An interview with Natasha Fijn
Our guest this week is Natasha Fijn, an ethnographic researcher and observational filmmaker based at the Australian National University’s Mongolia Institute. Natasha’s ongoing interest is in cross-cultural perceptions and attitudes towards other animals, as well as the use of the visual, particularly observational filmmaking, as an integral part of her research. Her ethnographic fieldwork has been based in the Khangai Mountains of Mongolia and Arnhem Land in northern Australia, involving engagement with human-animal relations and concepts of domestication. Since 2016, Natasha’s research focus has been on multispecies medicine in Mongolia. She was awarded a Fejos Fellowship in Ethnographic Film, funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation to make a film 'Two Seasons: Multispecies Medicine in Mongolia' during 2017. Natasha was a research fellow within an international team ‘Domestication in the Era of the Anthropocene’ at the Centre for Advanced Studies in Oslo in 2016. Earlier, Natasha held a College of the Arts and Social Sciences Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the ANU (2011-2014). Part of this project 'Encountering Animals' included the making of a film 'Yolngu Homeland' (2015). Natasha has edited a number of themed issues on visual anthropology and observational filmmaking. Her first monograph, Living with Herds: Human-Animal Coexistence in Mongolia, was published by Cambridge University Press.
Hello, Natasha, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Could you tell us how you came to be interested in human-animal relations and domestication in Mongolia, and what theoretical or methodological frameworks you deploy in exploring these themes?
Hi Sophie, thanks so much for inviting me to contribute to your wonderful initiative, morethanhumanworlds.
I am fundamentally interdisciplinary in my approach to research. Prior to my PhD, I conducted animal behavior-related field research, focusing on the social learning and cognition of a mountain parrot, the kea. I decided I wanted to move into working with domestic animals and explore the social processes of domestication, so I started my PhD at the Australian National University in the discipline of biological anthropology. But after four years of research, my thesis ended up being ethnographically-based and more aligned with social anthropology in that I employed participant-observation and observational film-making as field methods. I was fortunate that social anthropology happened to be embracing ‘the animal turn’, which was also becoming more prominent across the humanities, and just happened to align with my research. Soon after completing my thesis in 2008, I read an article by philosopher Dominique Lestel (2006) in which he calls for work that incorporates both ethology and ethnography, engaging with what he terms ‘hybrid communities’. I realized what he was describing as ‘the new synthesis’ was the framework that I had already been employing during my PhD. I had called the multispecies community that herders and herd animals were living within in Mongolia a ‘co-domestic sphere’, as humans and animals co-exist and co-habit together throughout their lives within what is essentially a hybrid community.
Your monograph, Living with Herds: Human-Animal Coexistence in Mongolia (Cambridge University Press, 2011), demonstrates how herd animals influence Mongolian herders' lives and how the animals themselves are active partners in the domestication process. What, in your view, are the practical and/or conceptual implications of approaching domestication as a multispecies process in an Anthropocenic era?
While I was researching and writing my PhD thesis from 2004 - 2008, most of the existing literature on domestication was produced by archaeologists who were primarily concerned with the origins of domestication of large mammalian domestic animals. Some zoologists and archaeologists, however, began to recognize that not all work should be directed toward the origin point of when a specific species became part of the human realm, but could be oriented toward the social process of domestication itself. My intention for the thesis was to look at domestication as an ongoing process that still occurs today, but in a cross-cultural context. I wanted to examine a different kind of social engagement between humans and animals to the classic Euro-American domestication perspective, which has been defined by dominance, control, and keeping an animal captive, often within an industrialized factory setting. I wanted to think about the social engagement between species differently, where the human community is still reliant upon animals for survival and where herd animals still live a free-ranging existence and are not bound by the same human-imposed life constraints.
Initially I was interested in the social interconnections between herders and horses in Mongolia,
because horses are such an important part of Mongolian culture. But once I was in the field, I
realized that the Khangai Mountain region of Mongolia was a multispecies world, where sheep,
goats, cattle, and yak are all part of the same hybrid community. Donna Haraway’s (2003) work
Otherness was very influential in my early thinking and in how to approach writing differently,
and I ended up including short auto-ethnographic segments from my field diary in
Living with Herds. In more recent years the work of anthropologists Anna Tsing and
Marianne Lien have been particularly influential in terms of how to include narrative and storytelling
when writing from a multispecies perspective.
Observational filmmaking is a central component of your ethnographic research – both in Mongolia and in Aboriginal Australia. What new or different insights does the process of filmmaking offer into multispecies worlds, and what opportunities or challenges have you faced in deploying this medium in the field?
After finishing my PhD, I was interested in researching cross-cultural connections with animals further, but in a completely different field context. I wanted to compare attitudes and perceptions toward animals across different worldviews. I received a three-year postdoctoral research fellowship to explore Yolngu connections with significant totemic animals in Arnhem Land, Australia. In this research, I focused on culturally significant species, such as crocodiles, stingless bees, dingoes (or camp dogs), and snakes, and what they meant to Yolngu. Part of my reasoning for switching from the Khangai in Mongolia to tropical Arnhem Land as a field location was that Donald Thomson had conducted a combination of natural history and ethnography-based fieldwork in Arnhem Land during the 1930s, followed by Ian Dunlop with the Yirrkala Film Project, which includes twenty-two films based in Arnhem Land from the 1970s until the 1990s. I wanted my ‘Encountering Animals’ project to be strongly visual anthropology-based, drawing upon the amazing black-and-white photography taken by Thomson and the long-form observational films of Dunlop (see Fijn 2019a - "Donald Thomson: Observations of Animal Connections in Visual Ethnography in Northern Australia" - and Fijn 2019b - "The Multiple Being: Multispecies Ethnographic Filmmaking in Arnhem Land, Australia," which engages with Ian Dunlop’s work). As a part of my postdoctoral project, I independently produced a sixty-minute documentary entitled Yolngu Homeland (2015), which is an observational film about connections with significant beings and the land.
