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Animals as Social Subjects: Toward Inclusive Social Interaction

by Sariya Mohammed

University of Manchester

 

Introduction

If we wish to think about nonhuman animals as social subjects, there must be a shift in traditional sociological thinking. The equating of linguistic ability to the capacity for symbolic interaction has caused nonhuman animals to be excluded from discussion of mind and selfhood (Arluke 1996, 42). The challenge is to shift away from an anthropocentric view of social relations as being human relations (Buller 2015, 375). This requires methods of investigation involving intimate engagement with nonhuman animals and their emotional experience (Arluke 1996, 41). Nonhuman animals cannot be removed from our social life and culture, whether as pets, agricultural animals, or zoo denizens, or as they appear in representations and create meaning in our language. I will consider first the idea that nonhuman animals are, in an unconventional sense, capable of symbolic interaction. Second, I will consider the notion of nonhuman animal “selves” to make their case as social subjects. Finally, I consider what the methodological impact of the conception of nonhuman animals as subjects will be for the social sciences. I argue for the use of critical anthropomorphism (Burghardt 1985, 917; de Waal 1999, 267) in seeking to understand nonhuman animals and the meanings they produce for and with us.

Animals and Symbolic Interaction

The conventional symbolic interactionist perspective views humans as “active constructors of the social world” (Alger and Alger 1997, 67). For this sort of interaction to take place, there must be intersubjectivity between the actors. This requires certain cognitive factors, including (but not limited to) “recognition of self and others, situated interpretation, inferring others’ cognitive and emotional states, anticipating what others might say or do, [and] empathizing’ (Tibbetts 2004, 25). Mead (in Alger and Alger 1997; Sanders 2007) argued that nonhuman animals could not identify themselves with their social situation as a result of not possessing language, the mechanism which facilitates symbolic interaction (hereafter, SI). This assumes that words are the only symbols from which actors derive, create, and share meanings. However, nonhuman animal communication and human language are different in many ways. On one hand, scholars have attempted to outline objective criteria for qualitatively separating human language from nonhuman animal communication. Hockett (in Griffin 1981, 81–82) does this by identifying sixteen design features thought to be unique to human language. However, Griffin (1981, 82–85) argues that most of these design features (including reliance on the vocal-auditory channel, and interchangeability of roles between transmitter and receiver to name just two) are present in many systems of animal communication. The use of vocalization to convey aggression and attract mates is well-studied, and can be found in insects, birds, frogs, other mammals, and some fish, and in some cases is just as effective as mounting a physical attack in achieving the desired end (van Staaden et al. 2011, 25). Other animals use calls to signify the presence of predators. Gibbons, for instance respond to different species of predators with specific songs, and these send messages which elicit varying responses (Clarke 2011, 85). Calls demonstrate intentionality, and there are many systems of nonhuman animal communication that we are just beginning to understand (Dunayer 2001, 17).

There is also the question of human language acquisition. Human intervention in the language learning of nonhuman animals has not only provided a basis from which to study language acquisition in humans, but has yielded astonishing results in primates. Chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, are particularly adept at learning modified human languages (Knowles 1980; Brakke and Savage-Rumbaugh 1995; Savage-Rumbaugh et al. 2000). They can be taught gestural sign language, as well as a system of lexigrams which must be arranged in a particular order. In one research model, the bonobos were able to spontaneously acquire the symbolic language through observation of humans who used the language while interacting with them, as opposed to learning via a model based on repetition or rewards (Brakke and Savage-Rumbaugh 1995, 122). In addition to this, apes have demonstrated the ability to combine known symbols in new ways when confronted with a situation for which their vocabulary is insufficient. For instance, they call “a watermelon a drink food or candy drink, ducks water birds, and a Brazil nut a rock berry” (Knowles 1980, 37, emphasis in original), or a ring a “finger bracelet” (Dunayer 2001, 16). The importance of observations such as these is that they show the apes’ abilities to meaningfully generalize known symbols to other contexts (Knowles 1980, 37).

