Animal Studies Bibliography

Jordan, James William. 1975. An Ambivalent Relationship: Dog and Human in the Folk Culture of the Rural South. Appalachian Journal 2: 238-248.

Observations of rural Southern culture in the early 1900s showed that almost every white male owned one or more dogs, and these dogs formed an important part of rural culture. The study of animals is an important area for anthropologists to examine because animals are shaped by and shape in return the human cultures in which they are involved through domestication and other relationships. The following comments are based on informal observation and thus should be taken as starting points for future analysis, not as systematic conclusions.

Dogs in the rural South are kept for various reasons, including habit, companionship, the dog's tendency to protect all the owner's property and belongings, and use to help in rounding up cattle, hunting, and catching wild hogs and escaped criminals. The prevalence of the dog in these tasks may be in part due to the history of the region, which was a frontier for a long time and therefore can be said to have a “fossilized frontier subculture” (240) which maintains elements needed for frontier survival. Dogs are also important in creating and maintaining human bonds and friendships, as men exchange puppies from good heritages (the puppies of good hunting dogs, etc.) and thus strengthen their bonds to each other. Dogs are named using names similar to those given to humans (thus symbolizing the dog's place in human society) but from a separate set reserved for dogs (Spot, Fido, etc.).

There is an important other side to this relationship, however. In rural Southern culture, dogs generally receive cruel and mean treatment, including kicking, starvation, and general failure to care for the dog's needs and health. Other cultures, such as Polynesia and Australia, have shown similar patterns of combined affection for and neglect of dogs. This contradiction is reflected in the way the dog's status--it is esteemed for its various kills and its loyalty and companionship, but when dog-related terms are used to apply to humans (low-down dog, bitch, etc.), they are epithets. Downs (1960) has portrayed the relationship between human and dog on a continuum from Dog as Subject (where dogs are kept in large numbers, bred and used for various tasks like hunting, and are cared for humanely) to Dog as Object (the dog is a pariah, scavenging and threatening humans and other animals, and receives cruelty or no care at all). Rather than falling somewhere on this continuum, however, rural Southern culture demonstrates aspects of both poles. Rural Southerners see no contradiction in their behavior and offer no explanations for it.

There are several possible reasons we might hypothesize to explain this ambivalent relationship. First, many people in this region do not have adequate food and health car, so perhaps the dogs, though they appear insufficiently cared for, are no worse off than are their owners. Further, when limited resources are available, it makes sense that they would go to humans or to animals that produce the families livelihood (e.g. a mule). Second, the rural South is a culture of toughness, into which it might not make sense to “baby” dogs through humane treatment. Third, because structural factors (weather, upper class people, etc.) may take away the rural Southerner's possessions at any time, he may avoid forming emotional attachments to any belongings, including dogs, that he knows he can't protect. For example, if the dog gets sick, the owner is unlikely to have the money to cure it; the lack of care for the dogs' health may be a response to this fact of life, to avoid emotional upset when the inevitable happens. Fourth, rural Southern men are relatively powerless, and they may try to ameliorate that feeling by exerting power over those groups that they can, such as women, children, African Americans, and dogs. Fifth, Even if the above factors no longer apply, people may have learned these patterns from cultural norms developed when such factors were important. Understanding the dog's status in this culture will help us understand the worldview of Southern folk life.



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