An interview with Paul Keil
Our guest this week is Paul Keil, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Ethnology, Czech Academy of Sciences. Paul’s research interests are in human-nonhuman teamwork, recreational hunting, and life lived with charismatic wildlife, informed by theoretical and methodological frameworks from more-than-human and ecological anthropology, cognitive science, and the environmental humanities. Paul’s regional and ethnographic expertise is in Northeast India and Australia. Paul received his PhD in sociocultural anthropology from Macquarie University in 2017 for an ethnography of human-elephant relationships in Assam, India. The research examined how people’s practices and worlds emerged in coordination with those of elephants and sought to conceptualize human-elephant sociality beyond the dynamics of conflict, competition, and domination. Paul’s current research project is co-funded by an EU mobility grant and entitled “Hunting the Unruly Pigs of the New Wild” (2021-2022). The project will study the practice of recreational pig hunting in Australia, and explore alternative perspectives on the place, identity, and becoming of free-roaming pigs in Australia. Paul is also a member of a European Research Council project entitled “Veterinarization of Europe? Hunting for Wild Boar Futures in the Time of African Swine Fever” (2020-25) based at the Institute of Ethnology.
Hello, Paul, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Could you tell us how you came to be interested in human-animal relations and what conceptual and methodological frameworks you deploy in exploring this theme?
Hi Sophie, thanks for inviting me to your ace interview series!
So as origin stories go, I became interested in human-animal relations from an unusual angle. I previously worked as a research assistant on a cognitive science project that analysed remembering as not solely inside the head, but a cognitive process that emerges through the coordination of minds, bodies, tools, and environments. Theories of extended mind and distributed cognition have very interesting ontological implications and I decided to expand these ideas towards herding sheep with dogs. Regarding my entrance into more-than-human anthropology, I am forever indebted to Rosemary Wiss at Macquarie University who introduced me to both ethnographic method and Donna Haraway.
My research generally tends to be anchored to the embodied encounter, an ethnomethodological analysis of interspecies events and a thick description of the unfolding exchanges. I have found the idea of affordances and Ingold’s concept of skill and perception of the environment as useful tools for analysing these interactions. In situating these encounters within a shared historical, social, and ecological context, I find myself drawn to Agustin Fuentes and his use of niche construction as an explanatory framework and the related concept of a mutual ecology. These theories resonate deeply with the co-created worlds of more than-human research but also deploy language and concepts I feel are less impenetrable to researchers from outside of this tradition. I admire Fuente’s ambitious project of speaking to and attempting to integrate many scientific approaches, as well as all the species.
Your doctoral research project was a multispecies ethnography and social anthropology of human-elephant relationships in Assam, India. What insights did this project reveal in terms of multispecies care, conflict, coexistence, and conservation, and their compatibilities or incommensurabilities?
Yep, good question. As it turns out, I’ve finally begun the process of turning my thesis into a book manuscript and have also been asking myself what I have learnt!
Wild elephants, at the level of species and landscape, are increasingly marginalized. Yet to stand in the immediate presence of these formidable and charismatic beings you quickly learn that you have little choice but to respond, make way, and to a degree adopt a position that conforms with the elephant’s perspective of the world. In some ways, coming to terms with the immense agency of elephants bears similarity to Plumwood’s revelation about her vulnerability to that crocodile and the disruption of anthropocentrism. I think my ethnography was trying to grasp how to live in a world where one is vulnerable to the actions of elephantine giants. These interspecies experiences are hard for many of us to imagine and are worth articulating, especially living under the shadow of the Anthropocene.
‘Coexistence’ remains a problematic term for me, particularly as it is used by conservation biologists.
Human-elephant relationships are often broadly framed as either coexistence or conflict, with
coexistence largely defined in opposition to or as the absence of violence. This research also often
overlooks other mundane and concurrent forms of co-presence and interaction. What coexistence
means, and how to research it, remains vague and unsatisfactory - although I do think that ethnography
offers a productive way forward. Ethnography gives researchers the luxury to follow people in their
everyday activities, to attend to the range of encounters they have with elephants across different
socio-ecological contexts, and to stay with the ambivalence that characterises these relations.
This can include but is not limited to conflict and forest-field interfaces. Understanding how people
negotiate sharing a landscape with elephants requires illustrating a multi-faceted set of contact zones
and mutually evolving relationship between members of a local village(s) and a local herd.
Strangely enough, conservation of species or habitat was not a big part of my research, at least from my interlocutors’ perspectives. That does not mean care was absent. I had the privilege to work with a group of village men who escorted elephants across a train line each evening. These escorts kept the landscape permeable to local herds so they could maintain a vital connection with fragmented parts of their range. This practice was initially established by conservation NGOs, but the escorts' empathy and responsibility were rooted in a shared sense of place and history with these more-than-human beings, as well as a shared experience of displacement by more powerful economic and political forces.
Your recent research project “Hunting the unruly pigs of the new wild” will explore interdisciplinary approaches. What, in your view, does an interdisciplinary approach bring to your research in this particular context, and what challenges or opportunities have you encountered in working across disciplinary divides?