Nevertheless, it is important to question the equation of human linguistic agency with SI as Mead (1962, 182–183) has done. Not all species are as adept as chimpanzees and bonobos at learning human language (nor have the morphology that allows it), but this does not necessarily exclude them from those who are capable of SI. Further criticism of the conventional sociological belief that “authentic” interaction is based on the use of language by social actors who understand linguistic symbols is offered in work done by Arluke (1996) and Sanders (2003). The presumption that nonhuman animals are unable to symbolize through language is followed by the assumption that they lack intersubjectivity (the ability to take on the viewpoint of the other with whom they are interacting), an ability that has traditionally been ascribed to humans alone (Arluke 1996, 42). This idea faces challenges in light of research on nonhuman animal behavior. Studies in the field of cognitive ethology have challenged the reductionist approach of behaviorism. Griffin (1981) asks ‘The Question of Animal Awareness” in his book of the same name, which considers “the degree to which non-human animals think consciously about objects and events, and about themselves” (vii). In chapter 5, he questions assumptions of human exceptionalism based on linguistic ability. He addresses instances of this (Black 1968; Chomsky 1966 in Griffin 1981. 74-75), then provides counterexamples that demonstrate modes of interaction between animals (of the same species) which are symbolic. For example, the waggle dances of the honeybees are definitely symbolic—their purpose is to share information about the location of food and water sources, or potential nesting sites. While some academics have argued that the use of symbols does not equate to the possession of minds (Chomsky in Griffin 1981, 76–77), the reductionist argument from the standpoint of total genetic programming cannot account for all related phenomena. For instance, the waggle dances can vary under different conditions, and may not be performed at all unless particular social conditions are present (78). De Waal (2016) reminds us that human cognition is just one variety of animal cognition, and that other ways of sharing useful information exist.

We can also interpret SI in terms of the pursuit of goals (Collins in Alger and Alger 1997, 70). According to Collins, these can be either practical goals – related to nature in the sense of survival and living – or social goals. The latter are of importance because they are generated by our relationships to social groups. They involve shared focus on an object and the attachment to this phenomenon of a mood or emotion that is commonly felt by all members in the group. (For an example of this, see Alger and Alger 1997, 77–78.) What is important about this approach is that it does not base these interaction rituals on exchanges through language, so there is no requirement of linguistic capability. This form of interaction can include members from within or across species, as in the case of humans and their pets. Apart from bonding and social rituals, this can also be exemplified in the form of sociable play. Play, according to Jerolmack (2009), is an activity which “necessitates frames… that govern the interpretation of events” (372) and “not a distinctive behavioral category” (Sutton-Smith in Jerolmack 2009, 375). Fighting is not the same as play fighting, although they may look similar. While one cannot be completely certain that human and nonhuman (and even all human, or all nonhuman) interactants share the same framing of a situation during play, the focus is on the main goal of sociable play—“association with others for its own sake” (373). Sociable play requires that interactants share the frame, and thus, they must share intersubjectivity. For SI to occur, interactants must be able to “imagine the meanings others will attach to alternative courses of action” (Alger and Alger 1997, 68) as a result of being able to see themselves from the other’s perspectives. Jerolmack therefore suggests that interaction between human and nonhuman animals can be understood “along a continuum of greater and lesser possible intersubjectivity and interactive complexity” (373).

