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Animal Studies Takes Center Stage in Academia

The Chicago Humanities Festival’s exciting focus this year on Animal: What Makes Us Human brought together academics, artists, journalists, scientists, public intellectuals, and the wider public to explore how non-human animals come to have meanings in our and other societies. This is a key question, and a crucial one right now. And it is one that several disciplines in academia are newly taking up with a vigorous appetite. Questions about “the animal” currently animate not only public policy debates, wildlife laws, and farming bills in congress, but also new scholarship in the humanities—as evidenced by new courses, new book series (including one I edit for the University of Chicago Press), new journals, and countless academic conferences across the world. The Chicago Humanities Festival puts its figurative hand (or paw!) right on the pulse where public issues, business, the arts, the law, the media, and scholarly research are currently coming together to ask new questions and suggesting new explorations in academic realms.

Paper cutouts of a menagerie of animals
Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

In the last 15 years, the humanities and social sciences have witnessed what some have called the “animal turn” in that numerous scholars have begun to take seriously the “question of the animal” as it relates to and potentially restructures serious investigations in philosophy, psychology, literary studies, anthropology, history, visual studies, and sociology. The American Sociology Association, for example, has recently formed a unit on animal studies, and the American Bar Association has recently formed a unit on Animal Law. New York University just started a minor in animal studies, and Michigan State University offers the nation’s first PhD in the topic, anchored in sociology. These markers of institutionalization give concrete evidence of the centrality of these new questions across so many fields.

But, you might be saying, haven’t animals always had a place in academia? What’s so new about “animal studies?”
While zoology, animal sciences, biology, and primatology have long taken animals as a key node in their investigations, only recently have scholars in other realms like the humanities asked the question: what effect on our discipline would result if we took animals and human/animal relations seriously as a way of structuring knowledge and our investigations? What new questions and understandings might emerge?

Given the ubiquity of animals and their centrality to human endeavors—their role as our co-existing players in the ecosystem, as food, companions, transportation, clothing, entertainment, sport, and medical surrogates; as source of fable, metaphor, and narrative; and in many visual, political, and religious systems—from Hinduism to children’s cartoons—this new academic focus is long overdue.

Etching of forest animals
Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

One of the most exciting aspects of this newer work is that it demands a really challenging interdisciplinarity. Artists like Deke Weaver and Jennifer Monson have to engage with scientists examining the re-introductions of wolves into Yellowstone National Park or studying bird migration. Journalists like Susan Orlean, trying to uncover the enduring stardom of the German shepherd Rin Tin Tin, must delve not only into television history but into the ideas that surround dog breeds to uncover why we react differently to media sensation Rin Tin Tin than to, say, the Taco Bell spokes-dog, the talking Chihuahua.

And this new movement in the humanities isn’t just taking place in the United States. Academic group have formed in France, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, South Africa, and there have been recent conferences in Estonia and the Netherlands as well, just to name a few. The next largest global conference is scheduled two years hence, in India. This is only fitting because human relations with animals, from the domestic intimacies of pet-keeping to the transnational markets in beef production and illegal trade in endangered species, cross national boundaries all the time.

Ultimately, animal studies asks this very basic question: what happens when we take animals seriously as a part of our endeavors to understand, and ultimately change for the better, our shared world? Whether revisiting the story of Black Beauty, or uncovering the economic shadowland of dog fighting or considering the role of animals in war, animal studies helps open up our understandings of human life and of animal worlds past and present by looking at the interface between them. Like other academic transformations in the last 30 years, this new focus promises to be both challenging, controversial, and illuminating. It has the potential, in the long run, to write animals and our relations with them into social history and politics and to transform the questions we ask about what it means to be “human.”

Cartoon of dog fight
Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

So, the next time you hear a discussion of the farm bill on the Senate floor, or read a police report of breaking up a dog fighting ring, or donate money to your local animal shelter, or remember the brouhaha surrounding Mitt Romney’s “dog on the roof,” or purchase a turkey for Thanksgiving, or read Charlotte’s Web as a bedtime story in your house, remember that each of these actions is part of the burgeoning purview of animal studies and that workers in the humanities, along with artists and scientists, are striving to help us better grasp the complexities of the human-animal relations that each of these actions engages, and to envision new futures that might unfold, futures that can be better for all animals—human and non-human.

Jane Desmond is a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with expertise in the political economy of human/animal relations.


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