The Question of Non-Human Animals in Sociology

Albert Ferkl


Sociology, like most academic disciplines, traces its roots to profoundly anthropocentric assumptions. Its object of study, society, has traditionally been defined as something that is uniquely human and separate from nature, emphasizing the academic importance of social sciences next to the older and more established natural sciences. This separation is to blame for a lack of sociological interest in non-human animals (which will be called “animals” from here on for brevity), but conversely, the interpretivist paradigms it allowed to develop have contributed to a rise of academic work challenging anthropocentrism since the late twentieth century. By focusing on actual experiences of humans interacting with their pets, social researchers such as Janet and Steven Alger were able to show that the view of animals as conscious subjects actively participating in social interaction should be taken seriously and that we should reconsider rigid conceptual boundaries drawn between human and animal. With evidence of complex cultural behaviors in a wide range of animal species now flooding in from a variety of academic fields, it is high time for sociology to champion the full acceptance of animals into the social domain and assume a central role in the interdisciplinary effort to explore its implications.

In this paper, I outline a number of reasons for why this needs to be done, invalidating each of the basic assertions that have historically caused sociology to ignore animals. Firstly, I articulate key arguments for seeing them as conscious subjects capable of meaningful interaction with other animals and humans and for rejecting the conventional boundary between society and nature. Secondly, I illustrate how specific sociological concepts have been applied to the study of animals, demonstrating the potential that such work has to enrich our understanding of animals and society at large. Finally, I argue that the boundless and unjustifiable exploitation of captive animals and destruction of natural habitats within contemporary capitalist societies is one of the most pressing social problems of our time, and if it is to be limited, it should be academically challenged by the field of sociology in the same way that the oppression of various human groups has been.


From Cartesian Dualism to Animal Consciousness

Anthropocentrism, the view of humans as fundamentally distinct from and superior to other natural phenomena, has been a key feature of Western culture, in contrast with many other cultures. It is rooted in both major traditions from which this culture arose: the Greek intellectual tradition, whose key figure Aristotle held that humans are the only rational entities in the natural world; and Christianity, which posits that only humans are endowed with immortal souls (Fudge 2002, 13–14). The form in which it has dominated scientific as well as popular thought into the present day was formulated by Enlightenment philosopher René Descartes, who drew on both sources to propose what is known as Cartesian dualism, the conceptual separation of the human mind from the material world, including the human body and animals. Descartes asserted that since animals lack a mind, they can be understood as animated objects that possess no thought or feeling even if they appear to (Alger and Alger 1997, 69). This view influenced the modernist imperative of human progress as the highest value even at the expense of non-human nature, motivated by the emergence of capitalism (Ingold 1988, 15). Nature could be treated as a mere resource serving human goals, allowing for the development of extreme exploitation of natural environments and domesticated animals which continues today. Seeing animals as thoughtful or emotional became stigmatized as anthropomorphic projection of human qualities onto them, while natural science explained animal behavior as instinctive and predictable.

Emerging social science positioned itself firmly against the use of such explanations for human behavior, and to this end further separated humans from nature by assigning them to a distinct domain: society. For classical sociologists, animals had no place here; Karl Marx wrote in 1844 that unlike the human, “the animal is immediately one with its life activity” (Marx 1959), while Max Weber hinted at the possibility of studying animals sociologically but did not follow through (Peggs 2012, 2). Even as social science developed interpretivist paradigms deviating from the knowledge-building methods of natural science, it held that these are only applicable to humans. Most significantly, George Herbert Mead, the founder of symbolic interactionism, argued that human thought and self-consciousness emerge through social interaction and that this process requires language, which is why non-lingual animals cannot possess either, or engage in meaningful interaction (Mead 1934, 164–78). These views continue to dominate sociology, discouraging interest in animals and the ways in which humans relate to them.

