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Accepted Paper:

'It Makes Beauty Like Nothing Else': Sentient Rice, Botanical Variation, and Dilemmas of Knowing in Understanding Human-Plant Relations  
Susannah Chapman (University College Cork)

Paper Short Abstract:

Drawing on ethnographic work with rice farmers in The Gambia, where farmers describe the process of crop varietal development as a more-than-human collaboration, this paper explores the dilemmas and politics of apprehending beauty and sentience among plants.

Paper Abstract:

Since the 1980s, the rice farming ecosystems of West Africa have featured prominently in anthropological work attuned to human-plant relations, particularly work on farmer experimentation. Where much early research sought to challenge the devaluation of farmer knowledge within development practice, it did so within a language of plant beingness borrowed from scientific plant breeding. For example, work on farmer plant breeding in The Gambia has shown that farmers identify and develop new rice cultivars at roughly the same rate and level of genetic uniformity as professionally-trained plant breeders, but it has also held that many farmers—citing the contributions of spirits and the efforts beautiful plants—do not understand the “true” cause of botanical change.

Reflecting on this legacy, which is already attuned to a certain politics of elision, this paper explores the dilemmas and politics of apprehending sentient plant beauty in multispecies ethnography. Indeed, among rice farmers in The Gambia, people describe the coming-into-being of new crop varieties as a more-than-human collaboration involving the work of God, jinn, humans, and responsive, sensing, beauteous plants. Here, beauty is not just an outcome of human tending, but is something that is sensed, tried for, and communicated by plants. At a time when work in feminist STS and Indigenous ecologies is pointing to new modes of plant relating attuned to multispecies collaboration, apprehending plant beauty in more-than-human ethnography still raises deep questions about the translation of human-plant relations, the signification of lifeworlds, and the limits of seeing beauty and sensing plant communications.

Panel P196
Uncertain methods, elusive lives: exploring the methodological and relational horizons of doing research with more-than-humans
  Session 3 Wednesday 24 July, 2024, -