Illustration by Oana Hajos
A Short Introduction to Multispecies Studies and Ethnography
Multispecies studies is a field that was born out of the pressures generated by questioning the centrality of the human in a number of disciplines (anthropology, philosophy, history, feminist studies, ecology, art), by normalizing and extending questions and interests in ethics and power relations, and especially in the immediate, visible materiality of a world in the midst of destruction. Multispecies studies ask for a cultivation of attention as a practice of being in the world, as a purposeful and assumed immersion, a practical recognition of the multitude of relationships through which we and others—other species—semiotically and materially co-construct our worlds. A kind of ethical-ethnographic practice maybe, driven by assuming an affective relationship to other forms of living and being alive on this planet. Multispecies ethnography is nothing but a continuation of this impulse and the contribution that anthropology can bring to imagining and producing a more inclusive world.
Claudia Câmpeanu has a doctorate in anthropology from The University of Texas at Austin and is currently a lecturer at the Faculty of Sociology and Social Work of the University of Bucharest. Throughout her career as an anthropologist she was concerned with questions related to ethnicity, local development and tourism, migration, but in recent years she is more attracted to the open space of formal and informal collaborations with biologists and ecologists. She is passionate about birds and is currently working on an interdisciplinary project on pollinating insects and agricultural practices.
I’ve been in the art business for as long as I can remember. I can’t look at the world any other way than through an artistic perspective. I worked as a graphic designer and interior designer. But since 2019, with the pandemic, I discovered illustration – a childish game that turned into a job. So far I have illustrated 4 children’s books, one of which is also written by me. At the moment, I am with my family – husband, 3 children and a dog – on a long trip around the world in a motorhome. We don’t know how long it will last, but it’s clear that it gives me a lot of inspiration and we’re building great memories together.
Katia Pascariu is an actress and a cultural activist. She studied Drama & Performing Arts at UNATC, obtaining her BA in 2006, and got her master’s degree in Anthropology in 2016 at the University of Bucharest, where she currently works and resides. She is part of several independent theatre collectives that do political and educational projects – Macaz Cooperative, 4th Age Community Arts Center and Replika Center, with special focus on multi- and inter – disciplinarity. She develops, together with her colleagues, artistic and social programs, in support of vulnerable and marginal communities, while promoting socially engaged art, accesibility to culture, with a main focus on: education, social justice, recent local history. She has been part of the casts of Beyond the Hills (C. Mungiu, 2012) and Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (R. Jude, 2021), among others. She is working also within the artistic ensemble of the Jewish State Theatre in Bucharest. She performs in Romanian, English, French and Yiddish.
Thousands of rooks (Corvus frugilegus) spend the night in the tall trees of Cișmigiu Park, from spring until late fall. It is unclear when they started doing this, but their presence is most likely connected to transformations in the urban space (the disappearance of green spaces, cutting down trees, the expansion of the city) and to the growing amounts of garbage available in the city open garbage dumps. Corvids (of which rooks are part of) are intelligent, adaptable, generalist birds (they will eat almost anything), with complex social structures, so the tall trees of Cișmigiu, and everywhere else in Bucharest for that matter, came as an obvious solution. People complain about them, about their excrements, about the evening noise, or even about their existence. Their presence is discursively framed as a problem, a sign of the park’s degradation, of the administration’s inefficiency or indifference, or simply as a danger (dirt, disease, ecosystem destruction). Over the past few years, they have been the target of greater or lesser forms of violence, some organized by the park’s administration, some by citizens: air rifles, firecrackers, laser lights, or other kinds of lights and noises that actually just further agitate the crows and prolong their noisy settling in for the night. There have been proposals for mass killings, relocation, or even cutting down the tall trees in the park.
The intolerance and raging hatred towards the park crows, otherwise normalized, trouble me deeply, and not just because of the parallels they evoke with other violent “civilizing” projects for the urban or national space. They trouble me because, in all honesty, I got to like the crows. How could we live with them, and how could anthropology and its sister disciplines contribute to answering this question?
I started “looking at birds” about six years ago. And so, the crow became more than a crow, it became frugilegus, cornix, or monedula, and the abandoned yards, the stone quarries, or other ruderal spaces transformed into promising landscapes, teeming with life. I spent hundreds of hours with others who, just like me, were cultivating an attention towards the world so that they could share it, for a few seconds maybe, with another being, a bird. I learned how to see and hear, to distinguish a presence, to take a step or stay still, to look for places, to listen. I learned how to try to imagine and feel what counts for a bird and to understand how our two worlds were connected, co-constituted through gestures and actions, through deep and complicated histories of care, indifference, violence.