The challenge of the project up in Arnhem Land was that I wanted to show how Yolngu engaged with these important totemic animals in an everyday sense, in contrast to Ian Dunlop’s earlier focus on ceremonial contexts. In Mongolia, domestic animals are tame and because they are used to herding families, they can be approached with a camera. The challenge in Arnhem Land was that animals were only encountered while hunting and gathering food, rather than in a routine sense. Saltwater crocodiles, for instance, tend to hide from humans and it is in their interest not to reveal themselves. When filming, without the artificiality of a long-lens and a static tripod, the crocodile tends to look like a dark log in the far distance. This meant that I had to convey the significance of the crocodile from the stories individual Yolngu told, or evidence that the crocodile was there from tracks in the sand, or children imitating the way a crocodile moved, rather than dramatic close-ups of the crocodile itself that would be commonplace in a wildlife-based documentary. It became a lot more about the multiple metaphorical layers of the crocodile, rather than the
physical, bodily presence of the crocodile itself.
You are currently working on a collaborative research project that investigates Mongolian medical practices in humans and other animals through the One Health framework – a lens employed within biomedicine and veterinary sciences – and multispecies approaches developed in the social sciences. Could you tell us a little bit about your experiences collaborating with biomedical practitioners towards this project?
As part of an Australian Research Council Discovery team project, we have been focusing on Mongolian medicine, which has meant engaging with biomedical practitioners but also and primarily with traditional practitioners, such as Mongolian monks trained in medicine, or herders with specialist skills such as bloodletting. During my time living in Mongolia in 2005 and in the spring of 2007, I observed herders collecting medicinal plants from the surrounding mountainsides and then using these plants to treat illnesses in the family and applying them across species on their different herd animals. This was because they were unable to rely on biomedicine, hospitals, or veterinary clinics due to a whole suite of social, political, and economic reasons. But it also was part of long-held mobile pastoral knowledge practices that have, no doubt, been continuing for thousands of years.
While the One Health framework is inherently interdisciplinary, it is usually applied in relation to zoonotic diseases, as these are recognized as crossing the species divide and therefore requiring responses from doctors, vets, and often epidemiologists. It occurred to me, however, that this was not a new strategy when it comes to Mongolian medicine, as herders are always thinking about how to treat humans and other species in relation to their particular environmental context. So, from 2016 onwards, I returned to conducting fieldwork in Mongolia with a focus on multispecies approaches to health and wellbeing.
In 2017, as part of an ethnographic film fellowship from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, I travelled around two provinces asking herding families about the medicinal treatments they used on themselves and their herd animals. These treatments often included a whole range of medicinal plants, but also rocks, fungi, and lichen, or different parts of both domestic and wild animals. Medicinal usage is very much about the use of multiple species upon multiple species of herd animals, while also being fundamentally connected with the surrounding ecology within a herding family’s homeland. In future fieldwork as part of my ARC project (and once travel is permitted), I intend to turn my attention to how Mongolian herders cope with influenza, and particularly how they approach the prevention and treatment of horse flu.
Finally, Natasha, what advice would you give to scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
In my view, engaging with more-than-human worlds really entails the need to embrace other ways of being in the world, but also other fields of research, beyond your own discipline. To me, the research method of participant-observation employed within social anthropology is important, as is the use of observational film-making within visual anthropology. But I also like to draw on literature from beyond anthropology to include archaeological, historical, ethological, genetic, or epidemiological insights. Engaging in an interdisciplinary sense then makes your own original ethnographic fieldwork more relevant.
The method of participant-observation can also be applied across species. Richard Nelson
used this method to good effect in combining natural history with anthropology in his
wonderful book Make Prayers the Raven, as do primatologists who spend long periods
of time in the field, such as Jane Goodall with chimpanzees, or Barbara Smuts with baboons.
The emphasis may lie more heavily toward observation than participation in the animal
behaviour context, but just habituating your presence to another species and vice versa involves
social and behavioral participation. With herd animals in Mongolia, participation and observation
is constant when helping out in any herding encampment with the milking or herding of animals. Observational filmmaking becomes an extension of this, as from behind the camera, one can still be standing in the midst of a horse herd during milking or interject within a discussion on the various uses of a medicinal plant. Having worked with different scientific methodologies in both the lab and the field in the past, I fully endorse the power of participant-observation as an effective underpinning to field research across species divides.
Photo credits: Natasha Fijn
“I wanted to think about the social engagement between species differently, where the human community is still reliant upon animals for survival and where herd animals still live a free-ranging existence and are not bound by the same human-imposed life constraints.”
“Having worked with different scientific methodologies in both the lab and the field in the past, I fully endorse the power of participant observation as an effective underpinning to field research across species divides.”