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Searching for the roots of exclusion – how sociological view on animals started to form

Lukuaika: 9 min.

Versus has published Tuomivaara’s text also in Finnish.

In my doctoral dissertation, Searching for the roots of exclusion: animals in the sociologies of Westermarck and Durkheim, I study the development of sociological ideas on animals and try to find the reasons for the invisibility of animals in the tradition of sociology. In searching for the origins of the ideas on animals and ‘animal’ in sociological theory formation, my dissertation also discusses the sociological view on humanity and the reasons for the importance of the strong human–animal boundary. A clear distinction between humans and other animals has been a central part of sociological theory construction for decades. Animals have been almost invisible in the sociological analysis of society and human sociality.

Sociological animal studies, a relatively new field of research that has been growing rapidly in the 21st century, has identified this exclusion of animals time and again. Nevertheless, there has been little research on the roots of this sociological view on animals; have animals always been excluded from sociological research, or was there more discussion on animals and more variety in the ways they were portrayed in the early sociological texts? This lectio praecursoria explains how I sought to find answers to these questions in my doctoral research, its motivation, and its results.

When I started my studies in social sciences at this university nearly twenty-three years ago, I fell in love with the openness of the sociological thinking – how almost anything – all phenomena of human societies – could be discussed and analysed from the sociological perspective. However, I did not find it strange that sociology did not discuss anything related to animals – except the political movements related to animal issues.

In fact, I did not notice this phenomenon, despite having always been fascinated by animals and having filled major part of my life with different activities related to other animals than humans. I accepted the idea that as a sociologist I would not have much to say about our relationship with animals – as sociology was a study of human. Hence, I was intrigued, when I first heard about a new, emerging field of sociological animal studies. After reading the first books representing this new field, I knew this approach was something I wanted to work with.

After writing my master’s thesis on the sociological outlooks on animals, I still shared the same observation as many sociologists before me: sociology had excluded animals, they had been almost invisible in the sociological thinking for decades. But I wanted to know why – and had it always been like that? My doctoral study has been a quest to find answers to these questions.

My hypothesis was that in the earliest sociological texts, or in some of them, animals could be more prominent than in the present-day texts. This hypothesis proved to be correct: there were sociologists in the classical era – meaning the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries – whose texts were much richer in animals than contemporary mainstream sociology is – even though all the books of the classical era I reviewed did not include significant amount of mentions of animals.

Once I encountered the texts of Edward Westermarck, I was surprised by the number of animals in them. As Westermarck is not a major figure of the present-day sociological canon, it seemed an interesting option to select for closer examination some of his more well-known contemporaries who also discussed animals. When rereading the texts of Émile Durkheim, I noticed that animals were more often mentioned in his work than I had previously realised, and decided to make him another object of my research.

What kinds of animals are present in these texts?

Durkheim (1858–1917) and Westermarck (1862–1939) took part in joint sociological discussions of the time, also commenting each other’s views. They were both first professors of sociology in the countries where they worked, in France and in England.

I started my study by searching for in what kinds of forms animals and animality or animal nature appear in these early sociological texts. I soon discovered that the variety of these animals was vast. Animals appear often as generalized “animal” or “animals”, or “beast” – Yet, there are also countless animal species and even anecdotes of animal individuals.

Durkheim and Westermarck mention different groups of animals and specific species. They write about lions and baboons, kangaroos and frogs. They write about taxonomic groups like mammals, reptiles and apes, and groups based on the behaviour of animals, like gregarious animals, and groups based on human use of them, like domestic animals and cattle. One form in which ‘animal’ appears is the so-called animal nature or, for example, animal side of humans, which could be called also animality. Animals are also sometimes present without explicit mention, as when human uniqueness is discussed. Writing about human uniqueness means that the ones we are different from are all the other animals – even though they would not be mentioned.

Analysing these different forms of animals and ‘animal’ appearing in these texts I moved closer to the main research question of my doctoral study – which was: what is the significance of animals in the early sociological texts – what are those different animals in these texts used for? I analysed to what kinds of sociological questions and themes the presence of the animal, animals, and animal nature is connected in these texts.

Sociological ideas on animals are represented by the monkey looking at a mirrow.

What animals are used for in these texts?

There are many common themes that both Durkheim and Westermarck discuss, which bring animals into their texts. These include morality and its origins, religion, food, and taboos. Questions Westermarck and Durkheim are asking when animals appear in the texts, are for example following:

o What are humans really like – are humans unique or essentially like animals?
o Where do our social behaviour, society, and morals come from?
o Why do moral, religious and legal rules sometimes deal with animals too and should we take animals morally into account?
o Are all humans equally social and equally involved in the life of society?
o AND What should sociology be like? Can we use the same kind of methodology to study the social behaviour of humans as we do when we study animals? Does it help us to understand humans if we compare their behaviour with other animals?

Early sociologists also had to take a stance in the debate about evolutionary theory and human origins and the origins of religion and morality. One of the questions was if humans are material, biological beings or something else. Durkheim and Westermarck found very different answers to these questions. They had diverging outlooks on human and animal, and hence views of sociology as a discipline. Westermarck’s and Durkheim’s views on the relation between humans and other animals – ‘man’ and animal – are reflected on their thoughts on the essence of human social behaviour, the correct methodology of sociology, and on their views on the relationship between sociology and other disciplines.

