Episode 1 – Trent Grassian June 15, 2020

Dr. Grassian earned a PhD in Social Policy with the University of Kent. In this episode, he discusses how scholars can integrate social policy, intersectionality, and sociological theory for a variety of academic and applied career paths. Folks interested in pursuing a degree outside of the US may also find this episode useful. 

Dr. Grassian conducted research with non-profit organizations promoting meat reduction and veg*nism, in the largest study of its kind and has given presentations all over the world about the project. The project is mixed methods, incorporating a longitudinal survey, focus groups and individual interviews with campaign staff and participants. The full dissertation is freely available online, as well as a summary report. He also contributed to the seminal volume Environmental Nutrition (ed. Joan Sabaté), authoring a chapter entitled Food Policy: Where does environmental nutrition fit in?, and has additional publications currently in the pipeline.

His other research interests include behavior change, systems thinking approaches, humane education and policy and intervention effectiveness. You can follow his work via his blog, For Us All, or get in touch with him via email.

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What Sociology Can Tell Us about Empathy for Animals

Photo Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Corey Lee Wrenn, PhD
University of Kent

Empathy for Animals is a Core Human Value

Humans across the globe share their homes with dogs, cats, rodents, and other animals. We call them companions, pets, or even family members. Thousands of pounds are invested in these animals with regard to food, treats, toys, clothing, kennels, healthcare, and even birthdays and funeral services. Clearly humans deeply care about other animals. At our core, we have empathy for animals other than ourselves.

Exploitative Economies Distort Our Empathy for Animals

So why do so many humans stop short of extending this compassion to animals categorized as food, clothing, or labour? Sociology offers a variety of explanations according to theoretical perspectives. Many sociologists, however, point to the economic structure of a society and the commodification of nonhuman animals. David Nibert has argued that our switch to a hunting economy not only created a society newly structured around the oppression of animals (speciesism) but it also created a society divided by gender. The transition to agriculture entrenched speciesism further with the advent of domestication. This also introduced class division since agriculture allowed for surplus goods (and unequal distribution).

By the late 1500s, early capitalism and colonial expansion spread and deepened speciesism across the globe (and, in doing so, introduced racial division as well). Today, in late-stage capitalism, speciesism (animal agriculture in particular) is more intensive than ever. It is rapidly normalizing in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and other previously colonized spaces as a result of Western coercion. These are regions where plant-based consumption was once normative. The loss of traditional foodways is not only harmful for nonhuman animals identified as “food,” but the global poor identified as their consumers. Social stratification, in other words, is rooted in the adoption of speciesism as a primary economy both past and present.

Distorted Empathy for Animals Includes Humans, Too

Notice how human oppression codeveloped with animal oppression. This intersectionality is key to the sociological understanding of speciesism. Species, race, class, gender, and other social categories are economically functional. They ensure that unpleasant jobs will be filled and that labour may be exploited for low cost (or for none at all). These categories also represent social difference and tend to facilitate conflict and discourage cooperation. For sociologists, this tendency is politically relevant. A divided society, after all, is more easily manipulated by the dominant class in support of its own interests.

The most fundamental social division is that between humans and other animals. It is this animalization which separates those who are marginalized from those who are centered in society with regard to social recognition and allocation of resources. Women are animalized, people of color are animalized, humans with disabilities are animalized, homosexual people are animalized, ethnic minorities are animalized, and non-binary and trans humans are animalized. Even nonhuman animals themselves are animalized.

This is because “animal” is a social category imbrued with symbolic meaning. Just like race really has more to do with power, prestige, and access to resources than it does with one’s actual skin color, species is also not so much about one’s biological makeup (i.e. if one has hands or hooves, skin or scales). All groups, whether human or nonhuman, that are labeled “animal” are described as physically and cognitively inferior to the dominant class and can be denied rights accordingly.

Unteaching Empathy

True, nonhuman and human animals are indeed biologically different. But there are many more commonalities between the two groups. Why do we emphasize difference over sameness? I have described a society that is fundamentally in conflict. In order to maintain such a volatile system, powerful ideologies must be introduced and enforced through institutions and socialization. Psychologists point to a variety of cognitive and emotional mechanisms for managing the discomfort humans feel when faced with contradictions in their empathy toward other animals. Sociologists, however, are interested in how our empathy for some animals and our lack of empathy for others is learned (or, more accurately, is taught).

We are taught by our parents that some animals are for petting, some animals are for admiring, some are pests we should kill, and others are food we should eat. Doctors (who generally lack nutritional training) teach us that eating animals and drinking nonhuman breastmilk is good for us. We are taught by our teachers, museums, and zoos that nonhuman animals are ours to exploit. Mainstream media (which long since converged in the 1990s under the ownership of a handful of powerful billionaires) programs us that animals are objects and our using them is good for the economy. We’re being taught these lessons from childhood throughout our life course.

Reclaiming Empathy

Fortunately, if speciesism is something that is learned, that means it is something which can be unlearned. Sociologists are also interested in how social change happens and how social justice can be achieved in a society that is fundamentally unequal. Although the system may be rigged against us (and nonhuman animals), individuals can resist the erosion of our empathy by choosing food, clothing, and entertainment which does not harm other animals. Individuals can also work to create a more inclusive, peaceful world by getting active in our communities and putting pressure on policy-makers. It is possible to reclaim our empathy for animals.

 

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.

Functionalism

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

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

References

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.