What is the text “about” -- empirically and conceptually? Multispecies care in India’s Central Himalayas

What modes of inquiry were used to produce it? Takes at the starting point the concept of relatedness, kin making.

How is the text structured and performed? Introduction places the book within larger academic debates and local discourses, each chapter is an exploration of the lives of a “range of different animals” (25). Crucially, Govindrajan devotes each chapter to a different species of animal -- the sacrifice of goats, cows and Hindu nationalism, insider and outsider monkeys, pigs and conservation, and finally bears and “the intersection of queer desires.” She ends with a conclusion that points towards larger relevance of the work and ways of thinking. 

How can it circulate? Published in 2018 by The University of Chicago Press. Can be bought online or accessed in libraries. Won the Gregory Bateson Prize and is on course syllabi. 

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? Relatedness between human and nonhuman animals. Relatedness captures “the myriad ways in which the potential and outcome of a life always and already unfolds in relation to that of another (3). For Govindrajan, to think of relatedness is to “recognize that human pasts, presents, and futures are gathered with the pasts, presents, and futures of the multiplicity of nonhuman animals who share words with them” (4)

Where is this phenomenon located – in a neighborhood, in a country, in “Western Culture,” in a globalizing economy? The ethnography is situated in the Central Himalayan state of Uttarakhand in India, in particular kumaon which is bordered by Tibert, Nepal and the state of Uttar Pradesh -- importantly, bordering forests (7). 

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? It is situated shortly after the creation of the state of Uttarakhand (Nov 2000), a response to exploitation of natural resources in the mountain regions and misallocation of jobs and development projects (13). The author sensed disappointment with the new state during her period of fieldwork, and notes it failed to bring material changes to the lives of the paharis living there (14). The link between paharis and backwardness, dating back to the colonial period, finds another iteration as a problem to be resolved by social organizations, notably People for Animals (PFA). 

What scale(s) are focused on -- nano (i.e. the level of language), micro, meso, macro? What empirical material is developed at each scale? Stresses the importance of moving across scales. Drawing from Hugh Raffles, moves from “entire species to particular classes to singular animals and back again (21). 

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? Social organizations such as the PFA (“it framed its acts of animal rescue in terms that were familiar from other projects of rescue in colonial and postcolonial India -- as acts of liberating speechless victims from barbaric oppressors rooted in savage, superstitious tradition, 15). Villagers and animals which live in close proximity to them -- Govindrajan constitutes them as participants (20). 

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? Period following the creation of the state of Uttarakhand

What cultures and social structures are in play in the text? Kinship; relatedness; intimacy; post-colonial India; affect; Hindu nationalism; conservation

What kinds of practices are described in the text?  Are players shown to be embedded in structural contradictions or double-binds? “Knotty, gnarly histories” (13). Love and violence (sacrifice of goats), intrusions by animals of the same species (monkeys, cows) and how they are rebuffed/welcomed, queer desires.

How are science and technology implicated in the phenomenon described? Mostly utilized by NGOs/gov’t orgs as a response to the perceived backwardness of the villagers. 

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? Pahari youth migrating from region (unemployment, lack of opportunity), concern re: corporate control over nature resources, purchase of agrarian land by outsiders (95). Shows how people are understanding and experiencing pahari cultural erosion through their relation to animals.

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 operates through NGOs, the state. Also operates through rumor (i.e. monkeys being brought to the pahari regions from other areas). Chapter on bears also deals with power within marital relations, husbands’ silencing female conversations with the ethnographer and the way women circumvent that. 

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? Deeply local, but with broader connections to the anthropocene. 

What is the text about – conceptually?

Is the goal to verify, challenge or extend prior theoretical claims? Extending multispecies studies, thinking of affective attachment and kinship with love, violence, and ethics. 

What is the main conceptual argument or theoretical claim of the text?  Is it performed, rendered explicit or both? “To be related to another… is to recognize that one’s past, present, and future are gathered in theirs. This relatedness… is experienced by human and nonhuman animals alike, although different animals apperceive it very differently” (177).

What ancillary concepts are developed to articulate the conceptual argument? Violence does not always preclude care, attention, love (178). “Some acts and experiences of violence can be constitutive of quotidian relatedness… [and] that relatedness always entails some kind of violence.” (178) Reconciling love and violence.

How is empirical material used to support or build the conceptual argument? Conversations/interviews, political discourses, some archival material. 

How robust is the main conceptual argument of the text?  On what grounds could it be challenged? Compelling, and actually beautiful. I can imagine - and the text includes - challenges from animal activists who reject the love//violence argument (challenged also in text by U.S. educated members of the diaspora). 

How could the empirical material provided support conceptual arguments other than those built in the text? I can imagine that within multispecies ethnography this could circulate very differently in terms of how much the animals are anthropomorphized. In other words, Govindrajan strikes a balance here but taking her interviews, I can imagine it being written experimentally to reject anthropomorphizing but also as a complete embrace. 

Modes of inquiry?

