It's Academic: The Growing Field of Animal Studies
Apr. 15, 2000
In late 1999, the animal rights movement in the United States pulled off two coups. Surprisingly, they occurred not in the streets or even the courts or Congress, but within the hallowed halls of our most prestigious universities. Peter Singer took his seat as DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University , and Steve Wise began teaching courses on animals and the law at Harvard University . The meaning of "animals in the classroom" has taken on a new and more animal-friendly meaning; instead of the animals being laid out on the dissection table, the issue of their treatment by society is increasingly on the discussion table.
However, these dramatic gains underscore a more mundane but significant accomplishment for animal advocates. The publication of Singer's Animal Liberation in 1975 and his move from Monash University in Australia to Princeton nearly a quarter of a century later stand as bookends within which a robust intellectual infrastructure has developed. This structure consists of hundreds of scholarly books published by major academic and commercial houses; many journals, book series, conferences, conference series, courses, textbooks; and even a few degree programs, university chairs, archives, and oral histories (see sidebar).
Increasingly, the subject of animal issues is finding its way into the curricula from grade school to graduate specialty programs. Meanwhile, a developing core of scholars in more than a dozen different fields provides the basis of and sustains this new subject matter. The scholars recognize and study nonhuman animals as subjects, as individuals in their own right. For them, nonhuman animals are more than objects, artifacts, commodities, or stand-ins for (or symbols of) humans. They strive to make their respective disciplines more respectful of animals.
Throwing the Book at Exploitation
How can all this help activists reduce the exploitation and suffering of animals? Wouldn't it be better for us to liberate and rescue animals through direct action and expos ? than to spend our time and energy reading esoterica about the constitutive needs and capabilities of animals or the human-animal relation? Should we re-educate exploiters or catch them with their pants down? Are we liberators or scholars? Better the battering ram than the book?
Of course, the answer is we need to do?and increasingly are doing?both. Whether meeting exploiters in public debate or directly challenging them in the street, activists are more effective when they present both ethical arguments and practical understanding. And these are only credible if grounded in carefully worked out concepts or empirically based facts.
Many of us first became aware of the plight of nonhuman animals by reading the works of Singer and Tom Regan. Their arguments helped us articulate the powerful feelings we knew we had but could not quite say. Now these seminal books are part of a new multidisciplinary academic field called animal studies, which provides a credible source of ideas and information that supports the animal rights movement much as African-American studies and women's studies do their respective movements.
As important as the field of animal studies is for the continuing recruitment of new activists and providing information for a particular campaign, even more critically it sustains us over the long haul. We need to keep buttressing our beliefs and practices as almost daily others reject and scorn them. The essays and studies by animal-friendly scholars not only keep us informed and our arguments sharp, they support us?help us to keep believing both that we are right and that we will prevail. Not incidentally, as we shape our goals, campaigns, and arguments with the help of the animal studies literature, we answer the common charges that we are too radical, anti-science, or overemotional. Perhaps the day is coming when we will be indicted for being too bookish.
There are, of course, precautions regarding the uncritical use of what we read. Both the literature itself and our reading of it can distort or inflate claims. An example is the use of the association between violence toward human and nonhuman animals. Some of us have based campaigns on the assertion that a simple causal relation exists between early exposure to animal abuse and later violence, when all we can say for sure is that the two forms of violence co-occur. Animal studies is just developing and we do not have enough data in many areas. In addition to these direct uses by activists, animal studies has an impact on the public as well. The field now has a place in the curricula and publications that make up what people are taught and what they read. Even those who are not willing to join the movement affect the treatment of animals directly through their pocketbooks and votes and indirectly by the attitude they have toward exploitation. As the intellectual infrastructure becomes more robust and extensive, we expose virtually every student to animal issues. In this way, animal rights will be part of the future public's consciousness, much as environmentalism is now. Awakening people to these issues will help us affect institutional practices involving animals, as every law and policy will need to provide an animal impact statement.
This reliance on a developing intellectual infrastructure may seem misplaced, too slow-paced, or even unnecessary?aren't the exploitative practices already painfully obvious? Perhaps, but mostly to us. In another context, it has been suggested that the movement can and must proceed by removing one brick of the wall of exploitation at a time, where each fewer brick eliminates one institutionalized form of animal suffering. To apply this image further, the development of this infrastructure?the studies, treatises, courses, and degree programs?may remove bricks from the bottom of the wall, which then abruptly collapses.
Kenneth Shapiro, Ph.D., is Executive Director of Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Philosophy and Pragmatism -- Richard Ryder compares British and American approaches to ethical learning
As someone who has helped shape and chronicle the animal rights movement around the world, Richard Ryder, Ph.D., sees some interesting distinctions between how animal issues are treated academically in Britain and in the United States . The noted author, psychologist, and campaigner explains that because the concept of animal rights took root earlier in England than America, acceptance of related topics is more established with British scholars and institutions. Lecturing at Cambridge , Oxford , and many other universities, he has encountered many programs related to law, veterinary medicine, psychology, zoology, political science, and agriculture that include discussions of the ethical treatment of animals.
"There is a great range of disciplines now," Ryder says. "I think it reflects the general credibility that the subject has gained intellectually and politically over the last 20 years."
However, he finds that in America the academic emphasis is more within the social sciences, such as sociology and psychology, with a greater emphasis on philosophy. In Britain , where the focus is more on biology and zoology, "the emphasis is more pragmatic and political," he explains. "The whole emphasis is politics, politics, politics."
British academics and scientists who espouse animal welfare concerns, such as those opposed to intensive agriculture, are entering debates and participating in the political process. "They're not keeping themselves aloof now," Ryder says. And the support is much needed by activists whose arguments are bolstered by scientifically credible sources. "If you're campaigning, you need the support of academics."
Ryder explains that when animal protectionists support the work of scholars, the results can be mutually beneficial. "The movement offers money for research and an opportunity for academics to feel they're participating in something worthwhile," he says. "Whereas the academic side offers the movement the expertise that is now needed to effect legislative change." An example would be research into more humane methods of raising domestic animals that results in replacement systems to counter factory farming. Ryder believes that the role of academics as government advisors, including those who may end up on European Union committees, will be based upon their image as rational, moderate, and neutral experts.
When Ryder speaks to students as a historian, campaigner, lobbyist, and ethicist, he says, "I want them to accept that animal protection is a serious moral issue which needs their support." And he is convinced such support is growing. "Things looked much more difficult 30 years ago," he recalls. "Now we find scientists are more prepared to come out and speak for the animals."
Jill Howard Church, Senior Editor, The Animals' Agenda