Coauthoring research with my companion animal
It’s an afternoon dedicated to sorting fieldwork notes, replying to interlocutors’ emails, and preparing presentation slides for an upcoming conference, and my dog Rumi is curled up snoring beside me. Our companionship began during my master’s program in medical anthropology, and she either is in every photograph from my fieldwork or was waiting patiently as I took the photo. During my research on Lyme disease we traveled the Highlands and Islands of Scotland for three weeks, our home an irregularity of tents, sofas, and makeshift beds, with the one stable element being my car lamenting its struggle up the hills. My master’s thesis culminated in the dedication: ‘To Rumi, fieldwork companion, explorer, tick collector’.
As I prepare for our return to the field for my doctoral research, I find myself re-examining her inextricable link with my work. More than a passive companion, she enabled data collection. The stories I tell of my research are dominated by the moments where I followed her lead and felt safer because she was there; the people I met who had wanted to approach her; and the evidence I found of hundreds of ticks because I pulled them from her limbs, ears, and lower eyelids. Rumi was a keyholder of unexpected access to people, landscapes, and data. Yet my thesis had no space for anecdotes about her. Treading amidst Nading’s (2004) ideas of entanglement in Mosquito Trails and Haraway’s (2008) concept of ‘becoming-with’ in When Species Meet, I began describing her as my coresearcher. She runs allegorically through my thesis – paws that quietly smudged a comma, the confusion of a discarded, chewed-up exclamation mark – but she also left very real pawprints in the landscapes and houses we visited. So, I find myself asking, if she participated so actively, was she not a social producer of qualitative data? Is she my coauthor?
I began to explore the literature for how anthropologists imagine their nonhuman ‘co-authors’. Nading (2014, x) writes:
This brings me to my next, rather awkward, thank-you. It goes to Floyd, the cat. … Trying desperately to keep Floyd alive amid her travails … ended up bringing me into the lives of Nicaraguan neighbors and health care workers, and into Ciudad Sandino’s wider landscape. In retrospect, I do not think I would have been a successful fieldworker had I not become attached to this shrieking, antagonistic, partially blind five-pound monster.
Moved when I read Nading’s ‘thank you’, I read his ethnography Mosquito Trails, waiting for Floyd’s reappearance, which never came. I continued my exploration. Haraway (2008), in When Species Meet,discusses becoming-with and co-being, but not coauthorship. I agree that we are knots of species ‘coshaping one another’ (Haraway 2008, 42) – Rumi certainly shaped my research landscape time and time again – but what does this mean for the research that is shaped? I also found Tsing’s (2015, 23) ideas on assemblages helpful – the idea that our work could have ‘communal effects, (perhaps even) a potential history in the making’ – but was this the best way to accommodate the hierarchies of human researcher and nonhuman companion?
The ethnography that is currently influencing my approach to ‘coauthorship’ is Marisol de la Cadena’s (2015) Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds. Her research began as an exploration of indigenous peasant movements in Peru’s land reforms, and rapidly became entangled in her interlocutors’ description of the agency, choice, and participation of ‘earth-beings’ (mountains, rivers, and lagoons) in Peru’s political and social reforms. During the Law of Agrarian Reform in 1969, the mountain Ausangate was understood as everything other than passive: local people remembered the mountain acting ‘like a lawyer’ or ‘like a president’; Ausangate considered despachos (offerings) from both sides before eventually siding with the peasant movement and enabling the agrarian reform. This was not the mountain’s first time fighting alongside humans: during the Spanish Conquest, Ausangate helped the Peruvian natives win ‘so that we would be free’ (Cadena 2015, 114). Cadena finds herself having to move away from translations of Ausangate as a ‘spirit’ or ‘god’ because this translation shifts Ausangate from local worlds and into ‘Western’ worlds. Such a translation, she argues ‘is not wrong, but it risks an equivocation that leaves the earth-being behind’ (Cadena 2015, 116). Viveiros de Castro (2004, 11) discusses equivocation as ‘a failure to understand that understandings are necessarily not the same’. I argue that equivocation could be employed more extensively by anthropologists when thinking through how we understand who and what shaped our research. If another understanding of Ausangate’s role is possible, can there be another understanding of my dog’s role?
Coliving with a nonhuman fundamentally changes both us and our research; as Nading (2014, x) writes, Floyd made him a ‘better fieldworker’. This symbiosis may be accidental, but in it we, the humans, are opportunistic: we use what we learn from our nonhuman coproducers to advance ourselves, to become more. In The Philosopher and the Wolf, Rowlands (2008, 84–85) describes how years of running with his pet wolf made both of them stronger, leaner, and harder, and yet:
On our runs together, I realised something both humbling and profound: I was in the presence of a creature that was, in most important respects, unquestionably, demonstrably, irredeemably and categorically superior to me. … I realised that I wanted to be less like me and more like [my wolf].
On our fieldwork runs, I wasn’t walking Rumi: I was training myself to become like her. I mimicked her nature to become more-than-human because of the success of doing so in producing data. She could open conversations, fieldwork, and network opportunities when I least expected it. So I began to follow her lead. Rather than subjugate my curious dog, I struck up conversations with the people she approached; I followed her into new human packs. I did the equivalent of her sniffing the grass: I lingered longer, and these moments led to important data. By mimicking her in the field, she became a coproducer of my data.
But she was only helpful during collection and no help whatsoever in the writing-up (she is still snoring beside me). So her positionality oscillates somewhere between more-than-companionship and less-than-authorship. I argue for the possibility of nonhumans as social coproducers of data, for attention to equivocation, and for their greater presence in the main bodies of our publications, not just in our credits.
Cadena, Marisol de la. 2015. Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Haraway, Donna. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Nading, Alex. 2014. Mosquito Trails: Ecology, Health and the Politics of Entanglement. Oakland: University of California.
Rowlands, Mark. 2008. The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness. London: Granta Publications.
Tsing, Anna. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Viveiros, Eduardo de Castro. 2004 ‘Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation’. Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America 2 (1): 1–22.