2 - Introduction
Humans, Animals, and Society: An Introduction to Human–Animal Studies
Humans, Animals, and Society: An Introduction to Human–Animal Studies provides an overview of the burgeoning area of human–animal studies (HAS, also known as anthrozoology) for students and other interested readers. More specifically this is a book about human relations to and thinking about nonhuman animals. HAS is a rapidly growing academic area, and one that encompasses several disciplines across both the natural and the social sciences. I don't claim to be an expert in all of these disciplines, nor do I claim this book to be an exhaustive review of the multiple issues and approaches in current HAS scholarship. Instead, my aim is that this book provide a starting point, an introduction to many of the key current debates in HAS currently. It is therefore a book that will be of use in various settings where human relationships with animals are considered.
In recognizing the diverse backgrounds of those interested in HAS I have tried to write a book that is accessible across the disciplines and understandable to those from the myriad fields of interest in HAS. The social science perspective of this book reflects my own training as a sociologist, although I have aimed to avoid narrow disciplinary concerns and opted to provide a broad, albeit social science, introduction to HAS. I am firmly of the belief that this should not preclude interest in the book from those connected to the natural sciences, as I think HAS is one area that genuinely benefits from an interdisciplinary approach. I also think that scholars within the natural sciences should be aware of the work of social scientists in HAS (and indeed elsewhere) and vice versa. That said, I make no apologies for the social science bias inherent throughout this book. As HAS grows as a legitimate field of research in its own right, and as more undergraduate social science courses are offered in HAS, there is a need for texts which cover the main issues of interest to today's HAS scholars. This book aims to be one of them.
This overarching aim of appealing to many goes hand in hand with the fact that some readers may find the chapters don't go far enough in their coverage, or that certain issues are omitted. There's no way around this, short of writing several books! However, for those who find themselves interested in particular issues, each chapter has a Further Reading section at the end which directs readers to both classical and contemporary works in substantive topic areas. Additionally, the numerous references within each chapter offer a further source for those interested.
Most of you reading this book will have your own reasons for an interest in HAS, as do I. My interest stems from the practical origin of years spent volunteering in animal shelters in the United Kingdom and Australia, and also from the academic origin of thinking about human relations with and the treatment of animals. Why are there so many abandoned animals across the world? Why do some people pay hundreds of dollars when their companion animals become sick? How do we justify eating some animals while loving others? Why are human relations with animals largely ignored in contemporary scholarship? These are just some of the questions that fascinate me as a human being, a HAS scholar, and a sociologist.
There is no doubt that academic interest in animals is growing. In the last two decades alone we have seen a veritable explosion of HAS courses and scholarship (Shapiro and DeMello 2010). This work is disciplinarily and methodologically diverse and points to an inherent curiosity about our relations with other animals, as well as deep and meaningful relationships with animals in certain contexts; for example, the relationship between police officers and the K-9 dogs they work with (Sanders 2006), or between humans and the companion animals that share their lives (e.g. Herzog 2010). Similarly, other work points to the various ways in which humans use and abuse animals, such as the enmeshing of domestic and companion animal violence (e.g. Ascione 1998), or the institutionalized abuses of animals considered necessary to human progress (e.g. Murray 2011) such as those inflicted upon laboratory animals (McAllister Groves 1996) or farm animals (e.g. Wilkie 2010).
Despite the diversity, there is one factor common to all of this work: its stress on the complexity of relationships between humans and other animals. Gone are the beliefs that animals do not matter to humans, structures, organizations, or society as a whole. Instead, in place of these beliefs is a growing catalogue of work that points to the opposite—to the very importance of animals in individuals' lives and in the lives of different societies and cultures. More than fifteen years ago Beck and Katcher (1996) pointed out the medical and health benefits to humans who share their lives with companion animals, an idea that has been taken up with gusto and developed and redefined in numerous innovative ways. On a more political note, Murray (2011) points out how capitalism itself was founded on the back of "hooves, paws, and claws"; that is, on the back of largely unrecognized labor by various animal species. In short, then, animals do matter—personally, institutionally, historically, and socially—and this is the subject matter of this book.
