Human-managed soils and soil-managed humans: An interactive account of perspectival realism for soil management




value-laden ontologies, perspectivism, soil health, land capability classification, soil ontologies, ethnopedology, epistemology of agriculture, agricultural categories


What is philosophically interesting about how soil is managed and categorized? This paper begins by investigating how different soil ontologies develop and change as they are used within different social communities. Analyzing empirical evidence from soil science, ethnopedology, sociology, and agricultural extension reveals that efforts to categorize soil are not limited to current scientific soil classifications but also include those based in social ontologies of soil. I examine three of these soil social ontologies: (1) local and Indigenous classifications farmers and farming communities use to conceptualize their relationships with soil in their fields; (2) categorizations ascribed to farmers in virtue of their agricultural goals and economic priorities relied upon in sociological research; and (3) federal agency classifications of land capability employed by agricultural scientists. Studying the interplay of these social ontologies shows how assessing soil properties and capabilities are the result of previous agricultural strategies informed by culture, agroecological history, weather, soil biodiversity, crop rotation, and the goals held by decision-makers. The paper then identifies the soil relationships and interactions that constitute ontology-making activities. Building on recent work, I outline a novel interactive account of perspectival realism grounded in agricultural extension research and ethnopedological data that captures the haptic nature of farmers’ soil strategies. This interactive account explains how ontologies are chosen, why they are chosen, and how they interact and inform soil management decision-making. The paper concludes by examining the values laden in these ontologies and those which are causally implicated in the choice of soil management strategies.


Adams, Vincanne, Michelle Murphy, and Adele E Clarke (2009). “Anticipation: Technoscience, life, affect, temporality”. Subjectivity 28, pp. 246–265. DOI:

Assefa, Engdawork and Hans-Rudolf Bork (2014). “Long-Term Indigenous Soil Conservation Technology in the Chencha Area, Southern Ethiopia: Origin, Characteristics, and Sustainability”. AMBIO 43, pp. 932–942. DOI:

Barrera-Bassols, N and J A Zinck (2003). “Ethnopedology: a worldwide view on the soil knowledge of local people”. Geoderma 111, pp. 171–195. DOI:

Belay Tegene (2003). “Combining Land Capability evaluation, geographic information systems, and Indigenous technologies for soil conservation in Northern Ethiopia”. Eastern Africa Social Science Research Review 19(2), pp. 23–53. DOI:

Burgos, Nilda et al. (2006). “Managing herbicide resistance in cotton cropping systems”. Technical Bulletin for the Southern US.

Chirimuuta, Mazviita (2016). “Vision, Perspectivism, and Haptic Realism”. Philosophy of Science 83, pp. 746–756. DOI:

Curell, C (2016). “Earthworms can be an indicator of soil health”. MSU Extension Bulletin. Accessed 20 June 2023. URL:

Environmental Protection Agency (United States) (2023). “Indicators: Soil Chemistry”. National Aquatic Resource Survey. Accessed 10 June 2023. URL:

Eshetu, Mulugeta et al. (2022). “Worm Collection and Characterization of Vermicompost produced using different worm species and waste feeds materials at Sinana on—Station of Bale highland southeastern Ethiopia”. International Journal of Environmental and Agriculture Research 8(2), pp. 9–16.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2013). “International Years Council Minutes”. In: Geneva, Switzerland.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2017). “Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Soil Management”. In: Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils. Accessed 1 June 2023. Rome, Italy. URL:

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2019). “Mainstreaming gender for sustainable soil management”. In: Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition. 161. Rome, Italy. URL:

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2021). “Boosting smallholder resilience for recovery: restoring soil health and productivity for safe, nutritious, and resilient agri-food systems”. In: Rome, Italy. URL:

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2022). “Country guidelines and technical specifications for global soil nutrient and nutrient budget maps – GSNmap: Phase 1”. In: Rome, Italy. DOI:

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2023). “FAO Soils portal”. In: Soil management. Accessed 2 June 2023. URL:

Giere, R (2006). Scientific Perspectivism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gould, M, E Rogers, and S Fronczak (2022). “Compost handling in agriculture systems: how is compost made?” In: Michigan State University Extension 6-part series on compost utilization and management on farms. Accessed 8 March 2023. URL: part-article-series-on-compost-utilization-and-managementAccessed8.