Therefore, an anthropocentric (and logocentric) conception of social interaction creates an image of the nonhuman animal as ‘trapped in the here and now… habitually or instinctively respond[ing] to stimuli presented in the immediate situation’ (Arluke 1996, 42). However, assumptions about the way nonhuman animals experience their worlds are based more on anthropocentric ideology than appropriate data and examination. The effects of this can be compared to those of androcentric ideology in the social sciences (42). The latter has produced a skewed understanding of women and their social experience—it has created a “dominant and masculine discourse” that caused women to become “inarticulate, ‘muted,’ or even silent” (Gal in Arluke 1996, 42). The idea of nonhuman animals suffering “silently” is not one that is new, especially in the domain of animal advocacy (one radical example is the work of the Australian activist James Aspey). Additionally, the comparison of nonhuman animals to marginalized groups such as women has been employed in arguments from a social justice standpoint (Adams 1990). Thus, the commitment to anthropocentric ideology makes assumptions about the nonhuman animal experience which create a nonhuman animal “other.” However, direct, subjective interaction with the nonhuman animal that is being studied is the only way to understand their “alien” behavior (Arluke 1996, 43).

Animal Selves

There is, therefore, a need for alternatives to the anthropocentric ideology that governs the delineation of differences between humans and other animals. Attributing mental awareness to nonhuman animals has traditionally been tabooed in the natural sciences. In fact, variability in behavioral responses may have been under-reported to make way for simplified accounts, which create the impression of predictability of behavior (Griffin 1981, 89). This commitment to predictability assumes “that all animals of a given species (and perhaps of a given sex) will be very similar until they encounter different rewards” (Godfrey-Smith 2016, 54–55), despite the fact that many nonhuman animals—like the octopi being assessed in the author’s example—demonstrate individual variability. Behaviorism is associated with a tradition of objectivity and reductionism: nonhuman animal behavior is reduced to instinct and “nature,” and the human observer is seen as existing outside of the interaction taking place. The results of the observation are reported mechanistically and usually in the third person, passive voice in order to remove the human subject entirely from the interaction (Wemelsfelder 2012, 225). According to Wemelsfelder, this externalization from the “experiential aspects of understanding” (225) turns the nonhuman animal experience into an object to be studied. The “objective” approach is grounded in the idea that anthropomorphic accounts of behavior overestimate nonhuman animals’ mental complexity (de Waal 1999, 258). Conversely, there ought to be concern for what de Waal calls “anthropodenial”: “the rejection of shared characteristics between humans and animals when in fact they may exist” (258). The problematizing of the former but not the latter demonstrates a bias in the debate that reflects a blindness to not only the human-like characteristics of nonhumans, but also to our own animal-like characteristics. This is undoubtedly due to the enduring commitment to the Cartesian view of nonhuman animals as machines, and the value attached to human rationality (a concept which is itself deeply problematic—are we all, always, equally rational?). Furthermore, the idea that anthropomorphism can somehow be completely avoided is misleading. As Shapiro (in Irvine 2004b, 5) eloquently puts it,

all understanding is anthropomorphic… for it is partly shaped by the human investigator as subject. However, since this is a perspective or “bias” inherent in all experience, it is not an occasional attributional error to which we are particularly prone when we cross species’ lines. It is a condition of science which prevents it from reaching certainty and, therefore, from supporting a positivistic philosophy.

Therefore, the choice is not between total anthropomorphism on the one hand and completely objective observation on the other. Rather, there must be a commitment to “critical anthropomorphism” (Irvine 2004b, 5; Burghardt 1985, 917), or “heuristic anthropomorphism” (de Waal 1999, 267-270). According to de Waal, this is the only way to understand nonhuman animal behavior, or rather the nonhuman animal experience: through intimate subjective interaction. The fact that humans are also animals is an important consideration for developing testable ideas. Research that employs this model has been conducted on various species of animals by cognitive ethologists, nonhuman animal trainers, and others in similar roles who, based on interpersonal experiences, attribute selfhood to the animals within their study (Sanders in Arluke 1996, 43–46; Hearne in Arluke 1996, 44; Irvine 2004b).

