Sociology & Animals Thematic Group Event

Zoei Sutton, Flinders University:

The ‘Development for species: animals in society, animals as society’ symposium was held on 18–19 September 2017, at Deakin University, Melbourne. Conveners were Yamini Narayanan, Zoei Sutton and Vince Marotta, and the symposium was sponsored by Deakin University (who provided in kind and financial support as hosts), The Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, and The Australian Sociological Association. This event marked the launch of the newly formed TASA Sociology & Animals thematic group, and featured consideration of the contribution of a sociology for animals to the field of development studies. Participants included postgraduates, early career researchers, established academics and activists. The TASA grant provided three travel bursaries for postgraduate members of the thematic group: Justine Groizard, Katherine Calvert and Simran Tinani.

Three main themes were explored during the two days, in three keynote addresses and 17 presentations:

  • How can we approach our scholarship in a way that results in research for and with animals, rather than merely about them?
  • What methodological and ethical considerations arise when including animals in scholarship and in society?
  • Drawing on our own research, what have we learned about the shared human–nonhuman world? What can we do with this knowledge?

Associate Professor Nik Taylor (Flinders University) opened proceedings with a call to action, delivering a keynote that argued for the development of a Sociology for animals, rather than merely about them. (Text and slides available here). She argued that if our aims are not emancipatory for the animals involved, we need to rethink our focus rather than reconstituting animals as objects of study. This set the tone for two days of discussions around how we might approach research with animals, with examples provided by those who are already negotiating this in their own research. Though not an easy task, it is crucial for any researcher working in animal-related fields of study.

The first paper session focused on human–companion animal relationships with presentations by Melissa Laing (RMIT), Clare Fisher (La Trobe University) and Zoei Sutton (Flinders University). This session encouraged participants to recognise companion animals as minded beings with agency and acknowledge the extent to which they are often constructed as props, or not acknowledged at all.

Philip Wollen delivered the second keynote, titled Ethics, Truth and Folly….Occam’s Razor and the New Swiss Army Knife, in which he eloquently argued for the need to incorporate a vegan approach to tackle a myriad of issues faced by society including poverty, climate change, and cruelty.

The second paper session considered different approaches to multi-species research, and the need for a multidisciplinary research agenda to achieve animal liberation. Featuring presentations by Justine Groizard (Newcastle University), Adam Cardilini (Deakin University), and Rebecca Coutts-Buys and Vince Marotta (both Deakin University), this session allowed us to explore the need to seriously (re)consider our approach, as scholars, to the development of research for animals, and to venture towards some considerations of how this might be tackled.

The final session of the first day considered oppression, violence and activism around animals in society, with presentations from Jess Ison (La Trobe University), Karina Heikkila (Victoria University), and Nick Pendergrast (University of Melbourne) spanning a critique of punitive measures, subordination in society and law, and intersectionality in PETA’s Animal Advocacy.

The conference dinner, held Monday night at Madame K’s Vegetarian, maintained the standard set by the Deakin University catering team (great job!) in being both delicious and 100% vegan. Given the focus of the symposium, a 100% vegan menu was very important, and they definitely came through with the goods!

Professor Maneesha Deckha (University of Victoria, British Columbia) delivered our third and final keynote via video conference, posing the question ‘Can the law bear witness to the suffering of farmed animals?’. Exploring the recent trial of Anita Kranjc, Deckha provided a legal perspective on the challenging space occupied by farmed animals in the law, and the politics of knowledge in the courtroom that sees some forms of knowledge heard while others are dismissed, maintaining a species divide.

Presentations by Adam Brown (Deakin University) and Cameron West (La Trobe University) considered the representation of animals in videogames and on Facebook, demonstrating that human representations of animals in turn support particular narratives of human–animal relations. Anna Halafoff (Deakin University) introduced us to the more-than-human turn in the sociology of religion, through the example of whale watching. Ed Burns (La Trobe University) brought a sociohistorical focus to the fore with a presentation on the species focus of veterinarians on the new registration board in Victoria, 1887. Maree Kerr (Griffith University) followed this with an exploration of the negotiation of multi-species cities, specifically between humans and bats who, while being very important pollinators, also make ‘very noisy neighbours’.

The final paper session considered the discursive construction of animals in society, with presentations by Alex Vince (Animal Liberation), Simran Tinani (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research), and Katherine Calvert (Deakin University) considering the pest epithet, the missing ‘cow herself’ in Indian cow politics, and the discourse of natural horse training and new welfarism in the film Buck (2011).

We finished the day with a panel session featuring Vince Marotta, Nik Taylor, Mark McGillivray and Anna Halafoff. They discussed the challenges, strategies and importance of including animals in teaching. This provided a valuable opportunity to take what we had learned from the symposium and start thinking about how we could put ideas into action, specifically into our courses. Key takeaway messages included the need to protect critical spaces and encourage students to open their minds, remaining aware that we are teaching the next generation of intellectuals and activists. We must carefully consider our approach, given that there is a broad spectrum between including animals in already existing topics and a critical vegan pedagogy. There is a need for both, but we need to be clear which approach we are taking in any given situation. Following two days of extensive animal-centric discussions, the symposium ended on a hopeful note that things are changing and will continue to do so as our networks and knowledge grow.

Overall, this event marked a great beginning for the TASA Sociology & Animals thematic group and an important step towards the greater inclusion of nonhuman animals in Development at Deakin University. The Sociology & Animals co-conveners look forward to taking the knowledge and networks generated at the event and using them to inform and facilitate our future enquiries and events. We thank our co-hosts without whom this event would not have been possible, and the participants who co-constructed a warm, welcoming atmosphere that facilitated these rich, fruitful discussions.

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