Harding, Sandra (1995). “Strong Objectivity: A Response to the New Objectivity Question”. Synthese 104(3), pp. 331–349. DOI:

Hawes, M et al. (2000). “The role of root border cells in plant defense”. Trends in Plant Science 5(3), pp. 128–133. DOI:

Hopkins, C (1910). Soil Fertility and Permanent Agriculture. Ed. by and others. Accessed 3 March 2023. Boston: Ginn and Company. URL:

Hoppe, R and J MacDonald (2013). “Updating the ERS Farm Typology”. USDA-ERS Economic Information Bulletin(110). DOI:

Ibn al-‘Awwa¯m. (2000). Kita¯b al-fila¯h. a. Translated by J.J. Clément-Mullet, Le Livre de l’Agriculture. Introduction by M. El Faïz. Paris / Arles: Actes Sud.

Janzen, H et al. (2021). “The ‘soil health’ metaphor: Illuminating or illusory?” Soil Biology and Biochemistry 159. DOI:

Kendig, Catherine (2015). “Activities of kinding in scientific practice”. In: Natural Kinds and Classification in Scientific Practice. Ed. by Catherine Kendig. London: Routledge, pp. 1–13.

Kendig, Catherine (2020). “Ontology and values anchor indigenous and grey nomenclatures: a case study in lichen naming practices among the Sámi, Sherpa, Scots, and Okanagan”. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 84, pp. 1–11. DOI:

Kendig, Catherine and John Grey (2019). “Can the epistemic value of natural kinds be explained independently of their metaphysics?” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 72(2), pp. 359–376. DOI:

Klingebiel, A A and P H Montgomery (1961). “Land-Capability Classification. Agricultural Handbook No. 210”. In: Soil Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Washington, DC.

Lehmann, Johannes et al. (2020). “The concept and future prospects of soil health”. Nature Reviews: Earth & Environment 1(10), pp. 544–553. DOI:

Letey, John et al. (2003). “Deficiencies in the soil quality concept and its application”. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 58, pp. 180–187.

Lord, P (1979). A Moorish Calendar: from the Book of Agriculture of Ibn al-Awam. Wantage: The Black Swan Press.

Ludwig, David (2016). “Overlapping ontologies and Indigenous knowledge. From integration to ontological self-determination”. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 59, pp. 36–45. DOI:

Massimi, Michela (2022). Perspectival Realism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McNear, D (2013). “The Rhizosphere-Roots, soil and everything in between”. Nature Education Knowledge 4(3).

Morton, L, J McGuire, and A Cast (2017). “A good farmer pays attention to the weather”. Climate Risk Management 15, pp. 18–31. DOI: Nyssen, J et al. (2008). “Soils and land use in the Tigray Highlands (Northern Ethiopia)”. Land Degradation and Development 19, pp. 257–274. DOI:

Puig De La Bellacasa, Maria (2015). “Making time for soil: Technoscientific futurity pace of care”. Social Studies of Science 45(5), pp. 691–716. DOI:

Raman, Sujatha et al. (2015). “Integrating social and value dimensions into sustainability assessment of lignocellulosic biofuels”. Biomass and Bioenergy 82, pp. 49–62. DOI:

Roesch-McNally, Gabrielle, J Gordon Arbuckle, and John Tyndall (2017). “Soil as Social-ecological feedback: Examining the ‘Ethic’ of soil stewardship among Corn Belt Farmers”. Rural Sociology 83(1), pp. 145–173. DOI:

Rogers, E (1995). Diffusion of Innovations. New York: The Free Press.

Slater, Matthew (2015). “Natural Kindness”. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 66, pp. 375–411. DOI:

Starr, L and J Eck (2021). “Take precision soil sampling to the next level”. American Agriculturist, pp. 26–27.

Tegene, Belay (1998). “Potentials and limitations of an Indigenous soil conservation technology of Welo”. Eastern African Social Science Review 8(2), pp. 94–115.

United States Department of Agriculture (2023). Soil. Accessed 4 June 2023. URL:

Verplanken, Bas and Rob Holland (2002). “Motivated decision making: effects of activation and self-centrality of values on choices and behavior”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 82(3), pp. 434–447. DOI:

Wang, Sherrie et al. (2020). Mapping twenty years of corn and soybean across the US Midwest using the Landsat archive. DOI:

Ward, Zina (2021). “On value-laden science”. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 85, pp. 54–62. DOI:

Warren, Charles et al. (2016). “Limited adoption of biomass energy crops: the role of farmers’ socio-cultural identity in influencing practice”. Journal of Rural Studies 45, pp. 175–183. DOI:




How to Cite

Kendig, Catherine. 2024. “Human-Managed Soils and Soil-Managed Humans: An Interactive Account of Perspectival Realism for Soil Management”. Journal of Social Ontology 10 (2). Vienna, Austria.



Special Issue Cultures & Ontologies: Empirical, Ethical & Political Consequences