Rethinking the Nature/Culture Divide, by Philippe Descola

A public lecture at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok

By Philippe Descola is Professor at Collège de France, Chair in Anthropology of Nature

November 10 th 2017
Time 13.00-16.00.
Venue : Saranitet Conference Room, 2nd floor, Main Auditorium, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand.

Discussants :
– Dr. Yukti MUKDAWIJITRA, Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology, Thammasat University.
– Thanes WONGYANNAWA, Faculty of Political Science, Thammasat University.

Notions such as ‘nature’ or ‘culture’ are the product of a particular historical process and express the specific distribution of ontological properties to beings in the world that the Moderns have devised. Other civilizations have adopted other systems of distribution, resulting in ontologies and principles of association between humans and non humans that differ widely from the one which emerged in Europe a few centuries ago. The challenge for the social sciences is to acknowledge this diversity, while retaining the ambition to explain it in non Eurocentric terms.

Organized by the Institute of Research on Contemporary Southeast Asia (IRASEC) and the Center for Social Development Studies (CSDS), Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

 In partnership with the Collège de France, the Faculty of political Science of Chulalongkorn University, the Siamese Association of Sociologists and Anthropologists (SASA), the French Embassy of Thailand.


International Workshop : Natures and Cultures in Southeast Asia

With the participation of Philippe DESCOLA

Professor at Collège de France, Chair in Anthropology of Nature

November 7 and 8 th 2017 from 9h00 h to 17h00
4th floor meeting room, Operational Building, Faculty of Social Science, Chiang Mai University, Thailand.

The objective of this international workshop is to explore the relations between societies and their environments in Southeast Asia. Following Philippe Descola’s proposition to overcome the western dualism that opposes nature and culture, we will revisit Southeast Asian ethnographic material concerning, in particular, the modes of being and engaging practically and conceptually to the world. In the presence of the French anthropologist, we will question the diversity of natures in the region through the study of the articulations between animisms, Hindu-Buddhist cosmologies and any other forms of connecting the social, ecological and cosmic orders.

See or download the program and abstracts on the event on Irasec website

Organizers : The Institute of Research on Contemporary Southeast Asia (IRASEC) and the Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development (RCSD), Faculty of Social Science of Chiang Mai University.

Partners :  The Collège de France, the Center for Ethnic Studies and Development and the Faculty of Social Science of Chiang Mai University (CESD), the French Embassies of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia and IRD.



Natures in Southeast Asia: The ontological approach

Lecture at Chiang Mai University, Faculty of Social Sciences

Wednesday, September 13 (09h00 – 12h00).
International Program Meeting Room 1 (SB3201)

Speaker : Dr. Abigaël PESSES (deputy director of Irasec)
Moderator/discussant : Dr. Robert Farnan (Faculty of Social Science, Chiang Mai University)

Partners : Irasec, RCSD Chiang Mai University, CAS (Center of Asean Studies, CMU)

Abstract : This lecture will present the work of the French anthropologist Philippe Descola and focus on the main ideas he developed in his master piece, Beyond nature and culture, published in 2005 (2013 for English edition). This book is a deconstruction of the idea of a unique and universal nature as opposed to the diversity of cultures. Descola’s ethnographic experience among the Amazonian Achuar led him to build a relational ecology that connects together human and non-human actors including plants, animals, spirits and artifacts. Adopting a comparative approach, using ethnographic datas from the whole world as case of studies, he proposed to consider that there are four modes of identification, or ontologies, by which societies relate to others, humans and nonhumans: animism, analogism, naturalism and totemism. This ontological model invites us to reconsider Southeast Asian ethnographic material and more specifically the relations between natures and societies in the light of this typology. We will especially question the overlapping of three ontologies – animism, analogism and naturalism – that seems to be more significant in the region. This lecture will also prepare the venue and discussion with Philippe Descola who will come in November 2017 for a two days’ workshop “Natures and Cultures in Southeast Asia” organized at Chiang Mai University

Next Session : April, 28 2017

 Web of relations: the way of giving, taking and reciprocating in the Moken’s world

