1st Edition

Roots of Power The Political Ecology of Boundary Plants

By Michael Sheridan Copyright 2023
    290 Pages 31 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    Roots of Power tells five stories of plants, people, property, politics, peace, and protection in tropical societies. In Cameroon, French Polynesia, Papua New Guinea, St. Vincent, and Tanzania, dracaena and cordyline plants are simultaneously property rights institutions, markers of social organization, and expressions of life-force and vitality.

    In addition to their localized roles in forming landscapes and societies, these plants mark multiple boundaries and demonstrate deep historical connections across much of the planet’s tropics. These plants’ deep roots in society and culture have made them the routes through which postcolonial agrarian societies have negotiated both social and cultural continuity and change. This book is a multi-sited ethnographic political ecology of ethnobotanical institutions. It uses five parallel case studies to investigate the central phenomenon of "boundary plants" and establish the linkages among the case studies via both ancient and relatively recent demographic transformations such as the Bantu expansion across tropical Africa, the Austronesian expansion into the Pacific, and the colonial system of plantation slavery in the Black Atlantic. Each case study is a social-ecological system with distinctive characteristics stemming from the ways that power is organized by kinship and gender, social ranking, or racialized capitalism. This book contributes to the literature on property rights institutions and land management by arguing that tropical boundary plants’ social entanglements and cultural legitimacy make them effective foundations for development policy. Formal recognition of these institutions could reduce contradiction, conflict, and ambiguity between resource managers and states in postcolonial societies and contribute to sustainable livelihoods and landscapes.

    This book will appeal to scholars and students of environmental anthropology, political ecology, ethnobotany, landscape studies, colonial history, and development studies, and readers will benefit from its demonstration of the comparative method.

    Chap 1 Introduction: Approaching the Boundary

    Multi-sited ethnography

    Political ecology



    Outline of the book

    Chap 2 Beating the Bounds for Boundary Plants

    Structure, territory, and tenure

    From structure to process

    Symbolic boundary processes

    Monomarcation and polymarcation

    The spatial turn

    The plant and multispecies turns

    The ontological turn

    Re-turning to political economy


    Chap 3 Tanzania: Knots of Peace on Kilimanjaro

    Kilimanjaro as a social-ecological system

    Living land tenure

    Ancestors in the landscape

    Knots of peace, order, and meaning


    Chap 4 Cameroon: Bounded Vitality and Rank in the Oku Monarchy

    Oku as a social-ecological system

    Boundary plants and land tenure in Oku

    Social organization and boundary plants on patrol

    Masquerades, witchcraft, and life-force in Oku

    Life flowing through boundary plants


    Chap 5 Papua New Guinea: Embodying Places, Emplacing Bodies

    The vegecultures of Oceania

    Papua New Guinea as a social-ecological system

    Cordyline as a botanica franca

    Mapping social relations with boundary plants

    Beauty, place, and order


    Chap 6 French Polynesia: Rank and Revitalization in the Society Islands

    Vegecultures and social ranking in Remote Oceania

    The Society Islands as social-ecological systems

    Boundary plants and monuments to hierarchy

    The conjunctures of cordyline and colonialism

    Revitalized boundaries in a new society

    Decentralized protection and power


    Chap 7 St Vincent: Dragons in a Postslavery Peasant Society

    Boundary plants in the Plantationocene

    St. Vincent as a social-ecological system

    Boundary struggles in the provision grounds

    The social organization of dragons

    The red dragon is the guide


    Chap 8 Conclusion: Beyond Boundaries

    Methods revisited

    Boundaries and routes of power in the past

    Boundary plants and the roots of power today

    Beyond the bounds



    Michael Sheridan teaches anthropology and environmental studies at Middlebury College in Vermont.

    "In this lucid and innovative book, Mike Sheridan traces the remarkable global histories and cultural meanings of two powerfully charged boundary-marking plants – dracaena and cordyline – through five case studies of indigenous societies in Tanzania, Cameroon, New Guinea, French Polynesia, and the Caribbean. In critical dialogue with posthumanist approaches, his multi-sited ethnography of human-plant relations sets a model for political ecology. In the tradition of Eric Wolf, he masterfully combines history, culture, and power!"

    Alf Hornborg, Professor of Human Ecology, Lund University 

    "In Roots of Power, it is fascinating to see tropical boundary plants being used to ‘beat the bounds’ of social science theorizing in so many directions. The author follows two sets of cultivars whose uncannily repetitive evocations offer a sense of definition in an entangled field!"

    Marilyn Strathern, Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge

    "This brilliantly integrative ethnography explores the living boundaries of properties, and the properties people imbue in boundary plants themselves.  Sheridan shows what else these mean in people’s lives – material, social, and spiritual. Roots of Power marks a conjunction in the field of anthropology itself, conjoining deep work with far-reaching comparative study!"

    Parker Shipton, Professor of Anthropology, Boston University

    "Michael Sheridan’s Roots of Power: The Political Ecology of Boundary Plants tells five stories of plants, people, property, peace, and protection. With assured prose and impressive scholarship Sheridan shows how two humble plants, used traditionally throughout the global tropics to set property boundaries, are also conduits for social harmony, resistance against oppression, and spiritual journeys. This is an important book, not only for the professional scholar, but also for those interested in the majesty of small things that so profoundly influence the gamut of human life, from the comity of neighbors to the deepest entanglements of social and political power!"

    Judith Carney, Distinguished Research Professor, Geography, UCLA

    "Historically, plants have been used as boundary markers in different communities around the world. Through the lens of dracaena and cordyline plants, Michael Sheridan delivers the first global comparative study of plants as social, political, and cultural boundary markers. A theoretical tour de force, this book demonstrates the power of anthropology to understand socio-cultural phenomena over time and space. Based on multi-sited ethnography in five countries, Sheridan analyses processes of socioecological change involving property relations, group identities, land use, and domains of meaning. This book is a new and refreshingly productive approach to the expanding field of political ecology, and to the discourse on property rights everywhere!"

    N. Thomas Håkansson, Professor Emeritus, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences; Adjunct Full Professor of Anthropology, University of Kentucky