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.



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 []

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).

The Ratchaprasong Art Maze – Urban by Nature

Nature will spill from the minds of top Thai contemporary artists and into six innovative, site-specific installations to be discovered for an entire month along a skywalk in the heart of Bangkok.

From Oct. 13 through Nov. 13, art will leap out of the gallery and into the public sphere for the enjoyment of all at the Ratchaprasong.

Six artists – Sakarin Krue-On, Montri Toemsombat, Haritorn Akarapat, Ruangsak Anuwatwimon, Noraset Vaisayakul and Sophie Kao Arya – will transform the skywalk between the BTS Chitlom station and Central World with their interpretations of nature in an urban space for this celebration of Thai creativity.

The Art Maze 2016, Urban by Nature was conceived and curated by Myrtille Tibayrenc, director of the Toot Yung Gallery and co-director of the Bukruk Urban Arts Festival.

You’re cordially invited to the opening event on October 13that 2nd fl of Gaysorn plaza. And installations are on view until Nov 13th @ Skywalk Ratchaprasong

ตลอดทางเดินที่เร่งรีบ เราจะเดินให้ช้าลงเข้าสู่ยานพาหนะแห่งอนาคตจากไผ่สาน ผืนป่าแห่งดิน ศักดิ์สิทธิ์ และทุ่งดอกไม้ที่ลอยล่องอย่างดงดงาม

ธรรมชาติถูกถ่ายทอดเรื่องราวผ่านศิลปะการจัดวางสัมพันธ์กับพื้นที่ใจกลางกรุงเทพฯ ตลอดทางเดิน BTS skywalk ทั้งหมด 6 จุด โดยศิลปินร่วมสมัยชั้นนำของไทย 6 ท่าน ตลอด 1 เดือนเต็ม ตั้งแต่ 13 ตุลาคม ถึง 13 พฤศจิกายน ศิลปะจะแอบหนีออกมาจากแกลอรีเพื่อมาร่วมสนุกด้วยกัน ณ ราชประสงค์ I ศิลปินทั้งหมด 6 ท่าน ประกอบด้วย สาครินทร์ เครืออ่อน มนตรี เติมสมบัติ หริธร อัครพัฒน์ เรืองศักดิ์ อนุวัตรวิมล นรเศรษฐ์ ไวศยกุล และ Sophie Kao Arya จะเปลี่ยน BTS Skywalk ระหว่างสถานทีชิดลมจนถึงเซ็นทรัล เวิลด์ ให้เป็นงานเฉลิมฉลองความสร้างสรรค์ของไทยผ่านการตีความ ธรรมชาติในบริบทของเมืองใหญ่

The Ratchaprasong Art Maze จัดขึ้นทุกปีโดยสมาคมผู้ประกอบวิสาหกิจในย่านราชประสงค์ และ ได้รับการสนับสนุนจากการท่องเที่ยวแห่งประเทศไทยภายใต้ Thailand Art Walk

เชิญทุกท่านร่วมเป็นเกียรติเปิดนิทรรศการในวันที่ 13 ตุลาคม บริเวณชั้น 2 เกสร พลาช่า งานมีให้ชมจนถึงวันที่ 13 พฤศจิกายน บน BTS Skywalk

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