Harnessing the Interdisciplinary

A Brief History of Ethnobotany at Kent 1998-2018

by Raj Puri

The Ethnobotanical Assembly emerges from a community of practice that has grown steadily for over a century of ethnobotanical research and application. At the University of Kent, we are proud to have played a part in that growth through our 20 years of teaching and supervising MSc and PhD students in all aspects of ethnobotany, ethnobiology and environmental anthropology. Ethnobotany is an inherently interdisciplinary field, and here I want to say a little about the history of the programme, its structure, the types of students we have had and the kinds of research they have engaged in. While 20 years is barely a generation, there have been noticeable trends in students and projects over the years, perhaps driven by intellectual developments as well as broader changes in culture and economy. Undoubtedly, staff research projects and research areas have also influenced the choices made by students. I think it is safe to say that these trends reflect wider changes in ethnobiology, as proposed by Hunn (2007) and Nabhan (2016), and perhaps we can be counted as contributing to some of these changes (Ellen 2006).

The accompanying timeline sketches the history of the programme in terms of staff additions and research projects. It’s always been a challenge to provide an education that addresses both the multi- and inter-disciplinary (and increasingly trans-disciplinary) promise of ethnobotany. We, both staff and students, all start with some disciplinary home and strength (and therefore bias) that we then try to add to, or syncretize with, in order to bring a more holistic approach to answering questions about human-plant relationships. We are based in a broad and diverse school of anthropologists (social, biological and environmental), geographers, and conservationists, so our teaching is necessarily biased toward these fields. To be able to offer broader exposure and opportunities to our students, we work with various institutional partners, in particular the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. But realistically, there is only so much that can be taught or done in a one year course. The best we can do is give students the theoretical and methodological foundations, and the opportunity to explore their interests and passions through coursework and the dissertation project. Our students end up pursuing a vast diversity of topics that often push at the boundaries of ethnobotany, and demonste the dynamism that an interdiscipline can have.


In 2018, our 20th intake of students was 18 strong, our biggest class yet. While class sizes have slowly increased over the years, we seem to have wild swings. The average class is about 9, with a total of 175 students completing the course as of 2018. We continue to attract a mix of young and mature students, predominantly women, some with strong academic backgrounds and academic interests, others with prior work experience and more applied interests. To take advantage of this talent and experience, we are trying to increase opportunities for peer to peer learning. Our students have come from 28 countries, mostly the UK, US, Canada, and Europe, with only a few from the rest of the world. In my experience, the high costs of tuition and living expenses, combined with the lack of scholarships for MSc courses in general, limits the number of students that apply and attend, especially from developing countries.

As for research projects, students have worked in 42 countries on a variety of topics. The accompanying word clouds based on dissertation titles show a consistent interest in knowledge and medicinal plants (including entheogens) as key topics. Earlier foci on transmission, conservation, and Morocco have been replaced with new interests in biocultural diversity, food, and management. In the prevalence of “plant(s)” and “knowledge”, one can perhaps detect ethnobotany’s dual lineage, in economic botany and linguistic anthropology, and in “biocultural diversity” the promise of a more integrated ethnobotany. There appears to be a general decline in interest in ecological aspects of plant use and sustainability research, and a general increase in interest in traveling cultures, migrants and urban ethnobotany. The growing interest in food is in all aspects: agrobiodiversity, wild plants and foraging, food as medicine, home gardening and allotments, and food as identity for migrants. Overall, there is a strong desire to do projects that matter, that contribute directly to plant conservation, the maintenance of indigenous and local knowledge, or the livelihoods of marginalized peoples. While we have expected more, there has been only a smattering of digital ethnobotany projects, using, for example, online sources or methods, or studying online behaviour. But all of these are small majorities; actually, the diversity of projects is astounding, as the full word cloud shows.

Over 20 years, the programme has grown tremendously, and established a lively and productive network of people and institutions across the UK and beyond, a living ethnobotanical assemblage. For students, the programme has never been so intense, but as ethnobotany as a discipline has grown, as new intellectual trends have swept across academia, and as the world has changed, there seems to be more and more that students need and want to know. As a convenor, it’s difficult to make choices about what to include and where we should be leading. Of course, it’s made much easier by proactive students, who in many ways are increasingly setting the agenda. This is a good thing, and a necessary thing, as we look to pass on the programme to the next generation of teachers.

