Monday, July 10, 2017

"Nature" and Nonhumans and the Sociological Imagination

[Please note that this version of this text has been recovered from an early draft due to a server crash. There may be a few typos and even mistakes in the following]

Sociological Speciesism:
The Invisibility of Nonhuman Animals.

In the mid-1990s, criminologist Piers Beirne invited scholars to seriously consider whether the sociology of crime in particular, and the discipline of sociology in general, could be accused of displaying what he described as a ‘through-going speciesism’ in theorising and analyses (Beirne 1995: 6, 24).  In the same year, Wolch, West & Gaines (1995: 735) claimed that ‘Contemporary urban theory is anthropocentric’.

Beirne suggests that the vast majority of sociologists must surely plead guilty to such a charge and concludes that, ‘the untheorised treatment of animals as mere objects in the literature of sociology and criminology is an embarrassing reflection of how they are massively and routinely treated in factory farms, research laboratories, zoos, and aquaria, and of how, too, they are displayed as items of clothing and, sometimes, as pets.  Animals are used and abused by humans in many of the same ways, and for many of the same dominionistic reasons, as males oppress women and whites have enslaved persons of colour’ (ibid. 24).  However, in stark contrast to investigations of harm caused to women and persons of colour, in which their own direct harm is often (but not always) the primary concern, ‘On nearly every occasion that animals appear in criminology ... their presence is entirely subservient to human need and to human problems’ (ibid.: 4).[1]
           According to Hilary Tovey’s recent review of the theorising of non-human animals in the social sciences, little has changed since the mid-1990s: she states that, ‘Despite an increasing intellectual and social interest in ‘the animal question’ in recent decades, animals remain largely invisible in social science texts’ (2003: 196).  Although she clearly believes her criticism applies to the social sciences in general terms, Tovey’s criticism is concentrated on environmental and rural sociology.  For example, of the former, she writes:

if we look to environmental sociology for a perspective which includes animals, we will not find much to help us.  In environmental sociology texts…animals figure primarily in the form of ‘species’ or ‘biodiversity’, or as part of the ecological systems which integrate organisms and habitats (ibid.)

The two consequences of this, Tovey argues, are that environmental sociology ‘tends to absorb animals into ‘wild nature’’, resulting in virtually nothing being said about ‘domestic’, ‘service’, or ‘functional’ animals,[2] and it also recognises nonhumans in the form of ‘population or generic types, without individual character, knowledge, subjectivity or experience’ (ibid.)  She states that, ‘Paraphrasing [geographers] Wolch and Emel, we might say that to read most sociology texts, one might never know that society is populated by non-human as well as human animals’ (ibid.: 197).[3]

          Tovey argues, taking a similar line to Mason (1993), that the way animals are theorised in sociology is part of the wider understanding of how ‘nature’ is treated or ‘imagined’.  Milbourne (2003: 194) says that the theoretical position of nonhuman animals in recent writing on ‘social nature’ is ‘problematic’.  A great deal of debate has ensued in efforts to attempt to think about ‘wild’ and ‘domesticated’ animals, and Ted Benton (1993) tells his readers that notions of ‘wildness’ and ‘in the wild’ are indeed problematic.  For example, Benton writes:

Non-human animal populations ‘in the wild’ already stand in social relations with human populations and are affected by human social practices, by way of human socially-established powers with respect to, and impacts upon, their environmental conditions of life (1993: 67).

Tovey argues that a political economy of nature which sought to examine inequalities in access to nature would have to include virtually all nonhuman animals, be they ‘domestic’ or ‘wild’, because ‘only very few species remain which are not in some type of contact with human beings’ (2003: 202).  Through a concentration on sociologies of the environment, which often claim to be concerned with ‘nature’ as well as ‘society’; or concerned with both at the same time, Tovey investigates what sociologists may mean in their understanding(s) of the term ‘nature’.  She says some environmental sociologists claim a desire to ‘reform sociology’ to the extent of bringing ‘nature in’.  For example, in 1994, Murphy suggested that, for too long, ‘sociology has been constructed as if nature didn’t matter’ (cited in ibid.)  Others want to ‘‘sociologise’ environmental science’ in order to demonstrate the limitation of discussing nature without discussing people.  Tovey finds, speaking in general terms, that most environmental perspectives in sociology approach ‘nature’ in similar ways:  ‘They either scientise it,[4] as matter/material resources/material processes (or accounts of these[5]), or aestheticise it, as landscape and countryside[6] (or claims on these[7])’.  Such ways of ‘imagining’ the natural world, she suggests, ‘considerably constrain the possibilities for recognising animals as part of nature’ (ibid.: 198).  In all these accounts, ‘domestic animals’ remain almost invisible, so much so that, ‘claims made about ‘nature’ often appear strange or senseless if we try to include such animals within them’ (ibid.: 199).  All too often nonhumans appear abstractly within notions of ‘living nature’ (as opposed to nonliving nature) and ideas about ‘wilderness’, ‘species’ and ‘biodiversity’. 