Aaah, interdisciplinarity - easy to talk about, difficult to produce! For my new project on relations with feral/free-roaming pigs in Australia, searching for partners in the natural sciences with whom I can ask interesting questions and conduct shared projects is an ongoing challenge. Australian-based research on wild pigs tends to reductively characterize them through disease or negative ecosystem effects, and findings are geared towards killing more pigs, more effectively. While I am comfortable participating in hunting, I find my potential complicity in the mass culling of invasive species troubling. The “humane” technologies, practices, and concepts mobilized in culling are forms of violence I find unacceptable. This dilemma has raised a few personal and ethical questions about who I collaborate with, and my own complicated position towards free-roaming pigs.
In the Czech Republic, I am lucky to be connected to a team of natural scientists at the Czech University of Life Sciences working on understanding wild pig behaviour to predict the spread of a particular nasty porcine virus, African Swine Fever. I am accompanying this team during their field studies and will receive methodological training on tracking and observing wild pigs. I hope to extend this mixed-method toolkit in my ethnographic fieldwork. One Czech-based researcher I look forward to meeting is Nora - a domestic-raised wild sow with a fondness for cigarette smoke, and who has become familiar with GPS tracking technology and methods.
I am starting to realise that I have been overly concerned with adopting or coordinating with the methodological approaches of the natural sciences. Trail cams and GPS collars reveal pigs in a certain way and produce a certain kind of knowledge about them. After a recent conversation with a curator who has been having wild pig visitors, I have begun thinking about how the tools, materials, and methods through which we represent pigs can be far more inventive and enable our nonhuman participants to reveal themselves in unexpected ways. So, I guess my next interdisciplinary aspiration is enlisting my colleagues to construct interactive installations in the forest!
Part of your new research project “Hunting the Unruly Pigs of the New Wild” involves participant-observing the practices of pig hunters in Australia. Could you tell us a little bit about your experiences in the field – the practical apprenticeship you might have undergone, the way in which you apprehended the “killable,” and the kinds of conversations or reflections that accompanied the act of hunting?
In 2019, that wondrous pre-Covid era, I spent several months interviewing members of the pigdogging community in New South Wales – mostly male, recreational hunters who work with dogs who track and hold wild pigs. I also observed and participated in hunts. Pigdoggers really like talking about and comparing their dogs – whether during hunting or on social media. Hunters are energized by their dog’s explosive enthusiasm to chase and catch animals. They revel in the displays of skill, resilience, strength, and courage that dogs demonstrate when tackling a wild boar, while talking about their personal sense of protective duty and ‘mateship’ towards their canine partner during these confrontations. Choregraphing and participating in this multispecies tangle of bodies, injuries, blood, and death are about enacting a tough masculinity but especially a highly valued bond between human and dog.
Before research, I had little exposure to the violence of hunting or killing mammals in Australia,
for food, recreation, conservation, pest control or otherwise. These practices can be confronting
to the norms and identity I developed growing up in suburban Sydney. This makes it all the more
important to mindfully practise ethnography with humility, generosity, and a commitment to take
what hunters say seriously. This is not to say hunting is beyond critique. However, I like to keep the
question open about what hunters might teach us about more-than-human beings and about the
place of violence in human-animal relations.
I enjoy researching with hunters because they offer an opening for apprehending wild pigs that go beyond public discourses around “invasive” or “feral” which serve to reduce animals to polluting, ungovernable, overwhelming forms of life to be eradicated and disentangled from the national body. Of course, hunting is enabled by Australia’s culture of culling. But through hunters, pigs are made more interesting and there is no other community more familiar with these extraordinary and problematic beings in Australia. Hunters will objectify pigs as trophies and relate to them as intelligent, subjective individuals with admirable qualities. Social identity is deeply constituted through confrontations with pigs and some hunters will even keep pigs as pets. This interspecies relationship is full of seeming contradictions which makes it engaging for an anthropologist but can also help us to rethink the place and identity of feral pigs in Australia. Recreational hunting remains a controversial form of violence and does not escape killing as a primary mode of relating to feral pigs (and I’m not sure, at this point, not killing is an option with this prolific species), but it does potentially point towards a better way of living with and killing this animal beyond programs of mass culling.
Finally, Paul, what advice would you give to scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
I just want to say that it has been very fulfilling researching with people who live and work closely with animals. I am impressed by their intuitive receptiveness to the ways in which animals are always trying to communicate or show you something, and especially how these experts will frequently acknowledge the limits of their own knowledge or what they can articulate about other animals. That kind of humility and honesty has taught me a lot about being an anthropologist. So, any advice I give is just advice I have received from my interlocutors and that would be: learn to embrace uncertainty, incomprehension, and the uncanny as an important part of living, working, researching, and being present to other animals.
“Human-elephant relationships are often broadly framed as either coexistence or conflict, with coexistence largely defined in opposition to or as the absence of violence. This research also often overlooks other mundane and concurrent forms of co-presence and interaction.”
“I like to keep the question open about what hunters might teach us about more-than-human beings and about the place of violence in human-animal relations.”