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Researching towards a critically posthumanist future: on the political “doing” of critical research for companion animal liberation

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Abstract

Purpose The purpose of this paper is to make a case for the political use of methods to shape posthumanist futures that are for animals. It makes this case by drawing on findings from qualitative research on the lived experience of navigating human–pet relationships. Design/methodology/approach The argument in this paper draws on qualitative data from interviews and observations with human participants and “their” companion animals to demonstrate that centring animals in research highlights new data and encourages participants to challenge anthropocentric narratives of pet relationships. Findings The findings of this project indicate that using animal-inclusive research methods is effective in centring non-human animals in discussions and providing new insights into human–animal relations that can inform and move towards critical posthumanist futures. Research limitations/implications If the central argument that methods play an important role in shaping social worlds is accepted then human–animal studies scholars may need to think more carefully about how they design, conduct and frame research with non-human animals. Practical implications If the argument for centring companion animals in research is taken seriously, then those working with humans and companion animals in the community might significantly alter their methods to more meaningfully engage with non-human animals' experiences. Originality/value Current research has concerned itself with the challenge of how to understand animals' experiences through research. There has been little consideration of how multi-species research reflects and shapes social worlds and how methods might be considered a fruitful site of transforming relations and pursuing posthumanist futures.
Sutton 2020 Research for a critically posthumanist future
Researching towards a critically posthumanist future:
on the political “doing” of critical research for
companion animal liberation
Zoei Sutton
College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia
Access published version at:
Sutton, Z. (2020), "Researching towards a critically posthumanist future: on the political “doing” of
critical research for companion animal liberation", International Journal of Sociology and Social
Policy, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSSP-01-2020-0015
Abstract
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to make a case for the political use of methods to shape
posthumanist futures that are for animals. It makes this case by drawing on findings from qualitative
research on the lived experience of navigating humanpet relationships.
Design/methodology/approach The argument in this paper draws on qualitative data from
interviews and observations with human participants and “their” companion animals to demonstrate
that centring animals in research highlights new data and encourages participants to challenge
anthropocentric narratives of pet relationships.
Findings The findings of this project indicate that using animal-inclusive research methods is
effective in centring non-human animals in discussions and providing new insights into human
animal relations that can inform and move towards critical posthumanist futures.
Research limitations/implications If the central argument that methods play an important role in
shaping social worlds is accepted then humananimal studies scholars may need to think more
carefully about how they design, conduct and frame research with non-human animals.
Practical implications If the argument for centring companion animals in research is taken
seriously, then those working with humans and companion animals in the community might
significantly alter their methods to more meaningfully engage with non-human animals’
experiences.
Originality/value Current research has concerned itself with the challenge of how to understand
animals’ experiences through research. There has been little consideration of how multi-species
research reflects and shapes social worlds and how methods might be considered a fruitful site of
transforming relations and pursuing posthumanist futures.
Keywords Qualitative, Methods, Sociology, Companion animals, Critical posthumanism Paper
type Research paper
© 2020 This manuscript version is made available under the CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0
license http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Sutton 2020 Research for a critically posthumanist future
Introduction
In 1956 Nelson N. Foote called attention to the glaring gap in academic research around the ‘most
neglected member of the family’: the dog. At the time of writing, Foote found only one article that
focussed on human-pet relationships Bossard’s (1944) ‘The mental hygiene of owning a dog’.
Since then, literature around human-pet relations has increased exponentially and extended well
beyond canine companions. However, despite this increase in scholarly attention, or perhaps
because of it, human-companion animal relationships remain a sort of ‘uneasy love’ (Weaver,
2013). Irvine and Cilia (2017) aptly capture the complexity of companion animals’ positioning in an
anthropocentric world where ‘[p]eople canand dolavish attention on pets’ but at the same time:
We have the power to decide the fate of our pets unlike any power we have
over the human members of our families… We can relinquish them to a
shelter or end their lives if they become sick, old, inconvenient, or if their
behaviour fails to meet expectations (p.2).
The treatment of pets in the literature is similarly conflicting. Scholars in the field tend to focus on
either the dominance and exploitation inherent in petkeeping (e.g. Tuan, 1984), or
(overwhelmingly) the positive aspects of these entanglements, including the human benefits of pet
ownership and the (positive) framing of pets as minded, familial beings (see, for instance, Charles,
2014; Haraway, 2008; Irvine, 2013). Sociological research on human-companion animal
relationships is exceedingly anthropocentric and depoliticised, more so than research focussed on
other human-animal entanglements (Taylor & Sutton, 2018). This then means that as a body of
work, sociological studies of the pet are more likely to contribute to broader narratives that
legitimise and support the use of nonhuman animals as companions, than further thinking that seeks
to challenge them. The extent to which anthropocentrism and nonhuman animal use is seen as
problematic varies depending on where scholars are placed between more mainstream human-
animal studies or its more critical offshoots such as Critical Animal Studies(CAS) which actively
advocates for nonhuman animals and against their ‘use’ (see Best et al., 2007; Taylor & Sutton,
2018). However, the tensions between these seemingly loving, familial bonds, and the total human
control over the lives and (often) deaths of both owned and rejected pets remains an under-explored
area in empirical sociological studies, regardless of the reader’s positioning. As sociologists
increasingly call for research that explicitly advocates for nonhuman animals (Cudworth, 2016;
Peggs, 2013; Taylor & Sutton, 2018), sociological pet studies need to do more to highlight and
challenge the manifestations of power and oppression in these seemingly unproblematic everyday
relations. Such a focus is not only relevant to CAS scholars, but also enriches understanding of the
social world in its attention to the complexity and nuances of power relations between species on
both macro and micro levels.
