The Sociology Of Nonhuman Animals Research Paper

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Human interaction with nonhuman animals is a central feature of contemporary social life. The majority of households in the United States (64 percent) include at least one companion animal (American Veterinary Medical Association 2003); more people visit zoos each year than attend professional sporting events; people are more likely to carry photographs of their pets than of their children; married women report that their pets are more important sources of affection than are their husbands or children (Arluke 2003); more money is spent each year on pet food ($14.5 billion in 2004) than on baby food; and the income of the pet industry, which has more than doubled in size in the past decade (Karla 2005), amounts to almost $36 billion each year (Fetterman 2005).

However, since “the social sciences tend to present themselves pre-eminently as the sciences of discontinuity between humans and animals” (Noske 1990:66) and, despite the fact that human interactions with animals are so commonplace, they have, until fairly recently, been virtually ignored within sociology.1 The basic foundation for this lack of attention to human-animal issues was established in the seventeenth century by the philosopher René Descartes, who regarded animals as mindless machines. The Cartesian orthodoxy that has, until only recently, excluded animals from social scientific analysis is based on the linguacentric assumption that because animals lack the ability to employ spoken language they, consequently, lack the ability to think. In posing the “conversation test,” Descartes (1976) maintained that it is a very remarkable fact that there are none so depraved and stupid, without even excepting idiots, that they cannot arrange different words together…. [O]n the other hand, there is no other animal, however perfect and fortunately circumstanced

– it may be, which can do the same….[T]hey cannot speak as we do, that is, so as to give evidence that they think. (Pp. 61-62)

Nonetheless, although they tended to offer relatively unsystematic, highly emotionalized, and unempirical discussions, a handful of nineteenth-century sociologists did focus on animal abilities and human-animal relationships. For example, Harriet Martineau ([1865] 2003), an early pioneer in observational methods, wrote about the problems caused by feral dogs in urban areas, and in the Quarterly Review Frances Power Cobbe ([1872] 2003) speculated about the relationship between dogs’ physical characteristics and their mental abilities.

Despite this limited attention, early twentieth-century sociology continued to largely disregard nonhuman animals as social actors. Although George Herbert Mead (1962, 1964) frequently discussed nonhuman animals in his writing, he employed descriptions of the behavior of animals as the backdrop against which he juxtaposed his model of human action. In laying the intellectual groundwork for what would later become symbolic interaction-ism, Mead maintained that, although animals were social beings, their interactions involved only a primitive and instinctual “conversation of gestures” (e.g., the dog’s growl or the cat’s hiss). From Mead’s perspective, animals lacked the ability to employ significant symbols and were therefore unable to negotiate meaning and take the role of cointeractants. Their behavior was directed toward achieving simple goals such as acquiring food or defending territory, but, unable to use language, their behavior was devoid of meaning. They were mindless, selfless, and emotionless. To Mead (1962) the view that nonhuman animals have more sophisticated mental, emotional, and social lives was based merely on anthropomorphic projection. As he observed,

We, of course, tend to endow our domestic animals with personality, but as we get insight into their conditions 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….We put personalities into the animals, but they do not belong to them….And yet the common attitude is that of giving them just such personalities as our own. We talk to them and in our talking to them we act as if they had the sort of inner world that we have. (Pp. 182-83; see also Mead 1907)

Interestingly, however, Max Weber (1947), writing before Mead, had acknowledged the possibility of including nonhuman animals in sociological analysis.

In so far [as the behavior of animals is subjectively understandable] it would be theoretically possible to formulate a sociology of the relations of men to animals, both domestic and wild. Thus, many animals “understand” commands, anger, love, hostility, and react to them in ways which are evidently often by no means purely instinctive and mechanical and in some sense both consciously meaningful and affected by experience. (P. 104)

Despite Weber’s apparent willingness to include animals, Mead’s anthropocentric orientation largely laid the groundwork for the conventional discounting of animals and lack of attention to their interactions with humans that dominated sociological thought until the last quarter of the twentieth century. The sole dissent to Mead’s myopia was offered by Read Bain, an early positivist and Mead’s colleague at the University of Chicago. In a little-known, but significant, paper titled “The Culture of Canines,” Bain (1929) criticized the anthropocentrism of sociology and advocated the development of an “animal sociology.” In his article, Bain maintained that “just as animal intelligent and emotional behavior, anatomical and physiological structure and function, and group life, have their correlates in human behavior, so the dividing line between animal and human culture is likewise vague and arbitrary” (p. 555).