Despite these tendencies, the treatment of animals as objects has not gone unchallenged in popular and academic thought. In actual interaction with animals it is often impossible to be unaware of their similarities to humans, and animal suffering never truly lost its status as a real and morally undesirable phenomenon. This manifested in a rise of environmentalist and animal rights discourses in the late 1960s (Franklin 1999, 44–5). Around the 1970s, a desire for closeness to animals became a dominant social trend, and the first academic work arguing for the reconsideration of animal consciousness and the human-animal boundary emerged (Franklin 1999, 46). Studying individual and social behavior in animals ranging from primates to honeybees, zoologist Donald Griffin proposed that animal behavior is complex and that explaining it as conscious is often just as persuasive as reducing it to instinct. This inspired new directions in ethology that have since produced much evidence for this view (Alger and Alger 1997, 66–7). Meanwhile, sociologist C. D. Bryant (1979) argued that animal-related human behavior is a key aspect of society and noted that dogs especially are often members of human social groups and take the role of surrogate family members such as children (410–12).

From around 1990, sociologists inspired by both views demonstrated that animals consciously participate in meaningful interaction with humans by studying the relationships of dogs and cats with pet owners, who generally believe in the personhood of their animals (Fox 2006, 525). They asserted that just like in interaction with humans who lack speech, such as very young children and disabled individuals, shared meanings could be achieved without language (Alger and Alger 1997, 71–2) through shared emotions and perceptions arising in common activities (Ingold 1988, 12–13; Milton 2005, 267–8). The Algers (1997) give examples of cats anticipating events, solving problems, deciding between alternatives (based on past experience as well as “taking the role of the other”), behaving in a way that reflects their life history, displaying empathy toward humans, and sharing rituals with them (73–8). Thus, they show why most pet owners feel that their animals are capable of complex thought, have individual personalities, relate emotionally to them, and play important roles in their families (Alger and Alger 1997, 71–2).

Such views of animals tend to be disregarded by sociologists as anthropomorphic, but Clinton Sanders (2003, 420) argues that this ignores the actual experience of social interaction with animals. Indeed, the tendency has been attacked as suppressing common sense, since even scientists often feel that animals are conscious but leave it out of scientific writing in fear of being so accused (Taylor 2011, 267–9; Alger and Alger 1997, 67). Instead, Kay Milton (2005, 255–61) proposes an alternative concept, “egomorphism,” to suggest that people perceive in others (both human and animal) signs that they can relate to their own personal experience, rather than projecting “essentially human” qualities onto animals. Along similar lines, action network theory has suggested that categories such as human and animal are not fixed but fluid, and intentional action is not limited to humans (Taylor 2011, 270–71). Overall, this work effectively discredits Cartesian dualism by showing that although arguably only humans possess language and differ significantly from other animals in many ways, this difference is one of degree rather than kind (Ingold 1988, 8), and fundamental boundaries between humans and animals are unsustainable practically as well as theoretically. Sociology should therefore accept the view that animals interact meaningfully with others and that societies are not made up of only human actors, as a variety of animals also actively contribute to their evolution.

The Sociological Study of Animals

Accepting that animals are conscious social actors suitable for sociological study, let us move on to how such work can actually be done. Examples have arisen from various theoretical traditions and have investigated a number of roles that different animals play in so-called human society (Stuart et al. 2013, 201–2). As shown above, most focus has been on pets strongly integrated into human social groups, but farm animals, zoo animals, and wild/semi-wild animals have also received attention. Through reaching unique and useful conclusions about the interconnected lives of animals and humans and the significance of animals to wider social systems, such work demonstrates that using sociological methods and concepts to study animals is not only possible, but potentially greatly beneficial to our understanding of society as a whole (Stuart et al. 2013, 218).

