Animals and the Social Construction of Nature

Bat tower

Today I submitted a chapter abstract that may be of interest to some. It is for a book on critical animal geographies. For those of you not familiar with the terminology, critical refers to a moral-political commitment to social justice. Animal geographies is human-animal studies from a geographic point of view. In other words, critical animal geographers are interested in the intersection of human and animal abuse by economic and political forces (e.g. the state, corporations, social elites), as well as how to speak out and defend the well being of marginalized populations of people and other animals. Whether you agree with the precise theoretical frameworks or not, it is an admirable project to do right by people, animals and the rest of nature. It is bedevilled, however, by a history of critical discourse that discounts the moral value and political relevance of animals. Here is the abstract I wrote, followed by the editor’s call for contributions.

At its best, critical geography is an ethics-laden project. Expressed using social theoretical terms like emancipation and liberation, critical sensibilities seek to empower others and improve their well being. This involves a two-fold project of deconstructing relations of power, and envisioning alternative forms of social organization and cultural norms. Critical theories are frequently and self-consciously radical, seeking transformative knowledge that engages the world to both understand and change it. Marxian, feminist, postcolonial, poststructural, and other theorizations have been central to critical geography, and are particularly valuable for their critiques of the norms and practices of injustice and oppression. Indeed a broad understanding of both procedural and substantive justice lies at the heart of critical geography.

Yet the moral side of this political project has not always been well understood by critical geographers themselves. In the early 1990s ethical concerns were derided in critical geography as bourgeois, hegemonic, totalizing, epiphenomenal, liberal, white, male, Eurocentric, and colonial. This gradually changed as critical geographers learned more about ethics itself, how it informed and underwrote their own projects, and recognized the conceptual and persuasive power of ethical discourse in the academic and public spheres. Critical geographies were thus able to manage the transition from justice-talk to ethics-talk, in part because justice is a social application of moral thinking. Politics is, after all, “ethics writ large”.

When it comes to thinking about ethics, animals and nature, however, critical geographers have been laggards. With apologies to Marx, animals and the rest of nature are generally regarded as the inorganic body of humankind to be metabolized for social purposes. Accepting the sentience, sapience, subjectivity, agency, culture, intrinsic moral value, and moral standing of animals has been a hard and bitter pill for some to swallow. It points up a severe deficiency in theory and the meaning of core concepts like emancipation and justice, challenges the requisite methods of research, and problematizes the assumed primacy of human-focused projects. Put plainly, it places animal rights and environmentalism on an equal and independent footing to social movements for peace, decolonization and justice.

Many geographers have thus turned to the social construction of nature thesis and its variants (e.g. hybridity, actor network theory) as a way to theorize humanity’s troubled relationship with animals and nature, while stubbornly retaining and justifying their speciesism. The thesis accomplishes this through dual mechanisms of social reduction and anthropocentrism. Non-humans and non-human nature are claimed to be “produced” by social forces, and moral value is restricted to humankind alone. This breathless self-absorption may defy knowledge and experience, but it is deeply ingrained and resistant to change.

Critical animal geography thus poses a fundamental challenge to the value-free scientism that still grips parts of geography, as well as the speciesism that stalks the halls of critical discourse. Yet to rise to the full measure of this challenge, critical geographers must shed their inhibitions against framing research for animals themselves. Taken as a whole, current research focuses on animals as markers of social practices, measures of environmental change and resilience, cultural or material resources for societies, commodities in capitalist accumulation, or functional units of ecosystems. Yet as animal geographers know well, animals are not simply portals through which we view the human predicament more clearly. They are independent beings sharing a more than human moral community to whom we have common if differentiated ethical responsibilities.

In the end it is not the tradition of critical theory that is the problem, but a community of scholars who are not critical enough. When justice in critical geography is understood to apply to people, animals and nature alike, then critical animal geographers will know they have succeeded in decentring the human in geography.

Call for Contributors to Critical Animal Geographies edited book volume

Fifteen years after the publication of the groundbreaking Animal Geographies (Wolch & Emel 1998), followed by Animal Spaces, Beastly Places (Philo & Wilbert 2000), a growing number of geographers now readily acknowledge the nonhuman animal as an important site of intellectual inquiry. Following the call to “bring the animals back in” to the discipline (Wolch & Emel 1995), animal geographers have taken up the project of “decentering the human in human geography” (Anderson 2013) by reckoning with the inescapable contingency of the human subject. This has yielded fascinating and important explorations of deeply constitutive human-animal relations and the spaces, traces, violences and practices that enable them and are left in their wake.