Notwithstanding Bain’s dissent, sociology continued to exclude animals until Clifton Bryant (1979), in a seminal article, issued a call for sociologists to focus serious attention on what he referred to as the zoological connection. In this paper, Bryant bemoaned the fact that

sociologists, among the practitioners in most of the behavioral sciences and many of the humanities, have been singularly derelict in their failure to address the zoological component in human interactions and attendant social systems. We have tended not to recognize, to overlook, to ignore, or to neglect…the influence of animals, or their import for, our social behavior, our relationships with other humans, and the directions which our social enterprise often takes. (P. 339)

Interdisciplinary Involvement

Although the systematic investigation of animals’ mental and social abilities and people’s interactions with them has only fairly recently emerged as a focal interest in sociology, the topic has long been of concern to anthropologists. Renowned anthropologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss (1966), Mary Douglas (1966), and Edmund Leach (1964), for example, stressed the central symbolic importance of animals in simple societies. Eugenia Shanklin (1985:379) described the study of animals as a “thriving field” in anthropology, and in his classic discussion of the Balinese cockfight, Clifford Geertz (1973:412-53) maintained that the cockfight sheds significant light on how Balinese society and relationships are structured.

Arguably, the current interdisciplinary focus on human-animal interactions (now conventionally referred to as anthrozoology or human-animal studies) derives from the work of the psychologist Boris Levinson (1965, 1969), who explored the use of animals within therapeutic settings. Levinson’s work established the current popular focus by psychologists and medical researchers on the effect of interactions with animals and pet ownership on human mental and physical health (e.g., Friedmann 1995; Friedmann, Thomas, and Eddy 2000; Garrity and Stallones 1998). Psychologists such as Gordon Burghardt (1985), Timothy Eddy (Eddy 2003; Eddy, Gallup, and Povenelli 1993), Harold Herzog (1993), and Kenneth Shapiro (1990, 1997) continue to be major figures in the field.

Ethologists have also provided significant impetus to the study of human-animal relationships. The work of Donald Griffin (1992) and other “cognitive ethologists” (see Jamiesen and Bekoff 1993; Ristau 1991) is particularly noteworthy in that it stressed the importance of studying animals in their natural settings and deriving understandings of their mental abilities by attending to novel and adaptive behaviors precipitated by problematic situations.

The study of human-animal relationships has also found a place in various other social scientific disciplines. For example, the geographer Jennifer Wolch (Elder, Wolch, and Emel 1998; Wolch 1998) has investigated perceptions of and relationships with animals in urban ethnic groups; criminologists such as Piers Beirne (1995, 1999) and Geertrui Cazaux (1998) have discussed bestiality, animal abuse, and laws related to the treatment of animals; consumer researchers such as Elizabeth Hirschman (1994) and Russell Belk (1988) have written about pets as consumer products and discussed the role of pets as extensions of their owners’ selves.

The interdisciplinary literature on human-animal relationships has also been extended by the work of historians. Harriet Ritvo (1987), one of the best-known historians working in the area, has written extensively on pet-keeping in Victorian England. Kathleen Kete (1994) has offered a similar discussion of the role of pets in nineteenth-century Paris, and Keith Thomas (1983) has explored changing attitudes toward animals from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, with particular attention to the role of urbanization in this process.3

Scholars in a variety of other fields from philosophy (e.g., Tuan 1984) through leisure studies (e.g., Marvin 1988; Mullan and Marvin 1987) to disability studies (e.g., Michalko 1999) have also expanded our understanding of people’s relationships with animals. This interdisciplinary work has been invaluable as it has provided a range of perspectives, offered a wealth of substantive knowledge, and helped establish an intellectual foundation for the explicitly sociological explorations of human-animal relationships that have emerged within the past two decades.

The Rising Significance Of The Sociology Of Human-Animal Relationships

By the end of the twentieth century, human-animal studies had gained significant legitimacy within the social and behavioral sciences. Evidence of the growth of the field is demonstrated by the fact that three major academic presses (Brill Academic Publishers, Purdue University Press, and Temple University Press) currently have book series devoted to human-animal studies and there are two well-regarded specialty journals in the area (Society and Animals and Anthrozoos) that regularly publish sociological articles. In addition, since the mid-1980s, a number of sociological journals (Marriage and the Family, Qualitative Sociology, Social Research, Journal of Social Issues, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Sociological Origins) have published special issues dedicated to the topic, and major articles have appeared in established sociological publications such as American Behavioral Scientist, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Sociological Forum, Symbolic Interaction, Social Psychology Quarterly, Human Organization, Sociological Inquiry, and Social Forces.