Narumon Arunotai

This talk reflects diverse worldviews of different groups towards a cluster of islands in southwestern Thailand, namely Surin Islands in Phang-nga Province.  It also reflects how government policies are based on certain set of worldviews about “nature”.  Surin Islands have been a home, stopover point, foraging ground and burial site for the Moken indigenous people for centuries.  The Moken have mobile homes and their residence are on different islands in the Mergui archipelago, from the present day southern Myanmar to southern Thailand.   At the start of Thai state dominant power on the Surin Islands, the surrounding waters fell into a concession of petroleum exploration issued to a private foreign company.  Later it was proposed as a site for Indochina refugee camp, but the proposal was rejected by the Royal Forestry Department.   In 1984, state power is more apparent as the Islands have been declared a Marine National Park with supporting budget and resources.  Later a unit under the Department of Fisheries and another under Royal Thai Navy have been established.  Though all of these groups share their lives (or part of their lives) on Surin Islands, their worldviews and their missions/mandates towards “nature” on the Islands are quite different.  Through looking at the web of relations, especially the way of giving, taking and reciprocating in the Moken’s world, we can understand the mode of thinking, practicing, and policying of other units and groups undertaking their “duties” on the Islands as well.  ​

– 14h30 / 16h30
Alumni Meeting Room, 12th Floor, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

Next Session : February 24

Understanding an Active Volcano: Animism and Naturalism in Central Javanese Society

Adeline Martinez, IRASEC/IrAsia, Aix-Marseille University

Through the example of the Merapi volcano in Central Java in Indonesia, this talk will explore different practices and conceptions related to the comprehension and the communication with this uncertain environment. It aims to put in perspective two main ontologies in the Central Javanese Society in relation with this specific volcano: naturalism and animism as defined by Philippe Descola. Indeed, in this region, scientific views of ‘nature’- represented by state institutions and volcanoes’ surveillance agencies – are coexisting with a specific cosmological system and ritual practices in relation with the volcano – such as the Labuhan, the annual offering ceremony in Mount Merapi. After presenting the main characteristics of these ontologies and their current specific expressions in Central Java, this communication will discuss the conditions of the overlapping and articulation of these two modes of identification.

Friday, February 24 , 2017 – 14h30 / 16h30
Alumni Meeting Room, 12th Floor,
Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University


Next session : January 20, 2017

Politics of Nature Conservation in Thailand


Friday, January 20 , 2017 – 14h30 / 16h30
Alumni Meeting Room, 12th Floor,
Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

Pinkaew Laungaramsri

(Faculty of Social Science, Department of sociology and Anthropology, Chiang Mai University)

This talk focuses on the process of social production of “nature” within the changing political economy of modern Thailand. By historicizing nature, I argue that the so-called untouchable, self-regulating, human-free “nature” has primarily been a product of constant state intervention in forest and natural landscapes since the turn of the twentieth century. The making of “first nature” has been an intimate part of the process of state-building, in which nature as economic capital is no less important than nature as “symbolic capital”—a signifier of the modern and civilized nation-state. Thai state’s adoption of North American wilderness thinking within the country’s particular stage of capital accumulation has engendered an ambivalence between “nature conservation” and “economic development.” Used as a tool to modernize the country and its people, Thai “nature conservation” abandons the wild freedom of areas once beyond the reach of the state and assigns new functions to the landscape now designated as “protected”. “Unspoiled nature” has also been built along the ethnic and class line. While the most perilous threat to the nature forest constructed by the state has been the agricultural activities of the “hill tribes” often portrayed as the dark side of nature, urban middle-class has been held as the savior of the fragile nature. Militarization of park management has therefore coincided with the growing desire of urban middle-class for nature consumption. As a national space, national park in Thailand since its inception has therefore come to serve as a effective tool to delineate the Thai from the non-Thai other. Nature and nation-building have thus been an integral part of the history of marginalization of the modern Thai society.


Next Session : December 16, 2016

Beyond Nature and Culture of Modern Thai Water Engineering

The Ontology of Infrastructure


Friday, December 16, 2016 – 14h30 / 16h30
Alumni Meeting Room, 12th Floor,
Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

Jakkrit Sangkhamanee (CSDS, Faculty of Political Science, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Chulalongkorn University)

The talk will explore Thailand’s Royal Irrigation Department Museum for Heavy Engineering where the works and lives of engineers are displayed and narrated and their machines exhibited. Through the museum walk-through, Jakkrit Sangkhamanee will analyze the mutual constitution and historical transformation of the amphibious assemblage that makes up Thai water engineering. In some ways, the  human and non-human hybridity depicted in the museum exceeds the binary of nature and culture proposed by Philippe Descola is his critical work Beyond Nature and Culture. Tracing the complex interrelation of engineers, landscapes, bureaucracy, statecraft and myth depicted in the exhibits, the analysis elicits the museum as a particular, and peculiar, parliament of things that articulates the amodern characteristics of the Thai water engineering assemblage.