Irvine (2004a; 2004b) provides this type of research in the form of “autoethnography,” defined as “the study of a group with which one is involved” (Hayano in Irvine 2004b, 6). She extracts three main components of human-nonhuman animal interactions in a shelter which are underscored by the theme of “self.” These are the pursuit of relationships with nonhuman animals, the expression of concern for their wellbeing, and engagement in increasingly complex interactions. These activities “manifest goals of the self” (2004a, 118; 2004b, 7). The primary goal of the self is considered to be continuity, the maintenance of “being.” This is facilitated through our actions, one of which is the formation of relationships. Relationships develop our selves and create histories for them, and can exist between humans and nonhuman animals, or between members of the same species.

Notions of nonhuman animal selfhood in long-term relationships between humans and nonhuman animals are fairly easy to understand (as in the case of companion animals); however, they can also be observed in shorter interactions, such as in a shelter between the animals there and visitors with no intention to adopt (Irvine 2004a, 78). The latter form of interaction is likened to window-shopping and “trying on” (81). Visitors at shelters choose specific animals to interact with despite having no intention to adopt (86–87). This demonstrates how even the imagined presence of another animal in our lives makes us consider different ways of being. These people have “glimpses” of selfhood in the nonhuman animals they meet. The structure of human-nonhuman animal interactions indicates that “animals mean something for the experience of selfhood” (Irvine 2004b, 8). Unlike the objects one might “try on” in a clothing store, we can have an experience of these animals as selves in relation to our own selves. They differ from the other objects we interact with in that we experience the “subjective presence of the Other” (8). Subjectivity is not observed directly, but rather is experienced during interaction. Irvine refers to a set of four elements considered to make us aware of the subjective sense of self. These are senses of agency, coherence, affectivity, and self-history. Given that many nonhuman animals have similar nervous structures and capacities to our own (de Waal 1999, 270), these experiences can exist among those animals as well. Language acquisition is just an additional facet that has the potential to contribute to these experiences, which themselves “are preverbal”(9). The four senses of self are acquired via interaction with others, and are prerequisites to other senses of self that are present in humans which also require language.

Agency, according to Irvine’s line of thought, can be defined as “the capacity for self-willed action” (2004b, 10). Subjectivity is implied by agency in the sense that one has an awareness of one’s own desires, a capacity that begins to present in human infants after a few months (10). Since there is no requirement of verbal ability, it can potentially be found in other animals. One example is how dogs learn self-control—in order to control oneself, there must first be desires upon which one can decide to initiate action. Sanders (2007, 325) gives an example of his own dogs prompting him (with their actions) to take them on their walk (the desired behavioral response). This demonstrates that they “recognize their own agency and are able to take the role of the (human) other” (325).

Whereas agency defines the self in relation to the Other, coherence delineates “the boundaries of the self… [it] gives agency somewhere to ‘live’” (Irvine 2004b, 11). It also refers to the ability to “orient action toward specific animal and human others” (Sanders 2007, 326). In preverbal humans, this presents in the ability to distinguish between other individuals. Other animals also possess this capacity, which is easily observable in companion animals. This has also been observed in species with whom human interaction is atypical. In a lab in New Zealand, an octopus took a particular dislike to one member of staff and would squirt water at her whenever she passed by the tank (Godfrey-Smith 2016, 56). In another instance, there was a cuttlefish who squirted water at only new visitors, but not regulars from the lab (56). Anderson et al. (2010) justified reports such as these—previously considered simply anecdotal—with a study which confirmed that the Giant Pacific octopus is capable of recognizing different human individuals.

Affectivity, according to Irvine, is the “capacity for emotions” (2004b, 12). This is perhaps most easily discernible in companion animals due to the level of familiarity we have with them. This capacity is further divided into “categorical affects”—what we typically consider emotions, like sadness, happiness, anger, and fear—and “vitality affects,” which are more akin to moods or attitudes than discrete emotions. After we come to understand the typical emotional responses of our companion animal to particular situations, we learn how to behave toward them (Sanders 2007, 326). Vitality affects—like confidence, weariness, or calmness—require us to read their bodily gestures, since interpreting facial expressions is not always a reliable way to understand how nonhuman animals are feeling (Irvine 2004b, 13).

