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Philippe Descola’s modes of relation

Forms of attachment

Phillippe Descola’s modes of identification—animism, totemism, analogism, and naturalism—have gained some currency in the world of American anthropology. Less well-known are his modes of relation. The present post is a brief overview of those six modes, drawn from chapter 13 of his book Beyond nature and culture (also available OA from HAU).

Descola’s usage is distinct from that of Mauss and Lévi-Strauss. Rather than muck up the presentation of his own usage by presenting it vis-a-vis theirs, I invite interested readers to consult his book. There he treats the differences as well as his rationale. If you are a splitter like myself I suspect you might be inclined to see a value in his shaking up of first principles. Lumpers may be less so inclined.

Transfers: gift, exchange, predation

The first triad of modes of relation are reversible. That is, the parties to the relationship, might, potentially, be on either side of the relation.


Gifting per Descola’s definition is giving with no expectation that something has to be given in return. This is not to say that countergifting does not exist. It is to say that countergifts do not constitute one side of an exchange relationship.

The Magi depicted on an early 6th century mosaic at the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy.


Descola’s exchange is giving with the expectation that something will be given in return, either immediately or on down the line. Conversely, receiving with the understanding that something will be immediately or eventually be given in return.

Market on the steps of Iglesia Santo Thomás, Chichcastenango, Guatemala.


Descola’s predation is taking without giving.

“Native fishing,” p. 15 of the Codex Canadiensis.

Hierarchical relations: production, protection, transmission

The are triad of modes of relation are hierarchical. That is, one of the parties to the relationship is the doer and the other is the done to, as it were.


Beer production, Sya, Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso.


Protection is hierarchical because the protected can not reject the protection of the protector (e.g., guardian to ward, state to citizen).

Blanca López Hernández, Waslala, Nicaragua, July, 1982.


In Descola’s (2013:329) words, “Transmission is above all what allows the dead, through filiation, to gain a hold over the living.” He notes that “the clearest expression of this relationship can be found where the dead have been converted into ancestors to whom a cult is devoted” (p. 330). Such is prevalent in East Asia, as well as in West Africa amongst such societies as the Tallensi (e.g., Fortes 1973). Possibly also among students of the social sciences.

The author knows his ancestors weren’t perfect, but he loves them anyway.


Descola, Philippe. 2012. Forms of attachment. Janet Loyd, trans. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2(1): [447]–71. doi:10.14318/hau2.1.020.

———. 2013. Beyond nature and culture. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press. (Translation, by Janet Loyd, of Par-delà nature et culture, Bibliothèque des sciences humaines. [Paris]: Gallimard, 2005.)

Fortes, Meyer. 1973. On the concept of the person among the Tallensi. In La notion de personne en Afrique noire. Germaine Dieterlen, ed. Pp. 283–319. Colloques Internationaux Du Centre National De La Recherche Scientifique 544. Paris: Éditions du Centre national de la recherche scientifique.

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Matthew Timothy Bradley



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