] But the process. Yeah that's super cool. Yeah. So we can put all links in the show notes. So folks can check out the different works that you're working on. I love that idea too, just like the comparative project is let's do comparative zoology ethnographically.

John Hartigan: [00:51:11] Yeah. Great.

Adam Gamwell: [00:51:13] Cool. John, I want to say thank you so much. This has been, it's been a great conversation. We have ranged across the species as it were. And thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. It's been a lot of fun and we're super excited to share this conversation with the good people.

John Hartigan: [00:51:24] I'm so enthused, thanks for making this possible and for your patience too. I'm sorry, we could've spoken sooner, but I'm anticipating the kind of audience this conversation will have, and then very enthused about that.

 Adam Gamwell: [ Many thanks again to to John Haritgan. Again you can check out all of his work on our show notes, a ton of great books, articles, ethnographic research, rich, rich insights. I feel that my own perception of both humanity and the ecological world we live in has been enriched and I hope yours has as well. I’d be curious to hear if you do any multispecies ethnographic work, do you work with animals or plants or more than human beings such as I don’t know, bacteria or viruses? Shoot us a message over on Instagram at This Anthro Life or  an email us at thisanthrolife@gmail.com. Let us know your multispecies ethnography study. We’ll pop them out and share some of the best ones on Instagram after we hear from you, so let us know. Today’s episode was produced by Sarah McDonugh, Liz Smyth, Sara Shmieder, and myself, Adam Gamwell. Thank you so much for joining us this week, we can’t wait to show you  more great episodes here in 2021 so stick around and we will see you soon. I’m Adam Gamwell and this is This Anthro Life. Ciao.

John Hartigan, Jr.

Professor of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin

John Hartigan Jr. is an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at Austin who focuses on multispecies ethnography, media, and race. He has done fieldwork in Spain, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Detroit, Michigan. Hartigan’s latest book is Shaving The Beast: Wild Horses and Ritual in Spain, in which he explores the ritual of rapa das bestas in Galicia, Spain where villagers heard wild horses together to shave their manes and tails. Through multispecies ethnography, Hartigan tells the story of this ritual through the horses’ eyes, experiencing the traumatic event as he tells the story of the horses and their society. Hartigan has also authored Care of the Species: Cultivating Biodiversity in Mexico and Spain (2017), Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit (1999), Odd Tribes: Toward a Cultural Analysis of White People (2005), What Can You Say? America’s National Conversation on Race (2010), and Aesop’s Anthropology: A Multispecies Approach.