Interactions turn into relationships by relying on a sense of self-history, or continuity (14). Memory facilitates this sense of self and is exemplified by many companion animals’ displays of fear or aggression at the veterinarian’s office. The behaviorist assumption would be that this is a result of conditioning; however, many experiences with companion animals suggest that they act in response to both memory and a reading of their current situation. A good example of self-history is shared routines between humans and companion animals. Sanders (2007, 327) and Alger and Alger (1997) provide evidence of this in their own pets. While nonhuman animals may have a sense of memory that is not temporal in exactly the same way as ours, they can still remember past experiences. In this sense, the difference between us and them is one of “degree rather than kind” (Irvine 2004b, 15)

While the aforementioned examples give a good indication of how we humans can experience other animal selves through direct interaction with the nonhuman animal other, it is important also to consider how we can observe this sense of self in interactions between members of the same species. Frans de Waal has done an extensive amount of research with chimpanzees, and recounts their many complex relationships in his book Chimpanzee Politics (1982). For example, when a chimpanzee wants to become alpha male, he starts “campaigning,” in a process that can take several months. The candidate becomes very generous with food during this period, and even plays with the infants in the group despite not having any particular interest in them usually (de Waal 2017, 6:51). This demonstrates his sense of agency; he knows what things he can do to attain his position. He also forms coalitions with other males with whom he must share the benefits of being the alpha male: sex with females. These coalitions are important for allowing him to maintain his status. Therefore, he has a sense of coherence, in that he understands how he must act toward specific others. A key point is that alpha males show particular concern for the lowest ranking members of the group; most interestingly is that he has the role of “consoler-in-chief’” (10:31). In conflict resolution, they are impartial with respect to any previous relationships, and generally end up supporting the underdog. These two behaviors demonstrate empathy, or “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” (de Waal 2011, 7:59). The capacity for empathy requires both the “body” channel and the cognitive channel (7:59): the former is emotional contagion, whereas the latter requires the self to take on the perspective of the other. This shows a deep sense of emotional and situational awareness, and understanding of past and future events and how they relate to each other. This certainly confirms their senses of affectivity and self-history; chimpanzees and other apes, like bonobos, act in ways that make the question of the nonhuman animal self difficult to dispute.

Therefore, a commitment to “critical anthropomorphism” is necessary for understanding nonhuman animals. As Safina (2015, 4:15) said, “we can see the workings of minds in the logic of behaviors.” Reducing nonhuman animals to mere “machines” does neither the animals nor science any justice. The bias in the debate about anthropomorphism is a result of the “attitude toward dualism between humans and animals, rather than a concern with scientific validity” (de Waal 1999, 273). Importantly, the interaction between human and nonhuman animal selves also helps to create human identity (Irvine 2004a, 116). Human meanings, according to Dillard-Wright, “derive from the interplay of orders of signification that take place among other kinds of life” (2008,  53). In other words, human culture relies on nonhuman actors and components entangled in networks of meaning. Even in relating to other humans, we do not rely only on language for information about selfhood, but the four core senses of self as well (Irvine 2004a, 120; 2004b, 9). Therefore, we need methods that allow us to understand the meanings of other animals, the way they impact on and co-produce our realities, and their relationships with both human others and themselves.