          Sociologists have turned their attention toward groups of nonhumans living ‘in the wild’, while rather neglecting ‘domesticated’ animals, who are enigmatic in environmental sociology, Tovey claims.  However, individuals in the latter category are considerably more subject to human instrumentalism than those in the former.  To the extent that sociologists have behaved neglectfully toward nonhuman animals, they have done little more than any conventional orientation to human-nonhuman relations.  However, Tovey claims that there is a disparity between the public view of nonhuman animals and that of scientists,[8] environmental sociologists and environmental NGOs.  She says, ‘In largely ignoring animal issues, environmental sociologists seem to be closer to the pulse of the professional environmental movement than to that of the general public’ (ibid.: 203).  She further states that:

A social constructionist investigation into the way in which environmental sociology ‘accounts for’ animals might conclude that it has been much more strongly influenced by ecological science’s vision of them as organisms within a system, or by Cartesian visions of them as complicated machines, than by the accounts found in lay society (ibid.)

In terms of this thesis’ examination of the differences between animal welfare and nonhuman rights views, Tovey’s implication that the ‘pulse of the general public’ amounts to an animal rights’ consciousness can be seriously questioned.  For example, as evidence of the contemporary public view of nonhumans, she cites Hilary Rose who makes the utterly exaggerated claim that: ‘Unquestionably the big British debate about nature is the issue of animal rights and welfare.  Increasingly it is assumed that no sensitive caring person can be anything other than into animal rights… the epicentre of today’s UK nature politics is animal rights, with green nature in second place’ (1998: 93; 94).[9] 

Although nonhuman rights advocates would surely wish that any of that were true, sadly it is not.  Nevertheless, in terms of Tovey’s point about scientists, environmental sociologists and the public (Wynne’s [1996][10] ‘expert-lay knowledge divide’), this probably stands as a fairly accurate reflection of present orientations toward human-nonhuman relations.
            When scholars have investigated issues such as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE - commonly known as ‘mad cow disease’, see Macnaughten & Urry [1998], and the section on foot and mouth disease in Part Two of the present work) they tend to treat it ‘as a problem for the humans rather than the cows’ (Tovey 2003: 200).  Cows suffering with BSE figure in such analysis as ‘physical systems’ and ‘objects of scientific and political control’: ‘the Fordist reorganisation of animal husbandry is treated as generating human problems – fear of food, loss of trust in expert systems, loss of state legitimacy.  What it may be doing to the animals is scarcely seen as a relevant topic of discussion’ (ibid.)

          Some theorists, such as Hannigan (1995), investigating the genetically engineered bovine growth hormone known as BST, concentrate on claims-making activities of social movements and that of their countermovements.  In such analysis, nonhuman animals may feature as individuals or as groups in the sense that they are the subjects of claims made by animal welfare and ‘animal rights’ campaigners as well as scientists and representatives of the dairy industry.  Such analysis, however, is limited to the extent of acknowledging that farm animals have a ‘welfare’ which the use of BST may ultimately decrease (Tovey 2003: 200).  The chief concern remains the human problems caused by scientific developments, application, and matters such as public confidence in political and marketing claims.