Animals—A Natural Category?
At the heart of this book is the assumption that animals are socially constructed and are repositories of culturally mediated meanings. While nonhuman animals are different (although this difference is often overstated) from human animals, this approach allows an investigation of the ways in which animals are perceived. A good example of this to start with is the very notion of what an "animal" is. Generally speaking, we draw a distinction between humans and other animals. However, this distinction serves to homogenize all other animals. Essentially, the category "animal" becomes, at least in this case, an umbrella term for everything that simply isn't human. This does a wealth of injustices to the various species that are subsumed within this term "animal" and it prevents any discussion of similarities and differences between specific species. More importantly, it serves the function of outlining clearly what is important here—being human. Humanity is held as the yardstick against which all other animals are considered, and their similarity, difference, and significance to us is what is seen as important. That is to say, animals are perceived as having extrinsic as opposed to intrinsic importance—they matter only when they are important to us as opposed to simply being important in their own right. In this way then we construct a hierarchy of animal importance—pets at the top; meat and farm animals somewhere in the middle; and fish, reptiles, and amphibians somewhere near the bottom. In turn this epistemic creation of animals (i.e. the social construction of them at a knowledge level) justifies the ways in which we treat them; for example, we justify the daily abuses of farmed animals with appeals to their lack of feeling/awareness. In essence, then, the different discourses that we socially and culturally construct about animals are themselves political, as they do not exist in isolation but inform the ways we treat animals at a practical level. This assumption that animals are socially constructed is a key theme, and one we will return to throughout the book.
Another recurring theme throughout the book is a criticism of anthropocentrism. Anthropocentrism literally means human-centered, and within HAS it refers to the tendency whereby humans judge the importance and interests of other animals by their importance and interest to humans. It also refers to the fact that any knowledge we have of the world, and by implication of other animals in it, is mediated through a human perspective. Anthropocentric worldviews have a long history and are, arguably, the main way in which we see and interpret the world today. Unfortunately, this has several negative consequences for animals as they become defined only according to human importance and/or interests. For example, we have animal welfare statutes in various countries that protect those animals we deem worthy of protection, such as companion animals, but only do so as a form of property. In other words, their standing within the legal system is determined by their relationship to us. If we do not "own" them or do not deem them important, then their level of protection drops or becomes nonexistent. Thus, farm animals are accorded importance only as stock and not as individual animals. Similarly, cruelty to companion animals is processed by those in the criminal justice system as a matter of damage to property, so recompense comes to the human at hand for property lost, and sentences remain light for those who deliberately harm animals because they are not considered sentient beings. As with ideas of social constructionism, we will return to the idea of anthropocentrism throughout the book.
Ecocentrism developed as an antithesis to anthropocentrism. Instead of privileging the human point of view, as in anthropocentric accounts of the world, ecocentric accounts seek to decenter humanity and instead recenter nature. In other words, nature is seen as having intrinsic value, value beyond that which it offers to humans. Ecocentric interpretations of the world are not particularly new and were in fact rife during the late 1970s and '80s when ecofeminists such as Carolyn Merchant sought to rethink human–nature relations. Merchant opened The Death of Nature with the statement that "The world we have lost was organic" (1980, p. 1). And from here she went on to develop the argument that approximately 1,500 to 1,700 Western worldviews have moved from organic to mechanistic stances. With this change in belief came a change in behavior, as previous organic worldviews had built into them prohibitions against simply using the earth as a resource:
The image of the earth as a living organism and nurturing mother had served as a cultural constraint restricting the actions of human beings. One does not readily slay a mother, dig into her entrails for gold or mutilate her body, although commercial mining would soon require that. As long as the earth was considered to be alive and sensitive, it could be considered a breach of human ethical behaviour to carry out destructive acts against it (p. 3).
