Welcome to our series, ‘Why Animal Studies?’ The aim of the series is to have scholars across the ideological spectrum (i.e., human-animal studies, critical animal studies, anthrozoology) reflect on why they locate their scholarship in the field. We will be featuring pieces from PhD students, established and early career scholars as well as established scholars from other areas who are increasingly interested, and working, in the field. If you would like to contribute to the series please email email@example.com.
In this first piece, A/Prof Damien Riggs reflects on how he came to critical animal studies and how it complements with his work situated within critical race and whiteness studies and critical kinship studies.
As I have written about elsewhere, moving into the field of critical race and whiteness studies as a white gay man allowed me the tools through which to think about a tension I had struggled with: experiences of advantage and experiences of disadvantage. Specifically, the concept of race privilege allowed me to locate my sexuality within a broader set of categories, and in so doing see how any disadvantages I experience as a gay man are always already shaped by my privileges as a gay man. Whilst I don’t always explicitly work with concepts from critical race and whiteness studies in my current work, it shapes how I see the world around me, and how I respond to the topics I research.
As a parent, it could be said that my imbrication in discourses of kinship, much like my imbrication in whiteness, has led me to critical animal studies. As someone who grew up in a family that was decidedly located in the centre, family was a taken for granted part of the world. Even when I came to parent as a gay man, and to parent children to whom I am not genetically related, the taken for grantedness of kinship as an organizing principle was never really something that I questioned. Perhaps similar to the example above, however, when I came to focus on kinship as a research area I presumed that my outsider status in regards to the heterosexual nuclear family meant that I would have a place of insight from which to operate.
Much like my whiteness, however, my inculcation into normative family relations meant that I couldn’t see the limitations of my (presumed to be insightful) vantage point. Critical animal studies, then, gave me the tools through which to see human exceptionalism at work in the standard narrative of human kinship, much like critical race and whiteness studies gave me the tools to the see the whiteness inherent to my work on sexuality. To see how non-human animals are instrumentalised in the name of human kinship, to see how non-human animals are often excluded from claims to kinship, and to see that any account of kinship studies must start from a place of acknowledging and then working with the effects of both instrumentalisation and exclusion.
And as with critical race and whiteness studies, critical animal studies doesn’t simply give me more tools to work with in my research. It also allows me to view my relationships in different ways. It gives me ways to narrate my relationships with animal companions, to see their personhood (even if that seeing is always from the vantage point of a human), and to engage with critiques of, for example, animal abuse. This is not to say that engaging with either racism or animal abuse (and their intersections) can only be done through the critical frameworks mentioned above. Rather, it is to suggest that they add to the ways in which I challenge or respond to racism or animal abuse, because they fundamentally challenge how I view race and cross species interactions.
Critical animal studies means something to me, then, because it gives meaning to my experiences, it extends my understanding of how meaning is produced, and it allows me the space to think or indeed rethink the ways in which I engage with the world around me.
Damien W. Riggs is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow and an Associate Professor in the School of Social and Policy Studies at Flinders University. More information about Damien is available here.