Rethinking Methodology

Unless a new set of methods for studying human-nonhuman animal relations are developed, the bias in the debate about anthropomorphism will continue to support the dualistic view. Behaviorist reports provide objective, mechanistic explanations of nonhuman animal behavior, which ensure the reproduction of anthropocentric ideology. Indeed, some behaviorist research requires interference in nonhuman animals’ metabolism in order to maintain the motivation to seek food rewards (Irvine 2004b, 15). This means that “stimulus-bound conclusions are drawn from behaviors that under normal circumstances would be stimulus-free” (15). The study of ethology, on the other hand, requires the researcher to observe the animals under naturalistic conditions, and to “interpret behavior within the wider context of species’ habits and natural history” (de Waal 1999, 264). Ethologists in the past may have been swayed by the disapproval toward anthropomorphism (257), but recent scholarship has challenged this perspective (de Waal 2017, 2016, 1999; Sanders 2007; Irvine 2004a, 2004b; Savage-Rumbaugh 2004; Alger and Alger 1997). Therefore, there must be a shift towards heuristic or critical anthropomorphism as the primary method of observation and analysis. This could be understood as the key methodological endeavor of human-animal studies. Indeed, in conducting research with nonhuman animals, we must remember that “anthropomorphism binds our continuity with the rest of the natural world” (Shepard in de Waal 1999, 262) and inevitably shapes the human perspective. The workspace where the best possible explanation for behavior can be sought lies between the cognitively most- and least-demanding explanations.

The research design must vary depending on species. It must take advantage of our (all animals’) shared sense of “embodied consciousness,” that is, our “ways of knowing the world through movement” (Arluke 1996, 47–48). One way the problem of the language barrier can be transcended is through a consideration of non-verbal forms of communication. In one sense, this relates to Griffin’s (1981, 8–9) consideration of cognitive maps and Mather’s (1991) research on navigation in octopi: many nonhuman animals have an understanding of directional orientation and spatial position, which implies conscious self-awareness (Thorpe in Griffin 1981, 9). It is also relevant for studying some apes due to their capacities for learning gestural sign language and other symbolic language systems (Savage-Rumbaugh 2004; Brakke and Savage-Rumbaugh 1995; Savage-Rumbaugh et al. 1980) and fairly similar morphology to our own. There have been numerous studies in this area (Pollick and de Waal 2007; Savage-Rumbaugh 2004; Brakke and Savage-Rumbaugh 1995; Savage-Rumbaugh et al. 1980; Savage-Rumbaugh et al. 1978; Gardner and Gardner 1969), and research centers dedicated to this sort of work exist: for example, Yerkes National Primate Research Center and the Language Research Center (both in Georgia, USA), and the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute in Washington, USA. However, species with very different morphologies and systems of communication cannot be studied in this way.

Language and gesture can be considered inseparable (Dillard-Wright 2008, 54). That is, language is produced in bodily contexts as well as by the mind, and gesture must be thought of as not just supplemental to language, but contributive to the creation of meaning between subjects. An illustrative example of the potential usefulness of this approach is provided by Griffin (1981, 149–151): an anthropologist seeking to establish communication with a previously uncontacted human group with a language he has no knowledge of will rely heavily on gestures. This approach should not only be limited to practical gestures, but also encompass play. Many nonhuman animals enjoy play with humans, and this can allow for a general understanding of the meanings of some of their signals to be acquired. Play provides a useful arena for experiencing the subjectivity of the nonhuman other.

It is important that the research design allows for replicability of results. In observing a species whether externally or as a member of the group, neutral descriptive labels called “ethograms” can be used to refer to typical behaviors so that interpretations can be made in multiple ways (de Waal 1999, 267). From the perspective of a biologist, like de Waal, it is most important to remain committed to evolutionary parsimony—that is, unless species are separated by a significant length of evolutionary time, it ought to be assumed that cognitive similarity explains commonalities in behavior. Otherwise, there would be the assumption of “the evolution of divergent processes for the production of similar behavior” (de Waal 1999, 259). It is also important to have a rigorous, systematic method of data collection as exemplified in Irvine’s research (2004a; 2004b). The autoethnographic approach she employed required her to be a participant-observer in her interactions with her cats, and with the humans and other animals in the shelter. Shapiro does this type of research with dogs and uses a concept which he calls “kinesthetic empathy” (1990, 185–186) that relates to “embodied consciousness.” He outlines further requirements for successful research design, which are that investigators must familiarize themselves with a social construction of the nonhuman animal being studied, as well as a biographical (that is, self-historical) account.