On May 15, 2020, on the first day after the emergency state was lifted, I left with V. and C., two biologists, for Vadu, on the seashore. They had their own work—monitoring birds in a protected area—and I was a sort of curious and enthusiastic appendix. Clearly, neither of them was under the impression that what they were documenting was a parallel, undisturbed, wild world, populated with birds that had no idea were being observed. Moreover, the two were doing this with the respect of being aware that their presence is noticed and tolerated. V., with whom I spent about two hours in a wet area a few kilometers from the shore, gently introduced me to a landscape that, although clearly transformed by humans, was abundant in all sorts of possibilities for life—from small birds hiding in the overgrown reeds, to bee-eaters digging in the sand dunes, and water birds shooing each other out of our sight. Carefully, V. was trying to temper the violence inherent to our presence (two people with binoculars going round a fixed spot) and transform it into a practice of recognition for the generosity with which other creatures—but not all—shared their world with us. I didn’t realize that until I was hit by the contrast on the shore, dozens of people spread out on the entire length of the beach with their tents, cars, fun and good times, celebrating that they had survived the two months of the pandemic and its lockdown. In contrast, it became clear that what the two biologists were doing was experimenting with ways of being with these birds, with the recognition that although they all lived in different worlds, they shared the same common space of existence.
Cultivating attention is then not just about cultivating perception, “the art of noticing,” to quote Anna Tsing, or revealing other worlds that are alive, dense, and dynamic, governed by logics, motivations, and aesthetics that are maybe foreign or invisible to us. Cultivating attention is a practice of being in the world, a purposeful and assumed immersion, a practical recognition of the multitudes of relationships through which we and others—other species—co-constitute our world semiotically and materially. A kind of ethical-ethnographic practice maybe, driven by assuming an affective relationship to other forms of living, of being alive on this planet.
In her 2010 essay, anthropologist Anna Tsing builds a proposal for such an ethical-ethnographic project around what she calls “multispecies love.” In short, it is about a new kind of science, more democratic, more inclusive, at the intersection between different sciences of nature and sciences of culture, and which “encourages a new, passionate immersion in the lives of the nonhumans being studied.” Of course, this immersion is nothing new, she says, it is something that has been allowed for those in the natural sciences, on condition that they don’t show their love for these subjects. But this new science, in contrast, has other objectives, namely to “open the public imagination to make new ways of relating to nature possible.”
Tsing is one of the most well-known figures of an effervescent interdisciplinary zone, with others coming from anthropology, philosophy, history, feminist studies, ecology, biology, geography, and even art. Multispecies studies is a field that was born out of the pressures generated by questioning the centrality of the human in all of these disciplines, by normalizing and extending questions and interests in ethics and power relations, and especially in the immediate, visible materiality of a world in the midst of destruction. Another motivation is a modesty and a recognition of the partiality and situatedness of our knowing—to invoke Haraway—which asks of all of us to be open to collaborations and to taking each other’s differences seriously, without interdisciplinary jealousy and pettiness.
Anthropology was relatively ready for this. Early on, through a fascinated attention to the presence of other species in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves: Malinowski, Levi-Strauss, or Radcliffe-Brown talking about totems, Harris about cows, or Geertz about cocks. Later, through complex ethnographies that explore human-animal interactions in relationship to different bio-social and political contexts (as in Vitebsky’s beautiful ethnography, The Reindeer People). And, finally, through studies in ethnobiology, which take indigenous taxonomies and cosmologies seriously and pay attention to their proposals for other ways of living and relating to the nonhuman world. The multispecies ethnographies of the past ten years are the result of anthropologists’ immersion into human and nonhuman lives (not just animals but also fungi and microbes) and show how these lives “shape and are shaped by political, economic, and cultural forces.”
Eduardo Kohn’s ethnography, How Forests Think, extends this project and attempts to imagine an anthropology beyond the human through a de-centering of what we call semiotics, communication, and their integration into other logics connected to biological evolutionary processes, as well as through accessing other perspectives through dreams and trances. People, he says, are not the only ones to have a self and to think. All individuals—humans and nonhumans, people, trees, dogs, jaguars—do it, they represent reality and are represented. Life is in fact participating in this complex weaving of physical, sensory, bio-chemical signs and responses. An anthropology beyond the human has as its object understanding this complex reality and the different ways of living that constitute it.
