Mary Douglas’s Garden

What is a weed? Perhaps that’s a trick question. And no, I’m not talking about marijuana (although according to Agriculture Victoria, marijuana is, in fact, classified as a “noxious weed”. There you have it!). I’m talking about common garden weeds – plants like dandelions, morning glory (bindweed), crabweed, spiny emex, etc. The kinds of plants you’d recognise by sight but maybe not necessarily by name. Taxonomically speaking, there is no single family or genera of “weeds”; no uniform classificatory status. Merriam-Webster (that most cited of online dictionaries) defines a ‘weed’ as “a plant that is not valued where it is growing”, “usually of vigorous growth,” and “one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants”. They are productive and voracious growers – voracious not in the food-hungry sense of the word, but in their eagerness, their enthusiasm to grow – appearing in spaces where other plants simply wouldn’t survive; such as on concrete pathways and in rooftop gutters. They grow quickly and reproduce abundantly, colonizing available ground with speed. Certainly, they are intrinsically bound to these concepts of space and place: ‘Many plants become weeds simply by being in the wrong place’ (Creswell 1997, 335; emphasis added). Take the common dandelion, for example (Taraxacum officinale). A meadow filled with their bright yellow flowers – a literalization of the Anthropological “field” if ever there was one – would be considered charming. Look at all that yellow! Yet when a dandelion appears in a garden or public pathway, they are no longer considered charming. They are immediately relegated to the category of the “weed”.

But what, you ask, does any of this have to do with Anthropology? You want to study people, not weeds. Well, fair enough. But think about it: Who defines this notion of “right” and “wrong” places for weeds to grow? Mary Douglas, a prominent Anthropologist you’re bound to come across in your studies, is perhaps most famous for her argument that dirt is simply ‘matter out of place’ (Douglas 1965, 198). So, too, are weeds simply plants that are “out of place”. They are weeds only in relation to their unwanted-ness; and, specifically, to human want and un-want. A cat, or a deer, or a bee, or a tree, has no concept of a weed; for weeds ‘are creatures of human disturbance’ (Tsing 2017, 3; emphasis added). For me, weeds highlight the human obsession with classifying things and putting them in their “right place”. This linguistic and ideological obsession is ‘deeply engrained in the way we think and act’ (Creswell 1997, 334); in how we think about and interact with the world around us. We order this world in carefully constructed ways, both scientifically – through taxonomy and nomenclature (see my companion post on Carl Linnaeus’s legacy here) – and practically. Gardens are personifications of this botanical ordering, with each plant put in its correct place, ‘forming a harmonious whole’ (Creswell 1997, 335) in which weeds would be a disturbance: ‘useless, harmful, and undesirable’ (ibid.). In removing such “weeds” from the human-cultivated space of the garden – in performing the verbal act, “to weed” – the gardener ensures that the physical world ‘conforms to the structure of ideas’ (Douglas 1965, 199). Things belong where they belong, and must remain so, bounded and boxed eternally. A garden full of weeds is not a garden at all but a representation of the “natural” and the “wild”, encroaching on the “human” and the “civilised”. Colonial terminology abounds.

Certainly, our pedantic categorising of the world around us reveals more about ourselves than, arguably, any inherent properties of the world itself. A weed is not a weed until a human deems it so, and a human only deems it so when a plant has the wild, untamed audacity to grow where it is not wanted. Anything can be a weed, in that sense (okay, except for maybe trees – which grow too slowly and would be “weeded out” before they reached anything approaching maturity). Conversely, it appears that plants can occasionally escape the denomination of “weed”, too. In my grandmother’s retirement village in South Africa, a common species of clover (nomenclature unknown), with its dainty purple flowers – long relegated to the category of “weed” in the village inhabitants’ previous suburban gardens – had achieved an ideological revolution, and was now present in almost every garden and window-box in the village. My mother was horrified. “But it’s a weed!” she cried, repeatedly. And yet the inhabitants of the retirement village had now deemed it not so. The ease with which the “weedy” clover grew was now coveted, and the flowers “sweet” and “pretty”. It makes me think of the Shakespearian idiom “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Would a weed by any other name be considered as “weedy”? As unwanted? As out of place? Clearly not.

Image Source: Travel Like a Local: Vermont


Creswell, T 1997, ‘Weeds, Plagues, and Bodily Secretions: A Geographical Interpretation of Metaphors of Displacement’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 87, No. 2, pp.330-345

Douglas, M 1965, ‘Pollution’, in W.A. Lessa and E.Z. Vogt (Eds.), Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, Third Edition, Harper & Row Publishers, U.S.A., pp.196-202

Tsing, A 2017, ‘The Buck, The Bull, and The Dream of the Stag: Some Unexpected Weeds of the Anthropocene’, Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society, Vol. 42, Issue 1, pp.3-21

See Also:

“Go Back To Where You Came From!” An Anthropological Look at Linnaeus, Taxonomy, and Classification

If you’ve never studied biology before, or expressed any interest in the worlds of zoology or botany or mycology (the study of fungi; and no I didn’t just Google that three seconds ago…), then you’d be forgiven for not knowing who Carl Linnaeus is (or was). The Swede is largely credited as the “Father of Modern Taxonomy” for his system of classification outlined in his book Systema Naturae (first edition published in 1735).

