Sarah Abbott’s Doctoral Research

Updates on Sarah’s doctoral research on trees…

My doctoral research is based in interdisciplinary social sciences at Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia. Titled “An Ethnography of Trees: Sensuous Scholarship in Plant Ontologies and Environmental Empathy,” I am using Indigenous research methodologies and public ethnography to guide my research inquiry. I aim to understand and share knowledge about the sentient relationality of trees and inspire an increased sense of environmental empathy in people. My fieldwork, now complete, gave me the honour of spending time with amazing people who know trees in various ways in seven countries, three continents, and two languages (English and Spanish). I am at the beginning of writing my methodologies and outcomes papers, and getting ready to edit the film I am making as a main component of my dissertation. After I have completed my degree, I will be looking for funding and working toward the public release of my film.

Here’s a little more detail about the research:

My doctoral research considers forests and trees beyond usual disciplinary perspectives such as botany, earth sciences and resource management. Rather, I look to trees as individual, agentic beings with sentience, intelligence, perception, and consciousness, responding to and impacting their surroundings and communities. Trees in this holistic context are related to as “biosocial becomings,” an understanding conceptualised by anthropologist Tim Ingold that views nonhuman and human life as evolving equally and intrinsically through both social and biological influences. Relating to trees from these perspectives naturally enhances environmental empathy and human moral responsibility toward nature. Eco-empathy, as I also term it, is in keeping with ancient knowledge and Indigenous worldviews that know, respect and incorporate interrelations with nature in their cultures. Environmental empathy moves beyond environmental sustainability and related terms that perpetuate the separation between humans and nature, characteristic of Western worldviews, because they largely base ecological value in economics and the well-being of humans. Anthropocentric assumptions at the heart of sustainability tend to maintain the position that humans are superior and central, nature is ultimately inert material for satisfying human needs and desires, and attributing moral standing to nature is nonsensical. As Eduardo Kohn states in his book, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human, “How other kinds of beings see us matters. That other kinds of beings see us changes things, [and] force[s] us to recognize the fact that seeing, representing, and perhaps knowing, even thinking, are not exclusively human affairs.”


Berenguer, J. (2007). The effect of empathy in proenvironmental attitudes and behaviors. Environment and Behavior, 39, 269-283.

Berenguer, J. (2010). The effect of empathy in environmental moral reasoning. Environment and Behavior, 42(1), 110-134.

Ingold, T. (2013). Prospect. In Ingold, T., & Palsson, G. (Eds.), Biosocial becomings: integrating social and biological anthropology, pp. 1-21. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kohn, E. (2013). How forests think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human. Berkley: University of California Press.

2019-08-03T20:46:29+00:00August 2019|News, Trees|