COVID-19, Animals, and Us: Human Supremacy as an Environmental Pathology

Photo credit: Jo-Ann McArthur, Captive

Originally published in ASA Footnotes , vol. 48 no. 3. pp. 16-17.

Corey Wrenn, University of Kent
Loredana Loy, Cornell University;
Bonnie Berry, Social Problems Research Group

Founded at the turn of the 21st century, our section has long been committed to unpacking the complex web of relationships that exist between humans and other animals. As COVID-19 can be traced to exposure to animals used for food (likely in wet markets or piggeries), our subfield is perhaps ideally positioned to offer critical insight.

Zoonotic diseases, like other natural disasters, have amplified in number and severity with the intensification of animal agriculture. Industrial production and consumption  of animal products has entailed astonishing levels of environmental damage. One consequence is the increased contact between humans and other animals living in undeveloped spaces. The disruption to human communities created by the Western expansion of land-hungry “meat” and dairy has created widespread food insecurity, forcing many to rely on “bushmeat” to survive (Cawthorn and Hoffman 2015).

Harm is also imposed on communities where animal-based industrial operations reside and to the workers for these operations (who overwhelmingly originate in marginalized communities). As of this writing, several meat processing plants have reported outbreaks of COVID-19 (Almeida and Del Giudivice 2020), while Smithfield’s meat processing plant in South Dakota is host to the largest clustered outbreak in the U.S. (Lee 2020). The corporation has blamed the outbreak on “the living circumstances” and culture of its (mostly Latinx) workforce (Samaha 2020). Slaughterhouses are one of the country’s most dangerous industries, with or without a pandemic.

Likewise, the racialized narrative of Asian wet markets which dominates the COVID-19 origin story also avoids the root of the issue. Animal agriculture itself breeds pathogens (and has reduced the efficacy of antibiotics) as a matter of course. Although the scale and intensity of factory farming can exacerbate the development of disease, even smallscale family operations can produce global killers. This was the case of the 1918 influenza pandemic which began on a small Kansas farm. A farmer contracted the virus from his ducks only to unknowingly release it through the trenches of WWI soon after he enlisted (Humphreys 2018).

Despite these compelling links, research finds that the risk that animal agriculture poses to public health and environmental sustainability is largely dismissed, if acknowledged at all (Bristow and Fitzgerald 2011). Although this may seem irrational, it is not especially surprising. David Nibert (2003), one of our section’s founders, argues that economically driven speciesism has been fundamental to the manufacture and maintenance of human societies the world over, and rarely (if ever) sustainably so. Perhaps it is the mundane ubiquitousness of animals to social design that lends to their invisibility in mainstream sociological analysis.

Fundamental to our subdiscipline is the notion that humanity’s relationships with other animals are socially constructed. Sociology has challenged the notion that gender, race, and class are somehow biologically-based; and we apply this logic to the manufacture of species and nature. As humans, we are taught how to interact with one another, other animals, and our environments. The animal existing as “other” helps us to define what it is to be human (Irvine 2004). Put succinctly, the animal as other becomes a useful symbolic category for the purposes of rationalizing and legitimizing systemic exploitation.

As COVID-19 and hundreds of other zoonotic diseases have demonstrated, humanity’s oppressive relationship with other animals is not only dangerous for non-humans, but for humans as well (particularly marginalized groups). The toxicity of anthropocentric social structures must be tackled head-on in order to curb the lethal consequences to humans, other animals, and ecosystems. The task is formidable, but as the global response to COVID-19 has indicated, big change can happen fast when there is the impetus to do so.

Neo-colonial practices that serve to spread Western dietary practices, entrench developing regions in animal agriculture, and fan food insecurity, must be challenged. Much of the non-Western world has traditionally relied on plant-based consumption, a diet that has been gradually undermined by Western capitalist expansion. The heavy subsidization of animal agriculture and other animal-based industries shape economic landscapes, consumption patterns, and health (Allen 2011, Robison and Mulvany 2019, Simon 2013). Governmental bodies will need to cease subsidizing these industries and begin transitioning farmers toward truly sustainable, plant-based production. Such efforts are already taking shape and should be supported (Splitter 2020).

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all that sociology holds dear, from major social institutions to the most minor of social interactions. As such, sociologists cannot afford to continue ignoring and devaluing the nonhuman factor in human social life. We must begin to include non-humans in our research, not just as variables, but as sentient beings who, like ourselves, have a stake in our society’s present and future. Furthermore, the institutional and organizational dimensions of animal-based industries (as well as efforts to resist or reform them) deserve scholarly attention. It is our hope that sociology will take heed and expand its imagination to include other animals.

