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Social Anthropology

Habituating meerkats, studying scientists


Can scientists really 'habituate' wild animals without 'taming' them? Can contemporary science studies scholars really take scientists seriously on their own terms?  These two questions are related in more ways than might seem at first apparent...The article examines influential recent arguments in science studies which stress the interactive and mutually transformative nature of human-animal relations in scientific research, as part of a broader ontological proposal for science as material engagement with the world, rather than epistemic detachment from it. Such arguments are examined in the light of ethnography and interviews with field biologists who work with meerkats under conditions of habituation. Where philosophers of science stress the mutually modifying aspect of scientific interspecies relationality, these researchers present habituation as a way to study meerkats ‘in the wild’, and to access their putatively natural, undisturbed, behaviour. Building on this contrast, I will argue that the logic of scientific habituation remains difficult to grasp as long as we think of it exclusively in terms of human-animal relations.


The seeming ‘paradox’ of habituation – the idea that it transforms precisely that which it aims to hold stable, namely the ‘wildness’ of animals – is an artefact of a frame of analysis which takes animals to be the object of the science of animal behaviour. Habituation ceases to look paradoxical, however, if we remain faithful to these researchers’ own interests, for whom the scientific object does not coincide with the animal as a whole, but is rather only a selected subset of its behaviour. In conclusion I suggest that this account of habituation sheds a new light on the articulations and disjunctions between diverse practices and commitments in social anthropology, philosophy and biological science.


Candea, M. 2013 'Habituating Meerkats and Redescribing Animal Behaviour Science' Theory, Culture & Society December 2013 30105-128

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