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:

Research(ing) Fields / Anthropology of Food

My honours thesis is about coffee so I’ve been reading a lot about the anthropology of food, which is a larger subfield than I had realised. As a research area it is interesting because it allows for multidimensional research that links together ecological concerns with economics and symbolic and ritual meaning-making. Food studies also directly connects the body with these wider social-cultural-economic systems. Because of the way that food travels, or not, it also can be at the forefront of multi-sited ethnographic research.

In an overview of the subdiscipline, Sidney Mintz describes three areas that the anthropology of food focuses on (Mintz and Du Bois, 2002):

  1. Political-economic value-creation
  2. Symbolic value-creation
  3. Social construction of memory         

Mintz, himself, is the author of Sweetness and Power (1986)a very influential book that gives a history of the modern era through the lens of sugar. As one of the most important global commodities, sugar has always been embedded in colonial economic relationships.  His fieldwork in Puerto Rico with sugar cane labourers led him to think about the history of the commodity in shaping both the producing nations and the consuming nations. He ties together the economics (demand/supply) of sugar with its changing social meaning.

The research field, for Mintz, started in the sugar cane fields of Puerto Rico, but he believed that in order to understand these economic and power relationships required a historical and transnational lens, paying attention to the ways in which meaning is made through use. Mintz sees the production and consumption influencing each other in complex ways, just like the intertwined relationships between the economic, geopolitical and cultural spheres.

In doing so he uses the ‘follow the thing’ research method, which traces a single object as it passes through different exchanges and social spheres (Marcus, 1995). The object in such research is often seen as being made of up a multitude of social relationships.

Studying food is also about the connection between these larger social practices and one’s sensory experience. The sensory experience of food is critical to a fuller understanding of people’s relationships to it. How can anthropology describe sensory experience? One example of the increasing attempts to tackle this problem is Sarah Pink’s ethnographic description of a Slow Food Movement walking tour in Wales (Pink, 2008). Pink takes a cue from the slow food walking tour to propose a multimodal ‘slow ethnography’ that embeds itself in the places sensory experience of being there (Sutton, 2010). This then allows Pink to understand ethnography itself as a “place-making process”, shared between researcher and participants (Pink, 2008, p. 175).


Marcus, G.E., 1995. Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology 24, 95–117.

Mintz, S.W., 1986. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books.

Mintz, S.W., Du Bois, C.M., 2002. The Anthropology of Food and Eating. Annual Review of Anthropology 31, 99–119.

Pink, S., 2008. An urban tour: The sensory sociality of ethnographic place-making. Ethnography 9, 175–196.

Sutton, D.E., 2010. Food and the Senses. Annual Review of Anthropology 39, 209–223.