Human–Nonhuman Relations


The relationship between human and nonhuman beings has been investigated in anthropological studies on magical-religious practices such as animism, shamanism, and spirit possession. Studies of gift-exchange and personhood have also elaborated important arguments about the unfolding of encounters and interactions between people and others, including nonhuman beings. Moreover, as seen in arguments on the ‘ontological turn’, anthropological studies of unique relations between humans and nature, and of gift-exchange and personhood, have been invigorated through connections to studies on human–nonhuman relations in related fields, including STS. Recent works of anthropology and STS have influenced each other and have widened the range of studies on humannonhuman relations, networks, and social beings (see Jensen et al. 2017). 

In light of such academic trends, I have investigated humannonhuman relations, focusing mainly on rather ‘classic’ subjects in anthropology, such as spirits, deities, and other magical-spiritual beings. For instance, exploring the making of spirits in Ghana and spirit possession rituals in South India, I investigated how divine worlds can be created, vitalised, and lived by people. Focusing not on cognition and operating through things, but on bodily action with things, I presented a view of the formation of divine worlds as the actualisation of virtual, vital relations between persons and things that emerge only through their contingent coactions (Ishii 2012). I also investigated spirit worship in a special economic zone in India by considering practices of care around specific constellations of nature and infrastructure: fluid, contingent assemblages of the ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ environments (Ishii 2017a). Moreover, reconsidering the notion of the umwelt presented by Jacob von Uexküll and Victor von Weizsäcker, I investigated how people in South India create and recreate their social, religious, and ecological milieu—or the umwelt—through encounters and interactions with various others, such as colonial officers, developers, and deities (Ishii 2017b). Building on these investigations, I attempt to show the dynamic relations that exist between humans, nonhumans, and their umwelt, and to consider the issue of ‘being in the umwelten’ for both humans and nonhumans.


Ishii, Miho 2012 Acting with things: Self-poiesis, actuality, and contingency in the formation of divine worldsHAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory2 (2): 371–88.

---- 2017a Caring for divine infrastructures: Nature and spirits in a special economic zone in IndiaEthnos: Journal of Anthropology 82(4):690-710.

---- 2017b An anthropology of the umwelt: Wildness, modernity, and spirit worship in South India. Kyoto Daigaku Gakujutsu Syuppankai. (In Japanese)

Jensen, Casper B. (et al.) 2017 New ontologies? Reflections on some recent ‘turns’ in STS, anthropology and philosophy. Social Anthropology 25 (4): 525–545.


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Contributed date

July 13, 2018 - 6:36am

Critical Commentary

This text written by Miho Ishii (Kyoto University) introduces Ishii’s recent works focused on humannonhuman relation and explains how anthropological studies on such topic and STS have influenced each other.



Cite as

Miho Ishii, "Human–Nonhuman Relations", contributed by Miki Namba, STS Infrastructures, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 19 August 2018, accessed 23 March 2023.–nonhuman-relations