Series: ‘Why animal studies?’ with Ken Shapiro

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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

In this post Ken Shapiro reflects on the different positions adopted by scholars within the field and considers how future work might help reduce the suffering and exploitation of nonhuman animals.

From Ken:

Richie Nimmo (May 2, 2016) issued a mild jeremiad against the presentation of the story of one’s personal HAS journey in this feature blog, so I will largely bag mine except to say that I came to HAS in the early 90s with the unabashed agenda of an animal advocate.  For me the bottom line answer to the eponymous question “Why animal studies?” is: To reduce the suffering and exploitation of nonhuman animals.

In lieu of a narrative, personal or otherwise, then, consider the following spectrum of possible activities in which HAS scholars may engage:

Basic research: Applied research: Policy development: Advocacy: Activism.

I am interested in the positions that individual scholars, as well as scholarly publications and academic programs, take along this spectrum and the pros and cons of their different positions as I think such considerations will be an important determinant of the success of the field — again, given that my bottom line criterion for success is the betterment of lives for nonhuman animals. After a few clarifying comments, I will discuss the different positions in terms of my view of recent and projected trends in the field.

At one end of the spectrum, which  arbitrarily crams many variables into one dimension, basic research is closest to the ideal of “knowledge for its own sake” and furthest from the other end — direct efforts to effect change that characterize activism. Arguing that all research is inescapably value-laden, the main body of contemporary philosophy of science runs counter to traditional claims that basic research operates in a space that is unaffected by and uninterested in any political or social agenda.  Perhaps reflecting this shift in the philosophy of science, most scholars (about 90%), including those in the hard sciences, self-identify as advocates — according to an unpublished pilot study that Che Green and I undertook a few years ago. But what they mean by “advocacy” varies and can be quite limited — e. g., advocacy after hours — and many still adhere to value-neutrality at least as a regulative ideal either because they believe that rigorous science requires that or because they see it as necessary to retain credibility in the academy.

Applied research can build on leads suggested by basic research or, in the other direction, can be shaped by questions arising from policies and practices. This is an important distinction: arguably, impetus from the basic research side fosters more foundational change; while challenges from the current policy and practice side are likely to produce research the results of which, in turn,  provide impetus for more politically viable changes.

Scholar involvement in policy development can vary from simply providing analysis of current policy informed by one’s research, to including recommended policy changes, to using research as a platform toward the implementation of recommended policy.  Advocacy also has many faces: explicitly avowing one’s personal values; allowing the influence of policy and practice issues in framing research questions; and using research results as a platform for advocacy. Finally, activism is a subset of advocacy that can vary from political activity (working to implement legislation), to economic activity (boycotting products involving animal exploitation), to direct action (sabotaging exploitative practices or “liberating” exploited animals).

So I have these questions:

  • Should scholars remain in their ivy-clad towers or engage in the world?
  • Can scholars be advocates without compromising their academic integrity and credibility?
  • What are the possible relationships between scholarship and advocacy?
  • Will scholarship be a force for change or reinforce the status quo of our treatment of nonhuman animals?
  • Is science an ally or enemy of the animal protection movement?
  • As we have seen in some other social justice movements, is there a danger that apparently relevant scholarship becomes insular and inaccessible, while creating its own set of self-nourishing agendas with little responsiveness or responsibility to policy needs. Or a variant of this, there is the danger that scholarship will control or dictate policy and advocacy in ways that are not responsive to needs on the ground. In the other direction, there is the danger that needs on the ground will compromise academic autonomy and restrict freedom of inquiry.

A number of trends in the field have implications for different positions in our scholar-activist spectrum.  (See Shapiro & DeMello, The state of Human-Animal Studies. Society and Animals, 18, 307-318) for a general discussion of the state of the field as of 2010 and ASI Resources for current listings of academic publication venues, courses, programs, conferences…)

While the field has several competing names and variable if not competing missions, it is generally agreed that the scope of the field is human-animal relationships (HAR). Historically, this definition offered a corrective to scholarship both in human studies and nonhuman animal studies that gave little attention to inter-species relationships. On the animal side, these pre-HAS fields included animal behavior in psychology, ethology in zoology, and “animal studies” in biomedicine– the latter of which referred to studies of nonhuman animals as “models,” vehicles for the understanding of humans. (For this reason, at least in the first decade, it was problematic to saddle the emerging study of HAR with the handle “animal studies”).