As Merchant carefully describes, there was a move away from organic worldviews which presumed the interrelatedness of humans, animals, and nature to a mechanistic worldview, which was predicated on their separation and thus allowed and facilitated their manipulation and control. Increasingly, scientific and technological rationalism gained ascendancy, and in this framework nature was something to be controlled. Human civility could be proven by demarcating our distance from "the beasts" and from nature itself (Elias 2000), and thus it became a right and indeed a necessity for humans to make use of the resources the natural world offered. This intellectual legacy is one that is still prevalent today.
Despite the stranglehold this mechanistic framework has within Western modes of thought, ecocentrism and its variants are on the rise due to increasing recognition of the anthropogenic nature of ecological crises. Ecocentrism offers a counterpoint to anthropocentrism in that it decenters the importance of the human in understanding the world. Closely linked to deep ecology, which prioritizes the idea of ecosystems, ecocentrism stresses the links between life forms rather than their separateness.
Usually considered to date from the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962, ecocentrism is linked to deep ecology and the ecological revolution of the 1960s, which highlighted not only the practical effects humans were having on the planet but also the epistemological and ideological consequences of anthropocentric worldviews. For ecocentrics, anthropogenic environmental damage is directly related —as both cause and effect—to anthropocentric worldviews which privilege the human and posit the earth as a natural resource for the privileged to use.
While ecocentrism offers a positive alternative to anthropocentrism, one of its failings as far as HAS scholars are concerned is that it rarely considers nonhuman animals specifically. They are considered tangentially—as part of nature—but this in itself is problematic as it categorizes animals as simply nonhuman rather than allowing a consideration of them as individuals.
Similarly, certain ecocentric approaches reinscribe the difference seen historically between the animal rights and environmentalist movements. The former tends to see the importance of individual animals as paramount while the latter prizes species conservation and ecodiversity, even if this means that individual animals need to suffer to maintain such conservation (see e.g. Baird Callicot 1980). While the links between climate change and animal agriculture have begun to remove some of the barriers between environmentalists and animal rights activists, the two groups are often opposed at an ideological level because of the environmental movement's view that "inanimate entities such as oceans and lakes, mountains, forests, and wetlands are assigned a greater value than individual animals" (Baird Callicot 1980, p. 58, which is untenable to most animal rights advocates. The absence of animals in ecocentric thought is part of a broader trend, while the invisibility of animals in social thought can be found more generally.
The Invisibility of Animals in Social Thought
In many discussions concerning the nature of humans and society, a principled distinction is assumed between humans and animals. The characteristics that are taken to be fundamental to human beings and the social life they lead are precisely those that distinguish them from animals, and thus make the human world different from the animal world. Notwithstanding the emergence of Darwinian theory, which points to the mental and physical continuity between humans and other animals, this assumed distinction between the human realm and that of the natural realm, which includes animals, is a persistent theme in social thought.
Perhaps for this reason, the question of animals as members of society has never been systematically addressed. Social thought has tended to emphasize the idea that animals are "outside" the human and social realm, not within it. Yet animals form an inextricable and integral part of human life and human experience. They also play an increasingly large part in contemporary political, cultural, and social life. This is not a particularly new phenomenon. Animals have played a role in human cultural life for a very long time. Philosophically speaking, this role has been debated for centuries and became a particularly significant issue in public life during the early nineteenth century. Similarly, in folklore there is a rich tradition of representation of animals, as there is in art and literature. Following this, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries not only has the way in which we think about animals been subject to numerous challenges, but there has also been a sheer proliferation of information regarding animals. From popular television shows like the BBC documentary series Animal Hospital, (1994–2004) to big-budget movies like Babe (1995), 101 Dalmatians (1996), and Ice Age (2002), animals feature centrally in the mass media and the entertainment industry. Increasingly, our interest in animals also manifests itself in mainstream documentaries like March of the Penguins (2005) and Born to Be Wild (2011). Similarly, an awareness of the damage being done to animals by human use of them and the broader environment is evident in award-winning documentaries like The Cove (2009), and movies that ask their audiences to think about the treatment of animals are increasingly popular, as with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011).
