Tag Archives: Sociology

Is Sociology Ready to Take Animals Seriously Now?

Originally published on Everyday Society, British Sociological Association; photo by Jo-Anne McArthur.

Since it began to gather momentum at the turn of the 21st century, the sociological study of animals and society has struggled for legitimacy. Although some sociology programs are beginning to provide courses on human/nonhuman relations, they remain sparse and elective. Academics and graduate students who specialize in the subfield have expressed experiencing considerable stigma (nearly half of animal studies scholars according to a recent study) (O’Sullivan et al. 2019). In graduate school, my own advisor suggested that I downplay my animal focus and sell myself as a social movement scholar. Publishing is no less frustrating, as any topic even remotely related to animals is subject to redirection by editors and reviewers to Society & Animals, arguably the journalistic ghetto for animal scholars where no one in mainstream sociology would realistically ever come across our research.

The devaluation of our work frankly boggles my mind. The climate change crisis worsens by the day with each record-breaking temperature, each melted iceberg, and each species lost to extinction. This is a crisis brought on, to an enormous extent, by animal agriculture via the heavy production and utilization of oil, soybeans and other fodder, water, land, transportation, and other resources necessary to sustain meat, dairy, eggs, and other animal products. Researchers are also pointing to this strain on the environment as the reason for shrinking wild spaces and subsequently greater contact between humans and free-living nonhuman communities. As COVID-19 and hundreds of other zoonotic diseases have demonstrated, humanity’s oppressive relationship with other animals is not only dangerous for nonhumans, but for humans as well (particularly vulnerable folks such as the very young, the elderly, those with disabilities, those living with limited material means, etc.).

Perhaps the COVID-19 crisis will finally bring home the fact that human societies are deeply and consistently shaped by our relationships with other animals. The pandemic has disrupted all that sociology holds dear, from major social institutions to the most minor of social interactions. As such, sociologists cannot afford to continue ignoring and devaluing the nonhuman factor in human social life. At the policy level, the task is formidable, but as the global response to COVID-19 has indicated, big change can happen fast when the impetus is there.

Governmental bodies will need to cease subsidizing animal agriculture and other animal-based industries, which are both unsustainable and inherently violent to animals and the earth on which we all reside. Instead, agricultural agencies will need to immediately begin transitioning farmers toward sustainable, plant-based production. Neo-colonial practices that spread Western dietary practices, entrench colonial regions in animal agriculture, and fan food insecurity must be challenged. Much of the non-Western world has traditionally relied on plant-based consumption, a diet that has been gradually undermined by Western capitalist expansion. Now is the time to reimagine our relationship with other animals and critically reassess our consumption patterns.

For sociologists, we must begin to include nonhumans in our research, not just as variables, but as sentient beings who, like ourselves, have a stake in our society’s present and future. At the very least, we can begin to lend support and recognition to the study of animals and society, as it will only grow more pressing in the coming years.

References

O’Sullivan, S., Y. Watt, and F. Probyn-Rapsey. 2019. “Tainted Love: The Trials and Tribulations of a Career in Animal Studies.” Society & Animals 27 (4): 361-382.

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What Sociology Can Tell Us about Empathy for Animals

Empathy for Animals is a Core Human Value

Humans across the globe share their homes with dogs, cats, rodents, and other animals. We call them companions, pets, or even family members. Thousands of pounds are invested in these animals with regard to food, treats, toys, clothing, kennels, healthcare, and even birthdays and funeral services. Clearly humans deeply care about other animals. At our core, we have empathy for animals other than ourselves.

Exploitative Economies Distort Our Empathy for Animals

So why do so many humans stop short of extending this compassion to animals categorized as food, clothing, or labour? Sociology offers a variety of explanations according to theoretical perspectives. Many sociologists, however, point to the economic structure of a society and the commodification of nonhuman animals. David Nibert has argued that our switch to a hunting economy not only created a society newly structured around the oppression of animals (speciesism) but it also created a society divided by gender. The transition to agriculture entrenched speciesism further with the advent of domestication. This also introduced class division since agriculture allowed for surplus goods (and unequal distribution).

By the late 1500s, early capitalism and colonial expansion spread and deepened speciesism across the globe (and, in doing so, introduced racial division as well). Today, in late-stage capitalism, speciesism (animal agriculture in particular) is more intensive than ever. It is rapidly normalizing in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and other previously colonized spaces as a result of Western coercion. These are regions where plant-based consumption was once normative. The loss of traditional foodways is not only harmful for nonhuman animals identified as “food,” but the global poor identified as their consumers. Social stratification, in other words, is rooted in the adoption of speciesism as a primary economy both past and present.

Distorted Empathy for Animals Includes Humans, Too

Notice how human oppression codeveloped with animal oppression. This intersectionality is key to the sociological understanding of speciesism. Species, race, class, gender, and other social categories are economically functional. They ensure that unpleasant jobs will be filled and that labour may be exploited for low cost (or for none at all). These categories also represent social difference and tend to facilitate conflict and discourage cooperation. For sociologists, this tendency is politically relevant. A divided society, after all, is more easily manipulated by the dominant class in support of its own interests.

The most fundamental social division is that between humans and other animals. It is this animalization which separates those who are marginalized from those who are centered in society with regard to social recognition and allocation of resources. Women are animalized, people of color are animalized, humans with disabilities are animalized, homosexual people are animalized, ethnic minorities are animalized, and non-binary and trans humans are animalized. Even nonhuman animals themselves are animalized.

This is because “animal” is a social category imbrued with symbolic meaning. Just like race really has more to do with power, prestige, and access to resources than it does with one’s actual skin color, species is also not so much about one’s biological makeup (i.e. if one has hands or hooves, skin or scales). All groups, whether human or nonhuman, that are labeled “animal” are described as physically and cognitively inferior to the dominant class and can be denied rights accordingly.

Unteaching Empathy

True, nonhuman and human animals are indeed biologically different. But there are many more commonalities between the two groups. Why do we emphasize difference over sameness? I have described a society that is fundamentally in conflict. In order to maintain such a volatile system, powerful ideologies must be introduced and enforced through institutions and socialization. Psychologists point to a variety of cognitive and emotional mechanisms for managing the discomfort humans feel when faced with contradictions in their empathy toward other animals. Sociologists, however, are interested in how our empathy for some animals and our lack of empathy for others is learned (or, more accurately, is taught).

We are taught by our parents that some animals are for petting, some animals are for admiring, some are pests we should kill, and others are food we should eat. Doctors (who generally lack nutritional training) teach us that eating animals and drinking nonhuman breastmilk is good for us. We are taught by our teachers, museums, and zoos that nonhuman animals are ours to exploit. Mainstream media (which long since converged in the 1990s under the ownership of a handful of powerful billionaires) programs us that animals are objects and our using them is good for the economy. We’re being taught these lessons from childhood throughout our life course.

Reclaiming Empathy

Fortunately, if speciesism is something that is learned, that means it is something which can be unlearned. Sociologists are also interested in how social change happens and how social justice can be achieved in a society that is fundamentally unequal. Although the system may be rigged against us (and nonhuman animals), individuals can resist the erosion of our empathy by choosing food, clothing, and entertainment which does not harm other animals. Individuals can also work to create a more inclusive, peaceful world by getting active in our communities and putting pressure on policy-makers. It is possible to reclaim our empathy for animals.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the sociology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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