While framed as the study of HAR, the field was largely human-centered in the first decades – social scientists and later humanists focused on understanding how humans thought about, talked about, constructed, related to, and exploited nonhuman animals. The animal side of the relationship – the animals’ experience of the relationship and the animals’ contribution to the form of the relationship — was left unexplored and, really, unacknowledged. In response to this imbalance, one current trend offers a corrective by giving at least equal weighting to the animal side (e.g., Birke & Hockenhull, Crossing Boundaries, 2012). A more extreme corrective stretches the scope of the field by adding to pre-HAS   studies of nonhuman animals investigations of their capabilities that have implications for the formation of relationships, whether intra-species, inter-species, or specifically HAR (agency, consciousness, reflection, empathy, cooperation; see Animal Sentience. This “animal turn in the ‘animal turn’” is also a shift from a too exclusive focus on the social construction of other animals to attempts to get at “animals as such,” animals as they actually experience the world, while giving due weight to the degree that our social constructions actually inform that experience.

Generally, any deconstructive moves away from anthropocentrism and toward biocentrism (or, more precisely here, “theriocentrism”) provide a conceptual frame for scholarship more conducive to policy and practice that reduces our exploitation of animals. While these shifts do not promise a shift by scholars to the activist side of the spectrum, they likely produce applications and policy that are more animal-centered and they provide advocates and activists with specific evidence-based changes in policies and practices.

They also are a counter to another trend that, in my view, threatens to reinforce human-centered studies in the field by adding yet one more layer of animal-intensive practices — animal assisted therapy and activities. While studies in AAT could give as much consideration to the interests of the animal “helpers” as to the human recipients of their help and it could be that an unintended consequence of the whole literature on “pet benefits” has a salubrious impact on our treatment of these companion animals and other animals as well, it is not clear that that is presently the case.

Another trend is more promising. Seminal theories about HAR from the 70s and 80s were based on critiques of canonical philosophical theory for their failure to include nonhuman animals (rights, consequentialism, virtue). Theory in the political sciences is now providing complements to and extensions of these ethics theories (Anderson & Kymlicka, Zoopolis: A political theory of animal rights, 2011). Political theory, while just that, theory, is closer to and more readily applied to changes in policy and practice. Donaldson and Kymlicka offer politically-based categorical distinctions among kinds of animals (e.g. citizen, denizen) which can inform policy change beyond the overly general notions of rights and sentience.

Consistent with this is the emergence of critical animal studies (CAS) with its emphasis on institutional critique rather than individual morality.  CAS intends its scholarship to benefit activists, particularly toward achieving abolitionist and liberationist ends through direct action. More pertinently to our discussion here, it encourages scholars themselves to engage in advocacy and activism by blurring the distinction between or arguing the necessary connection between theory and practice (praxis).

However, I am concerned that the CAS’ announced program is so radical (anarchism, anti-capitalism) as to be a far reach politically and that it will threaten attaining more progressive goals. Of course, one could argue that it will serve to make the latter more acceptable (the “radical flank effect”). In any case, in terms of our spectrum, an informal survey of articles published in CAS typically are closer to basic than applied research and quite far removed from suggesting specific activist programs. This more radical foundational scholarship may fail to result in the implementation of any changes in our treatment of nonhuman animals.

Ironically, scholarship in animal welfare science (see JAAWS and Animal Welfare) currently is providing the lion’s share of scholarship that is resulting in change on the ground, as advocates and activists use its concrete empirical findings to effect policy and practice innovations. The notion that animal welfare science is inherently on the side of animal welfare in the, to me, fuzzily conceived and unconstructive debate between welfare and rights or abolition is wrong-headed. Animal welfare science does not take a position in the animal rights/welfare debate. It is the study of how existing and innovative practices are consistent with animal welfare where “welfare” is not an ideological or political position — all animals have welfare interests that can be fulfilled or subverted. Some findings are consistent with reformist and some with abolitionist changes in practice (e.g., recent findings that the welfare interests of elephants cannot be met in contemporary zoo exhibits).

I close with a call for research on research in HAS. Back in 1995, Rajecki and I published a study comparing the two major journals in the field at that time on issues like author primary field and research method used (Shapiro & Rajecki, Taking stock of animal studies, Society and Animals, 3, 2, 111-115). It would be great to have some studies that provide an empirical grounding to the intra-field discussions on the nature of field — especially regarding the issues I have raised here on the role of the scholar in a field that has such strong bearing on and undeniable ties to a social justice movement.

Kenneth Shapiro is cofounder of the Animals and Society Institute and one of its predecessor organizations, Psychologists for the Ethical treatment of Animals. He is founder and editor of Society and Animals: Journal of Human-Animal Studies; cofounder and coeditor of Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science; and editor of the Brill Human-Animal Studies book series. He has published papers in Human-Animal Studies on the following topics, among others:  vegetarianism, animal advocates, animal-centered literary criticism, a science-based critique of animal research, inter-species qualitative methods, ontological vulnerability of captive animals, the state of the field, and psychological assessment and treatment of animal abuse. His most recent books are The assessment and treatment of children who abuse animals: The AniCare Child approach (2014) and The identification, assessment, and treatment of adults who abuse animals: The AniCare approach (2016), both published by Springer.

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