At the same time, an organizational structure has grown up to support the field. The dominant association devoted to human-animal studies is the International Society for Anthrozoology (ISAZ). A major milestone was passed in the legitimation of the topic within sociology when in 2002—after some five years of application, petitioning, and denial—the “Animals and Society” section was established in the American Sociological Association (see Nibert 2003). The organizational infrastructure of human-animal studies also includes major university-based centers in such institutions as the University of Minnesota, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California at Davis, Tufts University, and Washington State University.4 A further demonstration of the rising academic significance of the area is seen in the growing number of “Animals and Society” courses in North American colleges and universities. Balcombe (1999) lists 89 such courses, and an annotated list of university courses found on the Web site of the Humane Society of the United States5 presents 13 courses offered in sociology departments and an additional 27 in other social science disciplines.

Major Discussions In The Sociology Of Human-Animal Relationships

A growing number of sociologists have responded to Bryant’s (1979) call for attention to the “zoological connection.” As might be expected within a substantive field still vying for disciplinary acceptance, the monographs, articles, and chapters produced by these scholars typically are based on data collected through the use of conventional methods, reflect analyses based on conventional theoretical perspectives,6 and deal with topics that are conventional within the sociological literature. Since, as discussed above, George Herbert Mead’s theoretical exclusion of nonhuman animals from the realm of “authentic” (i.e., human and linguistically mediated) social exchanges played a major role in excluding animals from sociological discourse, much of the extant literature is oriented within the symbolic interactionist perspective. Janet and Steven Alger (1997, 2003a), Keri Brandt (2004), Leslie Irvine (2003, 2004a, 2004b), Eugene Myers (1998, 2003),Clinton Sanders (1993,1999, 2003), and other interactionists have explicitly attacked the Meadian orthodoxy and have produced discussions of such central interactionist issues as mindedness, selfhood, identity, emotionality, and the social act. Conflict theory provides the other major theoretical grounding of human-animal sociology. These critical works present people’s treatment of animals within the context of, and in relation to, other patterns of inequality precipitated by a sexist, racist, capitalist social structure (see Cazaux 1998; Nibert 2002; Noske 1997).

While much of the interdisciplinary research in human-animal studies employs conventional survey approaches focused on ascertaining people’s attitudes toward animals and devising standardized instruments to measure these attitudes (e.g., Herzog, Betchart, and Pittman 1991; Kellert 1988, 1994; Knight et al. 2004; Rasmussen, Rajecki, and Craft 1993), ethnographic methods dominate the work of sociologists active in the area. Because the sociologists interested in animal issues typically are pet caretakers themselves, autoethnographic (Ellis 1991; Hayano 1979) data drawn from the researcher’s paying systematic attention to his or her personal experiences commonly play a significant role in orienting these discussions. Content analysis provides the other major research tool used by sociologists working in this area as textual and pictorial materials such as introductory sociology text books (Alger and Alger 2003b), TV advertisements (Lerner and Kaloff 1999), films (Hirschman and Sanders 1997), and greeting cards (Brabant and Mooney 1989) are examined to reveal patterns in the cultural representation of animals.

In addition to using standard methods and established theoretical perspectives, sociologists working in human-animal studies typically employ conventional substantive areas to contextualize their studies and discussions. One of the most popular substantive contexts is work and occupations. Many of the major discussions examine the experience of workers involved in animal-related occupational settings. For example, in the late 1980s, Arnold Arluke emerged as the major figure in this topical area, beginning with his 1988 article based on the ethnographic research he conducted in biomedical laboratories (Arluke 1988). Arluke’s paper laid the groundwork for a theme that has become central to the substantive field—the dichotomy between defining animals as pets or functional objects and the impact of this determination on how animals are treated. Arluke expanded on this theme in his later writings, emphasizing the job-related ambivalence experienced by animal shelter workers (Arluke 1991), veterinary students (Arluke and Hafferty 1996), researchers in primate labs (in Arluke and Sanders 1996), and enforcement officers working for a state Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Arluke 2004). The number of studies focused on animal-related occupations has grown significantly as Carole Case (1991) has studied racetrack workers, Clinton Sanders has written about veterinarians (Sanders 1994, 1995) and guide-dog trainers (Sanders 1999:89-110), Leslie Irvine (2004a) has explored the occupational experiences of workers in an animal shelter, and Mary Phillips (1993) has discussed laboratory workers’ perceptions of animal pain and emphasized the importance of whether or not laboratory animals were assigned names by those who had the job of caring for them (Phillips 1994).

