Associate editor's introduction bringing animals into social scientific research arnold arluke


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Associate editor's introduction bringing animals into social scientific research arnold arluke

  1. 1. 5Associate Editors Introduction:Bringing Animals into Social Scientific ResearchArnold ArlukeWhile there is abundant popular literature about the place of animals in society, theacademic social science community has been slow to demonstrate much interest in thistopic until recently. It is ironic that so little research interest has been paid to studyingthe human experience of them when animals occupy such a commanding presence inour society. Attendance at zoos, for example, far exceeds that at professional sportingevents; the amount of money spent by pet owners on their animals is greater than theamount spent by parents on baby food; and the amount of mail received by Congressregarding the protection of animals was greater than that received on the Vietnam war. Merely because the topic has not been studied, however, is not itself an adequatejustification for doing so. There are both practical and scholarly reasons why Society andAnimals encourages this research. As concern mounts and consciousness changes in oursociety over the proper use of animals, the findings of researchers will be absolutelycritical to make what is often an emotionally charged and highly polarized debate morereasoned and informed. An example of this is the need for social scientists to examinethe ways in which laboratory personnel actually interact with animals used forexperimentation. Without such description policy makers and concerned citizens canonly draw upon the typically over-simplified diatribes of animal activists or the self-serving public relations efforts of scientists. Animals also represent one of the richest windows for understanding ourselves, andit is at this level that scholars may find great opportunities. How we think and act towardthem may reveal our most essential conceptions of the social order and unmask our mostauthentic attitudes toward people. For instance, the use of animal images may at timesbe tantamount to expressing underlying racism: some of the most damning testimonygiven by accused police at the Rodney King trial involved characterization of King asa "gorilla"; during the Gulf War Saddam Hussein was described in the American pressas a "rat"; and the actions of people in the Los Angeles riots were likened by mediacommentators to "packs of vicious animals." To date, social scientists have woefully neglected the study of the human experienceof animals. Yet educators, psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologist and anthropologists
  2. 2. 6and others have begun to carve out discrete pockets of research interest in this nascentfield. Society and Animals hopes to expand some of these interests as well as moveresearch in some new directions. Primarily having a psychological and clinical perspective, the clearest and mostdominant line of research over the last few decades has been the study of companionanimals-what benefits they have for humans, what characterizes owners and those whobond with these animals, and what effects they have on the emotional and daily lives ofpeople at various developmental stages. One major limitation of this research is that itis often biased toward demonstrating the positive influences of animals on humans.While such influences may be real, it is not clear how prolonged these influences arewhen they do occur, exactly what triggers a positive outcome, and what influenceshumans have on animals either positively or negatively. A more comprehensiveunderstanding of human-companion animal relationships requires attention to whatpsychiatrist Carl Jung called the shadow-our vices, jealousies, and vanities. Bystudying the human-companion animal relationship through its shadow rather thanthrough some preconceived notion or romantic bias, it is easier to see the relationshipas it is, as distinct from how some feel it ought to be. We know, for example,comparatively little about the abuse of companion animals or the keeping of animals forreasons relating to social status, as perhaps is the case when exotic or dangerous pets arekept. The study of companion animals has also been too narrowly construed because ofits clinical bent. Other topics need to be examined including, for instance, the meaningof folk concepts such as "dog person," "cat person" or "animal lover," or the place ofthe dog in the history of the American family. In the past decade, the primary interest of sociologists, albeit modest, has been tostudy the nature of occupations involving animals, such as that in a slaughterhouse, racetrack, or biomedical laboratory. Many topics remain to be investigated from anoccupational perspective, such as the study of the socialization process of veterinaryprofession and the role of animals as co-workers. We also need basic descriptive studiesof the occupational perspectives of park rangers, zoo workers, animal trainers, pet shopstaff, and game wardens. A more serious problem with this line of sociological researchis that while it examines settings where animals are an integral part, it is oftenpredominantly concerned with research questions that do not shed light on the nature ofthe particular human-animal interaction itself. Recently, sociologists have begun to useother perspectives from within the field to study humans and animals, drawing ontheories from the symbolic interactionist, deviance and social movements literature. It
  3. 3. 7is hoped that questions coming from these various theoretical perspectives will continueto be asked along with entirely different ones from other sociological subfields such associal stratification and social problems. For a far longer time than either psychologists or sociologists, anthropologists havepaid attention to the use and function of animals in nonindustrialized societies and tohow these societies generate animal related symbols. While ethnographies haveproduced extensive data on how people think and act toward animals, a good portion ofthis data is buried within more general descriptions of culture-despite the HumanRelations Area Files category on "ethnozoology." Unfortunately, it will remaininaccessible to many scholars outside of anthropology until it is culled from texts andsubjected to analysis from a comparative perspective. Although the domesticationprocess has been one of the chief concerns of anthropologists, they still need to studythe metaphorical and symbolic classification of domesticated animals in order to moreextensively test notions that are now only equivocally answered-such as the belief thatdomesticated animals serve as a link between human culture and wild nature. Also,certain domesticated animals have been largely ignored, such as the symbolism of dogsin different types of society. Many questions regarding animal practices are begging forcross-cultural analysis. Why, for instance, are there striking variations in pet-keepingpractices in the industrialized world, and why are animal metaphors, so present in non-industrialized societies, also highly present in the modem world? Indeed, I would hopethat anthropological interest studying the symbolism of animals could go beyond"primitive culture" so that we can begin, for instance, to understand the meaning ofanimals in television and print advertising, as well as in cartoons and comic strips, andhow these images have changed in recent years.