Nik Taylor: A Sociology for other animals

A Sociology for other animals,

Associate Prof Nik Taylor

Text of a talk presented at Development for Species: Animals in Society, Animals as Society, the inaugural conference of the Australian Sociological Association’s Animals and Sociology thematic group, Melbourne, September, 2017.  A PDF of the slides is available here – Taylor TASA 2017 A Sociology for other animals


In this piece I wrestle with the question of what a sociology of other animals is for. For me, this is tied to a bigger question of what kind of research we do – and how we do it – in the neoliberal university. In my view, we need to develop some clarity (although not uniformity) in purpose about why we, as sociologists, study human relations with other animals. While there are some excellent tools available in sociological thought to study the various ways humans interact with other species, and the institutions within which this interaction occurs, my view is that if our aims are not in some way emancipatory for the animals involved, then we should rethink our focus and avoid sociological questions about animals altogether. To do otherwise, is to collude with master narratives that position animals as either irrelevant or as existing primarily, if not exclusively, for human benefit. I say this because approaches claiming to be apolitical and that do not seek, in some way, to better the lives of other species, ultimately reconstitute animals as objects, in this instance, objects to be studied. Just as ethical researchers have a duty to dignify their human participants and not treat them as exploitable commodities, the same needs to apply to sociologists who work with/for (other) animals.


I can’t tell you how excited and pleased I am that we have just had a conference launching the TASA Animals and Sociology thematic group, and a big thanks to the organisers: to TASA for inviting me to speak and for their support of this conference and the sociology and animals thematic group, and to the Alfred Deakin Institute for their support of this conference.  Below is a brief write up of the talk I gave which can be read alongside the slides that are available in pdf here: – Taylor TASA 2017 A Sociology for other animals

First, a bit of content about me, so you know where I am coming from as you listen to me.  I haven’t always been an academic and I spent my late teens and early twenties volunteering in animal shelters, ultimately taking two years out from my education to run a shelter that took in abandoned dogs and rehomed them.  I freely admit to being a dog obsessed woman, while remaining aware of the ethical inconsistencies of ‘pet’ keeping, but dogs are my passion and as long as there are dogs needing a safe and comfortable home I will be living with them.  (SLIDE 2) This obsession, along with poor camera skills, can lead to images like this of Bailey, the Wonder Dog.  He’s a ‘wonder dog’ in part because of the sense of wonder I always feel when I spend time with or think about dogs.

After a few years running the shelter I returned to academia and have stayed here since. Academically speaking, I’m a sociologist who has been studying human relations with other animals since my phd which I completed in 2001.  That phd focussed on how we might re-specify sociology to include other species and this has remained a foundational interest of mine.  During the last 20 or so years of animal studies scholarship I have been involved with many of the institutions, journals, and organisations that have been central to the development of the field. (SLIDE 3). As a result I have seen the field evolve. For the most part this evolution has been positive, with more and more scholars studying our relations with other species, and more and more opportunities – journals, conferences – for us to disseminate our work, met each other, form alliances and continue our work.

(SLIDE 4) My own scholarship solely focusses on human-animal relations, and while it is fairly broad covering, for instance, meat-eating, slaughterhouse work, links between animal abuse and domestic violence, the thread that holds it all together is an interest in power, and therefore in oppression. I think there are very few relationships between other animals and humans that do not involve humans using (discursive, symbolic, material) power to oppress other animals and so I concentrate my efforts here: at understanding why and how this occurs with a view to challenging, resisting and ultimately changing it to make animals lives better.

A sociology for other animals

(SLIDE 5) And that brings me to the focus of today’s talk: a sociology for other animals. I intend to share my reflections on what a sociology of other animals is for, why we might choose to do it, or to not do it, and to discuss some of the tools the discipline offers us to do our work with and/or on behalf of other species.  I do this with a view to provoking debate about the sociological study of human relations with other animals, but also mindful of one of the themes of this conference, that both development studies and sociology have invisibilised and/or objectified other animals through an anthropocentric focus on development. As the Connell quote says, we have not been successful in grounding our understanding of society in experiences outside the mainstream, which in this case means solely human experiences.  It is my hope that sharing my observations about the growth and future direction of the (sociological) animal studies field will provoke discussion and ideas for us all.

(SLIDE 6) A summary of my argument is simply this:  as sociologists interested in relationships with other animals, we need to ground our scholarship in social justice and emancipatory approaches due to a recognition of how existing scholarship maintains an anti-animal status quo.