Public interactions and the impact of being with an animal on a person’s interactional experience and identity have also become important issues in the sociology of human-animal relationships. The groundwork for this focal issue was laid by Peter Messent (1983), who observed people walking in a London park. Those accompanied by dogs were significantly more likely to speak with strangers they encountered than were those who were alone. Later work by Robins and his associates (1991) explored the ways in which dogs facilitated interactions and the development of longer-term relationships in a dog park, and Sanders (2000) examined both positive and negative public encounters of people with visual disabilities precipitated by their use of guide dogs.

In an earlier article, Sanders (1990) focused on the connection between everyday dog caretakers’ association with a dog and the impact of canine misbehavior on people’s public identity. Basing his analysis on the sociological literature on “vocabularies of motive” and “aligning actions” (e.g., Mills 1940; Stokes and Hewitt 1976), Sanders identified eight “excusing tactics” used by caretakers to realign normal interaction and reestablish their identities when their dogs misbehaved. Comparing his work with that of Cahill (1987) and others who had explored the child-adult “with” in public, Sanders (1990) stressed the central importance of people’s public association with animals in shaping public identity and emphasized the potential of investigations of the human-animal relationship for advancing a general understanding of social interaction.

It is here in the public behavior of acting units composed of one (or more) socially competent actor(s) and an, at best, marginally socialized member (companion animal, child, retarded person, and so on) that we encounter a major element in the linkage between other-objects and the self. The associated “possession” is attached to the competent actor as an extension of self and “its” misbehavior may degrade the actor’s self identity. Self-control includes and necessitates control of the associated other. In turn, failure to adequately exercise this form of self-control attacks the “owner’s” sense of self as demonstrated by his or her common experience of public embarrassment…. [T]his discussion represents an attempt to further incorporate animal-human interaction into sociological discourse. Interactions and relationships are major foci of sociological interest and the narrow emphasis upon interhuman exchanges unnecessarily limits our understanding of both human and animal behavior. It is through the systematic examination of unexplored areas of social activity and the comparison of this information to that collected in more conventional settings that the process of building a general understanding of social life can proceed. (Pp. 87-88)

Another popular substantive area in which sociologists interested in animal issues have been working is social movements. Here the focus is on the animal rights movement, and, for the most part, this literature employs sociological approaches that have been used to examine and explain other types of social movement (Groves 1997; Jasper and Nelkin 1992; Sperling 1988; Tester 1992). This body of work, together with ecofeminist discussions (e.g., Adams 1994; Gaard 1993; Noske 1997) and the currently popular (and somewhat controversial) work focused on the presumed relationship between the abuse of animals and human-on-human violence (e.g., Arluke 2002; Flynn 1999; Kruse 1999), has firmly situated human-animal sociology in the arena of political analysis and advocacy.

Another topic of interest in human-animal sociological studies is the symbolic role of animals. Fine and Christoforides (1991), for example, discuss the “metaphorical linkage” between the English sparrow and immigrants in nineteenth-century America. They argue that the

controversy over the English sparrow was linked to the controversy over “the new immigration.” A post-bellum America faced the task of rebuilding its moral boundaries after the disruption of the Civil War and in the face of millions of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and the Orient. The opponents of the English sparrow drew their imagery from the nativism (anti-foreignism) of the day. They defined the bird as: (1) a foreigner, (2) that competes unfairly with native birds, (3) that has an immoral character, and (4) that needs to be eliminated from the American community of birds. Examining the metaphorical linkages among public concerns of the same period, we suggest, is a fruitful way of examining social problems. (P. 375)

More recently, Reuben May (2004) discussed the symbolic significance of rodents in the “ideoculture” of young, African American males. On the basis of data drawn from ethnographic research with a high school basketball team, May stresses that the participants used mice, and aggressive talk about them, to symbolically define their masculinity.

Perhaps the richest focus of systematic attention within sociological human-animal studies has been on the everyday interactions between people and their companion animals. As indicated in the foregoing, this work has been done primarily by scholars working within the perspective of symbolic interactionism and centers on a direct critique of Mead’s anthropocentric discounting of animal abilities. Key recent examples are Clinton Sanders’s (1999, 2003) research with dog owners, Gene Myers’s (1998) study of the interactions between children and animals in a preschool program, and Janet and Steven Alger’s (2003a) book on a cat shelter. These writers examine the intersubjectivity that emerges when people routinely interact with animals; the process by which people construct an understanding of the individuality, emotionality, and identity of animal others; and, in turn, how association with animals shapes the identities of human actors.

