Critical Social Movement Studies in Animal Rights and Human/Nonhuman Oppression
Nonhuman animals are among the most oppressed in human society, and this structural violence is often entangled with that of vulnerable human communities. Sociological research in this area of intersecting inequality, limited though it has been, has been gaining in relevance as scientists, state and corporate actors, and the public grow increasingly concerned with the consequences of climate change, food safety and accessibility, rising healthcare costs, and animal welfare. Sociologists have taken interest in this contentious area as well, primarily as a case study in movement/countermovement dynamics, protest motivation, and protestor identity. My research contributes to the dialogue in this regard, engaging social movement studies specifically as it speaks to the politics of organizational structure, identity, and inequality in the animal rights movement.
The Political Structure of Animal Rights
Like many social movements, collective action on behalf of nonhuman animals is more often reformative than revolutionary, presenting limited resistance to inequality and considerable gain for industries and non-profit organizations. These challenges are examined in my first monograph, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (Palgrave 2016). In this book, I deconstruct common sense and seemingly irrational tactics in an effort to understand how they come to dominate in the movement imagination despite limited, undocumented, or even contrary results. Drawing on Weber, Ritzer, and research from comparable social justice movements, I suggest that social movements fetishize growth in the capitalist system to the potential detriment of social movement success, rationalizing to the point of irrationality.
I extend these explorations of power and privilege in social justice spaces in my current proposal with a particular focus on the dynamics of factionalism in a professionalized social movement arena. Ineffectual, pro-capitalist tactics can interfere with social movement success, but power and politics related to in-group fighting can also debilitate. In this second book project, I focus on the role of non-profitization and its interaction with radical grassroots groups using an archival content analysis of four decades of animal rights claimsmaking. Findings support preexisting research that identifies non-profitization as a catalyst for factionalism, but is novel in its application of Bourdieu’s social capital framework to identify a number of ways in which non-profit organizations come to dominate the common sense of protest.
Identity in Animal Rights Activism
Related to my research in social movement political structures, I also examine how these structures influence protestor identity and engage with systems of oppression in order to resonate. For instance, I have documented how the animal rights movement facilitates sexism in a piece published with the Journal of Gender Studies, draws on ableism in a content analysis published with Disability & Society, and fans size discrimination in a survey-based article under review with Fat Studies. Other content analyses I have recently published explore hundreds of magazine covers produced by the animal rights movement in comparison with other social justice movements in an attempt to identify how gender, race, and size are represented or repressed. These projects reflect my core focus on non-profitization in theorizing that social movement organizations actively exploit the marginalized status of vulnerable persons both in the public and in the ranks for the benefit of organizational growth to the effect of undermining social justice claimsmaking and complicating coalition-building.
Some of my work focuses on the intersections of human and nonhuman oppression outside of social movement studies, as well. For instance, I am working on a chapter regarding the importance of acknowledging the role that speciesism plays in aggravating human inequality that has been accepted for an edited book on modern slavery to be published by Cambridge University Press. I have also been invited to author a chapter on speciesism, feminism, and capitalism in an edited volume that will soon be published by Praeger Press. Also under review at this time is an article on the topic of human and nonhuman oppression in colonial and post-colonial Ireland in support of a project managed by the University of Vienna.
Whether researching intersecting inequalities or movement structures, I am careful to dedicate some effort in placing my work in the service of social change. In 2013, I founded Vegan Feminist Network (VFN), an academic/activist project that gives platform to emerging female-identified scholars and activists interested in species-inclusive intersectionality. In 2015, I was awarded a small grant by The Pollination Project to expand the project and attract a larger audience. In the future, I am considering registering VFN as a non-profit to increase its reach and utility to the social movement community, as well as qualifying it for additional grants.
Based on VFN’s success, I am also planning on authoring a definitive book on vegan feminism within the next five years. My intention is to create an accessible text that is academic and peer-reviewed, but useful for university students and activists alike. This project will consolidate my existing body of research on political structures and identity, but will also incorporate my examination of entangled oppressions. In support of this future project, I plan to continue article-length explorations into these areas, while also pursuing grant funding to expand my methodological breadth. A number of non-profits in the animal rights movement fund research of this kind, but I am also considering the National Science Foundation as a potential sponsor. Certainly, there is ample room for collaboration with other faculty and students in further research into structural inequalities as they manifest in social movements. Content analysis, in particular, is a considerably approachable methodology for students who stand to gain valuable hands-on research experience through collaboration.