In 2015 I founded the Anthropology of Hunting and Conservation Network that went on to inform Hunting Studies, a new field of research that was proposed by Professor Garry Marvin at a network meeting in 2018.
Introduction to Hunting Studies
Whether in newspapers, academic research or public discourse, hunting has been described as a leisurely activity or a means of subsistence; a primitive practice or a connection to our hunter-gatherer ancestors; an outdated tradition or a display of masculinity; a way of truly being human or a cruel sport.
Hunting Studies takes on these multiple dimensions and the concrete reality that hunting has been and still is a popular human-environmental relation, as well as being deeply embedded in multiple dimensions of social life. From the intimate communication between a hunter and their dog, to the administrative, democratic or elite institutions inseparable from it.
Emerging from an anthropological tradition, Hunting Studies recognises hunting as one of life’s longest running activities as well as being a historically constructed category. As a theme it once vied for the top spot in anthropology, both as hunting ‘back-there in prehistory’ and as hunting ‘over-there in the jungle’.
Moving forward it has brought together multiple disciplines and researchers to explore what hunting means today, whether talking of it in the past, present or future. Hunting Studies recognises the plurality of huntings and related practices including trapping, culling and poaching amongst others. It also recognises that it is often used as an all encompassing category to reach across time and space, but has roots in a particular cultural heritage. Hunting Studies explores all this and more, primarily through the lens of contemporary hunting and originally with a regional focus on Europe. The following are some key themes.
Hunting and Politics in Contemporary Europe
Approximately one in a hundred humans was a legal hunter in Europe in 2010. It is estimated that 25 million birds were illegally trapped in the Mediterranean in 2015. This is the tip of 21st century hunting and trapping in Europe, where their management has been replete with conflict between various stakeholders in its inability to understand its subject.
The stakeholders involved in hunting and trapping are sociologically complex individuals embedded in institutions and organisations who initiate conflict and build shifting alliances based on abstract ideas of class, nationality, leisure, knowledge and state authority, morality, and contested ideas over the ownership of space and means of achieving their aims.
Manifestations of conflict over hunting now include divisive rural-urban discourses, the growth of populist political parties and civic disenfranchisement with policy on the part of hunters, often becoming the basis for a pattern of illegal hunting. Hence, there is an urgency to resolving the status and legitimacy of current hunting activities within the context of the broader socio-political terrain.
Researchers from multiple disciplines were disparately working on addressing this complexity, so there remained a deficit in coherently and comparatively developing a pan-European understanding of hunters, trappers, and related practices. Hunting Studies addresses this deficit.
Categories and Practices of Hunting
Numerous ‘types of practice’ emerge within and around the category of hunting including trapping, stalking, coursing, rough shooting, snaring, netting, hooking, chasing, bow hunting, spearing, baiting, culling, to name a few in the English language. Then there are the numerous types of dog, horse, hawk and other animals involved in these practices, as well as the numerous terrestrial, arboreal and aquatic animals targeted. Not to mention the diversity of equipment and the burgeoning markets they serve. People who conduct these practices can also be typified, according to numerous emic and etic criteria, one of these being ‘hunters’. For example, in the case of foxhunting, the horses are emically referred to as hunters, whereas etically the human riders are referred to as the hunter.
Social differentiation amongst hunting communities of practice takes place in relation to these various practices, whether on the basis of place, affinity, landscape, weapon, method, style or game to name a few. Distinct communities of practice facilitate exclusions and inclusion of hunters, above all, are a way of moderating the essence of hunting today. The social differentiation of hunters does not represent a static or self-evident categorization of the social world of hunters. Instead, Hunting Studies focuses on this dynamic constitution of hunter identities and categories of and related to hunting. However, when researchers and policy-makers try to understand the worlds of hunters, profiling hunters into typologies likely represents a valuable abstraction. It is hardly surprising to see typologies of hunters especially recurrent in market segmentation research to optimize hunter satisfaction across diverse profiles.