In addition to this, animals also play a large part in the private lives of humans. Companion animal "ownership" statistics are estimated to be from 55 million pet-keeping households in Europe (IFAHErurope.org) to 77.5 million owned dogs in the US, with 39 percent and 33 percent of households in the United States owning a dog and cat respectively (HSUS.org). Politically, too, animals are becoming more visible with debates in the public sphere concerning issues such as the hunting of animals, live exports, and product testing on animals, not to mention the growth of ethical vegetarianism and veganism. In line with this, human concern over animals has become culturally more acceptable. It is estimated that "most Americans fully support animal welfare" (Francione 1996, p. 43), while the animal rights movement continues to grow in both its size and the pressure it is able to exert.
Yet this overwhelming presence of animals in modern society remains largely taken for granted, as does the history of entwined human–animal lives. There exists little analysis of animals, although this is a growing field. Basic questions such as what animals are and how we should conceive of them are left unaddressed in mainstream academic disciplines, as are more complex questions, such as how we stand in relation to them, and they to us. Overall, the importance of animals in society is an issue that the social sciences have virtually ignored. Given that animals are so prevalent in today's society, it seems somewhat ironic that this has occurred for so long. Perhaps this neglect can partly be accounted for by Western anthropocentric paradigms when it comes to how we think about the world—paradigms that are based on the idea that only humans are of importance. Even when mainstream social scientists have attempted to analyze animals in a serious way they have tended to do so either by treating them as objects, or they have done so anthropocentrically. For example, there is a recent interdisciplinary focus on links between cruelty to animals and interpersonal violence, yet for the most part this focus remains on what can be gained by humans from acknowledging this link, rather than any specific concern with the well-being of animals. This is an issue which will be addressed in more detail in chapter five.
These embedded ways of thinking (or not thinking) about animals have been challenged over the last two decades by an increased interest in human–animal relations and the attached field of HAS. Early HAS scholars were keen to point out that human–animal relations and interactions should be a serious topic of sociological analysis. Prominent among these are Arnold Arluke and Clinton R. Sanders, who argue that:
In research on settings where animals are major actors, they are still not brought to center stage even though they figure prominently in the thinking and feeling of the people being studied. . . . In a variety of settings in which animals are of central importance . . . social scientists train their gaze exclusively on people and seem uninterested in how people interact with and give meaning to the animals themselves. . . . There is every reason to think that animals play an equally important symbolic role in the lives of people. . . . The intellectual mandate of sociology—to understand the relationship between private experience and the wider society—positions it perfectly to examine this role (Arluke and Sanders 1996, pp. 2–3).
One possible explanation for the fact that human–animal interaction has been ignored by the social sciences is that there has been a tendency to "write out" animals. Analogies can be drawn with the feminist complaint that the social sciences have ignored (and in large part still do ignore) women in our culture (e.g. Adams and Donovan 1995; Birke 1994; Collard and Contrucci 1988). From the very beginning of Western thought people have defined humanity by holding it up to animality and exploring their differences. All interactions with animals in the West are based on the notion that animals are "other" to humans, and furthermore that they are inferior "others." Stemming first from the ideas of Aristotle, who argued that nature was an ordered hierarchy whereby those with less reasoning ability existed for the use of those with more reasoning ability, Western ideology concerning animals and their relationship to humans has cast animals firmly in this role. This message was reaffirmed in the theological thought that God had ordained the world with a fixed place for all creatures, with humans having dominion over all other species.
Throughout the history of Western thought the idea of animals-as-other has never really been subject to serious challenge. Even Darwin's evolutionary theory, which arguably held the greatest promise of challenging these ideas, failed to do so in any real sense. Instead, people felt it was "a common misconception . . . that evolution is a linear progression of life into a final, perfect form, with humans arising from apes. This distorted notion of evolution . . . incorrectly ranks animals on a phylogenetic scale where humans, with their unique traits, are at the pinnacle, while ‘primitive' organisms or creatures that least resemble humans physically are at the bottom" (Arluke and Sanders 1996, p. 169).