          Tovey claims that Hannigan’s (1995) book contains a discursive section that ‘is quite revealing of how…environmental sociologists imagine nature and render animals invisible’.  She presents an account of the debate as delineated by Hannigan:

Hannigan is here defending the constructionist approach against criticism made particularly by the ‘realism’ school of environmental sociology in Britain, specifically Benton, Dickens, and Martell… He notes that both Benton and Martell crtiticise constructionism by attacking Keith Tester’s (1991) argument that a fish is only a fish when socially classified as such.  Benton sees Tester as reducing any reality external to discourse to ‘an unknowable ghostly presence’, while Martell argues that Tester is wrong to deny that animals have rights because they are of equal value to humans, in favour of saying concern with animals helps us to define ourselves as ‘superior moral beings’. Hannigan comments that these ‘attacks’ on social constructionism have something to do with a ‘sociology of animal rights’, but his defence takes the form of reasserting that not all social constructionists are ‘absolute relativists’, and he develops this through reference to ‘greenhouse gas emissions’, levels of ‘resources/waste-absorbent and food-production capacities’, ‘climatic and atmospheric effects’ (p. 188). He makes no comment on the ‘equal rights’ of animals argument, but discusses instead the difficulties sociologists have in evaluating or adjudicating on scientific (not moral or political, which would seem much more relevant) claims (Tovey 2003: 201).                  

Much of the above, and perhaps particularly this passage, reveals the ‘single central debate’ in recent environmental sociology: ‘This is the debate between ‘realist’ and ‘social constructionist’ understandings of nature’ (ibid.: 203).  Tovey explains the approaches in the following way:

The realist position is usually represented as treating society and nature as a dualism of separate but interrelated entities, where the task of the social analyst [is] to clarify how they are interrelated and with what effects; social constructionists see nature-and-society as a duality, as a contested cultural reality which exists in diverse forms in the activities of claims-making and social mobilisation around ‘nature’ and its processes (ibid.: 203-4).

While both constructionists and realists argue that their position is ‘embattled’ against the other, Irwin has recently argued that the debate between them is sterile and dull (Irwin 2001, cited in ibid.: 204).  Murphy (2002) reveals that the debate continues nevertheless.  Tovey, however, says that sterile and dull is not the same as irrelevant and, anyway, it is not irrelevant in relation to the issue of the invisibility of nonhumans in the present work.  In a torturous section of her paper, citing the works of Hannigan, Smith, Beck, Benton, Franklin and Dickens, Tovey succeeds in establishing that the labelling of such theorists can be ‘mystifactory’ and rather unhelpful, especially in the case of some writers, such as Beck, who ‘is well-known for his refusal to be defined as either a social constructionist or a realist’ (ibid.)  Within a single ‘school’, such as the ‘realist school’, important theoretical differences may be seen.  Tovey states that at least two types of approaches in ‘realist theorisations of nature’ can be distinguished: ‘one addresses nature in terms of its capacity for backlash or boomerang on human actors, while another tries to grasp the shared and common experiences of human and nonhuman animals which are imposed by social processes’ (ibid.: 205).  Tovey argues that it is possible ‘that realist approaches to nature have a greater chance of making animals ‘visible’ to sociology than social constructionist approaches do’, yet she acknowledges that the ‘backlash’ or ‘boomerang’ theories ‘help to reproduce the society-nature division’ rather than transcend it, which the ‘shared’ and ‘common experiences’ approach attempts to do.

          Although not equally, perhaps, all perspectives can - with some thought - make visible the lives and experiences of nonhuman animals.  Tovey suggests that nonhumans such as ‘food animals’ cannot but be seen as a part of society, and thus a real concern for the sociological imagination.  Environmental sociologists are often fully engaged with Beck’s ‘risk’ thesis but Tovey takes him to task in respect of nonhumans.  For example, when Beck (2000) ‘revisited’ Risk Society he claimed he saw a loss of boundary between ‘nature and culture/society’ brought about by the industrialisation of nature and culture.  One effect, Beck argues, is the creation of hazards that ‘endanger humans, animals and plants alike’ (2000: 221).  Tovey claims there are risks for nonhumans that Beck fails to ‘imagine’ (2003: 206).  For example, in the case of foot and mouth, it is ‘a ‘natural’ disease (not man-made like BSE)’.  Foot and mouth may not be fatal to the majority of nonhumans who contract it.  What is fatal for them is how humans ‘interpret’ and ‘manage’ the disease: ‘both the means for its rapid and extensive transmission are largely man-made, and the solutions to it adopted by humans consist in slaughtering animals’ (ibid, emphases in original.)

          Such factors mean that it, ‘does not ‘endanger humans and animals alike’, and its management has tended to confirm rather than disconfirm the ‘modernist’ distinction between society and nature and the right, even the necessity, for social actors to treat animals in purely instrumental ways’ (ibid.)  Tovey further argues that, in fact:

when we think of food animals, it is hard to avoid concluding that the ‘boundaries between society and nature’ which Beck sees as redefined by the rise of environmental risks are already subject to multiply definitions: there is in fact no single ‘modernist’ understanding of these boundaries (ibid.)