This paper concerns itself with the role of research the act, as well as the products of in
working towards emancipatory futures. Drawing on Cudworth and Hobden’s (2018, pp.115-116)
notion of critical posthumanism which includes ‘the reappraisal of current interventions in non-
human worlds, and the development of more creaturely ways of being where we accept our place
with other species’, it argues that any emancipatory future necessitates a radical rethinking of
human relations with other animals. Research methods, which both shape and are shaped by the
social world from which they arise, have the potential to contribute to this radical rethinking by
visibilising realities that perpetuate or challenge dominant, human-centric, problematic ideas and
highlighting new ways of being in the world with ‘other’ animals.
To make this argument, this article relies on data from a broader research project which studied the
lived experiences of negotiating human-pet relationships through qualitative interviews and
observations. In the process of constructing and conducting species-inclusive research with human
owners (n=30) and ‘their’ animal companions, I found that methods were central to visibilising
nonhuman animals’ lived experiences and challenging human-centric narratives of the relationships.
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The project findings contribute to emancipatory scholarship by explicitly challenging oppressive
entanglements and actively encouraging participants, scholars, and the broader community to
engage in less human-centric ways of thinking about nonhuman animals. Given the political role of
methods in bringing forth some realities while keeping others hidden, I conclude with a call for
scholars studying nonhuman animals to commit to a critical posthumanist future that explicitly
rejects oppressive multi-species relations, and shape their scholarship in ways that reflects this.
Problematising human-pet relationships
While some scholars have noted in passing that companion animals too are caught up in the same
oppressions that other “types” of nonhuman animals face (Cudworth, 2011; Francione, 2000;
Torres, 2007), it is rare that these are explored in detail (Rollin & Rollin, 2001). Rollin & Rollin
(2001) state that ‘often our treatment of companion animals is as egregious, shocking, immoral, and
unacceptable indeed more so than any animal use in society’ (p.10). However, given the
affective framing that traditionally underpins companion animal scholarship, the ‘immoral’ side of
pet ownership is underexplored, ‘despite companions being deprived of the rights to fresh air and
free movement which most non captive humans enjoy and take for granted’ (Sollund, 2011, p.443).
The first notable work examining the ‘dark side' of human-companion animal relationships was Yi
Fu Tuan's (1984) Dominance & Affection in which he argued that dominance underpinned all
affective relationships:
…affection is not the opposite of dominance; rather it is dominance's
anodyneit is dominance with a human face. Dominance may be cruel and
exploitative, with no hint of affection in it. What it produces is the victim. On
the other hand, dominance may be combined with affection, and what it
produces is the pet (p.2).
Tuan’s work was, and still is, significant in uncovering the unequal power relations that underpin
all human-companion animal relationships, rather than just relationships that are more explicitly
“bad”. These unequal relations manifest in the “creation” of pets purposive breeding, coercive
training and physical restriction and adornment. For example, Tuan (1984) traces the prioritisation
and cultivation of aesthetically pleasing pets through time, from the gilded manes of tamed lions in
Rome (creating a status symbol that was less nonhuman animal and more work of art) to the
modern day selective breeding practices creating (animal) companions to conform to (human)
aesthetic trends (see also: Bradshaw, 2011; McMillan et al., 2011). Ironically nonhuman animals
which fail to meet these aesthetic standards are disposed of immediately, whilst the physical
consequences of this quest for superficial perfection (such as breathing difficulties, joint problems
and increased medical costs) are considered more tolerable (Tuan, 1984).
David Nibert (2013) argues that humans have obtained companion animals through a process of
domesecration which is a ‘systemic practice of violence in which social animals are enslaved and
biologically manipulated, resulting in their objectification, subordination, and oppression’ (p.12).