The formation of sociological ideas on human and animal was part of a more general process in which the status and significance of ‘man’ had to be redefined. Darwin’s theory of evolution and the general secularisation were threatening the special status of humans. The idea of humans as a result of special creation had been questioned. When the power of the church and the force of religious explanations of human origins were faltering, it had to be reconsidered what was keeping our society together and where our morals came from.

Discussion of the origins and development of social institutions and human attributes that we cherish, especially morals, have also led to comparisons of different societies and groups of humans. Questions of continuities and discontinuities, otherness and sameness appear inevitably. Are all humans essentially similar or are there qualitative differences in our “moral nature”; are some people and their societies in a different stage of social and moral evolution than others? Durkheim’s account is unilinear: some societies are clearly in a lower stage of development than others.

Before the birth of human society, there was no morality in Durkheim’s view of the origin of morals. Westermarck’s idea of human societies does not include stages. Moral ideas vary, and Westermarck opposes the idea that so-called primitive societies would consistently lag behind in moral matters. He also sees morality as deeply rooted in our ‘nature’, which is a shared nature with other animals. Morality has not emerged with the birth of human society; it has developed in the course of evolution that humans share with other animals, sees Westermarck.

Durkheim’s view on the human–animal boundary was both strict and blurred. Human society is part of nature, but humans are definitely separate from animals. It remains unclear if Durkheim ever really believed in biological evolution or if biological evolution in his interpretation concerned humans. At least its consequences for humans seem to be an area of uncertainty for him.

Westermarck emphasized continuities and Durkheim qualitative differences between various forms of life. Westermarck emphasizes both ontological and ethical continuity with other animals. This means that all our attributes, both negative and positive ones, are rooted deeply in our nature. There is no duality in us. And there are less differences between different groups of humans than we tend to think. Culture and environment mould our behaviour, but the general humanity is shared, universal. Evolution is not unilineal. The so-called primitives may have “higher” level of ethics than so called civilized people. And as we know that animals are in many regards like us, we must take them morally into account.

The challenge of posthumanism

The modern science of sociology has been a very humanistic science. It has stood up for the absolute value of humans and analysed and fought different forms of oppression. Sociology has been clear in its view that the social life of humans cannot be explained by the means of natural sciences, as humans are products of their culture, their social relationships, and society, with its institutions and norms. But posthumanist thought claims that humanism failed some when promoting others.

By posthumanism, I refer to scientific approaches that challenge traditional ways of defining human and the boundary between the human and the non-human. One of the central claims of posthumanism is that the anthropocentric attitude prevalent in modern humanist sciences has excluded and devalued animals. Posthumanism challenges our ideas of human and wants us to see these ideas as social and historical constructions and social conventions and to reconsider them.

Posthumanism emphasizes our embodied being in the world, our shared vulnerability and finiteness with other animals. This means that posthumanism does not only criticize humanism for its exclusion of other animals, but also the exclusion of animal from the social construction of human. We have seen ourselves as non-animals, and animals as non-humans – what we share with other animals has appeared lower and what we value in ourselves has appeared higher and unique to humans. To name a characteristic as an animal one, has labelled humans carrying these characteristics – or not hiding them – as more animal and thus lower than other humans.

Sociology’s role in the construction of a science of the human has been substantial. Sociology has been building up representations of the separate and unique human sphere of life. It is worth finding out how these representations of humans and animals have been constructed in sociology. Could we have chosen alternate ways of representing human social life and the relationship between humans and other animals?

Comparisons of Durkheim’s and Westermarck’s texts have shown that in the beginning, these representations were more varied. Animals were definitely not excluded from all the texts of the classical period of sociology. Even though Durkheim uses animals quite a lot, he also uses them to explain why they should not be included in sociology. The process of exclusion had started, but it was not yet agreed upon.

Time to reconsider our outlook on other animals

This study has been one step towards understanding how and why animals were excluded from sociology. But much more research on this subject is needed. As we now know that the early sociological views on animals and human–animal relationships were more diverse than the later sociological canon has showed us, it must be studied why animals became later seen as irrelevant for sociology and why the non-dualistic approaches faded. The division between anthropology and sociology was most likely a significant part in this process.

Since the era of Durkheim, Westermarck and classical sociology, our scientific understanding of animals has increased tremendously. However, the presumption of a qualitative boundary between humans and other animals has remained a common premise both in sociology and in society more generally. This may have contributed to the underestimation of the importance of the relationships between humans and other animals and the dismissal of the societal significance of animals, in addition to the ethical problems of their treatment. Inclusion of animals in our study of society and human social behaviour would deepen our understanding of these phenomena.

In recent decades, our relationship with other animals has become an increasingly important socio-political question. As a result of the increasing scientific knowledge of cognitive and social abilities of animals, we are forced to reconsider whether our current ways of treating other animals is legitimate. This challenge requires us to develop new ways of both conceptualising other animals and conducting our relations with them.

If we respect the idea of the sociological imagination, we should keep doors as open as possible, so that all the questions can be asked as freely as possible and all the possible answers can be considered. This includes the answer that we are animals too, which means that other animals share some essential characteristics with us.


Salla TuomivaaraSalla Tuomivaara

Salla Tuomivaara is a sociologist (Ph.D.), writer and NGO professional. Tuomivaara defended her doctoral dissertation on history of animals in sociology at the University of Tampere in May 2018. Currently she works as the Coordinator for Network for Critical Animal Studies in Finland and she is also writing a book. Tuomivaara was also involved in the founding of the Finnish Network for Human–Animal Studies, current Finnish Society for Human–Animal Studies. Her research interests include human–animal dualism, posthumanism and significance of human–animal boundary.