At the same time, Hunting Studies shows that typologies are not merely heuristics to a complex phenomenon, but enact a certain reality which becomes enmeshed in hunting practice and culture.Hunting Studies urges caution toward the use of hunting typologizing as essentialist abstract categories. Instead, calling for insight as to how they are constituted and performed. In doing so, retaining ties to the sociocultural life-worlds they come from which in turn sheds light on the phenomenon they denote: hunting.
Hunting and Social Theory
Hunting is conceived – in tandem with gathering – from the modernist perspective as the foundational ‘mode of human subsistence’. European taxonomies of humanity have been deeply embedded in the concept of hunting as a mode of subsistence. In spite of the importance of hunting to the study of what it means to be human, there is a fundamental problem with the dominant understanding of it, both outside and inside academia. This problem is rooted in a conflation between the idealised imaginations of hunting and the real acts or deeds of hunting and observations of them. Not in the sense of simply recognising that what people think and what people do are different, or what we think they think, and what they do are all different. Instead, ‘hunting’ has not been recognised as a concept, but assumed to be a given technique or practice.
Hunting Studies problematizes this with fruitful implications, including in how we conceive of the nature-culture dualism, how we understand transactions and reciprocity, how we understand leisure and work, how we understand different forms of power and civilization, how we understand the contemporary through the prehistoric and how we understand what it means to be human, animal and more.In doing so, Hunting Studies draws on a highly focussed but deeply spread network of ideas, practices and structures across time and place. The study of this network can help make sense of the more-than-human conditions that prevail upon us and provide guidance toward civilizational reorientation of human-environmental relations incument upon people living on 21st century planet earth.
On the one hand, hunting is an inaccurately dichotomised concept in modern discourse, on the other, a technique disparately referred to across the academic literature. Hunting Studies notes that this is problematic for multiple reasons and at the root of wildlife mismanagement. As environmental crises deepen, many fauna and flora that do flourish are demonised and cleaned as waste with little technical or ecological legitimacy or evaluation. Rather than related to as part of complex systems and opportunities for adaption, such activities instead provide contemporary hunting and wildlife management establishments with anthropocentric legitimation. They also deprive and work counter to those that social and materially subsist on these species, including the majority of people who hunt. In addition, the legal addressal of hunting has done little to address ecological concerns outside of the ideological context of hunting establishments. The excesses of administration around hunting and its induction into State apparati provides strong legitimation for it, without ecological evaluation, by contrast to other ‘wildlife’ value producing activities that do not have legal basis.
Hunting Studies picks up the broader praxis underpinning these tensions, grounds them in transdisciplinary research developed through the Hunting Studies Network. This field of study demonstrates that starting from the point of view of hunting as a decontextualized technique, affords the process of depoliticizing hunting and wildlife management at a material and infrastructural level. This involves the dis-embedding of the environmental basis of a modern society, allowing certain naturalised ritual orders to be justified over others. Consequently, allowing certain people to be entitled to certain ways to certain resources according to certain rituals. Hunting Studies aim to address how to ameliorate this and what role research has in adapting this environmental praxis.
Research in Hunting Studies postulates that the living environment is not unilaterally finite, nor are humans by default exploitative. These situations are made and can be remade. Specifically, it interrogates how common access to and use of wildlife resources has often had a history related to freedom (for example with the history of socialist revolution in Europe). This has since been assimilated in a variety of ways with the class history of hunting that was originally being resisted, giving rise to hunting and freedom as individualized leisure. This field of study interrogates this relationship and moves toward addressing how related organisational adaptation can take place and the consequent impacts of this.
- 2015/2016 – Cynegetics Newsletter
- 2017 – Meeting of the ‘Anthropology of Hunting and Conservation Network’ at the University of Kent with Erica von Essen, Santiago Montero Cruzada, Andrea Zuppi, Thorsten Gieser, Eugenie van Heijgen, Garry Marvin, Khalil Betz-Heinemann.
- 2018 – Meeting in Collaboration with the Porcine Futures Workshop at CEFRES.
- 2019 – Meeting in Collaboration with Emigrating Animals and Migratory Humans Workshop at CEFRES.