Sociologists first brought attention to animals by emphasizing the importance of human attitudes to them. Bryant (1979), for example, highlights the countless references to animals in the English language as well as art, pop, and material culture, beside the prominence of animal-related activities (400–404). Others have drawn attention to inherent contradictions in these attitudes; most people feel strong affection toward some animals, such as pets, while benefiting from the suffering of others. Adrian Franklin (1999) employs theories of postmodernity and post-Fordism to relate a gradual warming of attitudes toward animals in the 1970s to wider cultural trends. He discusses the rise of concepts such as misanthropy, a view of humanity as deranged and dangerous to nature, and risk-reflexivity, the feeling that humanity bears responsibility for all life as even the wilderness is not safe from its impact and control (Franklin 1999, 57–9). The latter idea is useful in showing that the boundary between society and nature may be erased completely, rather than blurred by accepting domestic animals as part of society. He also proposes that anthropological methods of studying culture could be applied effectively to human-animal interaction (Franklin 1999, 61).

More recent work has used sociological tools to study animals in specific settings. As shown above, this has been best established in the study of human relationships with pets. Researchers on this topic have employed interactionist concepts, often updating symbolic interactionism by shifting focus away from language (Alger and Alger 1997, 65). Sanders (2003), for example, asserts that dogs can be related to as friends or family members through play, mutual gaze, and “speaking for,” and that studying the way dog companions shape human identities can enrich interactionist sociology of close relationships (405–7). He also notes that the presence of animals shapes social life between humans, for example as people walking their dogs are more likely to talk to strangers (Sanders 2003, 412–13). Other authors agree that human selves are shaped in interaction not just with other humans but animals as well (Milton 2005, 262–3) and propose that such intersubjectivity can be achieved through rituals that make shared symbols between humans and animals possible (Alger and Alger 1997, 79). Additionally, a new generation of authors based in these findings has explored the intricate ways in which the contradictions between an animal’s status as friend/object or family/beast is mediated. For instance, David Redmalm (2013) argues that chihuahuas are often simultaneously portrayed as commodities and complex individuals or child-like and wolf-like, but the sense of humor which underlies these representations reinforces rather than challenges such distinctions.

This approach is related to research into less positive and reciprocal relations between humans and animals drawing on sociological concepts of subjugation. Such work tends to directly challenge anthropocentrism in the manner of critical theory and may be connected to veganism and the animal liberation movement (Best 2009, 38–42). For instance, in the sociological analysis of zoos, Randy Malamud (2007, 226–7) explains interest in watching captive animals as an expression of power and surveillance. He asserts that zoos are a symptom of a society that is impoverished of natural interaction with wild animals traditionally available to humans and supplements it with controlled, asymmetrical encounters (Malamud 2007, 230–31). For Malamud, the non-reciprocity of zoo spectatorship is degrading for humans as well as animals and mirrors the exploitation of nature. By contrast, Franklin (1999, 77–9) notes that as popular attitudes toward animals became more sentimental since the 1970s, zoos reacted to this by incorporating reconstructions of natural habitats, stressing themes of harmony between humans and nature. However, this theming itself is a tool of entertainment rather than authentic representation, as popular animals such as whales are made into performers who delight visitors with displays of intelligence and empathy as well as the objects of merchandise sold at adjacent gift shops (Beardsworth and Bryman 2008, 232). Thus, contemporary zoos take on the role of wilderness theme parks which celebrate the power of humans to manage nature despite being embedded in the consumer-capitalist system that fuels its destruction (Beardsworth and Bryman 2008, 233–4).

Similar critique has been produced by sociologists studying the harshest branch of human-animal relations: the exploitation of farm animals in food production. Barbara Noske (1997) addresses industrialized animal agriculture as a whole, arguing that the current stage of domestication is characterized by what she calls “social parasitism.” She notes that through the use of science and technology, the lives of most farm animals have been turned into controlled, specialized processes which suppress their natural needs in order to maximize production (Noske 1997, 15–18).

Joel Novek (2005) investigates this in the context of intensive pig farming in Canada, discussing the usefulness of specific sociological theories in analyzing the mechanization of this sector. He shows that Michel Foucault’s concept of biopower, the control of bodies in time and space to make them docile and productive, is applicable here. However, for Foucault, biopower works only through those who internalize it and discipline themselves, whereas pigs do not accept it and are controlled directly (Novek 2005, 243–4).

