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Growing Interest in Critical Animal Studies

2018-05-23 11:24

The idea that humans are superior to other living creatures is challenged by researchers in the field of critical animal studies. The young research field makes room for animals in the intersectional analysis.

Researchers in the field of critical animal studies employ theories from gender studies, but choose to focus on species-based power structures. Many of them also include a gender perspective in their research, yet centre their work around the relationship between people and other creatures.

Helena PedersenHelena Pedersen, researcher at the University of Gothenburg’s Department of Pedagogical, Curricular and Professional Studies, describes critical animal studies as a multidisciplinary research field with close ties to the animal rights movement, in the same way as the field of gender studies has its roots in the feminist movement.

At the Department of Pedagogical, Curricular and Professional Studies, Pedersen studies the role of educational institutions in the animal-industrial complex. Among other things, she has explored the view of the human-animal relation that is conveyed at veterinary schools and in upper-secondary education.

‘There are stories that keep being repeated despite a complete lack of science behind them. Like the idea that humans need to eat meat to survive, or that we need zoos in order to learn about animals,’ she says.

According to Pedersen, by talking about and describing animals in a certain way, we create a view of them in line with our own interests. She mentions the terms egg-laying hens and dairy cows as good examples.

‘By using these terms, we normalise the exercise of power and make it easier to exploit animals. The terms hide immense suffering and also convey a notion of consent; what can be more natural for a dairy cow than to be milked by humans?’

A Young Research Field

The field of critical animal studies emerged in the United States and Canada around the turn of the millennium. In Sweden, it needed another couple of years to gain a foothold. Pedersen came across the field in the early ‘00s while writing her doctoral thesis on the view of animals that is conveyed in upper-secondary education.
‘I became aware of the growing social science subfield that connected the human-animal relation to power analysis and ideological criticism,’ she says.

Tobias Linné

Tobias Linné

Tobias Linné, researcher at Lund University’s Department of Communication and Media, found his way into critical animal studies from the field of sociology. At Lund, he studies the dairy industry with a focus on how cows are represented and on the strong ideological charge surrounding milk. For example, he explores that links between milk and racism, where milk historically has been considered a beverage for white people.
‘This is an idea that has re-emerged in recent years. On various online forums, milk is increasingly used as a symbol within the so-called alt-right movement,’ he says.

Animals in the Intersectional Analysis

In the field of critical animal studies, the term speciesism is used to describe the power structure of different species. The concept of anthropocentrism is also of central importance. It refers to the placing of humans in the centre with power over all other living beings.

‘By studying expressions of animal oppression, we gain another piece of the puzzle of how various power structures work,’ says Pedersen.

At zoos, it is easy to observe a certain type of child-centred heteronormative family structure. By exploring how this ideal is presented in the zoo context and made ‘natural’, we can learn more about the heteronorm, she believes. Moreover, she describes how the oppression of animals is related to the oppression of some people. Describing some groups of people as animals has in various contexts served as a way to dehumanise people and justify oppression.

Different types of oppression are related, but this does not mean that they are all the same, she stresses.
‘All types of oppression are based on unique logics, but there are systems that connect them.’

Both Pedersen and Linné believe that critical animal studies add an important perspective to the intersectional analysis, but comparing the oppression of animals to the oppression of various groups of people is a controversial practice. A common complaint against the inclusion of animals in the intersectional analysis is that it means that oppressed groups are equated with animals, in the same way as for example racialised individuals have been equated with animals in colonialism and women have been equated with animals in the patriarchy. There is a long tradition of claiming that certain groups of people are more closely related to animals than others. According to this logic, desirable qualities such as intellect and reason have been ascribed to white men, who have then been viewed as prototypes of optimal human beings.

The Research Is Often Ridiculed – But Also Sparks Curiosity

Researchers in the field of critical animal studies often find it challenging to reach out with their message and earn the respect of others in a context where the oppression and killing of animals is generally accepted.

‘Most academic colleagues are curious about what I do, but the research in the field is also often belittled or ridiculed. Some people think we should spend our time doing something more worthwhile. This is something I think all gender research pioneers can relate to,’ says Linné.

Pedersen agrees that watching others place one’s research at the very bottom of the academic hierarchy is probably a common experience in just about any field of critical research.

‘This leads to other problems, like lack of funding. It seems like researchers need to provide some economic value in order to get funded, and we don’t really fit into that model,’ she says.

The establishment of critical animal studies is also threatened by conservative forces that oppose norm criticism and ideological criticism, she continues. She hopes that the field will continue to grow, but without compromising its critical bite.

‘The field of critical animal studies contributes new knowledge about how society works and it should be important to support research that questions attitudes and beliefs that are otherwise taken for granted and rarely challenged,’ she says.

Author Charlie Olofsson
Photo Most Photos, University of Gothenburg and Lund University
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