TASA SOCIOLOGY AND ANIMALS THEMATIC GROUP REPORT

Rohan Todd, Australian National University:

The ‘Being-With and Being-For Animals: The Status and Role of Method in Contemporary Sociological Animal Studies’ symposium was held on Monday the 8th of July, 2019, at the Australian National University, Canberra. The symposium endeavoured to provide a forum for critical engagement and discussion around the ways in which other-than-human animals are now coming to be sensed, experienced, known, and re/presented in contemporary sociological research. Presenters and participants directed their contributions towards a number of key questions and problems that new research in the field of sociological animal studies seeks to address: with what tools, and with what approaches, might sociologists continue to push for alternative frameworks of being-with and being-for animal life? What scope might there be for more experimental and speculative approaches towards researching animals and human-animal relations in sociology? What might the reinvigorated appreciation for animal life entail for the inherited methodological legacy that inscribes humans at the centre of ‘the social’? And, crucially, what sorts of emphasis needs to be placed on the political and ethical implications of empirical research involving animal life?

The events proceedings saw eight presentations and two keynote addresses from a number of scholars, both local and inter-state. Drawing on their experience as undergraduate, post-graduate, and established academic researchers, each of the presenters explored different aspects of current sociological research engaging with animals and animal life. Presentations ranged from examinations of human-whale relationships in Twofold Bay, NSW, to interspecies relations and imaginaries on Christmas Island, with particular emphasis placed on the sorts of challenges and opportunities that an attention to animals and animal life presents for sociological ways of thinking and conducting research. Attendance was strong throughout the day with over 35 attendees making valuable contributions to the many lively discussions and conversations that took place. Held within the familiar settings of a university seminar room, the presentations and contributions from attendees helped to facilitate a light yet rigorous atmosphere that encouraged healthy participation and critical engagement with the themes and topics at issue. Of particular note was the interest shown in the symposium by researchers working in other social scientific fields and beyond, who were drawn to the symposium’s emphasis on the ‘doing’ of scholarly research regarding animals. Many of the interests that animate contemporary sociological animal studies were noted to have significant resonance with the concerns of researchers working in different contexts, attesting to the valuable ongoing work being conducted in this area and the extent to which its influence extends beyond narrow disciplinary bounds.

Commencing with an engaging keynote delivered by Dr. Dinesh Wadiwel of the University of Sydney, attendees were guided through three sessions of presentations, being exposed to some of the most exciting research in contemporary sociological animal studies. Attendees and participants learned of the ways in which close, ‘symptomatic’ readings of established social theorists and canonical texts can provide an incisive means of discovering the enduring, though oft neglected, significance of animals in the construction and development of sociological thought (Wadiwel); of the of the ambivalent interspecies relationships and negotiations between university researchers involved in animal research (Hendershott & Rutledge-Prior), and of the importance of pushing past oppressive multi-species relations through strategies of centring animal lives in accounts of the social world (Sutton). After a much needed lunch break, attendees returned for a careful analysis of the complex philosophical and ethical aspects of human-nature relationships in the context of educational wolf sanctuaries in North America (Cannon); the potentials contained in the animal-inflected novels of contemporary Chinese novelist Mo Yan (Li); the possibilities for encountering animals and animal life through registers of sound and vibration (Todd); and the complexities associated with developing techniques and tools for researching native snake mobilities and human-snake relations (Smith). Finally, as the symposium drew towards completion, Dr. Maria Hynes and Dr. Scott Sharpe – of the Australian National University and the University of New South Wales (AFDA), respectively – foregrounded the crucial question of sense, asking whether in our attempts to think through the vicissitudes of human-animal relations we might do well to take leave from the more habituated tendencies of human sense making and signification. Rounding out a full day of critical thinking, discussion, and conversation, Professor Simone Dennis delivered the closing keynote, wherein the convolutions of human-animal relations were explored through a careful re-telling of rich ethnographic research undertaken in different settings; firstly, with biologists and ‘their’ lab mice and, secondly, through multispecies entwinements on Christmas Island. Topics of discussion throughout the day turned on many of the central issues pertaining animal-attuned research in the social sciences: the limits of anthropocentrism, the perils, pitfalls, but also the potentials of anthropomorphism, and the importance of working carefully through the ethical and political stakes of researching other-than-human animals. Cultivating a valuable space for the exchange of ideas and approaches, the symposium shed fresh light on many of the issues listed. More than this, though, the symposium provided a vital setting and context within which new connections, affiliations, and collaborations between researchers could take place.


Zhe Li (University of New South Wales, ADFA) Dr. Dinesh Wadiwel (University of Sydney)

 

Support for ‘Being-With and Being-For Animals: The Role and Status of Method in Contemporary Sociological Animal Studies’ was generously provided by The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) and the School of Sociology at the Australian National University. The funding provided through TASA enabled PhD researchers and undergraduate students an opportunity to off-set the cost of inter-state travel and accommodation, which played a crucial role in bringing together a dynamic and diverse group of researchers to present, debate, and discuss the latest developments in what has proven to be an increasingly important and vital area of inquiry. Support from the School of Sociology at the Australian National University was central in securing accommodation for keynote speakers, catering, and venue hire. The organisers are grateful to both TASA and the School of Sociology at the Australian National University for their role in helping to make ‘Being-With and Being-For Animals: The Role and Status of Method in Contemporary Sociological Animal Studies’ such a successful event. Special thanks also to the TASA Animals & Society thematic group, whose commitment to the challenge of grappling with the complicated legacies and contemporary character of human-animal relations provided the initial sparks of inspiration for the symposium.

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