The sociological work on everyday interactions between people and animals has already had considerable impact on social psychological conceptions of mind as interactionist sociologists have sought to establish an orientation toward mind that de-emphasizes this view of mindedness as a linguistic phenomenon and returns to an understanding of mind as the outcome of social interaction and social experience. Basing their discussions on the prior work of researchers who have examined the interactional worlds of people with Alzheimer’s disease (Gubrium 1986), those with severe physical and mental disabilities (Bogdan and Taylor 1989; Goode 1994), and infants (Stern 1985), sociological psychologists involved in human-animal studies have called into question the centrality of language use to mindedness and have emphasized the interactional process of “doing mind” (Dutton and Williams 2004; Sanders 1993). As Dutton and Williams (2004) observe,

The attribution of meaning or intention to behavior hinges crucially on the extent to which such behavior is considered meaningful within the context of the social relationship. Social relationships actually provide rather clear conditions and parameters for what constitutes “mindful” behavior in contrast to those behaviors that do not seem to merit an intentional explanation because they seem inappropriate within the context of relationship….To see [doing mind] as simply folk psychology or a useful social heuristic, would be to ignore the importance of the social relationship in structuring and scaffolding intersubjective understanding. (Pp. 215-16)

Mind, therefore, as it arises from shared experience, is cast as an element of the meaning structure that those who interact with a lingual others devise in understanding and constructing their interactions. Caretakers of animals, such as those who routinely interact with the severely disabled, infants, and Alzheimer’s patients, construct a “theory of mind” that allows them to understand the thinking, emotions, preferences, desires, and intentions of the other (see Alger and Alger 1997; Cox and Ashford 1998; Myers 1998:99-102; Sanders 1993).

Leslie Irvine’s (2003, 2004a, 2004b) recent work builds on and extends this intersubjective focus by presenting a case for animals possessing a self. Basing her analysis on the work of William James and studies of prelingual infants (principally, Stern 1985), Irvine makes the case for the animal self as being constituted by a sense of agency (being the author of one’s action), a sense of coherence (understanding one’s physical self as the locus of agency), a sense of affectivity (experiencing feelings associated with the self), and a sense of self-history (maintaining an understanding of continuity in the midst of change). Irvine (2004a) concludes that the self is a system of goals, which we pursue through relationships and experiences, which involves the ways in which we respond to and order the worlds around us. Framed in this way, animals, like people, manifest evidence of selfhood. Interaction reveals features of a “core self” among animals as they manifest agency, affectivity, history, and coherence, as well as the capacity for intersubjectivity. (Pp. 172-73)

Prospects For The Future

As a relatively new substantive area within sociology, the study of human-animal interaction offers a wide variety of alternatives for future research. Since many of the extant discussions are focused on people’s everyday relationships with cats and dogs—the animals most commonly incorporated into households—studies of relationships with “exotic” animals such as ferrets, potbelly pigs, reptiles, insects, and rabbits would be new and instructive. Furthermore, as demonstrated in the foregoing, the dominant focus of human-animal sociology has been on relationships with companion animals. Consequently, there is considerable opportunity for researchers to explore interactions with other types of animals. Thus far there has only been limited sociological attention to wild animals (Dizard 1994; Kalof and Fitzgerald 2003; Scarce 2000); farm animals and livestock (Brandt 2004; Wilkie 2004; Wipper 2000); animals in zoos, circuses, and other leisure settings

(Case 1991; Lawrence 1982; Malamud 1998); and animals involved in blood sports (Darden and Worden 1996; Marvin 1988). There are also a number of unexplored animal-related occupations (e.g., the work of veterinary technicians, wildlife rehabilitators, zookeepers, professional dog handlers, animal behavior consultants, circus personnel, and K-9 police) available for fruitful investigation. Finally, as Arnold Arluke (2003) has recently observed, sociologists now have amassed sufficient basic understanding of human-animal interaction to begin to apply this knowledge in an attempt to effectively deal with problems in urban human-animal relations, veterinary medicine, animal control activities, and other settings and exchanges that constitute the “dark side” of this key form of social interaction.

Despite continuing resistance, the study of nonhuman animals and people’s relationships with them is a growing and exciting field within contemporary sociology. In attending to the “zoological connection,” academic sociology is encouraged to acknowledge that we live in “mixed species societies” in which human-animal relationships play a central role. The topical area has already expanded, and will continue to extend, sociology’s substantive and theoretical understanding of social processes, interactions, and relationships “driven by the insight that other animals are always human cultural constructions.”9 By continuing to move nonhuman animals into the realm of “sociological visibility” (Oakley 1974:5), we can enrich the sociological enterprise and gain a better understanding of what it is to be human.

See also:


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