A Sensory Approach for Multispecies Anthropology

27th January 2021

“Our purpose was to tease out an interaction between under-represented areas of Australian anthropology to suggest a new line of inquiry in contemporary cross-cultural thought.” – Natasha Fijn & Muhammed Kavesh

We recently caught up with Dr Natasha Fijn and Dr Muhammed Kavesh, who are both based in the School of Culture, History & Language, to discuss the special issue they have recently co-edited for The Australian Journal of Anthropology. Developing on a sensory analysis, their introductory paper explores how both nonhuman and human lives are connected, and how closely analysing them can facilitate anthropologists in capturing the subtleties of ‘more-than-human’ engagement and relatedness.


TAJA special issue for January 2021

What is your paper, A Sensory Approach for Multispecies Anthropology, about?

Our paper is an extended introduction to the special issue that we co-edited. The article and the issue as a whole explores the intersection between multispecies anthropology and sensory anthropology, but with particular reference to the context of Australian anthropology. The debates in the paper are based on well-developed theoretical orientations from the field of multispecies anthropology and emerging concepts such as multimodality, multisensorial analysis and experimental filmmaking. Our purpose was to tease out an interaction between under-represented areas of Australian anthropology to suggest a new line of inquiry in contemporary cross-cultural thought. The editorial committee of The Australian Journal of Anthropology, one of the highest-ranking journals within anthropology in Australia, agreed to publish the issue with a quick turnaround of less than a year to be released online, as the themes were thought to be crucial and timely.


A young female archer in Mongolia. Credit: Natasha Fijn

What is multispecies anthropology? How is it different from sensory anthropology?

We agree with some leading anthropologists, such as Anna Tsing, in suggesting that the study of anthropology should engage with research beyond humanity and include other beings who share the same world with us. Multispecies anthropology is a means of understanding ethnography through examining culture, sociality and interconnections across “more-than-human” subjects, including different species who are capable of restructuring and altering our lifeworlds. Sensory anthropology fuses the intelligible with the sensible. By examining vision, sound, smell, touch and taste, it is capable of generating in-depth analysis of cultural process and practices.

In the special issue, we promoted connections between multispecies anthropology and sensory anthropology, arguing that this can lead Australian anthropologists to develop a deeper appreciation of both human and more-than-human engagement, connection and relatedness. Humans often prefer to communicate through speech or the written word, for example, whereas other beings use multiple modes of communication often employing different senses. We argued that a focus beyond speech and language offers multispecies anthropology a way to take a more-than-humans approach seriously and engage in interspecies knowledge-making in a meaningful way.

What served as the genesis of this theme?

The special issue was an outcome of a conference panel we co-organised in December 2019 at the Australian Anthropological Society’s conference at ANU. Natasha had been exploring the interconnection between multispecies and sensory anthropology through the curation and exhibition of a more-than-human oriented exhibition organised at the ANU School of Art & Design Gallery. Kavesh had been working on the publication of his book Animal Enthusiasms and a journal article for “The Senses and Society”, where he proposed a connection between these two fields within anthropology. Although our work is based on fieldwork within two different geographical locations—Mongolia and Pakistan, respectively—our research has been aligned theoretically, methodologically and conceptually. During the conference panel, we were excited by the quality of the discussion the presenters instigated and subsequently proposed a special issue with TAJA.


Pakistani pigeon flyers. Credit: Muhammad Kavesh

How do you think this stream of research will benefit the field of anthropological research in general?

Our introductory paper offers an overview of the major theoretical debates in both multispecies and sensory anthropology and set the stage for the ethnographic articles that followed within the special issue. There are six ethnographically rich, in-depth papers, which relate to these two intersecting approaches:

  1. Assa Doron’s paper engages with the interactions between microbes, humans, cattle, vultures and dogs through an analysis of India’s municipal dumps.

  2. Muhammad Kavesh’s article explores how Pakistani pigeon flyers develop a deeper understanding of the self in the company of their birds.

  3. Natasha Fijn’s piece is a comparative analysis of horse archery in the context of Mongolia and Japan, a sensory engagement between human and horse.

  4. Paul Keil’s sensory ethnography of feral pig hunting through both the hunters and their dogs in Australia, investigates the role of smell and other senses in tracking down pigs.

  5. Petronella Vaarzon-Morel’s paper develops on the epistemologies of donkey cries and their growing silence among the Willowra Aboriginal community in Central Australia due to external forces.

  6. Lisa Palmer’s paper is based on an auto-ethnographic filmic analysis. She delves into the interconnected lifeworlds between bees, pigs, goats, and chickens in East Timor.

All of these articles within the issue make a unique contribution to the field of anthropology in Australia, revealing a different multispecies and multi-sensorial approach to ethnographic fieldwork.

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