What theoretical edifice provides the (perhaps haunting – i.e. non-explicit) backdrop to the text? The book is certainly placed in and responding to methodology and innovations in multispecies ethnography.

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? The author is focused on relatively ordinary sites, everyday experiences. Takes interlocutors ways of knowing seriously, including the magical. 

What kinds of data (ethnographic, experimental, statistical, etc.)  are used in the text, and how were they obtained? Ethnographic interviews, participant observation, oral histories, government archives

If interviews were conducted, what kinds of questions were asked?  What does the author seem to have learned from the interviews? Quotes her conversations at length, including her reactions and her questions. 

How was the data analyzed?  If this is not explicit, what can be inferred? Implicitly, it is analyzed in dialogue and conversation with her interlocutors.

How are people, objects or ideas aggregated into groups or categories? Kinship categories (wife, husband, cousin), location (village, mountain)

What additional data would strengthen the text? This is a difficult question for me to answer. Hard to imagine how this text could be strengthened.

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? Opens with an ethnographic vignette and the first question is posed around that -- “what do we make of Munni’s refusal to prioritize her safety over Radha’s [cow’s] health?” Asks several other questions -- “what does it mean to live a life that is knotted with other lives for better or worse? How do such knots come to be tied?” (3).

Where is theory in the text?  Is the theoretical backdrop to the text explained, or assumed to be understood? Theory is laid out mostly in the introduction, with the chapters grounded in ethnographic interviews. 

What is the structure of the discourse in the text?  What binaries recur in the text, or are conspicuously avoided? The structure is dependent on her use of various scales to get at the substance of this binding. Binaries revolve around questions of insider/outsider.

How is the historical trajectory delineated?  Is there explicit chronological development? No, outside of the introductory temporal framing.

How is the temporal context provided or evoked in the text? Discussion of the seasons and how that affects agriculture, animal care etc.

How does the text specify the cultures and social structures in play in the text? Descriptive narrative of everyday life.

How are informant perspectives dealt with and integrated? Her analysis and arguments are built on informant perspectives. 

How does the text draw out the implications of science and technology? At what level of detail are scientific and technological practices described? Environmental conservation, but minor. 

How does the text provide in-depth detail – hopefully without losing readers? A careful and well written narrating of ethnographic detail, centering herself as a part of them.

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? See answer to “how the text is structured” above. Asks us to read for difference within species.

What kinds of visuals are used, and to what effect? Photographs, taken by the author. At times posed, others candid. Reinforce the author’s argument but also the effect of the text - centered on interlocutors, including animals.  

What kind of material and analysis are in the footnotes? Clarifications of language and transliteration choices, indicate use of pseudonyms, reference other books. In almost all cases, these are lengthy. For example, she does not just cite David Schneider but summarizes his arguments in A Critique of the Study of Kinship. 

How is the criticism of the text performed?  If through overt argumentation, who is the “opposition”? I’m not sure if this is a criticism or a contribution, but in the introduction she stresses the importance of speaking of the nonhuman/other-than-human/animal without losing sight of smallness and singularity (21). Her discussion of scale here seems to be a critique of some multispecies ethnographies.

How does the text situate itself?  In other words, how is reflexivity addressed, or not? The reflexivity is addressed. Author discusses her “positionality” as a woman with kinship ties (this isn’t very clear, but hinted at) to the communities she is living with. 


Who is the text written for?  How are arguments and evidence in the text shaped to address particular audiences? Written for those interested in multispecies ethnography and South Asian studies. Although it speaks to cultural anthropology, it’s very accessible and can be easily read by a wider audience.

What all audiences can you imagine for the text, given its empirical and conceptual scope? Anthropologists, biologists, philosophers, animal rights activists.

What new knowledge does this text put into circulation?  What does this text have to say that otherwise is not obvious? Learning about animals by spending time with them; new ways of thinking about love and violence; methodology for studying relatedness. 

How generalizable is the main argument?  How does this text lay the groundwork for further research? Generalizable and generative for other works in multispecies ethnography.

What kind of “action” is suggested by the main argument of the text? Framed within the context of environmental collapse and disaster, drawing on Haraway and Tsing and calling for “(re)creating refuges for the human and the nonhuman or other-than-human to become in relation to one another” (182).

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? Poem, experimental film, play. Perhaps even a tactile activity that might help students to consider multispecies relations in their own lives. I am thinking of crows and other birds in urban settings, or thinking of and with household pets.


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Contributed date

October 13, 2019 - 6:31pm

Critical Commentary

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

Cite as

Anonymous, "HAKIM, GINA: QUESTIONING AN ETHNOGRAPHIC TEXT: GOVINDRAJAN, RADHIKA: ANIMAL INTIMACIES", contributed by Gina Hakim, Center for Ethnography, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 14 October 2019, accessed 18 July 2024. http://www.centerforethnography.org/content/hakim-gina-questioning-ethnographic-text-govindrajan-radhika-animal-intimacies