(SLIDE 7) As I mentioned earlier, I have seen the growth of the animals studies field over the last decade or two, and within that growth I have also observed schisms as different factions (with different names and terminology) have emerged.  At risk of oversimplifying I think the current state of affairs looks something like the diagram on slide 7. Generally speaking (I recognise there are exceptions) I think the main difference is between positivist fields that believe themselves to be apolitical and neutral and who generally use the term anthrozoology, and more critically oriented politicised, often scholar-activists who usually use the term critical animal studies.  I’d place them on the diagram as indicated.  I think sociological approaches generally swing somewhere on the right hand side, remaining politicised but moving between anthropocentric and biocentric, and that development studies approaches would probably be somewhere up at the top, around the anthropocentric marker. And I’d possibly go so far as to argue on the apolitical side because while I think much development studies work is highly politicised it is politicised for/about people.  When it comes to animals, it is apolitical (situating them under sustainable development umbrellas for example), if they even register at all.  As for the other areas within the broad field of animal studies, those who go by animal studies, human animal studies, animal geography and so on, I think they can fall pretty much anywhere on the diagram according to who is doing the research and what its focus is.

(SLIDE 8 & 9) Now, the crux of my argument is that a sociological approach to other species must align itself on the right hand side – must be politicised, political, activist or advocacy oriented, and above all animal- or biocentric (for lack of a better term).  My personal view is that the entire field of animal studies would be better off openly politicised and advocacy based but for this talk I am going to focus on sociology, as it’s my own discipline and I can speak more strongly about it. So for the remainder of the talk I’m going to focus on three things:

Why must sociology side with the ‘underdog’?

I think there are several compelling reasons. Ecofeminism has helped us realise that dualistic, binary, hierarchical ways of seeing the world absolutely ensure that one side of the binary always loses out. Thus women are positioned as inferior to men, emotion inferior to reason and animals inferior to humans and so on. Ecofeminists like Val Plumwood, Marti Kheel and Karen Warren have helped us understand that narratives of mastery and domination are the predominant way in which we orient toward the environment and other animals (as well as marginalised groups of people); helped us understand that the mechanisms and structures of oppression share a commonality and that they must be challenged and changed as one, instead of being seen as disconnected elements where we can change on part but not others.

(SLIDE 10) This has given rise, intellectually, to the idea of intersectionality which I think is foundational to sociological understandings of human relations with other animals.  The understanding that there is a commonality of oppressions that includes nonhumans – the environment and other animals – is key here. This is a fairly tricky road to navigate however as it lends itself to anthropocentric reasoning: help animals because helping them helps people. And to a degree I think this is OK, why not have multiple groups benefit, hard not to if your intellectual position is that oppression shares a commonality. But it can become problematic if the animals in question are given secondary status as, for example, in much of the work around animal abuse and human abuse where the impetus is to see animal abuse as a problem because it indicates human abuse, not as a problem in and of itself.

(SLIDE 12) To my mind, once you embrace the intellectual legacy of ecofeminism and understand how our own position might lead you to collude in positioning animals as inferior, as an intellectual ‘novelty’ then you need to address it.  Your scholarship has to be about social justice, about activism and/or advocacy, and about aiming to make animal lives better.  If, instead, we continue to study animals because they are ‘novel’ or ‘interesting’ or more insidiously ‘can tell us something about the human’ then we are contributing to the binaristic and hierarchical thinking we are trying to tear down we are colluding in the creation of animals as ‘objects’, objects of study.

(SLIDE 13 – 19).  This is a brief example of a project I was involved in (with Heather Fraser, Flinders Uni; NDVS, and RASA) that attempted to design a piece of work from an animal-centric point of view.

(SLIDE 20). Adopting such an approach is important for the reasons outlined on slide 20. Increasingly we have come to understand that methods make the world as well as study it.  That methods are political: they are embroiled in who – or what – is made visible and what is not.  And it is only when issues, problems, groups, are visible that we can begin to address their treatment.  The invisibility of animals in social research is a function of species hierarchy that in turn functions to keep them marginalised and oppressed. How we produce knowledge, and about or for whom, is linked to who we see and who we value. For example, I think it’s fair to say that mainstream sociology didn’t – perhaps still doesn’t – embrace animal focussed scholarship because of an embedded belief that humans matter more. And if we want to move beyond this we need both the theoretical and methodological tools to do so. I’m not advocating a methodological unity here but I am stating clearly that one of our future lines of inquiry needs to be into how we bring animals into social research; how we shift the focus from studying human attitudes to animals, to including the animals as stakeholders themselves.