This notion of animals-as-other is reflected in many walks of life. For example, the appellation of "beast" to humans who commit certain kinds of criminal or deviant acts; the general and uncritical acceptance of animals as a source of food; the acceptance of animals as a source of pleasure (pets) or of entertainment (zoos and circuses); and the lack of serious critical discussion concerning the use of animals as sport (hunting). Humans have created an ontological classification of human versus animal based largely on a line drawn arbitrarily between the species, and they have worked very hard to maintain that line. It has become an idea so pervasive in our culture that it remains largely unquestioned, and therein lies its power: it is passed uncritically from one generation to the next. As Arluke and Sanders point out, "Each social construct necessarily implies the existence of its opposite and depends on this opposite for is meaning. Significantly, these oppositions are taken for granted in everyday moral communication and, consequently, exert much more force in our lives" (1996, p. 170).
Jeremy Bentham once argued that this arbitrarily drawn line between the species was an "insuperable line" (Bentham 1823, p. 112). Despite its arbitrariness, however, this line has indeed remained insuperable. It has never been subject to a serious intellectual challenge, and the social sciences are no exception to this. Take for example the work of Margaret Mead, which explicitly differentiates humans from animals based on the human ability to communicate with symbols and the ability to take the place of the "generalized other" rather than simply reacting to external stimuli:
We, of course, tend to endow our domestic animals with personality, but . . . we see there is no place for this sort of importation of the social process into the conduct of the individual. They do not have the mechanism for it-language. So we say that they have no personality; they are not responsible for the social situation in which they find themselves. The human individual, on the other hand, identifies himself with that social situation. He responds to it. . . . We put personalities into the animals, but they do not belong to them; and ultimately we realize that those animals have no rights. We are at liberty to cut off their lives . . . he has not lost anything because the future does not exist for the animal; he has not the "me" in his experience by which the "I" is in some sense under his control, so that the future can exist for him (Mead 1962, pp. 182–83).
Despite recent attempts within HAS to challenge this hegemonic anthropocentrism in the social sciences, it remains the case that the mainstream social sciences still neglect to study human relationships with animals, and by doing so ignore what constitutes a fundamental part of human life: other animals. However, the social sciences are perfectly placed to examine the increasingly important role that animals play in society. How meanings of animals are socially constructed, and exactly how humans interact with animals and what this can tell us about both humans and animals, are just some of the areas open to HAS scholars to investigate.
Perhaps more importantly for the HAS project is the recent postmodern and posthuman turn in the social sciences and humanities. With the advent of postmodernism, scholars have increasingly become aware of the fact that epistemologies (i.e. human systems of knowledge) are always culturally and socially grounded and specific. In other words, the way we think about something is socially shaped and therefore open to bias and ideology. This is important for HAS because the way in which we think about animals often dictates the way in which we treat them, and, perhaps more importantly, the way we justify how we treat them. It is this recognition of the political nature of epistemology that has opened up the area of HAS to many different disciplines. It is often this recognition that motivates individual researchers in HAS—the desire to make a difference to animal lives whether this be through teaching HAS, researching specific human–animal interactions, or analyzing the politicized nature of our animal epistemologies. Precisely because of this HAS is an exciting and cutting-edge area of study, and I hope this book helps ignite your interest in this discipline.
Chapter one, "The Human–Animal Bond," begins with an examination of this central concept. Human interactions with other animals are complex and demonstrate that humans have multiple different attitudes toward animals according to various criteria such as species, use, experience with animals, and function of the animal in question. This chapter opens by looking at how attitudes toward animals are informed by the spaces that humans encounter them in. I introduce the reader to the body of work which arguably started the modern interest in HAS: the notion that animals are somehow good for human health. This leads to a discussion of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) and humane education. The first, AAT, is an offshoot of the notion that the human–animal bond can help improve human health, and the second, humane education, is a slightly different approach to this. Many of those involved in humane education argue that animals are not simply tools to be used to improve human health but are themselves important, and so we need to change human attitudes toward them in order to help protect them.