Raymond Murphy (1994) also investigates risk and Tovey argues that his political economy approach to nature ‘would seem to have no difficulty in including animals’, which she approves of since she is keen to ‘rethink society to include animals’ (2003: 207, 209). Having said this about Murphy’s work, it is also true that his perspective does not go out of its way to make nonhumans visible.  This is in contrast to, say, Mason’s (1993) approach in which he talks generally about ‘nature’ but claims several times that nonhuman animals are its most visual and vital component of it.  Tovey regards Murphy as ‘devoted to challenging the idea of ‘equality of risk’’ (2003: 206).  Murphy devises ‘environmental classes’ that are different in that they have differing degrees of ‘interdependence’ with nature.  As a so-called ‘boomerang’ idea, different environmental classes also experience variable degrees of nature’s ‘recoil’ also.

          Murphy writes: ‘The exploitation of the environment by one group to the detriment of other groups constitutes (1) the exploitation of the latter, and (2) the division of society into environmental classes’ (Murphy 1994: 166, cited in ibid.)  Power differentials also mark ‘environmental classes’, meaning: who has ‘power to manipulate nature, and benefit from of such manipulation.  Who, furthermore, experiences differences in terms of any ‘boomerang’ effect.  In other words, who experiences ‘differences in suffering the harmful effects of this manipulation’ (1994: 170, cited in ibid.)  In an ‘objective relationship to environmental exploitation’, the ‘most seriously victimised are often not in a position to lead or even participate in the struggle against their victimisation’ (1994: 167, cited in ibid.)  Imagining ‘class positions’ of ‘environmental victims’, Murphy is moving toward categories that could include nonhuman animals: who benefits as well as who is harmed by environmental damage; who may be said to be a volunteer in systems that so damage; who are influential within systems; who are merely ‘innocent’ bystanders’?  Even more ‘distanced’ than those who form this latter category are ‘foetuses and future generations’ (ibid.): perhaps human and nonhuman? 

          Tovey makes the claim to involve nonhumans because foetuses are included and because, ‘Self-conscious awareness of class position and struggle against it are excluded’.  She concludes that ‘there seems to be no good reason for not including all species capable of suffering from human exploitation of the environment’ (ibid.)  Returning to her emphasis on ‘farm animals’, Tovey acknowledges that there would be disagreement about their precise conceptual position (for example, as ‘first-party victims’ – are they ruled out of this position because they ‘benefit’ in their involvement in systems of exploitation? – or are they ‘third-party’ victims or bystanders?)  Although she cannot see reason to theoretically exclude ‘farm animals’, she notes that Murphy – along with so-called ‘Ecological Modernisationists’ – has a tendency to do just that: ‘The absence of non-‘wild’ animals from [Murphy’s] environmental analysis follows from his understanding of nature as external to or the opposite of human social life’ (ibid.: 207).

          Peter Dickens’ work (1992, 1996) may be regarded as examples of Tovey’s ‘second type of ‘realist’ theory’, that which tries to grasp the shared and common experiences of human and nonhuman animals imposed by social processes.  Again, revealing the pitfalls involved in labelling other theorists, Dickens has been described as a ‘critical realist’, also ‘a theorist concerned to establish the ‘independent reality’ of nature from society’, and a ‘materialist’ reworking Marx’s concept of ‘species being’.

          This latter concern at least, says Tovey (2003: 207), means that it is possible to ‘re-establish connections’ between humans and nonhuman animals through Marx.  For Dickens, Marx suggests that humans and nonhumans have a ‘natural being’ related to their biological and instinctual needs, and humans have a ‘species being’ based on their self-consciousness, creativity and sociability.  Such ideas have served to emphasise dualism and difference between humans and other animals, yet Dickens suggests that they could just as easily point toward continuity and similarity.  If the notion of ‘natural being’ means that many types of animal strive to serve their biological and instinctual needs; they also organise the satisfying of nutritional, sheltering and reproductive requirements.  Such needs are satisfied in various ways but Dickens suggests that, essentially, humans have specific ways of doing what other animals do.  Apparently, this idea can be reversed in the sense that his later work ‘applies the same argument to non-human species, and examines the specific ways in which they do, or experience, what humans do or experience’ (ibid.)

