Sunday, July 15, 2007

what's jeremy's beef with the animals & society section?

Regarding my recent post about a sociological article against "speciesism," someone asked why I seem to be regularly chiding those sociologists involved with the Animals & Society section. Reason #1 is that a certain friend who doesn't have a blog of her own keeps sending me these things, so things are brought to my attention more than they otherwise might. Reason #2, point blank, is that I have no enthusiasm for the fight against "speciesism" and reject approximately all of its attendant moral arguments*, and so I have a hard time seeing it listed alongside "racism" and "war" on the roster of social concern.

But, beyond that:

I think if I had to name what I regarded as the most genuinely interesting social trends in the US in the last 50 years, the shrinking pet-child gap would maybe make the Top 10 and would certainly make the Top 20. "Interesting"-ness is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and I suspect the shrinking pet-child gap particularly intrigues me because I grew up on a farm, in a culture with a very different attitude toward animals than the world I stepped into when I entered graduate school. Indeed, when I was in graduate school, for awhile I was keeping this tally for the sociology graduate student listserv of the number of times anyone sent out a message related to advocacy for an animal welfare cause versus a message related to advocacy for a child welfare cause. My recollection is that the score ended up Pets 11, Kids 4.

This, to me, is interesting, but apparently not interesting enough where it has risen to being anything I actually do research about. Which is another reason that I find sociology's animal movement interesting, because it exemplifies for me a larger point about sociology. As I said, I believe the shrinking pet-child gap is an interesting phenomenon, and it could be subject to a extremely interesting analysis from somebody willing to take a broad and engaged-while-still-somewhat-removed view of it. But, of course, who is going to do that?

Instead, the people who are going to enter the field of "animals and society" are going to be the people who are most committed to fighting speciesism as a cause--in other words, the people who are playing a vanguard part in the very thing I regard as the phenomenon. So, instead of sociologists offering studies that help to understand the shrinking pet-child gap--which, whatever you think of it, is an empirical phenomenon with all sorts of social ramifications, we get sociologists exhibiting the phenomenon by arguing for the value of work in which the researcher studies playing with his dog and in which the researcher tries to use sociological theory to justify a polemic that elevates "speciesism" to being of a piece with racism.

* Even so, inexplicably, I must confess that I've been lately thinking about returning to pescatarianism (that is, eating no meat except for seafood).


Gwen said...

I agree with you on this point. I find all kinds of human-animal interactions to be worthy of study. For instance, I'm really interested in people who identify themselves as environmentalists and decry cattle grazing on public lands but argue just as passionately for saving mustangs--a non-native species that is terribly destructive in the arid West and that, animal for animal, is much more of a problem than cattle (not that I'm saying there are no problems with cattle).

I'm interested in lots of these types of things. I'm a vegetarian. I'm very disturbed by animal cruelty. And yet I still think of people who talk about "speciesism" as total nutjobs.

Ang said...

I seem to recall taking an informal tally of emails I got in the midst of Katrina, asking for help for people and for pets. The number of emails was about even for each, which was indeed more pleas on behalf of animals than I would have expected, given the circumstances.

Brady said...

So what you're saying is that you don't want to read my paper on "I can has cheezborger": Evidence of a declining digital divide between species"?

dilettante said...

Two comments:

(1) By criticizing work on animals and society in general you reinforce the need for those who argue against speciesism to counter criticisms such as your own with an increased commitment to their cause while making the area less inviting for the "interesting" research that you would have those in this area do. Despite your own beliefs on speciesism, and beyond its relative "importance," you must admit that researchers in this area are experiencing attacks on their work that are similar to those experienced by researchers on gender or childhood in the recent past.

(2) In general, your thoughts on this topic appear to highlight a notion that there is a clear divide between "useful" and "not useful" research, and that you are an authority on this divide. While disliking research in an area is one thing, your comments on animals and society research (making it your "whipping boy," as one commenter stated) could be more broadly seen as a statement against "lesser sociologists" all over the country, who are content to research their particular areas of interest despite the fact that they would never dream of submitting this work to ASR, AJS, or Social Forces. While their goals are certainly different than your own, why not let them do their work in peace?

jeremy said...