This then creates the oppressive foundation upon which our relations with companion animals rest,
making it unlikely that anything born of these entanglements could truly shirk the mark of
domination. This is echoed by Clare Palmer (2006) who argues that domination in human-pet
relationships is unavoidable as companion animals are viewed with an ‘attitude of instrumentalism’
that is evident in both harmful practices around pets and ‘helpful’ educational campaigns for them:
both de-sexing and killing in animal shelters flow from the same underlying
attitude toward pets. This attitude is one of willingness to adopt dominating
practices that treat animals as means to other ends. If this is right, campaigns
to promote de-sexing, while at one level being successful in reducing the
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number of kittens and puppies born, at another level actually promote
dominating and instrumentalist underlying attitudes and relationships that
make people more likely to surrender animals to animal shelters (p.183).
This exploitative context in which companion animals are constantly available to, and under the
control of, their owners opens them up to a range of physical and emotional abuse from which many
pets are unable to escape (Pierce, 2016; Sollund, 2011).
For many scholars who are critically researching pets, the fact that companion animals occupy a
marginalised position is not up for debate (Palmer, 2006; Rollin & Rollin, 2001), and several have
explicitly argued that pet keeping as a practice is simply unethical (Andreozzi, 2013; Francione,
2012; Spencer et al., 2006). Others have drawn parallels between deprivation of freedoms and
obsession with purity of breed for pets and grand scale (human) oppressions such as slavery and the
holocaust (Mason, 1993; Rollin, 1992; Spiegel, 1996; Sztybel, 2006). However, it is still a rather
uncomfortable truth to confront that the joyful relationships we humans hold so dear are actually
incredibly problematic (Palmer, 2006).
While several of the scholars mentioned above argue that critical analysis of human-pet
relationships are sparse, I think the issue isn’t necessarily that scholars aren’t thinking critically
about pets, but that we don’t have a framework to bring this critique into conversation with
empirical studies of human-companion animal relationships. This is reflected in Cudworth's (2016,
p.243) critique that scholarship outlining ‘“how things are” does not always lead to a coherent
position on “what is to be done”’. For instance, Leslie Irvine in her philosophical discussion of the
morality of petkeeping (2004, p.5) argues that ‘[a]lthough a world without pets is unpleasant to
consider, the perpetuation of our pleasure is not sufficient reason to enslave other animals’.
However, this critical perspective is rarely incorporated into her empirical research which focuses
on the strong affective bonds between humans and their animal companions (Irvine, 2008; 2013).
Others (e.g. Birke & Thompson, 2018; Carter & Charles, 2013; Smith 2003) similarly highlight the
restriction of nonhuman animal agency by human actions and environments but go on to explore
human-companion animal entanglements as positive encounters. This, then, highlights the need for
methods that not only critically analyse the material existence of nonhuman animals, but actively
push towards a future that does not rely on pet-commodities, one in which we can all live ‘less
badly’ (Cudworth & Hobden, 2018). The next section will discuss the political use of methods to
shape reality, with the aim of highlighting ways to bring critique and empirical research with
nonhuman animals into closer contact.
The Double social life of methods
Broadly speaking, methods are the tools researchers use to explore the social world (Law, 2004;
Law et al., 2011; Strega, 2005). Within an enlightenment epistemology, good research might appear
as simple as an objective “knower" selecting the “correct” methodological approach, be it
qualitative interviews, quantitative surveys or one of the many other options pre-approved for social
scientists, to uncover the “truth” of the social situation being studied (Strega, 2005). However, some
scholars (particularly those studying underrepresented groups with an interest in social justice) have
problematised this conceptualisation of only methods (and analysis) as tools, instead expanding the
toolkit to include the epistemological, ontological, and methodological frameworks surrounding
research which greatly impact on the resulting research (Hamilton & Taylor, 2017; Law, 2004; Law
et al., 2011; Strega, 2005).
Methods are generally constituted as tools for learning about the social world, with little thought
given to the potential political consequences a researcher’s chosen approach could incur (Law et al.,
2011). This instrumental take poses a problem John Law et al. (2011) refer to as 'The
Methodological Complex’ a concept that rests on three elements or assumptions: (1) a division
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of labour that conceives of theory, substance and method as entirely separate realms; (2) resistance
to an instrumental view of methods is seen to only emerge from theory (broadening the rift between
theory and method); and (3) the construction of a world 'out there' to be studied which sets up
binary divide between 'the world' and representations thereof (Law et al., 2011, pp. 3-4). This
objectivist approach, though appealing due to its straightforwardness, runs the risk of missing out
on crucial aspects of social life that don't fit within its sanitised framework (Law, 2004; Law et al.,
2011), and attempts to ground itself in a fundamentally flawed assumption that methods and
researchers can objectively observe from outside the social situation they purport to study. Instead,
Law argues, social scientists need to embrace realities that are vague and indefinite’ as the world
we study is itself indefinite (2004). This then necessitates a broader understanding of the methods
through which we come to understand the world, particularly paying attention to the enactment of
the world through methods. For Law, methods are inherently social in two significant ways:
methods are social because they are shaped by the social world from which they came to be and
they also play an active role in shaping that social world (Law et al., 2011), thus social science
inquiries 'interfere with the world... they always make a difference, politically and otherwise' (Law,
2004, p. 7).
