The Radical Debate: A Straw Man in the Movement?

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Book Chapter

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Critical animal studies (CAS) is multidisciplinary in its theoretical and methodological foundation. However, not all disciplines are participating equally, with humanities at the forefront, the social sciences treating nonhuman animals as an occasional and often marginalized topic, and a near absence of respectful nonabusive treatment of animals as subjects in the hard sciences. As a sociologist, I am particularly interested in bringing the social sciences into the field of CAS. In Chapter one of this volume, Cudworth notes: “Whilst sociology has broadened its subjects, objects and processes of study, it has held fairly fast to the conception of the social as centered on the human” (p. 19). Nonhuman animals are in our homes, both displaced by and living in our built environment, the subject of laws and policies, and the centre of fads and subcultures – and so they should be of greater interest to those who study society and culture. Cudsworth details a history of the study of animals in sociology, highlighting the treatment of animals in key sociological areas of inquiry, including a treatment of speciesism and an extension of theories of oppression and capitalism (e.g. see Clark, Chapter 7 this volume). This work has paved the way for nonhuman animals to potentially become a serious focus of inquiry for sociology. As I was writing this chapter, a major social theory journal, Sociological Theory, published an article calling for a social theory that argues for incorporating Anthrozoology into a more comprehensive social theory (see York and Mancus 2013). While Anthrozoology lacks the critical subject-driven nature of CAS, it highlights the growing acceptance of the ‘animal turn’. This turn, however, has remained largely couched in the theoretical realm. What social science can uniquely add to the field of CAS is a set of methodologies and empirical evaluations to test theories and also to directly improve outcomes for animals. A few social movement organizations have embraced social science methodologies to improve work among activists and outcomes for animals. For example the US organization, ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty toward Animals), has a research branch that studies issues of relevance to adopting animals, including how names effect adoption rates (see ASPCA 2009) and effective ways to get people to place collars and tags on adopted animals (see Weiss et al. 2011). Sociologists working in academia have also employed empirical analyses of issues of relevance to animals and activists. Some examples include (but are not limited to) Irvine’s work on desensitization to animals’ death in 4H clubs (see Ellis and Irvine 2010) and the role of companion animals for homeless populations (see Irvine 2013) and the work of Fitzgerald et al. (2009) examining the impact that slaughterhouse work has on crime rates. Though empirical investigation into animals and the movement that advocates for them is emerging, it remains scarce. This chapter seeks to add to empirical investigations that can benefit the field of CAS and, by extension, the animals who are its subject. This chapter also seeks to add to scholarship regarding the investigation of the social movement for animals. An anthology addressing critical animal studies, particularly as it is unique from animal studies more broadly, would be remiss to neglect a discussion of the social movement that seeks to better the institutional and social status of nonhuman animals. For a core difference between the animal studies scholar and the critical animal studies scholar is an intended commitment to praxis. Praxis is the application of theory to action and vice versa. Social movements are a catalyst of social change and an avenue of praxis and so they must be better understood. The literature on critical animal studies often overlooks social movements and the existing literature addressing social movements rarely addresses the animal rights movement (ARM) (but see Jasper and Nelkin 1992; Wahlstrom and Peterson 2006). This chapter seeks to fill this void, as well as to add to the body of social science and empirical research within the field of CAS. The animal rights movement contends with a number of crucial issues that are understudied within the social movements literature addressing democratic nations, including the effectiveness of activist tactics, the role of radical activism and state repression of activism, to name a few. Within the animal rights movement (ARM) and among activists there is much debate over the efficacy of radical activism. For some, these activists and actions represent a heroic ideal, for others they signify violence. At its best, such debate allows for growth and refinement, and helps to generate movement diversity. At its worst, it can damage the spirit and cohesion of a movement, rendering it powerless to confront the various factions’ common enemies. Even so, there is a lack of empirical research that addresses the radical debate. This chapter empirically examines some of the key debates over the role of radical and illegal activism on behalf of animals in the United States. The chapter first identifies problems with the debate as it is currently unfolding, including a lack of uniform definitions for controversial terms, incomplete historical knowledge and tendency to forward anecdotes as evidence. I then outline key claims by both sides of the debate that are empirically testable, taking seriously each perspective as potentially valid. I test the validity of these claims, using two primary datasets – one tracking illegal radical activism in the US from 1990-2010, another tracking media coverage of a sample of these actions.


Sociology and Corrections



Publication Title

The Rise of Critical Animal Studies: From the Margins to the Centre