Podcast interview with sociologist Clifton Flynn on On Human-Nonhuman Relations June 2012
Roger Yates interviews Clifton Flynn, sociologist and author of Social Creatures (Lantern Books, 2008) and Understanding Animal Abuse: A Sociological Analysis (Lantern Books, 2012) about his work on animal abuse and the changing views about nonhuman animals in the field of sociology. Clifton Flynn is among a group of sociologists who are trying to get the field of sociology to include nonhuman animals in the social realm.
Flynn first discusses conventional definitions of animal abuse that exclude socially accepted or legal practices of abuse such as: “socially unacceptable behavior that intentionally causes unnecessary pain, suffering, or distress to and/or death of an animal.”
He said he prefers Robert Agnew’s broader definition of animal abuse: “any act that contributes to the pain or death of an animal, or that otherwise threatens the welfare of an animal.” This definition includes socially acceptable, legal abuse of animals, including abuse in farming and experimentation.
Flynn says he thinks there are three main reasons why social scientists have been slow to study animal abuse:
- Many people think animal abuse is just a rare practice committed by a few sick or pathological people.
- There are social and cultural factors that lead to widespread animal abuse, and to a relative lack of importance being placed on the issue, especially on practices legitimized by government, science and religion.
- Animals have no voice.
He points out that animal abuse is not just a phenomenon of individual behavior, and looking at psychological characteristics is not going to help us identify animal abusers.
Flynn stresses that while statistical analysis is important to the study of animal abuse, there is also a need for qualitative research, particularly in looking at what the acts of abuse mean to the abusers themselves.
According to him, efforts to get more attention paid to animal abuse in the U.S. has led to increased severity of penalties. There are now at least some animal abuse offenses that are felony level in 48 states in the U.S. In 1995 there were only 10. He says one of the major reasons for this is that there is now a better understanding of the link between abusing animals and abusing humans.
He discusses neutralization theory, and evidence that animal abusers do not tend to reject societal norms. Rather, they try to rationalize and justify their abuse in an attempt to neutralize the perceived deviance of their behavior.
Flynn discusses Robert Agnew’s theory of animal abuse, which starts with individual factors and then looks at social-structural factors such as gender, race and class. According to Agnew, animal abuse is more likely to occur when people:
- are ignorant of the consequences of the abuse
- believe their abusive actions are justified
- believe the benefits outweigh the cost
Yates and Flynn discuss how people looking at animal abuse from the perspective of symbolic interactionism are challenging the original theory of George Herbert Mead. According to Flynn, sociologists have been resistant to include animals at all and that is due largely to George Herbert Mead and his symbolic interactionist approach.
Mead believed that only humans were capable of symbolically interacting, that is, of creating meaning as we interact with each other, because only humans have language. It was language that was seen as so critical by Mead. Because of language we’re able to think. Because of language we’re able to have a self. Because of language we’re able to anticipate the responses of others and thereby create shared meanings that influence our behavior as we interact. Well, animals, according to Mead, couldn’t speak. They had no language, so consequently, they had no self, they couldn’t think, they couldn’t role take or put themselves mentally in the position of others and respond to themselves from that point of view, and they couldn’t interact symbolically. So, for Mead, animals were outside the sphere of sociology… Important symbolic interactionists like Clinton Sanders, Leslie Irvine, Jan and Steve Alger and others have argued very effectively, I think, that even though they don’t have language, animals do have selves, can role take, are individuals, are intelligent, and can engage in symbolic interaction and therefore ought to be included within the realm of sociology… They are not objects. They are not robots. They are not beings acting on instinct. They are minded social actors and they are intelligent, they are individual, they are reciprocating emotional beings — the characteristics that many of us attribute to personhood.
Flynn said that when he first started working on the issue of animal abuse, others used to think the work he was doing was trivial, or was taking away from more important work on issues like race, gender and class inequality. He feels that he and others have made headway in getting animal issues seen as important in academia. In addition to his work, two other topics that have gotten significant notice are selfhood among animals and the construction of personhood among animals.
Flynn mentions a study that helps move research on animal abuse beyond the individual level and a focus on socially unacceptable behavior and looks at it on the institutional level. The study found that slaughterhouse employment is significantly related to increased reports of crimes. The authors found that the reported rates of violent crime were double in counties that had 7500 or more slaughterhouse employees in them compared to counties without slaughterhouse employees.
You can listen to the interview with Clifton Flynn on the On Human-Nonhuman Relations blog.