Animal Studies Bibliography

Brabant, Sarah and Linda Mooney. 1989. When ‘critters' act like people: Anthropomorphism in greeting cards. Sociological Spectrum 9: 477-494.

Anthropomorphism is a cross-cultural and historical phenomenon. Previous literature on anthropomorphism offers two possible functions it might serve. First, it may be used to convey messages that are difficult to convey otherwise, including lessons about ethics and values and critiques of social norms. Second, it may “serve as a window through which an alternate world view may be seen” (479). B&M study this phenomenon using birthday cards. Greeting cards can be understood as cultural artifacts, and birthday cards provide the most heterogeneous group of receivers (vs. cards limited to a particular religious holiday, ethnicity, etc.). A sample of 535 birthday cards was selected from 14 stores of varying types. A non-human (animal, plant, machine) was coded as anthropomorphic if it had one or more of the following attributes: “1) ability to communicate, for example, it spoke or read; 2) emotion, for example, it smiled or cried; 3) appearance, for example, it wore clothing or carried paraphernalia associated with humans; and 4) action, for example, it did something only humans do, such as play golf or drive a car” (481). B&M compared anthropomorphic with nonanthropomorphic cards on three categories: 1) card and store characteristics; 2) tone and (verbal and visual) messages; 3) sex of receiver and sender/receiver relationship. A cartooned animal was the second most popular cover for the cards, found on 23.7% of the sample (first was flowers, 34.6%). 12.5% of the sample had anthropomorphised animals. Anthropomorphised cards were: more likely to be found at stores with large card selections; more likely to be low-cost; more likely to have bumpy edges; more likely to have raised pictures rather than raised lettering; more likely to have extra features (enclosure, extra pages, etc.); more likely to have fewer words; equally likely to use adjectives describing the receiver, including “special”; much more likely to be neutral in tone (neither serious nor funny); much more likely to be only about the present; twice as likely not to mention time at all; much less caring--less expression of praise, love, thinking of the receiver, or difficulty expressing feelings; less likely to give direct commands; more likely to mislead (say something on the front that is wrong or changed inside); more likely to mention receiver's age; more likely to show deviance (e.g. drinking, gambling, smoking, “fast living”, obesity, low intelligence, etc.); equally likely to be for males or females (when specified by the card)--vs. nonanthropomorphised cards, more likely to be for females; more likely to be for a general audience than for a relative (vs. 50-50 in nonanthropomorphised cards); about equally likely to show gender signs, but more likely to show an apron, with the “mommy” in an apron a frequent animal character. B&M point out that our frequent use of anthropomorphised characters is, in Goffman's terms, “crazy,” since we all know animals do not act like humans, and thus they ask why we do so. A first explanation is that using an animal allows us to say or do things we couldn't normally--thus the animals are so often seen in deviant acts which we are therefore not responsible for. B&M, however, suggest another explanation. More than half the anthropomorphised cards were for general receivers rather than relatives. Sending a birthday card to a non-relative is more likely to involve social risk (of rejection or non-reciprocity). Anthropomorphic cards may allow people to express the sentiment in a card that appears less serious and less “mushy,” making the exchange less risky. Some norms, however, are still maintained even when using animals: when multiple animals are interacting, mixed types were only for general audiences and were shown in public settings; on cards for relatives, the animals were always similar types (size, shape, color) and were often in private settings. B&M conclude, “we can accept anthropomorphism only within specific culturally defined limitations. ... reinforces a cultural prohibition against inter-group interaction at the primary level” (492).


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