Finally, by applying Marx’s concept of alienation from “species being” to cows used in the dairy industry, Stuart, Shewe, and Gunderson (2013) have been able to effectively analyze the position of these animals within the capitalist system and its implications for their lives as well as those of the farmers who keep them. They observe that taking their milk and calves, limiting their lives to production, restricting their ability to move around, forage, mate, and rear, and reducing their socialization with other animals and humans all match Marx’s description of alienation (Stuart et al. 2013, 210–12). Their work shows that Marxist ideas of worker exploitation lend themselves to analyzing the use of farm animals in food production and evaluating different approaches to animal welfare (Stuart et al. 2013, p.202–3). Assessing the changes to alienation of cows in certain less intensive farming systems, the authors were able to show which aspects of their welfare have not been improved and locate the roots of these shortcomings (Stuart et al. 2013, p.217).


Work such as this effectively illustrates the capacity of sociology to conceptualize unethical treatment of animals within contemporary social structures. The interests of animals as well as humans who value them are fundamentally at odds with economic and technological demands, and sociologists have a unique ability to analyze how this manifests in practice (Bryant 1979, 406–8). Stuart et al. (2013, 217–18) assert that the goal of accumulating capital will never be fully compatible with the goal of improving the lives of the world’s populations, both human and “natural.” Indeed, the well-being of humans is directly connected to the well-being of all other species (Alger and Alger 1997, 80). Instead, this goal motivates exploitation, and farm animals are the one social group exploited to the utmost extreme. Historically, this systematic violence has roots in the rise of meat consumption after World War II, when meat began to be produced industrially and the animals that it comes from removed from public vision (Franklin 1999, 40–42). Although calls for improving farm animal welfare have been heard for decades and some Westerners now consume less meat, millions of farm animals are still reduced to production machines and their interests sacrificed for cost efficiency (Stuart et al. 2013, 209).

This vast exploitation is completely unnecessary and in fact damages rather than improves human well-being. Analyzing animal industries in Europe, the United States, and Australia, Noske (1997) argues that they are fueled by the interests of large corporations with ties to governments and banking sectors (22–3). The general human population is affected negatively through the spread of unhealthy food, disappearance of small-scale rural farming and desirable jobs in agriculture, reinforcement of third-world poverty, and extreme pollution (Noske 1997, 38). Similarly, David Nibert (2003) suggests that animal exploitation is not only driven economically but institutionalized by state power and anthropocentric ideology (9–11). The same, he argues, applies to the oppression of disempowered human groups, which is thus systematically linked to the oppression of animals, as illustrated by historical portrayals of women and non-whites as less rational and closer to nature than white men (Nibert 2003, 19). Just like Noske, he concludes that acknowledging animals as the most unjustly treated social group will not lead us to pay less attention to human suffering but rather allow us to effectively challenge all social inequality (Nibert 2003, 5–7).  The fact that exploitation of animals is mostly overlooked attests to a general prevalence of moral indifference and intellectual dishonesty.

If society is to reach a state of harmony with nature in which humans understand each as part of the other and respect animals’ lives and interests, radical cultural changes must take place. There is no better way for these to unfold than through the refinement of our understanding of the world and our place within it. Sociology is endowed with ways of building knowledge that have proven useful in challenging established attitudes toward animals on academic grounds, but the potential work that can be done in this regard is immense. Animals must be accepted into the social domain and the already well-evidenced view that they experience this world meaningfully and enrich society in interaction with humans developed further. Shattering the human-animal and society-nature dichotomies will not make sociology irrelevant; it will bring it to the forefront of a global academic push to ensure a future for all life on Earth, just as challenging the division of male-female and white-other has allowed it to advance more equal treatment among humans. Therefore, it is essential that sociologists turn their attention to animals and lend their expertise to address some of the foremost social problems of our time: the immense suffering of animal populations and the closely related destruction of natural environments. Such efforts will benefit all animals, humans included.



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