an anthropological approach to animals

“This book has been a critique of animal objectification and a quest for their ‘resubjectification’. Having come to the end I turn back to the discipline I was originally trained in: cultural or social anthropology. I regard my own discipline as a great science but unfortunately it has never allowed me to approach animals as an anthropologist would approach humans from another culture. Alas, there exists no anthropology of animals, only an (anthropocentric) anthropology of humans in relation to animals.

And yet anthropology is the science of the Other, it has all the makings of an inter-subjective science even if situated in a sea of subject-object oriented sciences. It possesses a pre-eminently inter-subjective method: participatory observation of people in other societies and other cultures. Apart from being inter-subjective, it is also holistic in its approach of the Other. A participant-observer does not just work with her mind as if observing humans in a laboratory setting – she has to immerse herself body, mind and soul in the Other’s sphere, sharing her people’s daily life, learning their language as well as their habits and views.

Contrary to the laboratory scientist who need not (even must not) get involved, the anthropologist identifies at least partly with her hosts. Good participatory observation is basically an exercise in empathy while at the same time one is aware of the impossibility of total knowledge and total understanding. At least as far as human subjects are concerned the anthropologist is supposed to tread upon this unknowable ground with respect rather than with disdain. He or she arrives at an understanding which, though never all-embracing, is bound to go deeper and to reveal another truth than the conclusions reached during working hours in a laboratory, where feelings would be taboo because they interfere with scientific objectivity.

An anthropologist will always be more than a registering scientist during her period of learning from another culture. She cannot but carry her whole person with her, and she and her hosts will build some inter-subjective relationship between them.

Curiously, a number of animal scientists, faced with the shortcomings of their own subject-object-minded science, have realized anthropology’s potential for the study of animals better than the anthropologists themselves have. Both Donna Haraway and Donald Griffin contemplate an anthropological approach to animals.

In his mind’s eye Griffin sees an anthropologist making initial contact with a group of people whose language is totally unknown. Because they are human, the anthropologist assumes their sounds to be a form of speech and encourages them to teach him. Griffin wonders why anthropologists have paid so little attention to the first steps needed to establish linguistic contact between people who speak languages unknown to one another.  Such a situation would be highly relevant for interspecific human-animal contact.

Various dolphin and whale researchers have also called for participatory observation among orcas and dolphins. If the science of anthropology would shed its a priori notion of animals as beings unworthy of an anthropological approach, and would share its insights with critical ethologists, it might grow into an integrated science of humans and animals alike under the name of anthropo-zoology or zoo-anthropology. Anthropologists of all people should know that Otherness can never be an excuse for objectification and degradation either in practice or in theory.”
—   Humans and Other Animals: Beyond the Boundaries of Anthropology – Barbara Noske (1988). Last pages, on her desires to see the field of anthropology take nonhumanimals more into account, as well as to see a study of nonhumanimals which utilizes anthropological empathy and seeks to understand all animal worlds, instead of a ‘disinterested’ study of nonhumanimal-objects.

(*Participant-observation is as it sounds a method of anthropological study where a researcher immerses themselves as far as possible in the lives of the community they are studying. “Inter-subjectivity” refers to subjects making and sharing new meanings in their interactions, rather than a separated, impartial researcher being able to come in and simply measure something from a passive object without affecting or being affected by them.)

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