Fang, Raymond: Questioning an Ethnographic Text: Raffles, Hugh: Insectopedia


What is the text about – empirically?

What phenomenon is drawn out in the text?  A social process; a cultural and political-economic shift; a cultural “infrastructure;” an emergent assemblage of science-culture-technology-economics?

In this book, the phenomenon of human-insect relations are drawn out through an A-Z “encyclopedia,” with each chapter focused on a different lettered aspect of the relationship.


Where is this phenomenon located – in a neighborhood, in a country, in “Western Culture,” in a globalizing economy?

Raffles travels around the world for his book, ranging from the US, to China, to Northern Europe, to Sub-Saharan Africa. He examines the ways in which humans around the world create and maintain all sorts of relationships with insects. 


What historical trajectory is the phenomenon situated within?  What, in the chronology provided or implied, is emphasized -- the role of political or economic forces, the role of certain individuals or social groups? What does the chronology leave out or discount?     

The book is situated in the historical trajectory of the early 21stcentury. The book emphasizes the role of social groups, geography, history, art, and sexuality in shaping contemporary human and insect relationships around the world.


What scale(s) are focused on -- nano (i.e. the level of language), micro, meso, macro? What empirical material is developed at each scale?  

The book runs across a number of different scales. There is micro analysis of the ways some people in Shanghai interact with crickets in cricket fighting; meso analysis of nuclear radiation in Europe and how one woman tries to capture the effects of Chernobyl on insect life; and macro level analysis of locust infestations across the continent of Africa and their relationship to human geopolitical and neocolonial concerns.


Who are the players in the text and what are their relations?  Does the text trace how these relations have changed across time – because of new technologies, for example?

The players in the text are a whole range of insects – crickets, cockroaches, locusts – and humans around the world. The entire focus of the book is on the relationship between insects and humans in different historical and cultural contexts. These relationships vary across time and space, because of new technologies (such as video, which allowed for the creation of “crush porn” where women would crush bugs and insects) and because of changing social relations.


What is the temporal frame in which players play?  In the wake of a particular policy, disaster or other significant “event?”  In the general climate of the Reagan era, or of “after-the-Wall” globalization? 

The temporal frame in which the players play is primarily in the early 21stcentury. Although some of the historical chapters analyze earlier periods of human history, the majority of the book focuses on contemporary 20thand 21stcentury human and insect relations.


What cultures and social structures are in play in the text?

Cultures from around the world are at play in this text. For example, Shanghai cricket fighting, Louisiana insect science, Ukrainian scientific illustration, and American pornography are all subjects of Raffles’ writing. 


What kinds of practices are described in the text?  Are players shown to be embedded in structural contradictions or double-binds?

A wide range of practices are described in the text. Although no double-binds or structural contradictions are explicitly named, certain practices like Shanghai cricket training, grooming, and fighting are highlighted.


How are science and technology implicated in the phenomenon described?

Science and technology are deeply implicated in the phenomena Raffles traces throughout the book.  In the very first chapter, for example, Raffles describes a science experiment where biologists flew a small monoplane in rural Louisiana in 1926 to assess the number of insects in a vertical column of air extending up to 15,000 feet. The scientists found 36 million insects in the air, all the way up to 15,000 feet, destroying the notion that the lower atmosphere is somehow just empty space.


What structural conditions– technological, legal and legislative, political, cultural – are highlighted, and how are they shown to have shaped the phenomenon described in this text?           

Structural conditions of culture, law, sexuality, and technology are especially highlighted. For example, the spread of cheap video technology across the US enabled the rise of “crush porn” in the 90s and early 2000s, where women were filmed crushing insects and even small animals under their feet. Some of this porn was made illegal because of animal abuse, yet it continued to be produced and disseminated because so many men found it so exciting. 


How – at different scales, in different ways – is power shown to operate? Is there evidence of power operating through language, “discipline,” social hierarchies, bureaucratic function, economics, etc? 

Power is shown to operate in relationships between humans and in relationships between humans and insects. For example, in a chapter called “Jews,” Raffles discusses how the Nazi regime used the metaphor of insect invasion and insect-ness to describe the supposed problem of Jewish people and to justify the genocide. The Nazis also used a powerful insecticide to gas the Jews – not a coincidence, Raffles hints.


Does the text provide comparative or systems level perspectives?  In other words, is the particular phenomenon described in this text situated in relation to similar phenomenon in other settings?  Is this particular phenomena situated within global structures and processes? 