Actor-network theory (ANT) can be useful in studying human-nonhuman animal relationships. ANT approaches “offer a powerful re-examination of the nature and locus of agency” (Jones 2003, 292). This theory redefines the nonhuman animal as part of the realm of the social because of its relational approach to social theory (Buller 2015, 376). It has been criticized for having an extreme relational approach which, despite offering liberation in one sense, can undermine the identities of distinct nonhuman animal subjects by denying any inherent qualities and attributing them instead based on the actor’s relations to other entities (Jones 2003, 293). However, this criticism builds upon the idea that these relationships are “between” actors rather than “along” (Ingold 2011, 85); ANT is not about connectivity from one point to another, but rather about overlapping lines of possibility. The main relevance of ANT in this research lies in its “theoretical and empirical challenge to human exceptionalism” (Buller 2015, 377) and support for ethnographic investigative methods. It requires a posthumanist consideration of “actors” (human, nonhuman animal, or other). Consciousness can be understood as inherently social if traditional dichotomies are expelled to make room for conceptions of the world as an “interactive milieu” (Dillard-Wright 2008, 53–54). This approach attributes agency to the nonhuman animal and values empathetic observation. Therefore, the ontological and epistemological assumptions about nonhuman animals in the social sciences can potentially be reassessed from a posthumanist standpoint (Buller 2015, 375).

Conclusion

The inclusion of nonhuman animals into the domain of the social requires a rethinking of conventional sociological assumptions. Symbolic interaction requires subjectivity between actors. In the past, it was assumed that this was only possible between linguistic, and thus human, actors. However, some forms of nonhuman animal communication are comparably complex to human language. Language acquisition and its creative use in apes seriously challenges whether humans are, in fact, the only linguistic agents. Regardless, other demonstrations of SI are found in non-linguistic contexts. SI can also be defined in terms of social goals which can be shared between groups of the same species or mixed human and nonhuman animals, for example in sociable play. The commitment to anthropocentric ideology has been the primary driver responsible for shaping our assumptions about the nonhuman animal experience.

There must be a shift away from objective, mechanistic reporting of nonhuman animal behavior in favor of a perspective that views members of other species as individuals. In order to balance the debate, there must be as much concern for anthropodenial as there is for anthropomorphism. Human understanding is inevitably anthropomorphic, and this can be used to an advantage in research. This approach has led investigators to attribute selfhood to nonhuman animals. Irvine’s autoethnographic accounts reveal that humans experience the subjective selves of nonhuman animals in both short- and long-term relationships. In both human-nonhuman animal and intra-species interactions, selves are recognized in the senses of agency, coherence, affectivity, and self-history, none of which require the presence of language. There is, therefore, a need to employ subjective interaction in understanding nonhuman animal selves. Since human culture also derives meanings from nonhuman actors and our relationships with them, there is a need to understand them and how they co-produce our reality, and this requires appropriate methods.

Finally, the primary methodological endeavor of this field is to understand what nonhuman animals “mean” to us. The application of heuristic or critical anthropomorphism in conducting investigations into the nature of relationships with nonhuman animals allows us to find the best explanation, rather than the simplest. This requires working with rather than against our human perspective, and realizing that our cognitive abilities vary in degree rather than in kind. Different species require different methods of investigation, but all research must be rigorous and systematic, and allow for replicability of results. We can take advantage of our shared sense of embodied consciousness, using different aspects of movement for data collection – spatial awareness, actual gestural language, or sociable play. An assessment can be made as to how bodily movement contributes to the creation of meanings between subjects, which can be studied from a posthumanist standpoint. If we hope to reach some level of understanding of/with nonhuman animals and what they mean to and for us, we must first acknowledge their position as social subjects—and then find new ways of communicating with them.

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