Human-Animal Studies

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Author: Julie Urbanik
Editors: Julie Urbanik and Connie L. Johnston
Date: 2017
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Human-Animal Studies

Human-Animal Studies (HAS), or Animal Studies in the Humanities, is the umbrella category for all scholarly work that examines the spectrum of relations between humans and other species from social science (history, geography, anthropology) and humanities (literature, art, philosophy) perspectives. Understanding this broad category is key to understanding how different scholarly disciplines not only approach, but contribute to, our understanding of how human-animal relations have developed, how they change, and the impacts for both humans and other animals.

HAS differs in focus from other animal-related or animal-based scholarly fields. Animal studies in the physical sciences (biology, chemistry) generally refers to the study of the physical properties of animals themselves and/or their use as models for studies in human or veterinary health. Anthrozoology is the scientific study of human-animal interactions. Researchers in this field may use quantitative methods (gathering large-scale data or measuring bodily functions like heartbeats or blood pressure) to study the responses of children to different animals or whether or not animals may help people heal faster. Ethology is a science field that focuses on the study of animal behavior in the wild and under controlled conditions. Ethologists might devise tests to see how fast a crow could problem-solve for a treat or study the different physical displays of dogs (ears up, tail down) to learn how they might be communicating with each other.

In contrast, HAS is focused on 1) specific intersections and relationships between humans and animals and 2) how human society is not exclusively human. In this way the field is both multidisciplinary (involving more than one scholarly discipline) and interdisciplinary (one research project may combine methods from multiple disciplines). HAS scholars are interested in such topics as where and how animals have been categorized (food versus pet animals), how animals have been used (pets or research objects), how animals connect to culture (animals as mascots or movie stars), the economies of animal-related industries, and the politics of animals (laws, protests).

The consensus is that the development of HAS is rooted in two books ( DeMello 2012 ): the Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s (1946–) Animal Liberation (1975) and the American philosopher Tom Regan’s (1938–) The Case for Animal Rights (1983). Singer’s book exposed the often violent and inhumane treatment of animals in industries such as farming, science, and entertainment, shocking many scholars and much of the public because so many people didn’t know what was happening with animals in these locations. Regan’s work argued that animals, like humans, are “subjects” of a life, with value in and of themselves, instead of objects to be used by humans. Together, these two books helped launch the modern animal rights and advocacy movements, as well as HAS. The field has grown dramatically over Page 186  |  Top of Articlethe past 25 years, and the Animals and Society Institute (ASI) tracks classes and degree programs (bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral, and law schools) in North America, Australia, New Zealand, Latin America, Europe, and Israel. In addition, there are now 24 scholarly journals exploring the full spectrum of human-animal relations ( ASI 2015 ).

HAS argues that animals have, in large part, been “erased” from the study of society by a human history written from religious, philosophical, and science perspectives that see humans as the pinnacle of creation—the only ones who make history and the world. This consistent privileging of humans over all other species in society is often referred to as “speciesism,” and HAS scholars argue that it can be understood as parallel to racism or sexism. The parallel exists in, for example, the way male-dominated and white-dominated social and political structures have controlled the lives of, and histories about, non-whites and women. It is not that women or non-whites haven’t contributed to the history and development of society but that they have not been sufficiently included in the historical record. So in the same way that scholars of such fields as women’s and gender studies and African American studies are recovering the invisible histories of these groups, HAS scholars see their role as making animals visible to the history and processes of human society. HAS scholars, like others of specific groups, emphasize that it is not only about recovering and understanding histories and roles but actively changing present-day structures to be more just and humane. HAS scholars do not argue that animals should be treated exactly the same as humans but that human societies must challenge ways in which all groups—human or non—can be mistreated, exploited, or made invisible by cultural, economic, ethical, political, and religious processes.

Two of the major challenges for continued expansion of HAS have to do with acceptability and studying animals themselves outside a physical science context. In terms of acceptability, it has often been difficult to get traditional academic disciplines (e.g., history, literature) to grasp the relevance of studying animals, and institutions have often been reluctant to allow courses, open departments, and grant degrees in HAS because it is often confused with what many have seen as solely emotion-based activism instead of evidence-based research. Studying the animals themselves also presents a huge challenge to HAS scholars, as we cannot ask animals questions as we do humans. For example, a dog cannot say if s/he enjoys being in a research lab, nor have dogs left diaries of their past experiences. Therefore, scholars have to use creative and legitimate research methods that often combine ethological work with interpretations of human comments about animals.

Julie Urbanik

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Further Reading

Animals and Society Institute (ASI). 2015. “Human-Animal Studies.” Accessed January 14, 2016.

DeMello, M. 2012. Animals and Society: An Introduction to Human-Animal Studies. New York: Columbia University Press.

Regan, T. 1983. The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley: The University of California Press.

Singer, P. 1975. Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals. New York: Random House.

Urbanik, J. 2012. Placing Animals: An Introduction to the Geography of Human-Animal Relations. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Wilke, R., and Inglis, D., eds. 2007. Animals and Society: Critical Concepts in the Social Sciences. New York: Routledge.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX7261600088