FOOTNOTES December 2000
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Section-in-Formation Status Approved for Animals & Society

by David Nibert, Wittenberg University, and Anna Williams, University of California-San Diego

At its August 2000 meeting in Washington, the ASA Council approved Section-in-Formation status for Animals & Society. This approval was the culmination of three years of work and two petition drives by the supporters of this important new section.

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. For instance, the current environmental crisis has produced a sudden decline in biodiversity, while global production saturates our lives with an enormous array of animal-derived commodities, such as food, “pets,” medicines, clothing and entertainment. At the same time, cultural perceptions of other animals are changing dramatically. This perceptual shift is evident in the increasing scientific rejection of the concept of other animals as instinctively driven bodies—exemplified by Descartes’s metaphor of other animals as a clock—or impenetrable black boxes and the emergence of models that describe them as socially engaged agents. Although there is no consensus on the ethical implications of this reevaluation, writers with differing political views nevertheless agree that other animals are cognitive subjects that exist in specific lifeworlds.

It has been argued that the social production of other animals is deeply implicated in our understanding of what it means to be human. Enlightenment thinking constructed other animals as a category of physiologically inferior otherness, mapping the distinction animal/human onto the nature/culture dualism. On the one hand, the category of the other animal has functioned to unify the concept of the human subject but at the same time has been used to produce and naturalize human difference (e.g., the development of theories of racial biology in the 19th century that find contemporary expression in neoconservative texts such as The Bell Curve). Recent scholarly inquiries on the social construction of other animals demonstrate that human societies cannot be understood fully without an examination of their constitutive animal economies. It is the centrality of other animals to society that gives this topic particular intellectual merit as a subject of sociological analysis. Contemporary scholars in the humanities and the social sciences, working in this broader context, are taking an unprecedented interest in the interactions of humans and other animals, driven by the insight that the other animals are always human cultural constructions. For example, changing social perceptions of other animals were recognized in the 1966 passage of the federal Animal Welfare Act and its subsequent amendments.

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 formation of an ASA section on Animals and Society will facilitate improved sociological inquiry into these issues.

Supporters will have an opportunity to join the new section when they pay their ASA 2001 membership dues. Anyone wanting to help organize the new section, or to be added to the mailing list, should contact David Nibert, Department of Sociology, Wittenberg University, Springfield, Ohio 45501 (hoot@wittenberg.edu).