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 piece Lara Drew reflects on how her activist based research into learning and education is complemented by a critical animal studies approach.
My family ethos and my activist background ultimately motivated me to become politically and socially conscious. At the age of seventeen I began to attend rallies and events ranging from refugee rights, to animal rights to anti-war campaigns. In particular, I was drawn to the injustice of nonhuman animals and the more conscious I became the more I realised how their suffering remained invisible and was virtually unrecognised by the dominant culture. Through my diverse activism at the time, I began to see a larger social justice framework emerging that recognised the oppression of humans, nonhuman animals and earth as interlinking issues. I now foster intersectional approaches to activism, and situate myself comfortably as an anarchist.
Over time, I began to consciously recognise and label my activism experiences as learning. I identified this learning as social, informal and mostly incidental. Through my formal learning I realised that much of the educational research ignored such informal and incidental learning and instead tended to focus on professionalization and workplace training in adult education. I could also see that learning as a dimension of political action was often ignored or unrecognised by some political activists, particularly given that their foremost concerns are usually organisation and strategy around campaigns. More so, I recognised the privileging of institutionalised learning and how it resulted in the silencing of other important learning that took place outside educational institutions such as community, non-profit organisations and sites of activism/outreach.
In 2015 I co-wrote a chapter with Kim Socha about education, activism and anarchism. We reflected on how education is a challenging field for many Anarchists. This is because education is never neutral and always has some political or ideological agenda giving legitimacy to economic and social structures. Louis Althusser argued that education is an ideological state apparatus that reinforces the capitalist system maintaining power disparity. Institutional learning is privileged because it maintains political, economic, and social capital that reproduces inequitable power relations. Whereas informal and incidental learning is tellingly absent, particularly in a social action setting, because it provides an ongoing threat to capitalist and statist structures. So I have long cringed at the authoritarian and hierarchical structures entrenched in education.
Despite my conflictual relationship to the education system, I was inspired to undertake activist and education related research after my undergraduate. My PhD explores the learning dynamics of activists engaged in direct action in the Animal Advocacy Movement (AAM). By understanding how activists learn, it is hoped that my research will assist social movements, community organisations and groups, including individuals who engage in activism to understand what they can do to offer for learning to take place effectively. Just as radical anti-colonialism and feminist movements have integrated learning and education within their political identities and practices, animal activists are learners and permanently engaged in learning processes as they actively go about their work. My work brings to life these learning processes.
My research is situated within the field of Critical Animal Studies (CAS) as it is critical, activist-orientated and political. CAS is rooted in animal liberation and underpinned by critical theory, anarchism, and advocates a multi-movement approach for total liberty. My own research is best described as activist research for two fundamental reasons: the research is being conducted by an activist and activism for nonhuman animals is the topic and specific inquiry. I was drawn to activist based research within a CAS framework as it aims to expose the root causes of inequality, is carried out in direct cooperation with a collective of people who are engaged in the movement and is used together with other activists (as participants) to formulate strategies to transform conditions and to achieve the power to make these strategies effective. The activist research is intended to make the ‘voices’ of the ‘participants’ a fundamental element of the research inquiry.
I generally see academia as an institution that is hierarchical and essential to capitalism, and therefore at odds with activism. However, I chose to take up the tools of academia to produce a document that records the stories of animal activists and their learning while they engage in the struggle of animal liberation. I wanted my research to be of use to others as well as myself, and for it to be accessible where possible. This academic-activist process is a way that not only pleases me but satisfies both the academic and activist worlds where I am openly engaging in politics both within the institution and in the streets.
Ultimately, I see CAS as another avenue for nonhuman animal liberation. I also see radical education as fundamental within this mix. All forms of social justice are intrinsically linked to radical forms of education; as it is through education and learning that community, as vehicle for change, is grown at a grassroots level. The AAM is a growing social movement of important ethical and political significance. CAS and radical education are crucial fields within the broader frame of Animal Studies as it is a politically active response to mass nonhuman animals slaughter and a rebellion against the use of nonhuman animals as thoughtless witless machines. As the actual life situation of most nonhuman animals is a routine practice of violence, deprivation, suffering and death, I see CAS and educational research within Animal Studies as central areas in influencing change.
Within the Oceania region I would like to see more engagement with CAS by both scholars and activists, in particular, bridging the scholar-activist divide. In the AAM, for example, activists do not always engage with theory and research to guide practice; and similarly, scholars do not generally reach out to activists with their research. Some intellectual ideas within the field of Animal Studies are crucial but they must involve some action that is political in orientation. So on the one hand, theory within Animal Studies can be dense, covered in jargon making it only accessibly to experts. On the other hand, activists are often divorced from theory resulting in more shallow forms of activism. So connecting the activist-scholar community is something I as fundamental. As Audre Lorde famously remarked “the learning process is something you can incite, literally incite, like a riot.”
Lara Drew is a final year PhD candidate at the University of Canberra (Australia) in Education. Her principal research lies in the field of learning and pedagogy, radical education, community development, activism, and critical animal studies. Lara’s other research and writing activities include feminism and the body, and anarchist and anti-capitalist positions. Lara is a project director for the Oceania Institute for Critical Animal Studies chapter and participates in various grassroots campaigns.