We are famously a nation of animal lovers. There’s no doubt the British public has a strong affinity with its pets – whether they are dogs, cats, hamsters or lizards. Professor Nickie Charles has been studying that relationship for more than ten years and asking whether we are seeing the emergence of post-human families.
“People’s relationships with their pets run a lot deeper than they perhaps feel comfortable saying out loud,” says Professor Charles, from the University of Warwick’s Sociology department, who started to look at the idea of people relating to their pets as kin when investigating people’s familial relationships.
A son, a daughter and a dog
“I started my research looking at families and kinship networks – asking people who was important and who they counted as family. It became apparent that people were including their pets as members of their family – for example, saying they had a son, a daughter and a dog. I felt this was something worth investigating further. Do our relationships with our pets transcend the so-called species barrier – are they considered on the same level as relationships with children or spouses?”
Professor Charles’s work in this area is based on various pieces of research, one of which was a Mass Observation Project directive on the topic of Animals and Humans. The directive consisted of a series of prompts about human-animal relationships designed to get people to think about how animals feature in their lives. A panel of 500 correspondents made up of a cross-section of the British population responded to this directive in writing.
“In response to the prompts, many correspondents wrote accounts of their relationships with their pets some of which revealed very close and intimate relationships,” continues Professor Charles. “It was quite fascinating, because if you asked people similar questions in a face-to-face interview, you might not receive the same candid responses. This is because, although it’s acceptable for children to have close, emotional ties to their pets, as a society we don’t think this is appropriate for adults and, if we express such attachment to another person, there is the possibility that we’ll be judged.
“It was also apparent from the responses that there is a close bond between humans and their pets whether they are warm and furry or cold and scaly. It was a lot more common to find people talking about their cats and dogs, but certainly people talked fondly of individual fish and can get very attached to their reptiles too.”
From her research Professor Charles has concluded that for many there is a strength of feeling towards our pets that matches our feelings towards other family members.
Grief is a measure of attachment
“This is particularly evident when pets die,” explains Professor Charles. “What is striking is that often there is little difference between the strength of attachment of people to their animals and to human family members. People will talk about the death of a pet as if it is just as important. In fact social psychologists use grief as a measure of attachment and have shown grief levels to be comparable. However, people are often reluctant to express their grief to others – they will say things like ‘people think you’re daft’ or ‘people think you’re being over-sentimental’, so the death of a pet is trivialised somewhat, even though people are going through a real grieving process.”
Another of Professor Charles’s studies looks at the sociological impact of bringing Pets As Therapy (PAT) dogs onto campus at Warwick. She explains: “It is really interesting to look at the impact of animals which are not normally around in a work situation. We’ve had PAT dogs visit the library on campus for a couple of years. Initially they were brought in during exam times when students’ stress levels were particularly high in order to provide a break from revision and a chance to de-stress. But the dogs were so popular that now they visit regularly throughout the year. We’ve found that students really appreciate the opportunity to interact with the dogs and that being with them for even a short time results in them feeling calmer and happier. I think they’d like to have animals around on a more permanent basis.”
The sociological aspects of human interaction with animals is a broad and ever-developing subject and an area where Professor Charles is seeing societal change. She says: “The way humans relate to animals is changing. Empathy with animals is more widespread than in the past, we are realising that differences between humans and other animals are not so clear as was once thought and that all species are have special qualities and are unique. We are seeing that many more people have pets – pet-ownership is a mass phenomenon now in a way that it wasn’t previously. Coupled with this, we have much less to do with farmed animals. We are living in urban areas in close proximity to pets or companion animals but further away from farmed animals and this has implications for society. People are raising many more questions about food production, where food comes from, industrialised farming systems and sustainability.”
The sociological study of human-animal interactions may be considered trivial by some, but the breadth, importance and enormity of the subject area is reflected in some of the topics covered by Professor Charles and her PhD students in the Sociology Department at Warwick. Doctoral researchers are studying how dogs (and other animals) can assist war veterans in their recovery from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; the link between domestic abuse and animal cruelty; and how the keeping of pet dogs in China co-exists with such things as the Yulin dog meat festival. In no way are these questions light-weight and stand to push forward many social agendas and inform policy.
Professor Charles concludes: “Society can’t really be understood without an understanding of the part played by animals in social processes. With the problems facing us in the 21st century, particularly problems of climate change and mass extinctions, we have some massive questions to answer about our treatment and use of animals and how we depend on them as a society.”
Nickie Charles is Professor and Director of the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender. Her research focusses on women and gender and includes an interest in gender relations at work and at home and how women - through involvement in feminist social movements - can bring about social change. Her most recent research has explored gendered political processes in the context of devolution and she is increasingly interested in human-animal relations, particularly how non-human animals become kin.