Identifying plants as a process: what can we learn from the Nuaulu Ethnobotanical Database project about intra-cultural and cross-cultural translation
Roy Ellen (University of Kent)
Paper short abstract:
This paper compares how two communities of practice - professional taxonomists working with herbarium reference collections and Nuaulu subsistence cultivators on Seram in eastern Indonesia - differ as groups and among themselves in the identifications they make of plants.
Paper long abstract:
We all seek to identify plants in our ordinary lives, or as professionals, yet what we mean by 'identification' and our intentions in seeking them are not always the same. Moreover, the 'identifications' we achieve are often subject to disagreement. This paper draws on examples from the Nuaulu Ethnobotanical Database project to compare how two communities of practice - professional taxonomists working with herbarium reference collections and Nuaulu subsistence cultivators on Seram in eastern Indonesia - differ as groups and among themselves in the identifications they make of plants. I argue that the differences between the two groups arise from the way material presents itself for identification in two radically different socio-cultural contexts, and the purposes for which the identifications are sort. Differences within the two groups arise from the ways individuals prioritize different kinds of information as this becomes available. Ethnobotanists often seek to translate between these two worlds of identification by seeking one-to-one correspondences between scientific and ethnoscientific categories that we describe as taxa, but often fail because the material used to identify plants and the purposes of identification are radically different. The paper concludes by suggesting how these issues are relevant to the contextualisation of ethnobotanical and biocultural collections in different kinds of institutions.
Reactivating Ethnobotanical Collections in the Anthropology Museum