Animal Studies Bibliography

Sanders, Clinton. 1993. Understanding dogs: Caretakers' attributions of mindedness in canine- human relationships. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 22(2): 205-226.

Animal-human interaction has been generally ignored by sociology because Meadian social interaction theory is phonocentric, holding that true exchanges (intersubjectivity) occur through language. People with consistent contact with animals, however, consistently interpret animals as subjective actors in an meaningful social relationship with them. This attribution occurs both among pet owners and among workers who make it despite other ideologies they are expected to adhere to (e.g. for lab workers, the animal as mindless scientific object). Sanders used participant observation at a veterinary clinic, open-ended interviews, and autoethnography to study how dog owners constructed their interactions with dogs. The processes at work parallel those outlined by Bogdan & Taylor (1989) for nondisabled people construe their relationships with severely disabled others. Assigning or denying human status is a social activity. Designating groups of people as less than human and dehumanizing people in an institutional setting are common practices historically. Dog owners in the study did not literally think their dogs were people, nor did they use a keyed frame to consider the dogs pretend people as suggested by Hickrod & Schmitt (1982). Rather, recognized that the dog was not literally human while still experiencing their interactions as a real social relationship. They did this through the same 4 mechanisms described by Bogdan & Taylor. First, they attributed mindedness to the dog. Owners generally believed that their dogs thought differently than humans do, describing dogs' thought as nonlinear, composed of images, emotion-based, and focused on basic issues like immediate events and its physical and emotional experience. As evidence of the dogs' thought, owners told stories of dogs altering their behavior during training or everyday life as they figured out problems and tried to get owners to alter their behavior in some desired way (e.g. dogs' actions to get the owner to open the door or give a dog treat), or as dogs interacted in play with each other and showed learning, thought, and deception to get what they wanted. Second, owners described their dogs as individuals, based on the dogs' personality, preferences in food, activities, toys, and people, and dogs' personal histories, described as shaping their personalities. Third, owners described their dogs as emotional beings, and this emotion was the reciprocal aspect of the relationship. Owners described dogs as expressing their feelings of happiness, anger, etc. to their owners, as showing guilt when they violated the rules of the house (their awareness of which was further support for their humanness), and sharing emotion with the owner, through reciprocal love and particularly by the dog sensing owners' distress and comforting the owner. These shared feelings produced strong emotional ties between owner and dog. Fourth, the dog was given a social place. Dogs were considered family members or close friends. As such they were part of the daily household routine (natural rituals that create a mutual sense of being together') and of special events like Christmas and the dog's birthday. Owners expressed discomfort with questions asking them directly about their dogs' humanness, because they were aware of social stigma attached to people who take pets too seriously. This research helps to expand symbolic interactionists' concept of the mind, moving from the Meadian definition of the mind as an individual conversation/object to the mind as a entity. The use of emotion and prolonged interaction as a way for the nondisabled human to engage in doing mind, or giving voice to the mind of an alingual other, is of particular interest, as is expanded understanding of the iconographic mind. Creation of identities starts with social expectations and ideologies, and further interaction with the other then affirms or disconfirms those ideas about the other. Further sociological research should consider people's interactions with species other than dogs, work and leisure settings involving animals, variations in human-animal interaction by race, class, and ethnicity, and dependent human-animal relationships (people and their guide dogs, etc.).


Visit the Michigan State University Homepage Return to the Animal Studies Homepage