Since the “third wave” of animal geographies (Urbanik 2012) in the 1990s, billions of real animals have continued to service humans and capitalist accumulation as food, labourers, entertainment, clothing, biomedical research subjects, and companions. Human-animal relationships are fraught with complex dynamics of power and privilege involving the uneven appropriation of lives, labours and bodies across species, including humans. At the same time, humans and animals have an extraordinary capacity for engaging in inter-species relationships of mutual care, love, and companionship. These ambivalent material-semiotic entanglements between humans and animals are both at stake and implicated in contemporary ecological crises, bringing a critical urgency to the task of rethinking dominant orders (capitalist, species, juridico-political, scientific) that structure human-animal relations.

As geographers, we have just scratched the surface of academic inquiry into the rich and varied lives of animals, the ethical and political questions relating to human-animal relations, and the implications for thinking about alternative modes of being in this multispecies world. Critical human geography has traditionally aimed not merely to interpret and analyze the world, but to change it. In such a spirit, this edited volume makes a call for a distinct critical animal geography – one that interprets the complex plurality of human-animal relations, but does not stop there. Critical animal geographies interrogate structures of power and social inequality across species lines and presuppose a commitment to understanding and destabilizing the status quo and reimagining alternative visions of human-animal relations.

The aim of this edited volume is to feature cutting edge critical animal geographies research that radically rethinks how we conceptualize our relationship and responsibility to nonhuman animals. We are interested in empirical and theoretical engagements rooted in critical geographic research relating to animals and human-animal relations. We are also interested in fresh perspectives on methodological approach and on extending critical and radical theoretical framings to include animal geographies work. Chapters may include (but are not limited to) engagement with feminist/eco-feminist, political economy, post-humanist, cyborg/hybrid, anarchist, post-colonial, and queer literatures in order to envision a diverse set of epistemological, ontological and methodological perspectives on animals.

We ask that anyone interested in contributing to this Critical Animal Geographies volume submit a one page CV (including previous publications) and an abstract of no more than 500 words by June 1, 2013. If your abstract is selected for inclusion in the book, full chapters will be due February 1, 2014.

Please send abstracts and direct any questions to the volume editors: Katie Gillespie ( and Rosemary Collard (


Anderson, Kay. 2013. “Mind over Matter? On Decentering the Human in Human Geography,” Annual Cultural Geographies Lecture, Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, April 12.

Philo, Chris & Chris Wilbert. 2000. Animal Spaces, Beastly Places. Routledge.

Urbanik, Julie. 2012. Placing Animals. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Wolch, Jennifer & Jody Emel. 1998. Animal Geographies. London: Verso.

Wolch, Jennifer & Jody Emel. 1995. Guest-edited issue: Bringing the animals back in. Environment & Planning D: Society and Space, 13(6).

Image. Manaugh, Geoff and Nicola Twilley. The Bat Tower, The Atlantic, 20 November 2012.

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2 Responses to Animals and the Social Construction of Nature

  1. William Lynn says:

    Hi Eric! Thank you for the thoughtful and insightful comment, as well as the suggested reading. I have not yet read Political Matter, and I will certainly do so with your caution in mind. Perhaps variants is too strong a term, conveying more similarity than justified, and social construction as a “theme” in related discourses would be more accurate. I will definitely keep this in mind. :)

  2. SHEPPARD, ERIC S. says:

    Great abstract Bill: I think you may over-reach in saying that ANt etc. is about social construction (as opposed to socio-natural construction–eg Michel Callon on how scallops make markets); also you might want to check out the work on materiality and politics (if you have not done so), eg:
    Political Matter: Technoscience, Democracy, and Public Life
    Bruce Braun, Sarah Whatmore (eds)
    U of Minnesota Press, 2010 – Science – 319 pages
    Taking seriously the argument that things have politics, Political Matter seeks to develop a fully materialist theory of politics, one that opens new possibilities for imagining the relationship between scientific and political practices. The contributors assert that without such a theory the profusion of complex materials with and through which we live-plastic bags, smart cars, and long-life lightbulbs, for example-too often leaves us oscillating between fearful repudiation and glib celebration.

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