Of course, the concept of classification had been around long before Linnaeus. DeSalle and Tattersall (2018) argue that ‘[n]aming things is a very deeply embedded component of our cultural and evolutionary development’ (DeSalle & Tattersall 2018, 30). The very basic of language is to name things, and, more than that, naming things in relation to other things. The human naming of things – including “natural” things like plants and animals and fundi – reveals ‘a whole mentality, a view of how the universe is constituted’ (Douglas 1965, 197). Indeed, Mary Douglas’ examination of the rules of Leviticus (Douglas 1966) – dictating what animals are acceptable to eat and why, based on common characteristics – reveals that classification of the natural world was around long, long, before Linnaeus. Classifying the world around us, Douglas argues, protects society from ideological ‘ambiguity and dissonance’ (Douglas 1965, 196). In doing so, humans put the natural world ‘in its place’ (Douglas 1965, 196), and this implies ‘only two conditions, a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order’ (Douglas 1965, 198). (It was in this context that her arguably most famous assertion that “dirt” is simply ‘matter out of place’ (ibid.) appeared).

Where Linnaeus “revolutionised” the world of taxonomy, was in his ‘great gift… of standardization’ (Naumann 2006, 80). He created the binomial system of nomenclature that is still used in the natural sciences today, where each species is given a two-part name in Latin and/or Greek form: First, their genus (e.g. Homo; capitalised), followed by their individual species name (sapiens). (The name Homo sapiens means “wise man”. He was not the most original in his choices). Linnaeus was the first to (officially, at least) classify human beings as belonging to the same kingdom as animals. (Placing humans in the same order as primates came much later, after Darwin and his own “revolutionizing” work on evolution).

Yet Linnaeus was not content to leave it at that. Systema Naturae was published amidst a boom of colonial expansion, where the concept of “race” was perhaps more prominent than ever before. Subsequently, good ol’ Carl thought it would be fitting to divide Homo sapiens into four racial subspecies – and brace yourself, because by modern standards it truly is awful:

‘(1) American: red, bilious, straight – governed by customs; (2) European: white, sanguine, muscular – governed by customs; (3) Asian: sallow (pale), melancholic, stiff – governed by opinion; and (4) African: black, phlegmatic, stiff – governed by chance’ (cited in Diogo 2018, 283).

These distinctions were made not just on skin colour but on temperament and “humour”, too. Linnaeus also went so far as to include the further subspecies ‘Ferus’ (for, I kid you not, feral children) and ‘Monstrosus’, denoting ‘mythical people with strange morphologies’ (DeSalle & Tattersall 2018). Clearly, he was getting a little carried away. Anthropologically speaking, it reveals an interesting paradigm. In the art versus science debate, Anthropology is largely considered more on the “art” side, whereas taxonomy – based on principles of biology – is considered a science. Yet relegating humans into four racial subspecies – as well as two completely “mythological” subspecies – was clearly not based on any “real” science. We now know, genetically speaking, that there is only one species of human, and that remains Homo sapiens. Sorry Linnaeus.

Yet when these proposed subspecies were published, it was the first time that the notion of “race” had been given a “scientific” basis. Contemporaries of Linnaeus, such as the Dutch physician and anatomist Petrus Camper, used this taxonomic classification of race to further his studies of physical anthropology, including the dubious and now-debunked “science” of craniology/phrenology. As such, the “science” of race loomed large in the colonial mindset of the time, with the “lower human races” of the colonies seen as ‘powerful personifications of wilderness to be fought heroically and conquered by civilised Westerners’ (Corbey quoted in Diogo 2018, 487). Race was given a solid hierarchy, and Anthropology a scientific basis. Certainly, the history of Anthropology is fraught with racist and colonial representations of “primitive”, “less-developed” peoples. Perhaps we should be grateful, then, that the “science” of Anthropology has been discredited, to allow for the more subjectivist interpretations of the “art” of Anthropology to take its place.

Image Source: Time


DeSalle, R. and Tattersall, I. 2018, ‘The Name Game: Linneaus’s 260-Year-Old Classification of Human Individuals and Populations Was the Start of a Hugely Problematic Trend’, Natural History, Vol. 126, Issue 6, pp.30

Diogo, R 2018, ‘Links Between the Discovery or Primates and Anatomical Comparisons with Humans, the Chain of Being, Our Place in Nature, and Racism’, Journal of Morphology, Vol. 279, Issue 4, pp.472-493

Douglas, M 1965, ‘Pollution’, in W.A. Lessa and E.Z. Vogt (Eds.), Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, Third Edition, Harper & Row Publishers, U.S.A., pp.196-202

Douglas, M 1966, ‘The Abominations of Leviticus’, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts and Pollution and Taboo, Routledge Publishing, United Kingdom, pp.42-58

Numann, P 2006, ‘What’s in the Box? Linnaeus’s Legacy’, Journal of Museum Ethnography, Vol. 18, pp.77-94

See Also:

No Homo Bro: Viewing Humans as Primates and the Nature/Culture Divide

Things We Wish We Knew In First Year: Art/Science Debate

An Anthropology of Scientific Things

A Few Lessons Learned From Anthropology’s Past