Dissertation Proposal

Proposed Research Précis

Bird-watching remains one of the few ways that people have direct experiences with wild animals. Participation in the act of birding is a kind of education which subtly shapes and reinforces participants perspectives of the birds they watch, the environments they watch them in, and how they come to value both. Research reveals that birding is the fastest growing single outdoor activity (Cordell & Herbert, 2002) and recent survey results have reported that nearly one third of North American adults consider themselves birdwatchers (Scott, 2004). I am drawn to research this activity because on the surface, it seems like an ideal way for humans to learn more about the “more-than-human” (Abram, 1996) world. More-than-human engages with the notion that our relationship to the world is a sensuous one where we “exchanged possibilities with every flapping form, with each textured surface and shivering entity that we happened to focus on.” (Abram, 1996, p. ix)

Stephen Jay Gould wrote of the importance of forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well “for we will not fight to save what we do not love” (1993, p. 40). While this may be a seen as a particularly romantic aspiration, learning to see agency and subjectivity in both the living and non-living world is an area of inquiry worth further study. In this research agency is not considered a cognitive capacity. More accurately it is an “emotive and embodied” (Law, 2004, p. 3) effect “generated by interacting components whose activity is constituted in the networks of which they are a part” (Whatmore, 1999, p. 28).

As a consequence, the universe is filled with activity rather than being filled with dualist separations of active subjects and passive objects. Thus a subject’s experience, perception and interpretation of the world, or subjectivity, is no longer solely attributable to humans but is located within a multitude of actors. Significantly, this has implications for how we come to think and act towards that which is typically cast as non-human.

Following Gould’s logic and applying it to my dissertation topic, if a human being is going to engage in such concepts as bird conservation, biodiversity and animal agency, I would like to suggest that meaningful engagement with those concepts does not begin and end there. Rather, as I have previously described (Watson, 2006), human beings would appear to need to begin with some kind of awareness about birds which, in turn, may lead to some kind of understanding of, and connection to birds.

Framing bird-watching as a kind of environmental education is one entry into my work. Asking what birders are learning about birds, and in turn, the more-than-human world is important because it will help answer just what kind of education this activity is. I write “kind of education” because I do not want to view birding uncritically as “all good” (a perspective shared, especially by those that are deeply involved in the activity, see Kaufman [2006] for such an example). People that are attracted to birding are not a homogeneous group; they can range from so-called “life-listers” or “twitchers” who travel the world in the hopes of ticking off another exotic species from their list, to “backyard birders” who have intimate, local knowledge of their backyard birds but may not know what is beyond the edges of their neighbourhood. In my experience, birding includes many subsets of practice. For the purposes of this proposal, I offer a model (Figure 1, below) presenting the different subsets of birding as I currently conceive of them.

Birding Practice Octants

Figure 1: The proposed octants of birding practice

There are three axes to this model, one referring to the level of knowledge (expert-amateur) that the birder holds, the second referring to the intentionality of the act associated (purposeful-chance) with seeing or hearing the bird and the third referring to the underlying ethical alignment (multicentric-unicentric) that is exhibited in the act of bird watching.

With the notion of many acts of birding and many kinds of birders engaging unevenly with the more-than-human world, I am designing my Ph.D. research and dissertation to lead towards two larger outcomes:

  • a focus on the ontological politics of birding and
  • a contribution to new methodological approaches in animal studies inspired by Law’s (2004) call for method.

In a larger sense, while my dissertation will be about birding, birders and birds it will also engage with an ontological perspective of the world. This perspective forwards the assertion that objects are enacted: enactment, in this sense, is the claim “relations, and so realities and representations of realities…are being endlessly or chronically brought into being in a continuing process of production and reproduction, and have no status, standing or reality outside those processes” (Law, 2004, p. 159). Enactment is different that constructivism as it does not “simply convergence to singularity,” in opposition to the fixing of objects & identities, “but takes difference and multiplicity to be chronic conditions” (Law, 2004, p. 158). Difference suggests that multiple versions of the same object can exist simultaneously—this occurs because while objects are enacted in practice, these practices can be different. If the practices are different, then so too must be the objects (Law, 2004). Yet these multiple versions, or “multiple objects” are, more often than not, able to cohere together. So, if these coherences shape our reality, then reality: is not in principal fixed or singular, and truth is no longer the only ground for accepting or rejecting a representation. The implication is that there are various possible reasons, including the political, for enacting one kind of reality rather than another, and that these grounds can in some measure be debated. This is ontological politics. (Law, 2004, p. 162)

What does the multiple object mean for birdwatching? I use the term enactment to describe birding as an activity that through its practice makes and remakes itself. In other words, birding is a dynamic practice that changes its “shape” given a particular set of actors in a particular context. The significance of thinking about birding this way lies in the multiple ways people interact with birds, birds with people and both birds and people with the landscape. The importance of this research is not in uncovering and cataloguing what kinds of bird-watching-acts are out there, rather, it is about what might be made in the relations of “watching” birds; what is brought into being through the various enactments. Birding is a form of inter-species sociality and a kind of intervention in the always-social nature of the world. Thus, if these engagements between people, birds and place, called “birding,” occur in more than one way, or in multiple ways, then I am suggesting that these enactments can also be conceived of as a multiple object.

This research becomes more than an ethnography of bird-watching: in asking what practices of birding are good or which practices ought we to be enacting, I can turn my attention to current enactments and ask: “Ought they be enacted in this way?” and “Do they have the good of the bird, or landscape, in mind?” In this respect, this project promises to be a potent investigation of both the practice and the ethics inherent in these assemblages.

New (07/19/10): Download and explore some of my research data, including the Topology of Relations (html + flash) and Rondeau Research Map (Google Earth .kmz file).


Abram, D. (1996). The spell of the sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world. New York: Vintage Books.

Cordell, H. K., & Herbert, N. G. (2002). The Popularity of Birding Is Still Growing. Birding, 34, 54-61.

Gould, S. J. (1993). Eight little piggies: reflections in natural history. New York: Norton.

Kaufman, K. (2006). Why we must continue birdwatching: the extraordinary stories of the Red-footed Falcon, Gunnison Sage-Grouse, Red Crossbill, Black-capped Petrel, Curlew Sandpiper, and Great-tailed Grackle offer lessons of value for birders of every age. Birder’s World, 20(6), 34.

Law, J. (2004). After method: mess in social science research. London: Routledge.

Scott, A. (2004, Spring). Wing nuts: As North America’s feathered populations decline, the number of birdwatchers explodes. Westworld Magazine, 30, 32.

Watson, G. P. L. (2006). Wild Becomings: How the everyday experience of common wild animals at summer camp acts as an entrance to the more-than-human world. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 11, 127-142.

Whatmore, S. (1999). Hybrid geographies. In D. B. Massey, J. Allen & P. Sarre (Eds.), Human geography today (pp. 22-39). Cambridge: Polity Press.

Research Proposal

Download (PDF, 478KB)