Multispecies Trilogy

In three vivid volumes, John Hartigan traces an ethnographic odyssey that begins with plants, shifts to wild horses, and ends up engaging with evolutionary theory. Care of the Species, the first volume in the trilogy, depicts how botanists learn to see species and how plant geneticists develop “species thinking” by calibrating and aligning genomes of model organisms. The book’s concluding chapter, “How to Interview a Plant,” combines these lessons as Hartigan directly engages several plants as ethnographic subjects. The second volume, Shaving the Beasts, is an ethologically-informed ethnography of wild horses in Spain. Hartigan recounts how he learned and applied ethological methods and analytics in observing free-roaming horses; then shifts to ethnographic analysis as he recounts how the social structure of these horses is impacted by a traumatic annual ritual of herding and shearing. The final entry in the trilogy, Social Theory for Nonhumans, takes off from these ethnographic platforms to explore the implications of these findings for evolutionary theory. Hartigan disrupts intellectual boundaries between the social and natural sciences by articulating a distinctive approach to theorizing social species. Hartigan devises a “species-local” mode of analysis that is attentive to the plasticity of sociality in varying context.

The Multispecies Trilogy initially features transposition of concepts from social theory to think about plants and animals. Beginning with “care of the self” (Foucault), “social formation” (Marx), and “face” (Goffman), Hartigan shows how generative these concepts can be when applied to nonhumans. But as Hartigan learns from botanists, geneticists, and ethologists in the field, his approach increasingly becomes infused with observational and descriptive techniques that open up the capacity to theorize species ethnographically. The theoretical implications of this interdisciplinary approach are wide-ranging. Social Theory for Nonhumans features chapters on ritual analysis, game theory, and the division of labor in eusocial species, in which Hartigan works through the manifold opportunities and predicaments involved in cross-species social analysis. Taken collectively, these three volumes guide readers in how to observe and then theorize an array of social species.