Academic journal article Theory in Action

Overcoming Sociological Naïveté in the Animal Rights Movement

Academic journal article Theory in Action

Overcoming Sociological Naïveté in the Animal Rights Movement

Article excerpt


On June 27, 2010, Emma Czomobaj stopped her Honda Civic in the left lane of a Quebec highway to assist a group of ducklings, as distracted drivers observed her efforts before returning their gaze to the roadway. André Roy, riding his Harley-Davidson with his 16-year-old daughter Jessie, only noticed the illegally parked vehicle at the last moment and could not swerve in time to avoid crashing into the rear of the Civic. Both Roy and his daughter died as a result. In June 2014, a jury convicted Czomobaj of criminal negligence causing death (Cherry 2014). The Crown Prosecutor, Annie-Claude Chasse, commented: "What we hope is that a clear message is sent to the society that we do not stop on the highway for animals. It's not worth it" (The Canadian Press 2014).

The tragic incident highlights the inherent tensions embedded in the philosophical debates surrounding the value of human life vis-à-vis nonhuman life. At one end of the continuum, some individuals challenge the legitimacy of speciesism to recognize nonhuman animals as equally deserving of human kindness and compassion. For example, an online reader of The Canadian Press (2014) article suggested that while "she made a mistake in the placement of her stopped vehicle, Emma Czomobaj is a hero, and her intentions were pure. Everyone should stop to protect the innocent." At the other end of the continuum are those who draw clear distinctions between the value of human and nonhuman life: "Bleeding heart liberals sure do know how to minimize a human life. According to them, animals are just as valuable as humans." The latter comment affirms Cherry's (2010: 451) argument that "nonactivists hold a worldview in which humans are superior to animals, a view that shapes their relationships with animals."

The current paper examines these competing claims from a sociological perspective by applying Milner's (1994a, 2004) theory of status relations to explain why animal rights activists and those committed to "total liberation" (Pellow and Brehm 2015) face a rather daunting challenge. The main argument highlights the challenges associated with efforts to elevate the status of nonhuman species. The failure to understand these constraints, a classic example of "sociological naïveté," limits the efficacy of animal rights campaigns. By the same reasoning, a deeper sociological understanding of the theory of status relations can highlight conditions that might advance the cause of animal rights. The article then draws upon both a national opinion survey and a small-scale survey of university students to offer a preliminary test of the thesis. Although there are clear methodological limits to the data sources, the results from these surveys nevertheless support the main thesis developed.


The social scientific research on nonhuman animals has grown considerably over the years, with various journals and monographs aimed at advancing research on human-nonhuman interactions (Irvine 2004; Markovits and Queen 2009; Sable 2013; Serpell 2009; Vitulli 2006), the debates concerning animal cruelty, liberation and rights (Abbate 2015; Flükiger 2008; Merz-Perez and Heide 2004; Upton 2012), the cognitive and emotional capacities of nonhuman animals (Burghardt 2009; Custance and Mayer 2012; Singer 2014), and an assortment of other issues (e.g., Balster et al. 2009; Skitka 2012; Strier 2009). A growing body of sociological literature has focused on animal rights as a social movement (Cherry 2010; Lindblom and Jacobsson 2014), including the ritualistic nature of conversion and participation in the movement (Carmona 2012; Pike 2013).

The most significant ideological development in the animal rights movement, however, has been the shift from an "animal welfare" to the "abolitionist" approach. The former stresses the humane treatment of animals, especially the assurances of reasonable protections against cruelty or suffering in the context of the meat industry (Benson and Rollin 2004; Richards et al. …

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