Saturday, April 26, 2014

Review: Social Lives with Other Animals

You may have to be a real theory junkie to enjoy this book! I must admit, I found the first couple of chapters trying--I believe most would probably not be interested enough to continue(This is why I did not give the book 5 stars). Thus far, though, this is one of the most (if not the most) comprehensive sociological texts on human and nonhuman relationships. Most of the book is a review of the literature, exploring the fields of post-humanism, human animal studies, animal rights, and ecofeminism. I would not recommend this book for a beginner--this book is best suited to A) professionals or graduate students already in animal studies fields who are interested in the sociological literature on other animals or B) Sociologists interested in learning what the discipline has to offer species studies. I believe her intended audience is likely the latter, as there is a lot of effort put into explaining the living conditions of animals that would be well understood by those already studying animal issues. Indeed, while Sociology has historically been extremely exclusionary when it comes to other animals (a frustrating short sight given the emancipatory/critical nature of the field), Cudworth is able to ground the growing interest in animal studies in a rich(and interdisciplinary) body of work from contemporary Sociologists all the way back to the founding theorists(Marx, etc.). 

Again, the first chapters are primarily a review of the literature, but the meat of the book unpacks important concepts in speciesism. Chapter 4 covers the important gender variable in our relationships with other animals based on the work of Carol Adams. Though he is not referenced, Brian Luke's theory of masculinity and animal violence is heavily evidenced in her discussion of gendered foodwork and animal industry. Chapter 5 offers an overview of the institutionalized violence animals endure. Chapter 6 makes the case that humans and other animals have meaningful relationships. She explores this with an ethnographic study of human-nonhuman communities that form around dog-walking.

As with any social scientist worth paying attention to, she grounds her theory in emancipatory anti-speciesist practice. She extends quite a bit of effort criticizing some prevailing positions that, on the surface, may seem to be critical of speciesism, but ultimately make serious exceptions for continued oppression (so long as that oppression is made "nicer"). Cudworth introduces the concept of an "anthroparchy" to specifically view our relationship with other animals as a system of domination, oppression, and marginalization. Speciesism is not so simple as a mere prejudice for other animals--it is a historically situated project of human supremacy and animal exploitation. It is a system that benefits humans at the expense of vulnerable nonhuman animals. Addressing this system means ending this system, not reforming it. 

A side note--something I couldn't help but take issue with--she mentions that Gary Francione is rightly critical of reform approaches. However, she claims that he incorrectly has faith in law (and, thus, the state) in liberating other animals. I think this is a mischaracterization of his approach. She is right to say that he is critical of the law as it stands, but Francione believes that grassroots bottom-up vegan education that attacks speciesist ideology is the preferred strategy (and he is extremely critical of legal campaigns that seek to improve laws for animals). Francione operates according to a simplistic "supply and demand" logic that supposes that 1. Attacking speciesist ideology with vegan education and 2. Increasing vegan numbers to create a critical mass will 3. Dismantle speciesism. Nibert's approach is probably a better criticism to Francione's work in this regard, as Nibert places more emphasis on the inherent oppressiveness of the capitalist system. Most Sociologists agree that a capitalist state will always be oppressive. Francione seems to think that capitalism can work in favor of animals if we replace non-vegan industry with vegan industry. Perhaps this is what Cudworth was hinting at in her criticism, but her exploration into Francione's approach did not exceed more than a couple of sentences. Francione certainly isn't making the case that we look to the state to save animals. Indeed, he is highly critical of state institutions, bureaucracy, and hierarchy. However, Francione seems to think that the economy reflects ideology, but Sociology argues the opposite--ideology (and institutions) reflect our economic mode of production. Therefore, any attack on speciesism must also be an attack on capitalism.

Because this book is terribly dry at times (as it is basically an extensive summary of theory), I would not recommend it to the lay reader, but would probably suggest David Nibert's work instead or at least read them together. Nibert's work makes very similar arguments but is written in a more engaging way. Cudworth's book is probably best reserved for the serious academic or researcher. On the other hand, Cudworth's nuanced discussion of gender, foodwork, and animal exploitation, however, (heavily influenced by Carol Adams' sexual politics of meat) is an important extension on Nibert's work. 

All in all, a very useful addition to the growing Sociology of critical animal studies. Worth having on the shelf as an excellent resource and reference to the field. If you want to learn the sociological position on animal oppression--this is the "go to" text. For seasoned Sociologists, Cudworth's case for the inclusion of species politics is remarkably solid--I can't imagine any social scientist walking away from this book unconvinced. Nonhuman animals are part of our lives and part of our social world. We form relationships and communities with them. We benefit from them. They structure our reality. They also exist within systems of oppression in much the same way that vulnerable humans do--a relationship of violence that we have a moral obligation to recognize.