Human-Animal Studies

Who or what is human? Animal? And when these terms are coupled with a hyphen, how does that shift the grounds of studying? In human- animal studies the research and intellectual focus is on how animals figure and are configured in human worlds, but these worlds are formed through the relationships that humans share with animals. Why might studying this human- animal world be worth academic attention? Simply put, it is because animals – although not all, and not all equally – are essential in and for human societies. Human worlds are built upon animal lives and deaths, conceptually as well as physically. It is difficult to imagine how we could mark ourselves out as human without other animals, for we have become human alongside other animals. But this is actually more ‘among’ than ‘alongside’ – with its sense of humans and animals living parallel but separate lives – for, from the beginning, these were lives that have always been and remain profoundly intertwined.

Early humans, and some still today, have scavenged and hunted wild animals for their meat, skins, and other body parts. With the development of relationships of domestication, animals were not simply there to be killed for food. Borne by domesticated animals, humans could journey more widely, bringing all sorts of baggage. With animals to ride, human conflicts became more extensive and of a different order. When tended for meat, milk, fleece, and honey, animals’ uses multiplied, and cross- species intimacies became more complex. Animal- drawn ploughs could dig deeper and turn over the earth more efficiently than a human with a digging stick or hoe, and from crops grown in fields fertilized with animal manure new forms of settlement became possible. Domesticated animals became animals owned by humans; as forms of property and wealth, they entered markets and other systems of exchange.

Elevator_4Today animals are husbanded in traditional ways in many parts of the world, while in others they are raised industrially, used as laboratory test subjects, and otherwise rendered integral to global exchange systems. All of these are material uses of animals, but animals figure in human cultures in still more ways that are less tangible but no less profound. In religious and other cosmological systems, animals are revered and sometimes feared, worshipped, and sacrificed. Animals are to be found in virtually all traditions of art and literature, including sculpture, painting, drawing, folktales, poetry, music, and philosophy, where they are used to express complex ideas about being human and being animal, and the relationships negotiated around these conditions.

Animals are enlisted in sports, perform in circuses, and are exhibited in museums and zoos. Some animals are brought into our homes and are incorporated into families as pets, while others enter on their own terms and are often treated as invaders. They ‘people’ our virtual worlds, whether in films, television programmes, social media, or gaming, and the lure of seeing them brings (sub)urbanites out of comfort zones to watch wildlife in-situ, whether as eco- tourists, trophy hunters, or field (sometimes citizen) scientists. Animals are present, even when rendered invisible. Animal- based products have become so essential to the lubrication of heavy machinery and other industrial processes upon which so many of these practices are predicated that it is arguably impossible to pursue an animal- free human existence in the era of globalization.

Given the ubiquity of animals in human worlds, it should not be surprising that scholars are interested in the whys, hows, and whats of human- animal relations: why animals are represented and configured in different ways in human cultures and societies around the world; how they are imagined, experienced, and given significance; what these relationships might signify about being human; and what about these relationships might be improved for the sake of the individuals as well as the communities concerned.

Animals have been unquestionably worthy of academic study in sciences such as biology, ecology, ethology, veterinary medicine, and zoology, but thinking about animals in relation to human lives seems to be what is new about human- animal studies. Further, it is thinking about animals as inseparable from human lives that constitutes a decisive break from ‘animal studies’ as originally defined by the natural sciences.

Since the 1990s, human- animal studies has begun to take shape through the efforts of people working in, for example, anthropology, archaeology, art history, biology, cultural studies, education, environmental studies, ethology, fine art, gender studies, geography, history, literature, media studies, museum studies, performance studies, philosophy, psychology, religious studies, sociology, and visual studies. Where they began is not as significant as that they chose to place animals at the centre of their research, and – this is important – as a consequence found it necessary to learn about and respond to work in other disciplines. From these beginnings, momentum keeps gathering. Every year there are new national and international conferences dedicated to the field. Academic journals in nearly all fields now regularly include articles about animals, and several specialist human- animal studies journals are now well established, with still more emerging. There are so many new books each year that it is no longer conceivable for any one person to keep up with the reading, a richness growing more abundant with several book series dedicated to human- animal studies scholarship now emerging from major international presses.

Cocktail-for-two_1-copyNowadays we tend to recognize animals as having their own stories, if not always as having history, in the broadest sense. Less well understood is that the evolutionary theories and liberation movements ordinarily credited with leveraging such momentous changes would not have been possible without aesthetic developments driven by literary, visual, performative, and other creative engagements that increasingly require any sense of control to become less a matter of executing orders than of choreographing a dance, engaging others in different spaces, settings, and stages, and ultimately becoming something more than solitary selves. The focus on embodiment, surfaces, and exteriority in studies of visual representations of live animals has been arguably most influential in distinguishing animals as agents of a different order from human subjectivity.

Another central tenet of the emerging field of human- animal studies is that understanding the representational nature of animal agency means that it can never simply be seen as opposed to human identity, but instead reinforces the notion that animal agents are recognizable as such only when they are presented as deeply integrated with human forms or presences, and vice versa. To account for these nonhuman agency forms, we have to change our ways of doing academic work and, at the same time, work to shift notions of what constitutes creative practice as well.

Any historical perspective on animals remains filtered through representations and remains, and by extension all forms of representation insert a human filter that effectively creates distance from the very same human- animal relations that we purport to represent, let alone study. That said, the same charge can be levelled against any of the thinking through which research and creative activity gets going, let alone documented. From this perspective, the question becomes: Do natural sciences or any particular disciplines offer ways of transcending this condition? Or is it more useful to take compromise – rather, coalition – as our starting point, refusing any claims of special access to understanding animals in order to develop the particular configurations of imaginations that converge in any given cross- species encounter? At the risk of making unfair comparisons, we add that human- animal studies seems to offer the only way of accounting for what makes animal hoarders, circus trainers, slaughterhouse workers, and laboratory researchers so distinct, not to mention so distinctly problematic for those who have not made such extreme commitments to living with members of other species. For us, the openness to engaging different perspectives that inform alternative ways of knowing enables human- animal studies researchers to model meta- disciplinary perspectives.

Like all new worlds, human- animal studies has vistas of potentiality that come into sharper focus with critical self- reflection. Arguably in no other area do practitioners so consistently face the central questions of everyday existence: Who or what do we eat, wear, and love? In doing so, how do we live with ourselves? Why do we elect to live and die in the company of others who are so different from us? Rather than taking philosophical comfort in acknowledging that the (singular) animal question is being addressed, academics and artists who take this challenge seriously discover that the queries just keep coming. And we are not alone.


Abridged from Marvin, Garry, and Susan McHugh. Routledge Handbook Of Human-Animal Studies. 1st ed. New York: Routledge, 2014.
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