Anna Tsing’s ethnographic project about the matsutake mushrooms is part of these efforts to imagine an ethnography beyond the human, but it does so by raising its political stake. First, the project involved rethinking and experimenting with ethnographic work in order to make it collaborative and allow it to take seriously other ways of knowing and producing knowledge from other anthropologists, biologists, mushroom pickers, farmers, loggers, artists, traders, consumers. Tsing was interested in what kind of life is made possible in the ruins and destruction caused by global capitalism, but she doesn’t offer an easy answer. The subject of her ethnography is a… mushroom species, several related species actually (Tricholoma ssp.), very much loved and prized for hundreds of years in Japan. The species needs a particular habitat, disturbed pine forests, in order to grow. It is collected in many parts of the world by enthusiasts, scientists, but also migrants and socially and economically marginalized people, and integrated in global distribution chains that end up mostly in Japan. Through evocative vignettes, art, literature, references to ecology or other biological sciences, we learn how the precariousness of a mushroom species and the precariousness of human life are part of the same entanglement of global relationships of exploitation, commodification, ecological destruction, but also love, appreciation, obsession. Tsing doesn’t condemn and doesn’t give verdicts, her ethical-political stake is taking these relationships seriously, without transforming the nonhuman into a new exotic alterity to be studied.
In fact, the ethical and political stake for multispecies studies is what attracted many into this interdisciplinary space. These kinds of analyses have revealed unequal positions, risks and trajectories, unjust relationships, suffering, death, complicated histories of domination, violence, or exploitation that all invoke similar stakes. But, they have also brought to light difficult situations that require us to rank social inequalities, the suffering or death of nonhuman creatures, or ecological destruction. Now, the problem is that while we are used to solve at least theoretically such dilemmas for the social worlds we know, for the new worlds we encounter we are not equipped to arrive at a clear, final answer to the question, How should we live? What is good (or bad)? The answer offered by multispecies studies is to refuse the opposition of often incompatible claims (social justice, an ethics of human and nonhuman individual rights, and ecosystem integrity) and to propose a relational ethics. Taking inspiration from Donna Haraway’s suggestion to “stay with the trouble,” such an approach tries to know and understand the multiple ethical obligations and perspectives that this involves, without slipping into a relativism devoid of consequences. Hence the imperative at the beginning of the essay to be open to the multitude of relationships through which we and nonhuman others co-constitute our worlds, to find new ways of taking into account these difficult or impossible to know worlds. The result will not be a magical solution but a continuous re-configuration and a re-cognition of what counts for whom, which “might help us to live well inside relationships that can rarely be settled to everyone’s satisfaction and never once and for all.”
What would such an approach look like in the case of the Cișmigiu crows? Thom van Dooren, a field philosopher who has worked and written extensively about crows all around the world, tells a story about the crows of Brisbane (a different species, Corvus orru) and how they were treated with similar or more violence (mass poisoning, cutting down the trees) in response to the crows’ noise, excrements, or even attacks on people getting too close to their nests. If public discourse, the actions of authorities or citizens are, he says, about a particular vision of the community, in the sense of who is included and under which conditions, who decides and who participates, the crows’ actions can be seen as political interjections that interrupt these visions and offer new proposals. Crows are, in a way, active participants in building multispecies communities, and recognizing this opens new possibilities for people to experiment and live well with these corvids. This does not mean totally and passively accepting their presence, but socially and politically cultivating an attention towards these neighbors and opening spaces of experimentation and knowing that can answer specifically and temporarily the questions, What exactly is interrupted and what is being proposed? How can we live together? How can we be transformed by this life together? Van Dooren gives examples of such spaces: biologists who dedicate years to studying these birds in the streets of Brisbane, people who change their daily paths in order to avoid active nests, people who care for wounded crows or organize activities for children in which participants imagine what it is like to be a crow and build their own nest. Without final solutions, then. Instead, openness, experimentation, knowing.
We would like to thank Ioana Miruna Voiculescu for her useful proofreading and suggestions to ensure style consistency and improve readability across the texts published in English.
 Anna L. Tsing, “Arts of Inclusion, or How to Love a Mushroom,” Manoa 22 (no. 2) (2010): 192.
 What Tsing calls “arts of inclusion.”
 Tsing, “Arts of Inclusion,” 201.
 Donna Haraway, “Situated knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Science 14, no. 3 (1998): 575–599.
 Bronislaw Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion and Other Essays, (Prospect Heights, IL.: Waveland Press, 1992).
 Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966).
 Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown, Structure and Function in Primitive Society, (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1965).
 Marvin Harris, “The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle,” Current Anthropology, 7, no. 1 (1966): 261-276.
 Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures. Selected Essays, (New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1973).
 Piers Vitebsky, The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia, (Boston: Mariner Books, 2006).
 Eben S. Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich, “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography,” Cultural Anthropology 25, no. 4 (2010): 545.
 Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).
 Anna L. Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press 2015).
 Thom van Dooren, Eben Kirksey, and Ursula Munster, “Multispecies Studies: Cultivating Arts of Attentiveness,” Environmental Humanities 8, no. 1 (2016): 16–18.
 Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016).
 van Dooren, Kirksey, and Munster, “Multispecies Studies,” 16.
 Thom van Dooren, The Wake of Crows: Living and Dying in Shared Worlds, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).