D.: Reasonable points. (1) I don't see much analogy between the line of attack I would take toward Animals and Society research and whatever criticisms of the value of research on gender and childhood have been leveled in the past. Maybe if I had a better idea of what you are talking about, but otherwise I don't see much of a common struggle, and can't help but think it's a real caricature of the history of feminism and social science to suggest otherwise. (2) I don't actually agree with the concept of it being a good thing for people to be carrying about their work in peace. I think we should be in dialogue with others, and not only sympathetic others.

Also, regarding the distinction between "useful" and "non-useful" research, one thing to keep in mind is that I believe I have talked about three specific works on Animals & Society here on my blog, and two of them (including the example just cited), were not actually works of empirical research, or even attempted contributions to theory, but basically ideological exhortations.

The other piece, "Deconstructing Playing with Katie," by a researcher who studied videotapes of him playing with his dog, was an actual empirical-based project with a relatively clear theoretical foundation. At the end of the day, it was also just a guy playing with his dog, and opinions can differ on how much that has to offer the world.

jeremy said...

Ang: Actually, it would be interesting to look at different listservs after Katrina and count the ratio of animal welfare vs. child welfare messages, as a way of documenting variation in the pet-child gap.

Teune said...

"At the end of the day, it was also just a guy playing with his dog..."

As always, you bring tears o' joy to my eyes. I do, however, gotta reject entirely the "usefulness" criterion. (As a loyal reader of your blog, I am sure that there are LOTS AND LOTS of days at which, "at the end of the day, it was just Jeremy playing with Stata...")

My alternative? It needn't be "useful," but it has to stand the critical/professional light of day. Dilettante's effort to cast your meat-eatin' as academic class warfare is - much as you argue - completely misguided.

jeremy said...


1. You present your point as though I would contest that, at the end of the day, a lot of times it's just me playing with Stata.

2. I would not argue that the "usefulness" of any endeavor is a natural property of that endeavor. I am too much of a constructivist for that. From that position, however, it is perfectly reasonable to have both abstract arguments over what it means to be useful and to have concrete arguments over whether particular things are useful. I do not take the position that we should give up thinking about whether activities are useful or not and thinking this may enter into the judgments that are responsible for passing the "critical/professional" standards of the day.

I can, I should add, imagine many sorts of edifying and interesting insights coming out of a guy playing with his dog. I mean, I can't imagine what exactly those insights are, but I can imagine saying "The whole thing is based on the guy playing with his dog, but the world he opens up from that is amazing." Would seem extremely hard to pull off, though, and would work by allowing one to draw connections to other things from the observations of researcher with his dog.

gabriel said...

i think the thing about playing with katie that sends my bullshit meter into the red is that it's an auto-ethnography. i would have no problem with somebody observing other people playing with their dogs, but writing about yourself (and your dog) is just sketchy.

Ang said...

...and that's a whole can o' worms in and of itself.

Teune said...

"You present your point as though I would contest that, at the end of the day, a lot of times it's just me playing with Stata."

While in my case it is R, me too ---sorry if I suggested otherwise.

Gabriel is thinking about this the way that I do. If it sets your BS meter off, isn't that really enough? I have no idea what "useful" means other than "something that I like," "something that I can understand," or "something that confirms or furthers my political committments." You are aware that the majority of sociologists would find what you do (or what I do) of little "usefulness."

dilettante said...

This post itself is probably beyond the point of usefulness, but in answer to your points:

(1) I was referring to the criticism that research on children and women was not considered worthwhile. Today, those ideas have obviously changed, though it seems completely reasonable to think that research on animals is not worthwhile.

(2) I admit that you make a good point about the need for a dialog. I disagree, however, that your post was an attempt to initiate such a dialog. If you really want to discuss these issues, why not contact Leslie Irvine, whose faculty web page you linked to, or attend one of the sessions on animals and society and ask these types of questions there?

jeremy said...


1. I think it's a dubious line of reasoning to argue that because the study of X and Y was once seen as not worthwhile but now are seen as obviously worthwhile, that the study of Z should be given the benefit of the doubt that claims it will also eventually be understood as worthwhile. If you disagree, I invite you to devote yourself to the study of dryer lint.

2. I think we have very different conceptualizations of what dialogue in academia consists of. I see it as public engagement. I do not see it as a series of personal conversations, although personal conversations provide the backstage for the public conversation.