Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Beyond Pets: Exploring Relational Perspectives of Petness

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Beyond Pets: Exploring Relational Perspectives of Petness

Article excerpt

Being cannot be anything but being-with-one-another--Jean-Luc Nancy


Over twenty-five years ago, Clifton Bryant accused sociologists of failing to address the "zoological component" in human interaction and social systems. Sociologists, he claimed,

   have often been myopic in their observations of human behaviour,
   cultural patterns and social relationships, and unfortunately have
   not taken into account the permeating social influence of animals
   in our larger cultural fabric, and our more idiosyncratic
   individual modes of interaction and relationships in their analyses
   of social life. (1979:400)

Since then, many sociologists have studied the prominence of animal-human relations, and arguably one of the best researched areas concerns the subject of pets and pet keeping. A burgeoning literature has explored the origins, utility, benefits, costs, and even difficulties associated with the human practice of living with pet or companion animals; these relationships are among the most common and significant in contemporary Western societies. At least half of all households in the English speaking world have pets and nearly 90% of pet owners consider pets to be family members (Plous 1993:2; Siegal 1993:157-8, Kruuk 2002:137-8).

While pets have been the subject of a great deal of attention, few authors have theorized the relation that constitutes animals as pets or questioned the quality of what I will call "petness." Most researchers recognize that there is nothing inherent to being a pet and agree that animals are labeled and handled differently according to the arbitrariness of humans' practices (Eddy 2003a). What connects most work on pets, including the ethical, theoretical, and empirical research, is that "the pet" is assumed to be an animal. Yet pets may not be living creatures and nonliving pets are either unnoticed or dismissed as inferior and trivial.

This is not to say there is no research on other types of pets, namely, virtual or inanimate pets that are not live animals (see Bickmore 1998; Bloch and Lemish 1999; Kritt 2000). Rather, what does exist has been largely marginalized to studies in new technologies, computers, or popular culture. Missing is a sociological examination of petness in its various manifestations. The literature on the question, "what is a pet," is problematic because it speaks to petness by looking at animals called pets rather than examining the larger social relation of petness and applying this framework to objects and animals.

This paper represents my attempt to rectify this situation by making a few simple arguments. I take the position that there is no essential "petness" to anything and that it is a social construction. I will argue that petness, which can generally be defined as the state, quality, or conditions under which a pet is constituted, arises from social relations and the treatment of objects. I contend that pets are a product of the investment of human emotion into objects, and that this is not exclusive to animals, but is also exhibited in our treatment of inanimate and inorganic entities.

Of Objects and Animals: Preliminary Conceptual Issues

It is important to identify the limitations and boundaries of this work. My use of the term "object" to refer to all pets, including animals, may seem inappropriate since animals are sentient beings and virtual pets are inorganic machines. Sentience generally refers to the capacity to feel, particularly pleasure or pain. It is implied that this capacity operates through some sort of consciousness, is expressed in behaviour, and therefore, is measurable. Thus, sentience links with the ability to be responsive, attentive, alert, and so on. (2) As I explain further below, even though there are obvious differences in their constitution, virtual pets show these capabilities. Of course it would be unwise to believe these emanate from any true selves in virtual pets. …

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