 The text is all about providing comparative and systems level perspectives. Raffles whole point of the text is to elucidate human and insect relations across contexts – geographical, cultural, historical.


What is the text about – conceptually?

Is the goal to verify, challenge or extend prior theoretical claims?

The goal is to extend theoretical claims about the important of insects – not megafauna and large animals – to human sociality. Often rejected as utterly inhuman, empty, and scary, Raffles attempts to show the myriad of ways in which humans and insects have always already been in deep relationship with each other.


What is the main conceptual argument or theoretical claim of the text?  Is it performed, rendered explicit or both? 

The main argument of the text is that humans and insects are deeply imbricated with each other in power-laden ways. The text performs this through its clever A-Z Insectopedia structure, moving across so many different relationships. It mocks the idea that there can be any complete account of A-Z human insect relations, as the alphabetical conceit quickly unravels as the book goes on.  


What ancillary concepts are developed to articulate the conceptual argument?

The concepts of disgust, fear, arousal, excitement, and shame are all drawn on to elaborate the deep social relationships that humans have with insects. 


How is empirical material used to support or build the conceptual argument?

Raffles’ archival and historical research, as well as his ethnographic research among various human/insect pairings around the world, allows him to build his argument. 


How robust is the main conceptual argument of the text?  On what grounds could it be challenged?

The main conceptual argument of the text is quite strong. It calls for greater recognition of how multispecies relationships are central to human life. One way in which the book could be challenged is that it does not do enough work to highlight power differences between humans.


How could the empirical material provided support conceptual arguments other than thosebuilt in the text?

 The empirical material supplied in the book could also support conceptual arguments around anti-racist and feminist accounts of human relationships with other humans and with insects.


Modes of inquiry?

What theoretical edifice provides the (perhaps haunting – i.e. non-explicit) backdrop to the text?

Theories of posthumanism are implicit throughout the text.


What assumptions appear to have shaped the inquiry?  Does the author assume that individuals are rational actors, for example, or assume that the unconscious is a force to be dealt with?  Does the author assume that the “goal” of society is (functional) stability? Does the author assume that what is most interesting occurs with regularity, or is she interested in the incidental and deviant? 

There are a few assumptions that shape the inquiry. Raffles assumes that the category of human applies somewhat evenly to all homo sapiens; he assumes the category of insect is somewhat stable across geographies and time.


What kinds of data (ethnographic, experimental, statistical, etc.)  are used in the text, and how were they obtained?

The text draws on ethnographic, historical, artistic, and auto-ethnographic data. Ethnographic data was obtained through participant-observation and ethnography, historical data was obtained through archival research and interviews, artistic data was obtained through art analysis, and auto-ethnographic data was obtained through self-reflection.


If interviews were conducted, what kinds of questions were asked?  What does the author seem to have learned from the interviews?

The author asked questions about the ways the people being interviewed interacted with insects and why. 


How was the data analyzed?  If this is not explicit, what can be inferred? 

The data was analyzed through qualitative analysis. There may have also been a formal coding process.


How are people, objects or ideas aggregated into groups or categories?

The main aggregated groups are humans and insects, though of course these groups are further sub-grouped according to race, gender, geography, history (for humans) and species and geography (for insects). 


What additional data would strengthen the text? 

 It would be nice to have even more data on historical non-Western theorizations and imaginations of insects.



Structure and performance?

What is in the introduction? Does the introduction turn around unanswered questions -- in other words, are we told how this text embodies a research project? 

 The book does not have a typical introduction but instead is organized like an encyclopedia, A-Z. The first chapter, Air, catches our attention with a description of a scientific research project from the 1920s in Louisiana finding insects in the air.


Where is theory in the text?  Is the theoretical backdrop to the text explained, or assumed to be understood? 

The theoretical backdrop to the text is explained. For example, Raffles draws on the theory of Jakob Johann von Uexküll, a German biologist and biosemotician.

What is the structure of the discourse in the text?  What binaries recur in the text, or are conspicuously avoided?

The English alphabet is self-consciously employed and subverted. The book starts off as a straightforward A-Z but grows increasingly unruly and breaks from the A-Z pattern more and more as the chapters progress.


How is the historical trajectory delineated?  Is there explicit chronological development?

There is no explicit chronology in the book. Instead, it jumps around, seemingly at random at first but gradually building up on each other.  


How is the temporal context provided or evoked in the text?

Temporal context is provided through chapters on the experience of living with or encountering insects. 


How does the text specify the cultures and social structures in play in the text?

Cultures and social structures are specified through history and geography. 


How are informant perspectives dealt with and integrated? 

