Knowing Misha the Polar Bear: Multi-naturalism, biography, and conservation in Svalbard.
University of Cambridge
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Anderson-Elliott, H. (2022). Knowing Misha the Polar Bear: Multi-naturalism, biography, and conservation in Svalbard. (Doctoral thesis). https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.78489
This thesis is about the human engagements with wildlife in the Anthropocene. Specifically, following the work of Lorimer on encountering and conceptualising wildlife in this putative epoch, it explores the idea of ‘knowing polar bears’ in Svalbard. By this I refer to how, through a succession of different interactions within a dynamic actor-network, human actants come to understand Svalbard polar bears. I acknowledge that these encounters are not valueless, instead they are culturally, socially, and politically situated in significant disciplinary, epistemological, and technological histories and imaginaries. It is through and between these multi-species entanglements that different ‘becomings’ and ‘worldings’ are produced. Put simply, there are multiple different conceptions of what polar bears are here, produced in relation to the multiple different ‘ways of knowing’. Primarily, I wanted to ground this approach within work on wildlife conservation, to ask how polar bear conservation as a discipline both affects and is affected by the regimes/societies of ‘knowing polar bears’ in Svalbard. This is a question of how the species is framed, purified, narrated, and perceived and also how those conceptions are ‘made to matter’ within the management, legislative, and conservation contexts. To engage with these questions, I propose an ethnographic approach to working with these groups of participants, all of whom make a claim that their work with polar bears impacts or contributes towards conservation and/or environmental aims. At the same time, this work has been deeply influenced by my personal attempts to know one individual Svalbard bear – Misha, Frost, or N23992 depending on who narrates her. This extraordinary bear has emerged in nearly every single context, from Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) datasets to Netflix documentaries and everything in between, demonstrating the extraordinary multiplicity of our engagements with her species even through the life of a single animal. In addition, I propose the development of Krebber and Roscher’s Animal Biography to reflexively engage with knowing and telling non-human life with an appreciation of agency, authorship, and affect. I am interested in how each society of actants comes to know this bear, and how she is co-shaped through their varied technological and epistemological encounters. Exploring her life in this way not only shows how polar bears as a species are understood, but also how bears are ‘individuated’, as well as the impacts that these transformations and affective atmospheres have upon her ecology, physiology, and even ethology. From the early development of the institutions of polar bear science in the 1960s/70s, the politicization of polar bear icons and climate change in the 1990s, the emergence of scientific protocols and standardized data-collections and analyses, to thousands of wildlife photographs and hundreds of hours of nature documentaries, I explore the multi-naturalism of this Svalbard bear through the work of those that know her. In each context, she is a different polar bear to different people, representing different roles, cares, concerns, and futures. Ultimately, I ask, what is a polar bear in Svalbard, and what is it that we are really conserving?
polar bears, conservation, animal biography, multi-naturalism, zoos, Svalbard, Film
This record's DOI: https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.78489
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