This double social life of methods is enacted through the relationship between what Law refers to as
the ‘hinterland’ and ‘method assemblages’ (2004). These terms pertain to the processes through
which we generate knowledge about the world, and how we come to think of particular kinds of
knowledge as “true”. The hinterland is made up of texts that build upon each other to produce
statements that ‘carry authority’ (Law, 2004). This then defines which realities seem “real” and
which seem less so, as “truths” are accepted to the extent that they are supported by existing,
accepted literature: ‘if a statement is to last it needs to draw on and perhaps contribute to an
appropriate hinterland’ (Law, 2004, p.28). Research is shaped by this context, and this is visible in
the practical realities of collecting and analysing data and writing up results in which some things
are “seen” and rendered meaningful, whilst others are invisibilised by being “written out” (Latour &
Woolgar, 1986). Research methods are purposively created to suit the research needs of their
proponents (Law et al., 2011). They are advocated for, attract a following and need an appropriate
ecological context to survive (Law et al., 2011). Those research methods that no longer suit their
intended use or context will cease to be utilised ensuring that surviving methods will be those that
are malleable and able to be shaped by their social world to maintain their usefulness (Law et al.,
2011). Thus it is impossible to separate created realities, and the statements made about them, from
the creation of instrumental practices and inscription devices that produce them (Latour & Woolgar,
1986; Law, 2004).
This then brings us to ‘Method Assemblage’, an enactment of relations that renders some elements
of social life visible, whilst making others appear absent (Law, 2004). Building on the idea that
methods enact social worlds, the assemblage of particular methods can shape hinterlands by
bringing particular objects ‘in-here’ and rendering them visible, while rendering others invisible -
‘out-there’ (Law, 2004). To be clear, method assemblages do not present different perspectives on
the same reality, but rather different objects and different realities are produced in particular method
assemblages (Law, 2004). Law draws on Mol (2002, cited in Law, 2004) to illustrate how different
components interacting in particular hinterlands actively produce particular realities in Mol’s
work this reality is a medical diagnosis. Describing one patient's experience of being diagnosed
with ‘intermittent claudication’, Mol argues that it is only through the interaction of particular
knowledge frameworks, settings and participants that the patient’s ‘diffuse’ pain is redefined as a
diagnosis:
This does not imply that the doctor brings Mrs Tilstra’s disease into being.
For when a surgeon is all alone in his office he may explain to the visiting
ethnographer what a clinical diagnosis entails, but without a patient he isn’t
able to make a diagnosis. In order for ‘intermittent claudification’ to be
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practiced, two people are required. A doctor and a patient. (Mol 2002, p.23
cited in Law, 2004, p.46).
Law goes on to say that ‘Intermittent claudication calls for both a patient and a doctor. If it is to be
enacted it needs to be crafted out of a story by the former and the embedded knowledge of the latter.
Here we see the bundling of a hinterland’ (p.46). As Lisa Kemmerer argues, the embedded
knowledge through which we come to understand nonhuman animals reflects our vested interests in
relations with them, ‘excluding “others” from the moral community, allowing us to exploit them’
(2011, p.74). The productive capacity of methodological assemblages, then, offers a pathway to
challenge problematic epistemologies by crafting hinterlands that highlight different realities. For
critical posthumanist researchers, reflecting on our methodological choices might allow us to better
pursue pathways to ‘less bad’ multispecies coexistence, in part by problematising the existing
relations that are ratified by current sociological animal studies hinterlands. As Law explains ‘In an
ontological politics we might hope, instead, to interfere, to make some realities realer, others less
so. The good of making a difference will live alongside and sometimes displace that of
enacting truth’ (Law, 2004, p.67).
Here it must be noted that there is a clear tension between the relational understanding of the world
Law's actor-network theory(ANT) approach relies on, and the fixation of structural forces that is
assumed by the CAS position underscoring this article (See Gad & Jensen [2010] for discussion of
fixation as a necessary evil for thinking through relational understandings based in ANT). This is a
tension that cannot be completely resolved, however Law’s call for a need to carefully engage with
the relational process of knowledge production is a useful one for critical posthumanist scholars. As
Susan Strega (2005) states, simply being aware of the politics and effects of methods is not enough.
She points out that radical feminist and critical race scholars have been working with this
knowledge for decades and still no research has made significant radical change (Strega, 2005).
What is needed is a considered move towards creating methodological assemblages and, in turn,
alternate hinterlands in which all beings are valued and problematic power relations are challenged.
The next section will explore these ideas in relation to multispecies research to show how the
crafting of methods for emancipation might be thought through.
