Featured Article

Boundary Plants, the Social Production of Space, and Vegetative Agency in Agrarian Societies

Authors: Michael Sheridan
Volume 7, Number 1 (2016)


Cordyline fruticosa is used throughout the Eastern Caribbean on property boundaries (photograph by Mokkie via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0).


Boundary plants lie at the intersections of landscape ecology, social structure, and cultural meaning-making. They typically relate resource rights to social groups and cultural identities, and make these connections meaningful and legitimate. Landscape boundaries such as hedges and fence lines are oft en repositories for social identities and cultural meanings, and tools for the negotiations and struggles that comprise them. This article surveys botanical boundaries in classic ethnography, outlines social science approaches to boundary objects, and describes new theoretical work on space, place, and agency. It also introduces the concepts of monomarcation and polymarcation to delineate the contrast between technologically simple and socially complex forms of marking land. Three case studies, concerning the social lives of Dracaena in sub-Saharan Africa and Cordyline in the Caribbean, illustrate how boundary plants have a particular sort of vegetative agency to turn space into place in culture-specific ways.

after building water pipelines as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya, received his PhD in Anthropology and African Studies from Boston University in 2001. He now teaches anthropology at Middlebury College. Much of his work concerns the culture and politics of environmental management in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2014–2015 his work on boundary plants took him to Cameroon, Tanzania, St. Vincent, Papua New Guinea, and French Polynesia.

Tags: agencyboundary objectsethnobotanyland tenurespace and placeMichael Sheridan