"Critical anthropomorphism" and multi-species ethnography: an investigation of animal behaviour expertise.

Student thesis: Phd


The production of formalised knowledge about the subjective capacities and behavioural repertoires of nonhuman animals has ethical and political consequences for how we treat those animals and for the lives that they subsequently experience; but also for popular culture, legal frameworks, national infrastructures and corporate governance. Furthermore, sociologists, dissatisfied with the anthropocentrism of conventional research methods, are increasingly citing the need for animal behaviour expertise and socio-zoological methods in order to adequately capture something of an animal's experience and agency in their field-sites. In recent years, human-animal studies scholars across the spectrum of the humanities have been calling for a methodological "critical anthropomorphism", which endorses qualitative interpretations of animal behaviour, but is tempered by either scientific, species-specific knowledge drawn from the natural sciences, or phenomenological practices of attention and empathy. Yet there has been scarce attention to the embodied, inter-subjective and epistemological ways in which such a practice might be accomplished, and what its socio-political consequences might be. This thesis is an ethnographic exploration of the onto-epistemological politics of "critically anthropomorphic" animal behaviour expertise, as it is practiced through two different professional, zoological methodologies. The first site is the teaching of horse behaviour and communication through a somatic and affective "felt sense" at The Forge, an organisation offering "Equine-Assisted Personal Development". The second site, Moor University, explores the development of a mixed qualitative and quantitative tool known as Qualitative Behaviour Assessment (QBA), for the welfare assessment of laboratory mice. I investigate how a "critical anthropomorphism" emerges through these methods, and what its possibilities, contradictions, challenges and implications are. Using vignettes from fieldwork, each chapter identifies how the "critical" emerges from the "anthropomorphic" and vice versa: where uncomplicated generosities of interpretation give way to assertions of authoritative expertise; where the entanglement of self and other is met with equine or murine rebuke; where risky ethical misgivings haunt professional united fronts and where serious disciplinary conventions give way to pleasure and empathy. In my final conclusion I pull together some of the ethical and epistemological lessons from these chapters for a multi-species, ethnographic practice in sociology.
Date of Award1 Aug 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorRichie Nimmo (Supervisor) & Sophie Woodward (Supervisor)

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