Introduction session part 2 : Overlapping cosmologies and systems of knowledge


What is the echo of Descola’s work in Southeast Asia?

Descola’s anthropology of nature opens new horizons to review Southeast Asian ethnographic materials:

  1.  To question the place of Hindo-Buddhist societies in regard to the ontological typology he proposes. A question he did not elaborate in his comparative approach and master piece Beyond Nature and Culture1.
  2.  To question the modes of dwelling the diverse landscapes  of Southeast Asia: highland forest, plains, river deltas, sea coasts and cities.
  3.  To question the overlapping of ontologies and knowledge systems linked to environmental management in contemporary societies.

I won’t answer these questions here, but rather give some paths for reflection linked to my own researches in Thailand and with Karen highlanders. I will :

  1. Question the analogical dimension of the Hindo-Buddhist concept of thammachat, which is the vernacular word used to translate the notion of nature in the Thaï context.
  2. Explore the overlapping between analogism and animism through the articulation between Buddhism and land spirits cults in Southeast Asia.

Continue reading “Introduction session part 2 : Overlapping cosmologies and systems of knowledge”

  1. DESCOLA Philippe, Beyond Nature and Culture, Translated by Janet Lloyd Foreword by Marshall Sahlins, University of Chicago Press, 2013 [2005], 488 p. []

Introduction session part 1 : Beyond Nature and Culture in Southeast Asia


The objective of this seminar is to study the relations between natures and societies in Southeast Asia in the light of the work of the French anthropologist Philippe Descola. The expressions Beyond nature and culture1 refers to the title of his master piece which is a deconstruction of the idea of a universal nature. It means that we will attempt thought this seminar :

Beyond Nature and Culture

  1. To transcend the Western dualism that opposes nature and society as two different and separate realms of beings.
  2.  To include in our study the relation between human and non-humans – gods, spirits, plants, animals, objects.
  3. To explore the diversity of natures in Southeast Asia.


In this first part, I will present Philippe Descola and the big lines of the his thought.
In the second part, I will develop through examples how his theoretical propositions could be adapted to Southeast Asian ethnographic materials.

Continue reading “Introduction session part 1 : Beyond Nature and Culture in Southeast Asia”

  1. Philippe Descola. Beyond Nature and Culture, Translated by Janet Lloyd Foreword by Marshall Sahlins, University of Chicago Press, [2005] 2013, 488 pages []

 Filmmaker’s Forum – The Forest – ป่า

Source: (33) Filmmaker’s Forum – The Forest

Whiteline and VS Service are proud to present another installment of the monthly Filmmaker’s Forum. This month we feature local independent filmmaker Paul Spurrier, and a sceening of his fantastic new film ป่า The Forest. After the screening Paul will be joined in conversation with the film’s producer David Cluck. Paul and David will treat us to a frank discussion about the process of independent film creation in general – and in Southeast Asia specifically. Indie filmmakers, do not miss this presentation!

Whiteline และ VS Service ภูมิใจเสนอ Filmmaker’s Forum ประจำเดือนนี้ พบกับนักทำหนังอิสระ Paul Spurrier กับภาพยนตร์เรื่องใหม่ของเขา ป่า The Forest หลังการฉายภาพยนตร์ Paul จะจัดวงสนทนา เพื่อเล่าเรื่องราวการสร้างภาพยนตร์นอกกระแสโดยทั่วไปและในเอเชียตะวันออกเฉียงใต้ ร่วมกับโปรดิวเซอร์ David Cluck

Continue reading ” Filmmaker’s Forum – The Forest – ป่า”

Potent places: Embodied Memory in Cambodia | By Anne Guillou. Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia

A land connection reflects a key importance in many aspects of social life. It follows that in Cambodia, collective memories are not always national, but

Source: Potent places: Embodied Memory in Cambodia | Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia

Societies and Environments in Southeast Asia

This blog aims to discuss the relationship between Southeast Asian societies and the natural environment using an anthropological approach and considering contemporary socio-political challenges.
Using a holistic and comparative approach, this seminar hopes to intertwine academic knowledge with environmental risk management.
In light of Philippe Descola’s inspiring work Beyond Nature and Culture , the seminar’s first approach would be to ask ourselves how each of the various societies of Southeast Asia articulates or manipulates the concepts of “nature” and “culture” developed by the West. What are their vernacular equivalents? How are these concepts locally re-appropriated and politically invested within modern nation-states? And, finally, how may we understand the diversity of modes of interaction between humans and non-humans — gods, plants, animals, spirits — in the context of Southeast Asia?
The second approach, which complements the first, would consist of examining how the relationships between society and the environment are reformulated and reshaped under the impact of development practices and policies of adaptation to contemporary environmental challenges — global warming, deforestation, ecosystem preservation, and energy resource and environmental risk management.
Our proposal consists of articulating these approaches through the study of three complementary areas of research:

1.    Buddhism and Environment
The deeply embedded “holistic” view of “nature” in the Hindu-Buddhist societies of Southeast Asia emphasises the relationship between all the beings that inhabit the cosmos. This concept of a “chain of beings” — all of whom are different, interdependent, and hierarchically ordered — calls into questions the methods implemented to ensure harmony between very diverse entities and to constantly readjust the relationships between territorialised social microcosms and the more encompassing macrocosmic order. Our proposal is to explore the forms that connect the social to the cosmic order through practices as diverse as astrology, possession, shamanism, agricultural and royal rituals, architecture, etc.

2.    The Politics of Nature
Another area that would need to be explored is the relationship between nature and politics. This issue would be studied through the review of economic and environmental projects that  are the subjects of local controversy, the “haze” and other forms of pollution, “national parks”, real estate law, dams construction, in order to better understand how the environment issue invites itself and unfolds in the political arena. This line of research would also seek to explore various forms of technical and social innovations designed to change behaviour in production, consumption and trade. It would also look at how development practices and research innovations can mobilise, confront or hybridise different knowledge systems and actions on nature: hard science, traditional knowledge, digital technology, etc.

3.    Climate Risk Management
Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most exposed regions in terms of climate change — decreased river flow of large basins, increased flooding from rivers or the sea — and natural disasters — typhoons, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis. This line of research would aim to explore local reactions and responses to these natural changes, as well as the various policies and projects put in place to prevent environmental risk or to deal with the consequences  thereof (displacement, seismic construction).

Descola in English – Books and interviews


Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture [2005], Translated by Janet Lloyd
Foreword by Marshall Sahlins, University of Chicago Press, 2013, 488 pages, See Report on the book “Philippe Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture”, Somatosphere.

Descola, Philippe. “Anthropology of Nature”, Inaugural lecture delivered on Thursday 29 March 2001.”March 2001

Descola, Philippe et Palsson, Gísli. Nature and society: anthropological perspectives. Taylor & Francis, 1996.

Descola, Philippe. The spears of twilight: life and death in the Amazon jungle. HarperCollins, 1996.


“Philippe Descola Biography.” Collège de France.

“Philippe Descola.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, April 7, 2016.


Philippe Descola and Edouardo Kohn
Kohn, Eduardo (2009). “A Conversation with Philippe Descola,”
Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America: Vol. 7: Iss. 2, Article 1.

Descola, Philippe. “All Too Human (Still): A Comment on Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think.HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4, no. 2 (October 31, 2014): 267–73.

Philippe Descola and Bruno Latour

Nora Azouz. Conversation between Philippe Descola and Bruno Latour at MOA – Vancouver, 2014. video

Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies. Approaches to the Anthropocene: A Conversation with Philippe Descola and Bruno Latour, 2013. video

Videos – Lectures and interviews

Lanscape Forms – Lessons at College de France

Nachwuchsnetzwerk CLAS. Philippe Descola: All Kinds of Animals. CLAS-Summerschool, 2012. video

Lecture by Philippe Descola, Part 1 of 2 at the Friday Seminar, Department of Social Anthropology, Cambridge, chaired by Stephen Hugh-Jones. 13th February 2004. video

Frobenius Institut. Lessons in the Anthropology of Nature I / Philippe Descola, 2010. video

“An Interview with Philippe Descola” video


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