Rethinking ethnobotany? A methodological reflection on human-plant research



Publication Details

Atchison, J. & Head, L. (2017). Rethinking ethnobotany? A methodological reflection on human-plant research. In M. Bastian, O. Jones, N. Moore & E. Roe (Eds.), Participatory Research in More-than-Human Worlds (pp. 178-191). Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.


All human life is sustained by plants. Our bodies, our livelihoods, our futures are immersed in the thick oxygenated space between plants and the sun (Mor - ton 2009). Plants underpin our food supply and contribute to the air we breathe, but this is not a simple relationship of dependency. Given the current predictions for global climate change for example, we might now argue that human- plant futures are mutually concerned in a way that has no historical precedent. Given this mutual entanglement of humans and plants, how might we trace the ways that plants also enter into research practices? In particular, and as this edited collection encourages us to ask, what might it mean to consider how we coproduce knowledge with plants? Since plants are central to pressing sustainability issues - biodiversity loss, climate change, and food security for example - how much should we centre them in our research endeavours on these issues? And how should we do so? Is it just an anthropomorphic conceit to consider that we can engage with them as other than objects, or that the research relationship might be one of mutuality and collaboration? Thinking through these questions at the boundaries of more-than-human and participatory research literatures has been challenging for us. It is one thing to recognise that the choice of methods can privilege some human voices over others, and think of ways to deal with this; it is quite another to try and give 'voice' (Plumwood 2009) to plants themselves. In this chapter, we discuss why a consideration of plants as active participants within the research process is inherently difficult, while also acknowledging that useful things emerge when we are pushed to think through the implications of this idea. Thus, while we are enormously sympathetic to exploring the methodological implications of more-than-humans as collaborators, we also want to bring a critical eye to these discussions. In this chapter, we consider these questions by reflecting on aspects of our own research trajectory spanning two decades and three different Australian projects, each containing an ethnobotanical component: entanglements with yams in the east Kimberley, following wheat in southern New South Wales, and living with weeds across the tropical north. The human- plant entanglements in these examples encompass both mutual flourishing and extremely adversarial relationships. We have no desire to expound a vegetal romanticism, much as we love trees. The brutal contingencies of continental plant invasions and biodiversity loss demand much broader and systematic thinking. At the same time, we are alert to the dangers of further asserting hierarchies of knowledge. As some of the most radical rethinking of plant capacities is coming from challenging and contested work in the botanical sciences, where more-than-human modes of sensing provide new insights into plant worlds, whether or not humans are part of them, we need to be alert to the dangers of asserting the power of science, but still be open to the radically new knowledges it is currently producing.

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