Researching with companion animals
Conducting research that is for companion animals in an anthropocentric context requires an
understanding of how this environment shapes the positioning of nonhuman animals in society and
in research. By examining discourse as a social product that serves a purpose in (re)producing social
structures, relations and identities we can begin to understand its significance outside of mere
conversation (Strega, 2005). In particular, the sanctioning of particular statements as acceptable
within a society’s discourse is reflected in what media present as reality, what is taught and what
unsanctioned statements are considered punishable (and how) (Strega, 2005, p.219). As has been
highlighted by other HAS scholars, nonhuman animals are discursively constructed in ways that
legitimate their “use” to humans by minimising their pain and experiences and emphasising their
commodity status (Cole & Stewart, 2014; Dunayer, 2001; Smith-Harris, 2004; Stibbe, 2001). This
context privileges research, statements and depictions of nonhuman animals that support an
anthropocentric social order, with positions that challenge anthropocentric approaches often
relegated “to the margins” of scholarship and discourse, if not rejected outright (Wilkie, 2015). In
this paper I outline some of the methodological ways I have tried to challenge the normalisation of
nonhuman animal “use” evident in much of the pet studies field. Part of this lies in pursuing species
inclusive methods (detailed below) which render nonhuman animals’ (inter)actions and
individuality visible so as not to further silence them in the research writeup. The critical framing of
this research is also crucial to its meaningful contribution to shaping critical posthumanist futures,
with its explicitly politicised stance standing in stark opposition to the largely depoliticised field of
research around companion animals (Taylor & Sutton, 2018).
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Drawing on posthumanist theory and ethnographic methodologies to inform their understanding of
the current methodological landscape, Hamilton and Taylor (2017) argue that researchers need to
construct a ‘a way of studying social spaces without the unwitting suppression of species that are
other-than-human’ (p.13). Resisting the rendering of nonhuman animals as “measurable materials”
or objects of study is a key aspect of multi-species methods, a sentiment reminiscent of Cudworth’s
(2016) call for the need for a sociology for nonhuman animals (rather than merely about them).
Given that Ethics Committees are rarely equipped to deal with social scientific research with
nonhuman animals, ethical considerations specific to nonhuman participation are likely to go
unraised. For my research no requirements that related to the nonhuman animals were raised
throughout the ethical approval process, yet there are certainly some areas that warrant careful
consideration. This meant that I took more care to consider these challenges for myself, discussing
ethical problems with my supervisory team rather than the committee that had failed to notice them.
Given the extreme power imbalance between humans and nonhuman animals in society, nonhuman
animals have very little control over whether and how they participate in research. Nonhuman
animals in research settings are almost always under the control of a human researcher or
participant (Birke, 2014). Therefore Lynda Birke (2014) argues that researchers should carefully
consider the ethical issues inherent in their inclusion of nonhuman animals, particularly remaining
mindful that nonhuman animals are not able to provide informed consent. Researchers need to think
about how intrusive their research methods will be for nonhuman participants, and if there is likely
to be any benefit for the nonhuman animals involved, or for nonhuman animals more broadly (such
as political outcomes) (Birke, 2014). To challenge the rendering of nonhuman animals as mere
objects of study, researchers should be aware of the need to address nonhuman animals in
subjective, rather than objective terms (ie. she, he, they, rather than ‘it’) (Birke, 2014).
There are also serious questions around the writing up (or writing out) of nonhuman animals in
research findings. Hamilton & Taylor (2017) explain that the writing up process of research has the
power to change the way nonhuman animals in research are seen:
Animals may be brought to life or silenced by the inscription methods that
we humans use in our research; they may be anthropomorphised, given
symbolic meaning, objectified, rendered monstrous, or simply ignored. We
have an ethical as well as an intellectual duty to confront that reality-making
process and, if possible, to conduct forms of ethnographic work that help
explore the richness of human-animal interaction rather than reducing it to
simplistic terms. (pp.51-52).
It is the responsibility of human researchers, they argue, to challenge our own role in the creation of
knowledge, and, particularly, in the creation of particular kinds of knowledge that reflect only a
human perspective. This includes Birke’s call for use of subjective terms stated above but extends
beyond this to consider the hinterlands we researchers sculpt through the realities we portray
(Hamilton & Taylor, 2017; Law, 2004). Even when companion animals are present in the data
collection process, their participation is often minimised or limited to a discussion of how their
presence shaped the participation of humans. This inadequate inclusion of nonhuman animals in the
final writeup of research reflects two issues: the exclusion of nonhuman animals via anthropocentric
methods, and the standpoint of the researcher that shapes what is and isn’t “seen”.
