The Sociology of Human-Animal Interaction and Relationships - Clinton R. Sanders

The Sociology of Human-Animal Interaction and Relationships

Clinton R. Sanders 
Department of Sociology 
University of Connecticut

Human interaction with nonhuman animals is a central feature of contemporary social life. However, since "the social sciences tend to present themselves pre-eminently as the sciences of discontinuity between humans and animals" (Barbara Noske 1990:66) and, despite the fact that human interactions with animals are commonplace, they have, until fairly recently, been virtually ignored within sociology. The basic foundation for this lack of attention to human-animal issues was established in the seventeenth century by the philosopher René Descarte who regarded animals as mindless machines. The Cartesian orthodoxy that has, until only recently, excluded animals from social scientific analysis is based on the linguacentric assumption that because animals lack the ability to employ spoken language they, consequently, lack the ability to think.

Nonetheless, a few nineteenth-century sociologists did offer discussions of animal abilities and human-animal interactions. Harriet Marineau (1865), for example, wrote about the urban problems caused by feral dogs, and Frances Cobbe (1872) discussed the relationship between dogs’ mental abilities and their physical characteristics. Writing a few years later, Max Weber, a central figure in the development of sociology, acknowledged that animals could play a role in sociological analysis. As he put it,

In so far [as the behavior of animals is subjectively understandable] it would be theoretically possible to formulate a sociology of the relations of men to animals, both domestic and wild. Thus, many animals "understand" commands, anger, love, hostility, and react to them in ways which are evidently often by no means purely instinctive and mechanical and in some sense both consciously meaningful and affected by experience. (Weber 1947:104)

Despite Weber’s openness to the possibility of a sociology of human-animal relationships, animals were largely ignored by early twentieth-century sociologists. Although he frequently discussed nonhuman animals in his writing, George Herbert Mead (1907) employed descriptions of the behavior of animals as the backdrop against which he juxtaposed his model of human action. In laying the intellectual groundwork for the constructionist perspective that would later become symbolic interactionism, Mead maintained that, although animals were social beings, their interactions involved only a primitive and instinctual "conversation of gestures" (the dog's growl or the cat's hiss, for example). In Mead's view, animals lacked the ability to employ symbols and were, therefore, unable to negotiate meaning and take the role of co-interactants. Their behavior was directed toward achieving simple goals such as acquiring food or defending territory, but because they were unable to use language, their behavior was devoid of meaning. They were mindless, selfless, and emotionless.

Interestingly, one of Mead’s colleagues at the University of Chicago did acknowledge the role animals could play in sociological analysis. In a little-known paper entitled "The Culture of Canines," Read Bain (1929) criticized the anthropocentrism of sociology and advocated the development of an "animal sociology." In his article Bain maintained that: “Just as animal intelligent and emotional behavior, anatomical and physiological structure and function, and group life, have their correlates in human behavior, so the dividing line between animal and human culture is likewise vague and arbitrary” (555).

For the most part, however, sociology continued to turn a blind eye to animals until Clifton Bryant (1979) issued a call for sociologists to focus serious attention on what he called the “zoological connection” while bemoaning the fact that sociology has “tended not to recognize, to overlook, to ignore, or to neglect. . . the influence of animals, or their import for, our social behavior, our relationships with other humans, and the directions which our social enterprise often takes” (339).

Prompted by Bryant’s exhortation, by the late twentieth-century the human-animal relationship was becoming an increasingly popular substantive focus within sociology. Sociologists were publishing papers in Society and Animals and Anthrozoös, the major journals devoted to human-animal studies. Established sociological journals such as Marriage and the FamilyQualitative Sociology, and The Journal of Social Issues had published special issues devoted to the topic. And research based articles were appearing in prestigious journals such as Symbolic Interaction, The Sociological Quarterly, and The Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. Further, as the twenty-first-century was about to dawn, 40 or more courses in Animals and Society were offered by sociology and other social science disciplines in U.S. colleges and universities (Balcombe 1999). A key stage in the legitimation of the topic within sociology occurred in 2002 when, after some five years of application, petitioning, and denial, the "Animals and Society" section was established in the American Sociological Association (see Nibert 2003).

As sociologists’ attention has been increasingly directed to people’s relationships with animals, clear foci of interest have emerged. Of particular importance are discussions of animal-centered social movements (for example, Jasper and Nelkin 1992 and Nibert 2002), relationships with companion animals (Irvine 2004 and Sanders 1999 on dogs, Alger and Alger 2003 on cats, Brandt 2004 and Wipper 2000 on horses), and the experiences of workers in animal-related occupations (Arluke 1988 and Groves 1997 on animal researchers, Sanders 1994 on veterinarians, Scarce 2000 on wildlife biologists, Case 1991 on horse racing, Arluke 2004 on humane enforcement officers, Sanders 2006 on K-9 police).

As part of the process of continuing to legitimate the sociological study of human-animal relationships, scholars are increasingly focusing on conventional issues of central concern to sociologists. These issues include mindedness as an internal activity and social accomplishment (Alger and Alger 1997, Sanders 1993), animal selfhood and identity (Myers 2003, Irvine 2004), and the impact of being accompanied by animals on public interaction (Robins, Sanders and Cahill 1991; Sanders 2000). A theme running throughout the recent sociological literature on human-animal interaction is the cultural centrality of ambivalence as the factor most shaping social relationships with and human treatment of animals (see Arluke and Sanders 1996, Wilkie 2005).

