5-year research project co-led by Alex Oehler, Sarah Abbott and the Aklavik Inuvialuit Hunters and Trappers Committee thanks to funding from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Link to Sensory Acts website for full information on project team members and activities.

Updates to this page are forthcoming as the SACTS project evolves, including Inuvialuit partnership and student affiliates at the University of Regina.

Project Description

Animals, plants, and humans share an ancient history of nonverbal communication. In post-industrial societies, such as our own, fine-tuned interspecies communication is rapidly being lost, co-effecting unchecked exploitation of our planet’s nonhuman worlds. The project’s study of nonverbal interspecies communication will explore shared somatic modalities such as posture, gesture, scent, and sound, as well as metaphysical awareness in animals, plants, and humans, pushing current debates in the nonhuman turn, animal and plant studies, and the growing field of interspecies communication. We also seek to raise awareness in the general public for our own species’ potential to effectively communicate with living beings by heightening our sensory awareness. We choose the Northern Hemisphere as our laboratory for its unique historical and ethnographic record of nuanced nonhuman-human entanglements.

Our objectives: We aim to record intangible and material multispecies cultural heritage to better understand the needs, intentions, and life worlds of other-than-human beings. Based on our team’s longstanding experience, we will use ethnographic methods (including sound and film) to explore new ways of understanding embodiment, immersion, and experiential apprenticing. Our objective is divided into three parts, based in guiding research questions:

1) “How do animals, plants and humans engage the senses to establish shared meaning?”
2) “How do differences in time/space perception (e.g. life rhythm) feature in interspecies communication?”
3) “What learned nonverbal communicative acts have people observed in wild and domestic animals and plants?”

Our team: Alex Oehler, Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Regina (Principle Investigator), has 10+ years of experience in Siberian multispecies ethnography with hunters and herders, as well with Inuit hunters of the Western Canadian Arctic. Sarah Abbott, Associate Professor in the Department of Film at the University of Regina (co-applicant) has research focused in public and multispecies ethnography, Indigenous and western/colonial plant-human relations and ethnographic film. The project’s international group of collaborators focus on Mongolian Studies, animal migration, and satellite tracking, linguistics and animal communication, interspecies sensory studies, extinction studies, voice and sound recording, equine sensory research, and wildlife ecology.

Why now: Isolating human and nonhuman life worlds is problematic not only for those lacking speech (animals and plants, including trees/forests). Our anthropocentric way of life poses a growing challenge for humanity itself: We are losing our ability to recognize the intent of nonhumans (Weston 2017), while driving an unsustainable disequilibrium between production and consumption. Re-learning our species’ ancient methods of communicating with the sentient world has transformative potential for sustainable long-term planning in agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry, food distribution, and wildlife conservation. Our research seeks to strengthen those who are at the forefront of academic, political, and social change toward a more equitable world in which all sentient beings can participate in the co-construction of a future that will sustain all our relations for many generations to come.

Weston, K., 2017. Animate planet: making visceral sense of living in a high-tech ecologically damaged world. Duke University Press.

Image credit: “Sensory” by benjaflynn is marked with CC BY 2.0.