The Sociological Perspectives on Other Animals


Originally published on Everyday Sociology, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Millions of Americans share their homes with dogs, cats, and goldfish. Have you ever considered what their role in human society might be? What about the spider in your bathtub? Are the members of other species persons, pets, or pests?

In the field of sociology, there are various ways of viewing society. Sociologists ascribe to one or more of these perspectives and this affiliation guides their understanding of social processes. For the most part, the social world of study is restricted to humanity. A growing body of research, however, argues that Nonhuman Animals play an important role in human interactions and have certainly shaped our environment. Several sociologists have recognized that the oppression of other animals tends to mirror and even aggravate the oppression of vulnerable human groups. Still, others have argued that, regardless of the impact on humans, Nonhuman Animals deserve consideration in their own right.

The three perspectives highlighted here–functionalist, conflict, and symbolic interactionalist–are fundamental to sociological theory and are helpful in organizing our discourse in Nonhuman Animal rights. Nonhuman Animal rights advocates seek to liberate other animals and end speciesism (the systematic oppression of sentient beings based on their species). Sociological perspectives are relevant to combating speciesism by uncovering the manifestation of Nonhuman Animal oppression in human society. None of these perspectives stand independently, but they influence and react to one another.


The functionalist perspective sees society as a stable ongoing entity. This perspective presumes that social phenomena exist because they are essential to maintain a stable society. In cases where social phenomena are thought to be problematic and detrimental to social institutions, it is expected that society will recognize and respond accordingly. In their view, society is always seeking equilibrium and smooth-functioning.

From this perspective, speciesism might be seen as beneficial to society. Nonhumans are thought to be invaluable in providing food, labor, companionship, entertainment, and scientific advancement. In particular, speciesism might be seen as integral to our current economic system. Certainly, we see this argument in countermovement claims in response to Nonhuman Animal rights mobilization (scientists and “meat” packers, for example). Functionalism often reflects traditional values and fails to see problematic inequalities and injustices. While society is dominated by this perspective, it thus leaves itself vulnerable to critique.

The Nonhuman Animal rights movement is divided between two major factions: Those who seek to reform Nonhuman Animal use (what theorists have referred to as “welfarism”) and those who seek to end Nonhuman Animal use (often labeled “abolitionists”). We can see how the functionalist Cowperspective lingers in welfarist ideology. Welfarists reject the radical social restructuring that is so essential to abolitionism. Instead, mainstream Nonhuman Animal rights (which includes groups like PETA and the Humane Society of the United States) seeks to adjust animal use to “remedy” outstanding problems and restore the system to equilibrium. This largely manifests in legislation and welfare reform like the ban on highly confining gestation crates for sows in the “pork” industry.

Abolitionists, on the other hand, call for a complete abandonment of these speciesist institutions that challenge social stability. Abolitionists might also ascribe to functionalism if they take the perspective that speciesism represents a dysfunction and must be removed to ensure society’s durability. Indeed, the moral inconsistencies, violence, health problems, and environmental destruction associated with speciesism would represent social dysfunction.

Conflict theorists see society as made up of many groups in conflict and in competition for scarce resources. The conflict perspective recognizes that significant inequalities exist and they are reinforced by power differentials and privileges. There is often the assumption that this inequality and oppression should be challenged in favor of an egalitarian society.

Understandably, this perspective is heavily adopted by the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. Most recognize that Nonhumans exist in a state of terrible exploitation and drastic social change is needed to eradicate that inequality. Abolitionists in particular recognize that speciesism is a critical issue that reflects human-animal dominance over nonhumans. Speciesism upholds humanness as the norm and protects human power and privilege. Nonhumans are reduced to resources and are exploited at the benefit of human society.

Symbolic Interactionalist

Symbolic interactionalists are interested in the creation of meaning and symbols. As such, they focus on every day, routine interactions among groups and individuals that are generally taken for granted or understood as “common sense.” This perspective highlights the social construction of sociological phenomena such as race, gender, and class. While much of society is socially constructed, however, it is recognized that meanings are real in their consequences. Reality is subjective, rather than objective, and is created through interactions.

