Looking more at the human-pet relationship in sociological analysis

A new sociological study suggests more sociologists need to see pets as social actors:

In a new paper published earlier this month in the British journal Sociology, Charles argues that “the so-called species barrier” has long concealed the important kinship between humans and their pets. Her recent research suggests that it’s a bond that should have long ago figured into sociological analysis.

A recent survey in the U.S. revealed “that 91 per cent of pet ‘owners’ regard their pets as family members.” In Australia, Charles writes, 88 percent do. While some researchers may scoff at the notion that this type of relationship rises to any level of complexity, pet owners’ own recent qualitative descriptions also seem to offer compelling contradictory evidence.

This relationship, as Charles notes, isn’t new. It just hasn’t been probed in the way one would expect. Pet-keeping, as we conceive of it today, was first popularized in the 16th and 17th centuries, as urbanization shifted the human-animal relationship “from function to affect.”…

She believes that animals have consistently been treated, to some degree, “as social actors.” But the evidence for that kind of theory is mounting, she argues. “Thus, in a recent study of family formation and kinship networks, a significant number of people spontaneously included animals in their families; this was a particularly interesting finding as interviewees had not been explicitly asked about animals.”

On one hand, this sounds reasonable: lots of people have lots of interactions with their pets. On the other hand, what exactly are members of the American Sociological Association section on Animals and Society studying if they haven’t considered some of this…

Sociology can contribute to the new field of animal studies

The New York Times highlights a new interdisciplinary field: animal studies.

The courses are part of the growing, but still undefined, field of animal studies. So far, according to Marc Bekoff, an emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, the field includes “anything that has to do with the way humans and animals interact.” Art, literature, sociology, anthropology, film, theater, philosophy, religion — there are animals in all of them.

The field builds partly on a long history of scientific research that has blurred the once-sharp distinction between humans and other animals. Other species have been shown to have aspects of language, tool use, even the roots of morality. It also grows out of a field called cultural studies, in which the academy has turned its attention over the years to ignored and marginalized humans.

Some scholars now ask: Why stop there? Why honor the uncertain boundary that separates one species from all others? Is it time for a Shakespearean stage direction: Exit the humanities, pursued by a bear? Not quite yet, although some scholars have suggested it is time to move on to the post-humanities.

The Animals and Society Institute, itself only six years old, lists more than 100 courses in American colleges and universities that fit under the broad banner of animal studies. Institutes, book series and conferences have proliferated. Formal academic programs have appeared.

As I’ve said to my introduction to sociology students, if humans are involved, sociologists can study anything.

I wish the article discussed further this talk about a move to the post-humanities – this sounds like it could be quite interesting and I’m sure it would get a lot of people up in arms.

The American Sociological Association has an Animals and Society section. Helpfully, the section has a page explaining why the section exists:

The establishment of this section reflects the increasing popular and scholarly attention being devoted to the relationship between humans and other animals for well over two decades.  Philosophers, feminists, anthropologists, psychologists — and, increasingly, sociologists – are examining the complex, profound and entangled relationships of humans and other animals…

While several existing ASA sections may touch upon aspects of the interactions of humans and other animals occasionally and tangentially, none are adequate vehicles for serious investigation and development of the issues and question in this area.  Nor do they provide a specific space in which a theoretical sociological framework on other animals can be collaboratively developed.  The ASA section on Animals and Society will facilitate improved sociological inquiry into these issues.

As of 2011, this section has 172 members. This still seems like a rather low-visibility section whose numbers have not increased since its founding.