(SLIDE 21 – 23). Here, I turn away from ways we might design animal centred research to consider how we might theorise about violence against them. One way is to understand that animal abuse is normative and making this our starting point.   In his provocative work on the Holocaust, Bauman made the controversial argument that modernity set the scene for the genocide that occurred.  He argued that the Final Solution was not an aberration but was, in fact, the logical conclusion of the way modern societies are organised.  Now, to be clear, I am not drawing similarities between animal oppression and the human Holocaust – for a number of reasons I think this is terribly problematic. Instead, what I am doing is taking Bauman’s point that our forms of social organisation – hierarchical, rationalized, efficient, technocratic bureaucracy that disperse responsibility and thus accountability – along with political apathy are the pre-requisites for violence to other animals. I’m also following his argument, therefore, that such violence is not an aberration but is entirely rational response within current systems and forms of social organisation.  To be clear, this does not mean it is acceptable, far from it, but it does mean we need to stop addressing the abuse of animals solely from an interpersonal or individual perspective. The fact of the matter is that most animals are oppressed, harmed and killed within systems and institutions that condone that form of violence. And if we only focus on the interpersonal forms then we miss this point, and thus inadvertently collude with the mass killing and enslavement of other species at the hands of humans. Alternatively, embracing this idea lets us see, make sense of and challenge the normalization of animal abuse in everyday life (SLIDE 24 – 25).

However, we have to accept that such an approach might well tip up our current theories, epistemologies and paradigms (SLIDE 26). Nevertheless, I think we need to follow where this leads.

(SLIDE 27) I realise that the kind of scholarship I am arguing for does not come without risks.  Some of these are personal (metal health) and/or professional (being marginalised, excluded) and some cross over into the choices we are forced to make about our work. This is heightened by a neoliberal university sector that focuses exclusively on economic rationalism and links to industry implicitly – and sometimes explicitly – encouraging us to do work that can be leveraged for profit, which is most certainly not work for/with animals or other excluded groups, especially if that work is critical in nature.  Choosing to work within critical paradigms that move away from positivist methods mean you can often be accused of ‘ideological work’ (seen as a pejorative) that isn’t ‘proper scholarship’. An attendant risk here is that our political (and personal) positions can be used against us to discredit our work – and this is more likely if you are yourself a member of a marginalised group (e.g., working class, female, particular ethnicities and so on). I think it’s important – perhaps more than ever given this context – that we remain committed to social justice research, and that we do so with a clarity around our own position and motivation.

What does this suggest for our future work in animal studies?

(Slide 28-29) I think one of the strongest things we can do is to make a commitment to social justice. And here I am drawing on the model adopted by social work.  The idea of social justice is deliberately broad, it is not meant to hem in intellectual curiosity or approach. I don’t know if a resulting code of ethics, as they have in social work, is a viable ay forward for a sociology for other species. But perhaps asking whether it is, and if it isn’t, if there are alternatives, is something we as a community of scholars want to turn our attention to in the near future.

It’s also really important that we keep talking to, and working, with activists and advocates.  We can also be advocates for other species through our scholarship. We can, for instance, commit to public debate and dissemination of our work as well as making sure that our theories and our methods are species inclusive and/or working to challenge the anti-animal status quo.

Concluding Comments

(SLIDE 30) Now, just to clarify, I am not arguing that we have a party political line in the sociological study of other animals and that to be a member of the club you have to spout it.  Nor am I arguing for theoretical (or methodological) unity.  One of the great strengths (and possible weaknesses) of sociology is its plurality of theories. And I think we make this work for us. Thus ecofeminist, feminist, Marxist, actor network theory (to name but a few) approaches to understanding animal oppression are all interesting and valid. I am not pushing for theoretical uniformity or for a hierarchical understanding that some theoretical approaches are better than others. That said, some theories will be more useful to us than others, however, especially if we are to undertake the politicised sociology for other animals I am arguing for here.  Examples of the kinds of theories I think will be of more use are those that already wrestle with difficult issues of oppression and marginalisation while recognising the necessity of a reflexive approach to research methods. In other words, theories that have at their heart the problem of power – who gets to wield it over whom (including through the production of knowledge) and how might we challenge and re-orient such power flows.  Examples include post colonialist and feminists theories.  But this does not mean we can’t also borrow from other theories, that may be less explicitly critical, radical or addressing issues of power.

But what I am ultimately saying is use whatever theory works for you, so long as your focus is a sociology for other animals: one that aims to understand their material and symbolic oppression and attempt to change it.  Similarly when I talk about ensuring our work is either activist or advocacy oriented, I don’t mean to imply a unity here either. Advocacy and activism can take multiple forms. Some of us may choose to work directly with activists, to understand how to do better activism or develop better tools for activists to use for example, others may choose to be public intellectuals and aim to reach a wide audience with their research. And so long as that research recognises its own political position, and is aiming to help make other animals lives better, that’s a perfectly helpful form of advocacy.  We don’t all have to be the same but we do all have to commit to scholarship that aims to make a change


One thought on “Nik Taylor: A Sociology for other animals

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: