Bird-watching as the perception of the environment
In this thesis the practice and subculture of “birding” (and to a lesser extent moose hunting and nature inspired art production) has been studied anthropologically.
The aim of the study has been to find out more about how ornithological field experts perceive, classify and acquire knowledge about birds and the environments where they occur. What kind of activity is this? How is it motivated? To what extent can “twitching” and bird -watching be considered an embodied skill?
What are the perceptual (and social) implications of “enskillment” and the specialization of this activity? What kinds of social formations are created around it? Can birders be grouped into different subcultures? In what way and to what extent do the ornithologists engage with or objectify the birds (figure) and the landscapes (ground) they are finding? What significance do birds have as symbols in our culture? How do birds and the concrete environment obtain meaning for people through experience? How has ornithology as a practice and a knowledge tradition developed over the last 200 years as a result of changes in technology and society?
What makes bird-watching an exciting activity?
What makes a young enthusiast (a “twitcher”) drive from Oslo to Trondheim , a distance of 3000Km, three times in one week to see two rare arctic gulls? (the Ivory Gull and the Ross’s Gull). What makes more than 3000 “twitchers” flock around a shopping centre in Kent, creating huge traffic chaos, hoping to get a glimpse of a Golden Winged Warbler from America?
Bird watching as a model:
In this thesis, ornithological practice can be considered as a model or case study where general questions about experience, perception and knowledge acquisition about (elements in) the concrete environment has been explored.
How is knowledge about birds gained from experience and training (“enskillment”)? What kind of knowledge is this?
What is the relationship between the experience of birds (or nature) and the cultural construction of birds (or nature)?
To what extent do the most recent fractions of birding (for instance “twitching” and “local patch birding”) reflect more general and global trends in how modern people relate to animals and nature today?
What did I find?
- One finding which seems to appear is that ethical attitudes (value oriented attitudes) in relation to the animals and nature are first and foremost influenced by language and the social reference group one belongs to, or aspires to belong to, while aesthetical attitudes or preferences towards animals and nature are more directly influenced by skill and embodied specialization, independently of the social reference group. Skilled “birders” and foresters for instance, seem to internalise a certain aesthetic which resonates with the intentions imminent in the specialised activities in which they are trained.
- Another finding is the amount of attention, enthusiasm and engagement the “birders” can mobilize when discovering a bird of interest. I call this the enthusiasm of natural history ( “naturhistorisk entusiasme”). Natural history enthusiasts demonstrate an engagement and passion towards their aspired group of organisms which shows how Tim Ingold’s (2000) notion of the perceptual engagement also can happen towards figures in the environment in a context of classification, without this necessarily implying a detached objectifying relation.