Human-Plant Interfaces

Plants play a vital role in the survival and well-being of the living planet. Plants are everywhere and are fundamental for human life; yet, we little acknowledge their presence daily. Can plants be studied by anthropology as “beings”? What does a plant do, know and sense?

In this research group we turn our attention more closely to plants, conceptually and methodologically. To do so, to “see” plants as culturally informed, affects the ways in which we can make sense of, theorize and investigate plants and their worldings. We interrogate the interrelatedness of people and plants, and we consider plants’ sociality and the constant “becoming with” humans, ecologies, climate. Analysing the plants and their vegetal subjectivity and ontology necessitates a decentering from the human and to adopt a focus on the multi-species, the other-than or more-than-human—plants, animals, landscapes, objects, spirits.

Current trends in anthropology, geography, philosophy and other disciplines have questioned human exceptionalism and emphasised the interrelatedness of humans with more-than-humans. Such studies draw attention to the differing agencies and lifeworlds of non-humans. Rethinking plants may thus offer alternative ethical and political engagements with our own humanity and with our shared world.

Our research, founded by the National Research Fundation (NRF), develops around three main aspects:

  1. The radical interconnectedness and agentivity of plants—composed of a myriad of active phenomena, including practices, plants, landscapes, beings, spirits, and people;
  2. The nature of knowledge in human-plant interfaces— we have looked into the many practices in which plants are interwoven: healing, rituals, artefacts. Our work challenges the orthodox assumptions about knowledge transfers in plant knowledge and shows that plants are located in networks of practitioners, ecologies, sites and philosophies.
  3. The development of new methodological approaches to study plants in all their relationality, and to write about them: planthropologies, “herb-I-graphy”, plantography.

In 2016 the research group has organized the “INSPIRE 2016 Green Medicine Symposium” funded by the National Research Foundation in which the work of colleagues and postgraduate students was showcased. The outcome of the workshop will be published in the special issue of Anthropology Southern Africa: “ Human and plant interfaces: relationality, knowledge and practices”.

Contact Person: Diana Gibson (dgibson@uwc.ac.za) and William F. Ellis (wellis@uwc.ac.za)