As sociologists continue to attend to the “zoological connection” and recognize that we live in “mixed species societies” in which nonhuman animals play a key role, sociology will extend its substantive and theoretical boundaries. By continuing to move animals into “sociological visibility” (Oakley 1974:5), the discipline cannot fail but to be enriched.



Alger, Janet and Steven Alger. 1997. "Beyond Mead: Symbolic Interaction between Humans and Felines." Society and Animals 5 (1): 65-81.

Alger, Janet and Steven Alger. 2003a. Cat Culture: The Social World of a Cat Shelter. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Arluke, Arnold. 1988. "Sacrificial Symbolism in Animal Experimentation: Object or Pet?" Anthrozoös 2 (2): 98-117.

Arnold Arluke. 2004. Brute Force: Animal Police and the Challenge of Cruelty. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.

Arluke, Arnold and Clinton Sanders. 1996. Regarding Animals. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Bain, Read. 1929. "The Culture of Canines." Sociology and Social Research 13 (6): 545-556.

Balcombe, Jonathan. 1999. "Animals and Society Courses: A Growing Trend in Post-Secondary Education." Society and Animals 7 (3): 229-240.

Brandt, Keri. 2004. "A Language of their Own: An Interactionist Approach to Human-Horse Communication." Society and Animals 12 (4): 299-316.

Bryant Clifton. 1979. "The Zoological Connection: Animal Related Human Behavior" Social Forces 58 (2): 399‑421.

Case, Carole. 1991. Down the Backstretch: Racing and the American Dream. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Cobbe, Frances Power, 2003 (1872). "The Consciousness of Dogs." Sociological Origins 3 (1): 19-26.

Groves, Julian. 1997. Hearts and Minds: The Controversy over Laboratory Animals. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Irvine, Leslie. 2003. "George's Bulldog: What Mead's Canine Companion Could Have Told Him About the Self." Sociological Origins 3 (1): 46-49.

Irvine, Leslie. 2004. If You Tame Me: Animal Identity and the Intrinsic Value of Their Lives. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Jasper, James and Dorothy Nelkin, 1992, The Animal Rights Crusade: The Growth of a Moral Protest. New York: The Free Press.

Martineau, Harriet. 2003 (1865). "Dogs: Unauthorized, Unclaimed, and Vagabond." Sociological Origins 3 (1): 7-9.

Mead, George Herbert. 1907. "Concerning Animal Perception." Psychological Review 14: 383-390.

Mead, George Herbert. 1962. Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Myers, Eugene. 2003. "No Longer the Lonely Species: A Post-Mead Perspective on Animals and Self." International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 23 (3): 46-68.

Nibert, David. 2002. Animal Rights, Human Rights: Entanglements of Oppression and Liberation, Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield.

Nibert, David. 2003. "Origins of the ASA Section on Animals and Society, With a Bibliographic Appendix." Sociological Origins 3 (1): 53-58.

Noske, Barbara. 1990. "The Question of Anthropocentrism in Anthropology." Focaal 13:66-84.

Oakley, Ann. 1974. The Sociology of Housework. New York: Pantheon.

Robins, Douglas, Clinton Sanders, and Spencer Cahill. 1991. "Dogs and Their People: Pet‑Facilitated Interaction in a Public Setting." Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 20 (1): 3-25.

Sanders, Clinton. 1993. "Understanding Dogs: Caretakers' Attributions of Mindedness in Canine-Human Relationships." Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 22 (2): 205-226.

Sanders, Clinton. 1994. "Annoying Owners: Routine Interactions with Problematic Clients in a General Veterinary Practice." Qualitative Sociology 17 (1): 159-170.

Sanders, Clinton. 1999. Understanding Dogs: Living and Working with Canine Companions. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Sanders, Clinton. 2000. "The Impact of Guide Dogs on the Identity of People with Visual Impairments." Anthrozoös 13 (3): 131-139.

Sanders, Clinton. 2003. "Actions Speak Louder than Words: Close Relationships Between Humans and Nonhuman Animals." Symbolic Interaction 26 (3): 405-426.

Sanders, Clinton. 2006. “The Dog You Deserve: Ambivalence in the K-9 Officer/Patrol Dog Relationship.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 35 (2): 148-172.

Scarce, Rik. 2000. Fishy Business: Salmon, Biology, and the Social Construction of Nature. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Weber, Max. 1947. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. New York: Free Press.

Wilkie, Rhoda. 2005. “Sentient Commodities and Productive Paradoxes: The Ambiguous Nature of Human-Livestock Relations in Northeast Scotland.” Journal of Rural Studies 21 (2): 213-230.

Wipper, Audrey. 2000. “The Partnership: The Horse-Rider Relationship in Eventing.” Symbolic Interaction 23: 47-70.


Ruminations 2 
"The Sociology of Human-Animal Interaction and Relationships" 
Clinton R. Sanders 
Date Published May 25, 2006