Comment by Ruth Dorothea Eggel
In the last lecture of this semester’s theme Data Concepts: Key terms in experimentalist data studiesour exoteric RUSTLab Member Markus Rudolfi joined, to discuss the ambiguous role of key terms in his talk titled:Struggling for words: Plants, data, and the Iron Curtain. Two ethnographic stories took us to a floristic database project in a transboundary protected area, which used to be part of the Iron Curtain. These two stories followed questions of what key terms are, how descriptions and names relate to each other, where they lead to and which stories are told with them.
The first story takes place at a field excursion in the Czech borderlands, where Botanists are looking for a particular plant in border forest regions of Šumava. This particular plant – Pedicularis palustris, Sumpf-Läusekraut, or Všivec bahenní – is considered “least concerned” to be endangered in EU law. But it is an endangered species in the German lists and its last recorded observation in this borderland area dates ten years back. To save the Šumava unmanaged non-intervention zones have been established, to allow plants to grow freely, which could have worsened the conditions for pedicularis palustris. The chosen path through rivers and thick plantations, allows the botanists to document other plant samples, putting leaves and notes with descriptions of their location and surroundings in sample bags. To identify a plant, stems are broken, chromosomes counted and surrounding conditions observed. When a name is forgotten, it is the description that helps to communicate. Sometimes descriptions of surroundings, sometimes of popular practices, like “the plant you kiss under”. There are good places for the plant – wet but with the right conditions, yet pedicularis palustris cannot be found on that expedition.
The second story is taking place in a data center. It is an interview with a data expert. The center is part of a flora project that is curating the documentation of plants in the border region and bringing it together into a database. The users collecting these plant data have to be convinced to standardize their data in a certain way and structure it better. This florist mapping requires experts and is therefore not suitable as a citizen science project. Still, the user base is diverse and includes different methods and approaches to collecting and documenting plants. The challenges for the database of this border region are not only the different plant names in German or Czech that still refer to the same species, and users who are only familiar with certain names. But also border crossing of plants (without permission), which is discussed with terms similar to illegal immigration of humans. In-between all this, when the name of a plant is forgotten, the data expert described how it looks, where it grows, some particular info, until someone throws in the name for the plant.
These two stories highlighted the difficulty of naming, describing, and archiving plants in a database in the border region of the Šumava. Markus Rudolfi stressed, how the way these stories were (re-)presented has consequences and suggested three propositions for names, key terms, and the right words, emerging from these stories. With an STS perspective on the research of taxonomy, we can see that naming species is never complete (Bowker 2000). Moreover, when it comes to biodiversity and the “re-identification” of certain species, descriptions are needed more than names. The field of flora databases in the border region makes this very evident. Names as terms are not a clear identifier, but it is rather the description that helps to “re-identify” plants in the forest as well as in the database. The first proposition focuses on the persisting problems, as transforming environments bring changes to contemporary orders and classification. The re-appropriation and unobserved growth in some border regions require plants to be found again and re-identified. The many synonymous names in different languages become a burden to choose from and the comparing of names e.g. in different languages is not always self-evident, but often leads to confusion.
The second proposition is, that descriptions are powerful. Just as stories that turn inchoate experience into an experience (Verran 2021). Especially as long as names can mean not one but many things turning to description is necessary. More-than-human anthropologies use stories, and immersion to create a thick presence, that reaches into the past, trying to tell complementary stories (Haraway 2016). When names are missing, descriptions help to identify plants in both stories.
The third proposition suggests, that the creation of data becomes an existential question, where existential refers to the possibilities of reproduction. Descriptions and experiences documented allow tracing changing flora and the conditions of their occurrence. Where some plants take over, others don’t find the right environment. The flora database refers to experiences and encounters made by others, and it tells stories of absence next to stories of resurgence.
This particular insight into plants in the Šumava, their collection, and documentation, their detailed descriptions, and naming, their translation and re-identification between database and experience teaches us how key terms and names remain ambiguous in their reference. More than names, descriptions are necessary to re-identify plants in both the database and empirical fieldsites. Furthermore, the key terms in these two stories are not owned but discovered and shared. Divided work between the people who know the species and those who know the database brings the experience e.g. of an empirical field excursion to the databank. There is no easy way to compare and match different names and terms, as terms can be very local. With this, the lecture also stressed the importance of looking at how key terms are used rather than at terms detached from conclusions. The use of terms and descriptions tells us about relations and shows how one term relates to others and how we relate to each other through terms.
Bowker, Geoffrey C. (2000). Biodiversity datadiversity. Social Studies of Science, 30(5), 643–683.
Haraway, Donna (2016): Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.
Verran, Hellen (2021). Writing an Ethnographic Story in Working toward Responsibly Unearthing Ontological Troubles. In A. Ballestero, & B. R. Winthereik (Eds.), Experimenting with Ethnography: A Companion to Analysis (1 ed., pp. 235-245). Duke University Press.