          Tovey suggests that sociologists have mistakenly ignored such matters, assuming that they are concerns of ‘animal behaviourists’ and some anthropologists, rather than theirs.  Academic disciplines often seek to differentiate themselves from others and Tovey suggests that, for this reason, sociologists rarely have ‘strayed’ from considerations of the human world.  However, she says that work such as Dickens’ shows that ‘social theory can be illuminatingly applied to animals to explain their position and fate in modern society’ (ibid.)  Tovey notes that Dickens (1996):

addresses modern humans’ ‘alienated’ relations with nature but…combines with this an analysis of how other animal species are also alienated, arguing that the advanced division of labour and the expanding penetration of market relations in late modernity are common alienating processes for both humans and non-human animals (ibid.)

Stating that, ‘Like humans, animals can be seen as having a natural being and a species being’, Tovey once more turns toward her emphasis on ‘domesticated’ animals, agreeing with Dickens that modern capitalism ‘undermines and destroys the distinctive essence of being human’ and it can have a ‘similar effect on animals’:

More and more animals are brought into the circuit of money capital, in which they are treated as merely inputs to a process of commodity food production.  This affects how the animal’s capacity to develop, given their species being, is realised in practice, distorting it severely.  Much like industrial workers, food animals have been subject to mechanisation, rationalisation, and automation (ibid.)

Consequential of all this, Tovey argues, nonhumans ‘lose most of their natural capacities – to seek and choose their own food, to chose a mate, to rear their young’.  She says that Dickens regards this as a form of ‘de-skilling’:

They are separated from their fellow animals, deprived of communication, social play, social learning.  Like humans, they are made to specialise – as ‘beef cattle’ or ‘milk cattle’, as ‘layers’ or ‘broilers’ (ibid.: 208).

Dickens contends that the alienated experience of modern humans under capitalism can be applied to numerous other animals as well.  He sees many nonhumans as skilled individuals who possess ‘learned tacit knowledge’.  In modern systems of animal exploitation, these individuals are ‘subjugated and marginalised’ by human beings.  Tovey states that Dickens is drawn to the conclusion that the fate of many nonhuman animals ‘is the same experience of alienation as captured by Marx in his analysis of…industrial workers under capitalism’.  With this thought he brings food animals into ‘human cognitive space, recognising them as creatures both similar to and yet different from humans’ (ibid.)

[1]   It is suggested that this situation is somewhat analogous to feminist complaints from the 1970s: ‘Daly (1973: 118) [alludes] to the transportability of victimhood.  In the case of sexual assault, for example, the victim is sometimes seen as an abused woman’s spouse.  However, this shared victimhood is often derived not from a male’s assumed empathy towards a woman’s suffering, but from how his property has been damaged or polluted by sexual assault, thereby depicting him – the property owner – as the real victim’ (Yates, Powell & Beirne 2001: 21).
[2]   Tovey names ‘food animals, experimental animals in scientific laboratories, working animals in circuses, transportation or elsewhere’ as these types of animals.
[3]   As ever, there are always exceptions within generalised statements.  Tovey cites Benton (1993); Martell (1994) and Dickens (1996) as sociological texts that ‘recognise animals as fellow experiencers, alongside humans, of social and environmental change’.  Eder (1996) and Franklin (1999) also give ‘considerable visibility’ to animals, ‘but mainly in order to identify and explain changing cultural constructions of them’ (Tovey 2003: 197).
[4]   Murphy (1994).
[5]   Buttel (2000); Freudenberg (2000).
[6]   Macnaughten & Urry (1998).
[7]   Hannigan (1995).
[8]   Tovey cites Wynne’s (1996) research in which nuclear scientists are reported to regard sheep as ‘systems of response to irradiation’.
[9]   Similar sentiments are found on the NAIA’s (National Animal Interest Alliance) website.  They too claim that public discourse is currently dominated by ‘animal rights thinking’.  The NAIA is an animal rights counter-movement whose representatives participate in and defend several forms of nonhuman animal exploitation and contribute to discussion groups such as Yahoo’s Animal_Rights_Debate.
[10]   Wynne’s chapter is entitled: ‘May the sheep safely graze?’.  No, someone will try to eat them sooner or later.

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