As was highlighted above, the identity and presence of the researcher inescapably shapes the
research process (England, 1994; Haraway, 1988; Strega, 2005). In multi-species research, we also
need to consider how anthropocentrism is embedded in research methods, resulting in methods and
research that excludes nonhuman animals and privileges human participation (Griffin, 2014; Taylor,
2012). Since it has been established that methods are political and shape the social world they are a
part of, it is important to ensure that the chosen methods don't reinforce or instantiate the same
oppressions they are intended to combat (Law et al., 2011; Taylor, 2012). In relation to the
inclusion of other animals, anthropocentrism needs to be noted and attempts made to decentre the
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human perspectives that are overwhelmingly privileged over those of “other” animals. The
language focus central to many research methods excludes other animals who do not engage in
human speech (Griffin, 2014; Taylor, 2012). Alternative approaches, such as visual methods, are
more inclusive and allow the other animal to be meaningfully involved in research, rather than
marginalised by research intended to give voice to them (Birke, 2014; Griffin, 2014; Taylor, 2012).
My research employed a combination of semi-structured interviews and observation with human
participants and ‘their’ animal companions, as well as a visual representation of the nonhuman
animal participants to be included in the final write-up. A total of thirty humans (twenty-five
female, five male) were interviewed, and twenty-two dogs, seventeen cats and numerous birds and
fish (an exact number is unable to be determined as several participants were unsure of how many
birds or fish they ‘owned’) were observed. Other animals present in the interview discussion (but
not physically present) included guinea pigs, rats, birds, cows, horses, cats and dogs. Some
nonhuman animals were excluded from participation due to interview location (two interviews were
conducted out-of-home at participant’s request), whilst others were located elsewhere in the home
during the interview (see discussion below on exclusive uses of space). The sample included two
couples who elected to be interviewed together (though this did not mean they were talking about
the same nonhuman animals).
Semi-structured Interviews
Semi-structured interviews were conducted in participants' homes to facilitate the inclusion of
nonhuman participants (particularly non-canine pets who would likely be excluded from the
research in a public setting), as well as ensuring a more comfortable environment for participants
which is likely to result in richer interview data (Fontana & Frey, 2005). Two of the thirty
interviews were conducted out of home at the participants’ request which resulted in much more
human centric data being obtained in those instances. As human interview participants are at risk of
feeling an obligation to participate against their wishes or divulge information they would rather not
due to their perceived lack of power in the interview process (Fontana & Frey, 2005), they were
reminded often of their right to refuse to answer or participate. Mindful of the issues around consent
and agency for nonhuman participants (Birke, 2014), I made clear that nonhuman participants were
not required to participate, and nonhuman animals who elected to stay out of the interview zone in
the house were not forcibly brought into the room, however most free-roaming companions
wandered into the interview zone at some point in the interview. This request in itself notably
signalled to human participants (and to readers) that the wishes and bodily autonomy of nonhuman
animals (in not being forcibly moved into the interview zone) was to be respected, constructing
them as valued subjects rather than research objects.
Of course, multi-species interviews introduce some new challenges, namely that nonhuman animals
did not seem to particularly know or care that the interview was taking place (see also Cudworth,
2018) and many an interview was punctuated by nonhuman animal vocalisations:
Maddy (Dog): AROOOOOOOO
April (Human): Not yet have to go [walking] later now
Maddy: AROOOOOO
April: (to me) See how her lip stays up when she howls?
Maddy: AROOOOO
[all laugh]
Me: Has she always done that or did you teach her that?
April: No she’s done it, um, that’s what she was doing when we picked her up
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Maddy: AROOOOOO
April: She was like really vocal like that, and then she stopped doing it when she got here and then
started again
Maddy: AROOOOOOO
April: Once you start her she doesn't stop [laughs] I think it’s.. beagles howl and she’s
Maddy: AROOOOOOOO
April: But theirs is a bit more high pitched hers is a bit lower
Maddy: AROOOOOOOO
Me: Thats probably good, lower’s a bit easier on the ears
April: Yeah [laughs] (to Maddy) Isn't it [Babytalk]? What you doing? Where you going?
Maddy: AROOOOO AROOOOOO
April: (to me) Yeah so.. (to Maddy) No more, it’s all gone [laughs]
As can be seen in the quote above, this interaction was, in some ways, disruptive to the interview
process. However it also enriched the data in a multitude of ways. While Maddy’s vocalisations
shifted the conversation away from the question most recently posed, it allowed for April and
Maddy to demonstrate, and talk about, a key form of interaction they both engaged in daily.
Interestingly, the species-inclusive interview also visibilised the contrast between the way we talk
with animals and about them, demonstrating not just the objectifying language used to describe
other animals, but how this competes with the framing of them as subjects in interaction. This, then,
offers insight into contesting assemblages as the traditionally objectifying interview meets the site
of subjective interspecies interaction, with the latter highlighting the anthropocentric hinterland
governing the former. The transcription process was also rather interesting, as I tried to best
represent the myriad of different vocalisations in written form.
