Lecture: Prof. Roy Ellen (Universität Kent) – Tools and living things: some observations on the interconnection between concepts and categories

The Research Training Group (RTG) 1876 “Early Concepts of Man and Nature: Universal, Local, Borrowed” invites during the workshop "From classification to concepts: Interdisciplinary heuristics on the conceptualization of flora, fauna, man and landscape" to the public lecture “Tools and living things: some observations on the interconnection between concepts and categories” by Prof. Roy Ellen (Universität Kent).

Friday, 21.11.2014, 2:30 p.m.
Philosophicum, P 3 (Jakob-Welder-Weg 18, 55128 Mainz)

Both humans and other animals attribute the qualities of living matter and agency to what we call tools and other cultural objects. In both cases a paradox may arise when autonomy is attributed to the object at the same time that it is recognized that its life-like characteristics are motivated by human actions. Nuaulu people in eastern Indonesia describe many kinds of objects as having the qualities we might otherwise reserve for biological organisms. They also distinguish entities that have many of the qualities of life but which ordinarily have no corporeal existence (spirits). While all cultural objects are potentially regarded in this way, in practice some objects are more alive and have more agency than others. I argue that part of the problem with existing anthropological treatments of the category ‘living things’ is that they are either logical extrapolations through polythetic extension or based on formal taxonomic deduction/induction (ethnoscience). Using examples of meat-skewers, outboard motors, coconut graters, and sago-processing devices, together with certain forms of biological life such as fungi and algae, I demonstrate how Nuaulu ideas of what is animate and agentive are always fuzzy and contingent, and that by combining data from different kinds of ethnographic context, using different elicitation procedures, a more complex picture emerges.

Roy Ellen is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Human Ecology at the University of Kent. He undertook his doctoral training at the London School of Economics, where he held his first academic position. Since 1973 he has taught at the University of Kent, establishing its programmes of environmental anthro-pology and ethnobotany, and where he was founding Director of the Centre for Biocultural Diversity. He has undertaken fieldwork in Indonesia, and additionally managed projects in Brunei and the United Kingdom. He was President of the Royal Anthropological Institute between 2007 and 2011, and was elected to a Fellowship of the British Academy in 2003.

New publications:
His recent books include On the edge of the Banda zone: past and present in the social organization of a Moluccan trading network (2003), The categorical impulse: essays on the anthropology of classifying behaviour (2006) and Nuaulu religious practices: the frequency and reproduction of rituals in a Moluccan society (2012). In 2013 he edited (with Stephen Lycett and Sarah Johns) Understanding cultural transmission in anthropology.

Further information on the workshop is available here.