Liquid distinctions: Negotiating boundaries between agriculture and the environment in the Israeli desert

Liron Shani*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Relations between humans and “nature” have long been a focus of social research and, in particular, anthropological inquiry. In recent years, scholars have generally dismissed the distinction between these categories as empirically and conceptually irrelevant. Based on fieldwork in an agricultural community in the Israeli desert (2010–2015), this article shows that the boundaries between nature and culture remain salient to social and critical analysis that focuses on interpretive aspects of environment and space, as well as the ongoing negotiation of these distinctions. This research demonstrates that some actors in the Arava see environmental preservation as part of “nature” and agricultural lands as part of “culture,” thereby emphasizing the boundaries between the two. But their relations to the culture/nature complex are dynamic, changing in accordance with personal circumstances, external pressures, and evolving definitions of these categories. In this sense, the division between nature and culture is not necessarily dichotomous, but rather a multidimensional space of Nature(s) and Culture(s). Insofar as local actors saw the blurring of the boundaries between agriculture and the environment as part of the development of the agricultural economy and a means of responding to changing realities, they viewed this melding as legitimate, notwithstanding some cynicism. But when challenges to the boundary between agriculture and environmentalism were seen to threaten the livelihood and development of the region, locals objected, eliciting conflict amidst gradual, qualified accep-tance.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1075-1103
Number of pages29
JournalAnthropological Quarterly
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Jun 2018
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
An earlier version of this paper was presented in the Political Ecology Working Group at Harvard University and at the departments of Anthropology at Brandeis University and at Ben-Gurion University. I would like to thank Dan Rabinowitz, Elizabeth Ferry, Deborah Fitzgerald, Andrew Mathews, Natalia Gutkowski, and Shai Dromi for their comments on earlier versions of this article. I would also like to thank Noam Ben Ishie for the help in writing this article. I have much benefited from the constructive comments of the editor of Anthropological Quarterly and two anonymous reviewers. This work was supported by Israel Science Foundation [grant number 0610414433], as well as scholarships from The Smoller-Winikov Foundation Scholarship and the Yonatan Shapira Foundation Scholarship. I don’t know of any potential conflict of interest for this study.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 by the Institute for Ethnographic Research (IFER) a part of The George Washington University. All rights reserved.


  • Agriculture
  • Boundaries]
  • Environment
  • Globalization
  • Israel
  • Nature-culture


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