Informant perspectives are taken seriously as examples of ways that humans interact with insects. For example, Raffles takes seriously the way that Shanghai cricket fighters will call their crickets their “little friends.” Rather than mocking or skepticism, Raffles takes such discourse as emblematic of one particular way of relating to insects.


How does the text draw out the implications of science and technology? At what level of detail are scientific and technological practices described?

The text draws out the implications of science and technology very deeply. Though the technology is not described in intimate detail, practices ranging from the scientific illustration of post-Chernobyl insects in Europe, the production of crush pornography, and the use of insecticide Zyklon-B in Nazi gas chambers is documented.


How does the text provide in-depth detail – hopefully without losing readers?

The text provides in-depth detail though beautifully written prose, illustrations, photography, and video stills. It does not drown readers in detail but feeds us detail in nice bite sized pieces.


What is the layout of the text?  How does it move, from first page to last?  Does it ask for other ways of reading? Does the layout perform an argument?

The text is laid out in A-Z format, each chapter titled with a subsequent alphabet letter. The text could be read in order, or theoeretically in any order as an encyclopedia could be. The text’s layout does perform an argument, by mocking the conceit of encyclopedias to contain all knowledge. The breakdown of the A-Z encyclopedia by the end of the text serves to show that human-insect relations are vast and cannot be captured in such a formalistic fashion.  


What kinds of visuals are used, and to what effect?

Insects are present throughout the text, in illustrations, photographs, video stills. The effect is quite powerful; some are scientific illustrations of insect mutations after Chernobyl; some are comedic illustrations of people being swarmed by insects; some are sobering images of locusts swarming in a field.


What kind of material and analysis are in the footnotes?

A wide variety of sources are in the footnotes, mostly academic but also popular.


How is the criticism of the text performed?  If through overt argumentation, who is the “opposition”? 

The text criticizes Enlightenment assumptions of human exceptionalism and superiority, and criticizes the speciesism that accompanies it. It also the citizens the social bias towards charismatic megafauna like tigers, pandas, and orangutans.


How does the text situate itself?  In other words, how is reflexivity addressed, or not?

 The text situates itself as a playful, thoughtful, and engaging analysis of human and insect relations. However, the author’s positionality of race, class, gender, and nationality is not explicitly addressed.



Who is the text written for?  How are arguments and evidence in the text shaped to address particular audiences?

 The text is written for an English-reading, advanced high school audience. The book is published through a trade press, Vintage Books. The arguments and evidence are shaped for this audience through a lack of jargon and beautiful prose which are not commonly found in academic writing.


What all audiences can you imagine for the text, given its empirical and conceptual scope?

I can imagine advanced high school students, college student, graduate students, professors, scientists, and educated New York Times readers to enjoy this book.


What new knowledge does this text put into circulation?  What does this text have to say that otherwise is not obvious?

It circulates a multitude of vignettes and philosophies about human and insect relationships. It has to say a lot that is not obvious because it skillfully synthesizes anthropology, history, sociology, art criticism, philosophy and biology. 


How generalizable is the main argument?  How does this text lay the groundwork for further research?

The main argument is specific to human and insect relations in the regions studied, which does cover a wide swath of the world. However, it does lay the groundwork for future research into human and nonhuman relationships in a manner that is engaging, relatively accessible, and thoughtful.


What kind of “action” is suggested by the main argument of the text? 

“Action” suggested by the main argument of the text includes a greater appreciation of the depth of human and insect relationships and an deeper concern for the effects of human-caused environmental damage, including through climate change, nuclear energy, and pollution. It calls for humans to recognize insects as worthy of care – something that, as the text illustrates, many people (but not enough people) already do in a wide variety of ways. 


Other modes of expression? 

Describe how the material and arguments of this text could be presented in a form other than that of a conventional scholarly book -- as a graphic novel, museum exhibit, activist stunt, or educational module for kids, for example? 

Insectopedia could easily be a museum exhibit, with displays running from A-Z like in the book. It could also be an educational interactive for children, if various insect models, videos etc. were given to kids and accompanied by worksheets asking children to reflect on how insects relate to their own life.


Creative Commons Licence


Contributed date

October 14, 2019 - 10:35am

Critical Commentary

This sketch was done for UCI Anthro 215A, Ethnographic Methods, Fall 2019.

Cite as

Anonymous, "Fang, Raymond: Questioning an Ethnographic Text: Raffles, Hugh: Insectopedia", contributed by Raymond Fang, Center for Ethnography, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 14 October 2019, accessed 18 July 2024.