Placing Plants in Territory

Authors: Sarah Besky and Jonathan Padwe
Volume 7, Number 1 (2016)

Photograph by Rania Hatzi via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Photograph by Rania Hatzi via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


In this article, we use plants to think about territory, a concept that is at once a bulwark of social theory and an under-theorized category of social analysis. Scholarship on plants brings together three overlapping approaches to territory: biological and behaviorist theories; representational and cartographic perspectives; and more-than-human analysis. We argue that these three approaches are not mutually exclusive. Rather, different epistemologies of territory overlap and are imbricated within each other. We further argue that these three approaches to territory inform three distinct domains of territoriality: legibility and surveillance; ordering and classification; and exclusion and inclusion. Through examples of how plants operate in these three domains, we illustrate the analytical potential that a more-than-human approach to territory provides. We conclude, however, that attention to the particularities of plant ecologies can help move multispecies discussions more firmly into the realm of the political economic.

is Assistant Professor of anthropology and international and public affairs at Brown University. Her research sits at the intersection of environmental and economic anthropology. She examines the lives and labors behind tea production in India. Her publications include The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India (University of California Press, 2014) and articles in Cultural Anthropology, Antipode, Anthropology of Work Review, and Agriculture and Human Values.

JONATHAN PADWE is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. He researches life in landscapes of violence in the highlands of northeast Cambodia, where he works with Jarai swidden farmers to explore the ways that agro-ecologies encode historical memory and make the past material. Previously he worked with Aché foragers in Paraguay. His most recent publications include “Highlands of History: Indigenous Identity and Its Antecedents in Cambodia” (Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 2013). 

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