A Timeline of Ethnobotany at Kent

Kent-Kew Ethnobotany MSc established

The Kent-Kew Ethnobotany MSc was established in 1997, by Prof Roy Ellen, at Kent, and Sir Iain Prance, then Director of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

At Kent, Roy Ellen, Laura Rival, Gary Martin, David Zeitlin and Michael Fischer taught modules on Ethnobiological Knowledge Systems, Environmental Anthropology, Botanical Foundations of Ethnobotany, Anthropological Research Methods, and Contemporary Issues in Environmental Anthropology & Ethnobiology.

At Kew, Mark Nesbitt and Monique Simmons, then at the Centre for Economic Botany, organised a series of seminars by Kew botanists, called Plant Resources and their Conservation.

The first external examiner was Darrel Posey, then at Oxford University.Students also attended anthropology research seminars and modules taught by conservation scientists in the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) at Kent, the most popular being Helen Newing’s module on Community-based Conservation and Stuart Harrop’s Biodiversity Law.

Diversifying learning

Students originally wrote an essay for each module and then spent the final 5 months of this one-year intensive course working on their dissertation projects. As is typical of the British tutorial system in higher education, students had a supervisor they worked closely with to determine the topic of essays and dissertations, the lectures and seminars being largely supportive of their individual learning plans.

Today, students take 8 modules, have a greater variety of coursework and assessments, plus have a significant number of fieldtrips and learning experiences at other institutions. Staff still play a significant role in advising students, but there is greater dependence on modules to structure learning.

Miguel Alexiades' arrival

Miguel Alexiades became associated with the programme in 2002, first as a Nuffield Foundation Fellow, then as the ISE’s Darrel Posey Fellow. In 2011, Miguel joined the teaching staff, taking over from Gary Martin, and along with partner Daniela Peluso, has brought enthusiastic teaching and expertise in Amazonia, political ecology and the Anthropocene to the School.

Anna Waldstein becomes associated

Anna Waldstein joined us in 2004, bringing expertise in medical ethnobotany and migration, and now she teaches the module Holism, Health and Healing. Along with supervising numerous projects on medicinal plants, she has several research projects with Jamaican migrants and their descendants in London. Medicinal plants have always been a major interest of students, which have included many professional herbalists, and since the beginning we've had a close relationship with the School of Pharmacy in London (now UCL SoP); Prof. Michael Heinrich has taken several of our graduates on as PhD students, and now we have an annual exchange with their students studying Pharmacognosy.

Ros Bennet's stay and her succession by Alison Foster

Botanist Ros Bennett joined us from 2013-2018, teaching a hands-on and wildly popular module in Plant Identification; and now we welcome Alison Foster who will take over from her. At Kew, we’ve strengthened our teaching on conservation with an annual visit to the Millennium Seedbank (MSB), a seminar at Botanical Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), and an IUCN workshop on Red Listing of Plants with Hassan Rancou. We’ve also had a long-term relationship with the Eden Project in Cornwall since it opened in 2000, through our former student and now colleague Simon Platten, who introduced us to Andrew Ormerod, Ian Martin, Mike Maunder and others. They all host us on our annual trip to Cornwall in April, to explore restoration, innovation and future possibilities for people-plant relationships.


  1. Ellen, Roy (ed.) 2006. Introduction. Ethnobiology and the Science of Humankind. JRAI Special Issue, also published as book. Oxford: Blackwell.
  2. Ellen, Roy, Sarah Johns and Stephen Lycett (eds.) 2013. Understanding Cultural Transmission: A Critical Anthropological Synthesis. Oxford: Berghahn Books.
  3. Hunn, Eugene. 2007. Ethnobiology in Four Phases. Journal of Ethnobiology 27(1):1-10.
  4. Nabhan, Gary. 2016. Redefining Ethnobiology. In G.P. Nabhan (ed.), Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural amd Ecological Diversity. Pp. 11-17. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.
  5. Newing, Helen. 2011. Conducting Research in Conservation: A Social Science Perspective. London: Routledge.