Chapter two, "Social Institutions and Animals," introduces readers to the idea that human–animal interaction is often governed by and grounded in social institutions. It is often assumed that human and animal lives are as separate as nature and culture. This chapter points out that this is far from the case, and in fact many human interactions with animals are mediated by a number of different social institutions. Through addressing two key social practices, "pet" keeping and meat eating, this chapter offers the reader an opportunity to critique the ways in which human institutions structure relationships with animals.
Chapter three, "Representing Animals," turns to an analysis of one of the ways in which we come to "know" animals in modern societies and considers the ways in which animals are represented in visual culture. Arguing that animals are socially constructed through various discourses, including visual and symbolic ones, this chapter considers how we come to imbue certain animals with different meanings. This is considered through an analysis of animal images in film and images of "wild" animals. The chapter concludes with a consideration of the real-world effects the media can have on our attitudes toward animals through a discussion of the moral panics surrounding the United Kingdom's "Dangerous Dogs" list.
Chapter four, "Working with/for Animals," introduces the various ways researchers have investigated the actual places and life worlds of those who regularly work with animals. This is done through a discussion of the research into human–animal relations in animal shelters, laboratories where animals are used, slaughterhouses, and veterinary surgeries. By addressing how humans actually work with animals readers are introduced to discussions of identity formation and maintenance—how human and animal identities are performed and maintained through the everyday work-in-practice of those at work with animals.
In chapter five, "Human- and Animal-Directed Violence," I move to the recent field of work which addresses human- and animal-directed violence links. Tracing the history of the emergence of this idea, I present the main findings from this field of research and conclude with a discussion of where the future of this field might lie. In particular I introduce the idea that human–animal violence link research needs to avoid individualizing and pathologizing tendencies within the debate in order to remain attendant to the structural and societal issues that play out when humans are deliberately cruel to other animals. This chapter then concludes with a discussion of the myriad instances of institutionalized cruelty to animals (such as factory farming, circuses, and rodeos) and questions the lack of analysis of these kinds of cruelty within prevailing discussions of human–animal violence links.
How humans think about and treat animals has been an issue which has concerned philosophers for centuries, and chapter six, "Protecting Animals," offers an overview of the main traditions of thought regarding the treatment of animals. This chapter considers the knotty problem of animal rights and animal welfare by outlining the main approaches common to both and considering their similarities and differences. The chapter concludes with an overview of recent attempts to find different ways to extend care to animals by reviewing ecofeminist challenges and alternatives to animal rights and welfare paradigms.
In the concluding chapter, I consider the future of HAS and introduce readers to the key ideas in critical animal studies and consider how these might differ from more mainstream HAS approaches. While many of these ideas are interwoven throughout the book, this chapter pulls them together to demonstrate precisely how critical animal studies and animal activism are enmeshed. In doing so, I invite readers to think about the future of HAS.
Throughout the entirety of the book readers are exposed to both classical and up-to-date research in the field of HAS and are encouraged to think critically about human relations with animals. Throughout, various theoretical approaches are introduced to the reader, which will make this book of interest to generalist sociologists as well as to HAS readers. My hope is that this book will prove useful for those who teach HAS and for those who seek to study it. Not least, I hope that this book will challenge the ways in which we think about animals through an appreciation of the important work being done by HAS scholars across the world, so that we may have space to envisage a different future for animals and humans alike.
Arluke, A., and C. Sanders. 1996. Regarding Animals. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Carter, B., and N. Charles, eds. 2011. Human and Other Animals: Critical Perspectives. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Cudworth, E. 2011. Social Lives with Other Animals: Tales of Sex, Death and Love. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Flynn, C. 2008. Social Creatures: A Human and Animal Studies Reader. New York: Lantern Books.
Herzog, H. 2010. Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight about Animals. New York: HarperCollins.
Serpell, J. 1996. In the Company of Animals: A Study of Human–Animal Relationships. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
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