In application to speciesism, symbolic interactionalists would recognize that species is a social construct. Nonhumans are symbolically created as the “other.” What is “human” and what is “animal” is an arbitrary, subjective categorization. Accordingly, this perspective also explores the power of language to reinforce oppression and inequality. In addition to the negative consequences associated with labeling Nonhumans as “animals,” we see the power of derogatory language in upholding that otherness, fostering stereotypes, and justifying domination in words and insults like “beast,” “rat,” “scaredy-cat,” “chicken,” “cow,” “whale,” “pig,” and so on. Speciesism becomes invisible—it becomes a taken for granted reality. The interactionalist approach would also take a critical look at the role of media in creating and maintaining the symbolic representation of Nonhumans. For instance, other animals are routinely portrayed as willing participants in their exploitation. Or, more commonly, they are presented as mere objects: flesh, skin, or pets. As a powerful agent of socialization, the media normalizes our use of nonhuman animals through these speciesist portrayals.

Intersections between the Perspectives

While theorists and activists might ascribe to one particular sociological perspective, it is not realistic to engage one without recognizing the influence of the others. Indeed, there is a substantial overlap between the three. That said, in our advocacy, it is important to consider how speciesism contributes functionally (or dysfunctionally) to society, how it represents inherent societal conflict and inequality, and how it is supported (and how it might be challenged) through social constructions of meaning that varies by culture and over time.

Is Sociology Ready to Take Animals Seriously Now?

Originally published on Everyday Society, British Sociological Association; photo by Jo-Anne McArthur.

Since it began to gather momentum at the turn of the 21st century, the sociological study of animals and society has struggled for legitimacy. Although some sociology programs are beginning to provide courses on human/nonhuman relations, they remain sparse and elective. Academics and graduate students who specialize in the subfield have expressed experiencing considerable stigma (nearly half of animal studies scholars according to a recent study) (O’Sullivan et al. 2019). In graduate school, my own advisor suggested that I downplay my animal focus and sell myself as a social movement scholar. Publishing is no less frustrating, as any topic even remotely related to animals is subject to redirection by editors and reviewers to Society & Animals, arguably the journalistic ghetto for animal scholars where no one in mainstream sociology would realistically ever come across our research.

The devaluation of our work frankly boggles my mind. The climate change crisis worsens by the day with each record-breaking temperature, each melted iceberg, and each species lost to extinction. This is a crisis brought on, to an enormous extent, by animal agriculture via the heavy production and utilization of oil, soybeans and other fodder, water, land, transportation, and other resources necessary to sustain meat, dairy, eggs, and other animal products. Researchers are also pointing to this strain on the environment as the reason for shrinking wild spaces and subsequently greater contact between humans and free-living nonhuman communities. As COVID-19 and hundreds of other zoonotic diseases have demonstrated, humanity’s oppressive relationship with other animals is not only dangerous for nonhumans, but for humans as well (particularly vulnerable folks such as the very young, the elderly, those with disabilities, those living with limited material means, etc.).

Perhaps the COVID-19 crisis will finally bring home the fact that human societies are deeply and consistently shaped by our relationships with other animals. The pandemic has disrupted all that sociology holds dear, from major social institutions to the most minor of social interactions. As such, sociologists cannot afford to continue ignoring and devaluing the nonhuman factor in human social life. At the policy level, the task is formidable, but as the global response to COVID-19 has indicated, big change can happen fast when the impetus is there.

Governmental bodies will need to cease subsidizing animal agriculture and other animal-based industries, which are both unsustainable and inherently violent to animals and the earth on which we all reside. Instead, agricultural agencies will need to immediately begin transitioning farmers toward sustainable, plant-based production. Neo-colonial practices that spread Western dietary practices, entrench colonial regions in animal agriculture, and fan food insecurity must be challenged. Much of the non-Western world has traditionally relied on plant-based consumption, a diet that has been gradually undermined by Western capitalist expansion. Now is the time to reimagine our relationship with other animals and critically reassess our consumption patterns.

For sociologists, we must begin to include nonhumans in our research, not just as variables, but as sentient beings who, like ourselves, have a stake in our society’s present and future. At the very least, we can begin to lend support and recognition to the study of animals and society, as it will only grow more pressing in the coming years.

Corey Wrenn, PhD
Chair, Animals & Society Section of the ASA
Lecturer in Sociology, University of Kent


O’Sullivan, S., Y. Watt, and F. Probyn-Rapsey. 2019. “Tainted Love: The Trials and Tribulations of a Career in Animal Studies.” Society & Animals 27 (4): 361-382.