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UBC Theses and Dissertations

It's just an animal? A theoretical framework for understanding the emergence of animal categories in the United States de Soete, Francois


This dissertation examines why so many Americans have come to accept physically arduous conditions for animal species categorized as "livestock," but have by contrast come to exhibit considerable concern for other animal species that comprise the "endangered species" category. To that end, the research presented here draws largely on Michel Foucault and Clifford Geertz to examine how the animal categories "livestock" and "endangered species" developed in the United States. This research suspends normative claims regarding animal treatment in the United States and employs a Foucaultian perspective to examine how these animal categories emerged in the United States starting in the nineteenth century and how they developed over time. An interpretative framework based on Geertzian analysis supplements the Foucaultian perspective by demonstrating that variations within the two animal categories may also reflect symbolic attachments and systems of self-understanding for Americans. This dissertation yields three conclusions. First, the categories endangered animal species and livestock are not timeless objective technical definitions, but are categories that developed in the last two centuries out of material interests and competing scientific views. These categories function because various techno-scientific elements disconnect humans from animals and produce truths about different animals within a particular system of knowledge, or they operate in a system of meaning as Geertzian analysis reveals. Second, these categories supervene on the singular conception of "animality" that often serves as the conceptual foundation in animal welfare literature, suggesting that it is conceptually not viable to discuss animal welfare issues without reference to a particular category. Since the species in each category serve different functions in a system of managed population and are also situated in systems of meaning and self-understanding, this can explain why the differing standard of treatment that is often considered an ethical contradiction has been firmly maintained in the United States. Third, the following research demonstrates that Foucaultian analysis and Geertzian thick description do not present clear cut, mutually exclusive rival interpretations. Rather, these two approaches can complement one another and in some ways Geertzian analysis confirms the Foucaultian view in this research.

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