Photo: Sheep from James Good flickr photo stream

Why should the sociology of health be concerned with animal health?

The sociology of health has helped to develop a better understanding of the ways in which social processes are related to mental and physical health. In the process social relations, economics, social policies, identities, material conditions and technologies have all taken central positions within sociological analyses of health. But so far relatively little consideration has been paid to nonhuman animals in this field.

Some might argue that the sociology of health is really the “sociology of human health” although it is rarely explicitly conceptualised as such. A useful definition of the sociology of health, as presented in Sarah Nettleton’s excellent introduction to the field, suggests it is concerned with “all those aspects of contemporary social life that impinge upon well-being throughout the life-course”. Surely, animals are part of the social lives of most, if not all, people in one way or another.

To take a somewhat mundane example, many people credit the necessity of walking their dog for their exercise levels. Such people are feeling the effects of a social force which compels them to exercise their pet with clear positive effects on their own health. Yet, the most prominent place which animals have had in sociological analysis of health has been as food seen solely for their nutritional value. Calls are already underway for human/non-human animal relations to take a more prominent role in the broader discipline of sociology both for the analytical insights it can offer and for the advocacy potential. The sociology of health would seem to be a prime candidate to lead this.

A broader questioning of our relationship with animals is ongoing. It has been suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic should be read as a challenge to our assumed dominion over animals and that the often assumed love we have for animals is really an “anthropocentric sentimentality” rather than genuine care.

It could be argued that there is no need to include animals in the sociology of health as they are better served by traditions specifically focused on them. However, part of the reason why animals have been abused, exploited, and killed is that this they are often ontologically positioned as outside of humanity and human concerns.

There are perhaps definitional problems with applying sociology of health analysis to animals as what constitutes health for animals will be different. However, animal studies are regularly used to inform knowledge of human health (such as this study used to model the effects of shift work-related eating patterns on anxiety and depression through simulation in rats).

What would it mean to take animals seriously in the sociology of health?

First, we might apply existing sociological approaches (theory, research methods, analytical frameworks) to the situations of animals. For instance, we could think about the inequalities of health outcomes of animals in different contexts (perhaps by comparing lifespans of wild animals, pets or livestock in different countries). Second, we could include the impacts on animals when analysing health interventions (testing of pharmaceuticals on animals; effect of dietary recommendations on livestock; impact on wildlife in the construction or use of green, blue, or other spaces for exercise). Third, we could take more consideration of the impact of interactions with animals on the physical, emotional, or psychological health of humans. Catherine Price’s analysis of the “multispecies entanglements” revealed by Covid-19 is a great example of the potential of all three approaches.

Some moves have been made in this direction, particularly from medical anthropology with calls for an “interspecies sensibility” which is specifically structured around the notion of “care”. Such an approach is necessarily a “moral concern” which engages with our responsibility towards animals. Including animals in our analysis in this way also highlights a broader challenge to the field around the extent to which moral concerns should be centralised and what role they should play vis a vis more overtly health concerns. Also, the question is raised as to whether the health concerns of one group should be prioritised over, or even at the expense, of others.

Such an approach might draw on the sociology of animal rights as well as Donna Haraway’s work on “companion species”, Actor-Network theory or New Materialism. These approaches attempt to take nonhuman animals seriously as “actors” who have their own interests, concerns and rights to autonomy. Some recent work influenced by these traditions has started to consider human and animal health as “entangled” such as this paper on human and animal diagnosis but even this is acknowledged as “human centred” and such approaches are far from mainstream or commonplace.

Sociology of health is, arguably, playing catch-up with other areas as there have been growing public health calls for greater awareness of the entanglement of human, animal and environmental health for almost twenty years. These are often placed under the banner of the “One Health” movement, the mission of which being to

‘Educate’ and ‘Create’ networks to improve health outcomes and well-being of humans, animals and plants and to promote environmental resilience through a collaborative, global One Health approach.

However, “One Health” has been criticised for creating new opportunities for profit seeking and for more broadly subordinating animal health to human concerns.

While it is important to avoid purely high-minded abstract moralising the whole gamut of potential practical consequences of the position expressed here can’t be covered in a short post. However, it must be acknowledged there would inevitably be consequences for humanity (perhaps human health) in taking a stronger concern for animal health. What might be the impact of keeping animals alive “unproductively” that would otherwise have been used for food, clothing or other products? Might resources need to be redirected from elsewhere? Could pharmaceutical innovations become slower or riskier without animal testing? There are also the vast variety of cultural practices and traditions associated with the use of animals, the attempted prevention of which could easily be claimed as a form of cultural imperialism.

Many people in all parts of the world hold strong emotional attachments to the diverse ways in which animals are used (often exploited) for human benefit. Calls to end or limit these are likely to meet strong, resistance and resentment and potentially create more social divisions (which we have too much experience of in recent years). But it is hard to see how animals can continue to be excluded from our thinking on practical, analytical or ethical levels.