The interview questions were designed to encourage narrative responses that were largely
companion animal-centric, covering three main areas: (1) (human) participant experiences and
descriptions of shared life with their companion(s) and how they had negotiated the relationship, (2)
(human) considerations of how their companions might experience their shared life, including limits
they might face and their experience of social relationships, and (3) owner reflections on the ethics
around petkeeping as a practice. This element of my method (animal vocalisations aside) is human-
centric, soliciting (human) participant accounts of their relationships with companion animals,
therefore an observation aspect was incorporated to better create space for nonhuman participants’
interactions.
Observation
While the interview component privileges human participation with its focus on human language as
the primary means of communication, the observation component of my method better facilitated
nonhuman inclusion by accounting for the “bodily activity” of all participants. Drawing on the idea
that ethnographic methods, such as observation, can be used to give voice to oppressed groups
(Angrosino & Rosenberg, 2011) and potentially holds promise for multispecies research (Hamilton
& Taylor, 2017) observations of the interview setting including interactions between nonhuman
participants and other (human and nonhuman) participants, the environment, and myself were
Sutton 2020 Research for a critically posthumanist future
recorded. These notes are presented as thick description that further captures nonhuman
participants’ contribution to the research, albeit through my human gaze which is admittedly
problematic. For example:
‘This is going to look terrible but she really likes it’, Eric (human) says to me
as Mischief (cat) sits on the floor about a foot away with her back to him,
looking back occasionally. He gently puts his hands on her back end and
drags her backwards about an inch. Mischief gets up, as if to walk away, but
stops again about a foot from Eric’s feet, and again looks back at him,
waiting. He repeats the action, again dragging her back (gently) towards him
before releasing her. She walks forward to the same starting point and again
looks back and this time he doesn’t repeat the action. She bristles a little bit,
readjusts her position and again looks back at him pointedly. ‘Oh, alright’ he
says and drags her back once more.
Again the combination of multispecies participants and a method that enabled their inclusion was
valuable in rendering nonhuman animals more visible in representations of the research as well as
providing richer understanding of the negotiation of these relationships. For instance, the mutual
enactment of ‘play’ seen above is dependent on socio-spatial conditions that provide each party the
opportunity to voluntarily engage or refuse the interaction. Significantly, this highlights the
subjectivity of nonhuman participants, by bringing examples of their initiation of interaction ‘in
here’, thus challenging representations of other animals as passive recipients or reactors to human
actions. Important data was obtained regardless of whether nonhuman animals chose to remain
hidden for much of the interview (one cat in particular was seen only as a cat-shaped bulge in the
curtain). Even in lieu of nonhuman participation, the home setting was a useful source of
information in the negotiation of shared multispecies space, as the co-mingling of human and
nonhuman “stuff” indicated how shared life might be negotiated (for further discussion see Sutton
& Taylor [forthcoming]).
Owner-submitted biographies
Finally, human participants were invited to submit an (optional) photo and biography for their
nonhuman companion(s). This allows the nonhuman participants to be visually inserted in research
outputs, ensuring that the research remains as nonhuman animal-focussed as possible, as well as
reminding the reader that the themes discussed throughout the research have real consequences for
individuals living in the material conditions described. Although the biography is an instance of
humans 'speaking for' their companions (Arluke & Sanders, 1996), it also allows a snapshot of their
(human interpreted) personalities to come to light, tying in with the observations obtained to craft a
portrait of the nonhuman participants. As Taylor and Fraser (2018) note, such representations serve
to further challenge the invisibility of nonhuman animals in research (and in society). The fact that
these biographies are human-created is not necessarily contradictory to the motivations of the
project, but rather illustrative of the tangled web of social relations that companion animals occupy
in being both contained and supported by their human owners. To a limited extent, these
submissions represent co-constructions between owners and pets, though the narrative power lies
solely with humans.
The methods outlined above are examples of assemblages, with particular methodological
approaches in conjunction with particular (multispecies) actors producing a species-inclusive
methodological assemblage that brings nonhuman animals and human entanglements with them ‘in
here’ in ways that challenges the marginalisation of nonhuman animals in research. In the next
section I will briefly outline some of the key findings that came to light through this approach.
Findings and futures
Sutton 2020 Research for a critically posthumanist future
This section will briefly describe two significant findings that resulted from the assemblage of
nonhuman animal-centric methods. The first is the contribution of the interview process itself to
shifting understandings of the owners being interviewed. The second is the discovery of new facets
of shared multispecies life that would not have come to light had companion animals not been
deliberately included.
Challenging anthropocentrism through the interview process
For some participants, the interview process challenged or, at the very least, highlighted previously
unconsidered aspects of their companion animal relationship. Existing literature has highlighted
how different interview approaches can change participants’ interactions and experiences of the
interview (e.g. Oakley, 1981). In the interviews I conducted, the nonhuman animal-centric
questions asked participants to contemplate their companion’s communication efforts, social
relations, and questions around the ethics of pet keeping. Several owners reported that their
responses surprised them. For instance, one participant, after talking about their companion’s social
relations with other dogs had an abrupt realisation regarding the familial relations experienced prior
to their adoption:
Does she miss her mum? Coz, like, she’s never ever, like she sees her mum
for like 6 weeks and then it’s finished, but some animals don’t, are not like
that.. But I don’t know that for sure like I don’t know if she misses her mum
a lot, or if she wishes that she could see her sisters and brothers again… I
think she wants to, she always wants to be loved. (April)
Prior to this, the participant’s conceptualisation of their (animal) companion’s experience was
limited to that which occurred after she was adopted. Thus, this methodological assemblage in
which nonhuman animals’ experiences were centralised and valued enable a consideration of her
companion’s experiences outside of their entanglement, which was significant. Similarly, in
thinking through the limits faced by their companions and the ethics of pet keeping, participants
came to realise the complexity of their entanglements:
…it’s a very interesting dilemma I love having access to an animal, and the
only way I can see for me to do that is to own a dog or a cat coz they don’t have a
choice. Ari had no choice where she ended up, and they don’t have choices. And I
think that’s unfortunate but I don’t actually know how you facilitate a dog to have
a choice, I don’t know. (Megan)
Although the long-term attitudinal shifts (if any) of these exchanges is unknown, in including
nonhuman animal centric questions that require participants to think critically about their
relationships, and pet keeping more broadly, the research process itself becomes a resistant
intervention (Strega, 2005). In challenging the silencing of companion animals by directly asking
questions about them and encouraging owners to think through them, the construction of human
centric narratives (particularly recounts of human-companion animal relationships that solely reflect
human identity performances) is challenged, with many participants remarking that they had not
thought about what the relationship looked like from their companion’s perspective but would now.
Physically including companion animals by having them present also contributes to this challenge,
as it immediately indicates that nonhuman animal inclusion is important to the research situation.
With respect to anthropocentric scholarship, this finding suggests that the use of assemblages that
visibilise nonhuman animals’ experiences is conducive to expanding understandings of human-
companion animal relationships beyond immediate familial bonds, to meaningfully consider their
structural context. As discussed earlier, although the interview process itself still privileges the
human participants’ voices, this critical slant seeks to encourage critical thinking that is otherwise
not encouraged in broader anthroparchal societies, thus engaging in research that is for companion
animals and challenges our relations with them (Birke, 2014; Cudworth, 2016; Hamilton & Taylor,
2017).
Sutton 2020 Research for a critically posthumanist future
Highlighting hidden dimensions of companion animals’ experiences
The use of a species-inclusive methodological assemblage uncovered new elements of the everyday
negotiation of power that would otherwise have gone unseen. The socio-spatial navigation of
multispecies entanglements in the home clearly demonstrated that companion animals can and do
demonstrate how they would prefer to use the home space (See Sutton & Taylor forthcoming; Philo
& Wilbert, 2000), and observing conflicting spatial preferences also highlighted points of exclusion
in the home. For instance, 20% of households had an excluded nonhuman animal that is,
someone who was physically excluded from the living quarters and denied the same value or
‘petness’ bestowed upon more favoured pets. The extent to which owners tried to accomodate or
resist nonhuman animals’ preferences in the home gave valuable insight into the power dynamics in
the home. For instance, some owners made significant and expensive home modifications to
accomodate their pets’ wishes to climb screen doors while others attempted to curb unwanted uses
of space (Sutton & Taylor forthcoming). For those who sought to decentre their human privilege in
the household as much as possible, the anthropocentric ‘outside’ posed a threat not just to their pet’s
wellbeing, but to the notion of pet-keeping as potentially ‘good’ which relies on a hinterland that
validates the contradictory co-existence of familial relations and objectified pet-commodities.
Unveiling these facets of shared multispecies life is important to the pursuit of futures that are other,
in that holding a mirror up to our current relations demonstrates that change needs to happen.
Conclusion
This article has made the argument that research methods are social, both shaping and being shaped
by the social world they purport to study. Given this, and the problematic power inequality
underpinning human-companion animal relationships, it has put forth the notion that methods can,
and should, be used politically as a tool to pursue critical posthumanist futures that challenge our
current way of coexisting with ‘other’ animals. The methodological assemblage described in the
above discussion challenged existing approaches to research with companion animals by
positioning them as valued research participants whose lived realities warrant investigation. Further
to this, encouraging owners’ critical reflections on the lived experiences of nonhuman animal
participants facilitated a shift in which they were able to move towards a less human-centric
understanding of their pets’ experiences when provided with a new hinterland or context in which
to recount their relationship. Finally the new information garnered from a more species-inclusive
assemblage can inform both a justification of, and a foundation for the crafting of new hinterlands
in which we might reimagine how to live ‘less badly’ with other animals, however this should not
be taken as condoning nonhuman animal ownership. Instead, we might reflect on the potentialities
of decentring our human privileges and power more extensively, and consider the futures that are
possible when we create space for other beings to flourish.
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