Critical Animal Studies and Communication: A Call for Scholars
Critical media and communication scholars have always been primarily concerned with what hinders human equality and social justice from blossoming and, more particularly, the fundamental role media and communication play in either preventing or promoting social change. However, their understanding of inequality and suffering in society is not yet broad enough to incorporate the full picture. The approach used has been plagued by a very common bias present in social sciences and humanities: the positioning of humans at the very centre of meaning, value, knowledge, and action. This has been justified by the fact that social sciences and humanities, as the very names suggest, are devoted to the study of social relations from a human-centred perspective. However, the paradox is that anthropocentrism prevents scholars from addressing a most remarkable aspect that also shapes the quality or condition of being human, namely how we relate to other life on the planet, particularly sentient life.
I argue that due to their moral engagement, critical communication and media scholars are ethically obliged to expand their moral vision beyond human life, as was already successfully accomplished in other disciplines within social sciences and humanities (particularly in moral philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and psychology). Such an expanded moral vision does not mean pushing human suffering into the background, but rather realizing that humans are only part of the planet – not above it. Furthermore, exempting individuals of other species from the moral consideration we apply to human beings has no ethical basis and is in fact deeply rooted in our own suffering within capitalist societies, and in particular, connected with human inequality, power relations, and economic interests.
This expanded moral vision is mostly needed in critical media and communication studies for three main reasons. Firstly, because the environmental approach is not enough, since most often the ecological perspective simply perpetuates the rift between nature and culture, with the social construct precisely at the core of human destruction of life on the planet. Secondly, the expanded view is necessary because the focus on what concerns humans and what social is has been arbitrarily defined. Thirdly, a view transgressing human beings is needed for the moral progress of ethical thinking – as moral philosophy has demonstrated in the past few decades.
A narrow understanding of the social
The media and communication research field has been traditionally assigned the processes of human communication. In particular, critical media and communication studies have been considered as a tool for critical thinking about the power and influence media exert on human society. Consequently, the study object of critical media and communication studies is not human beings but the communication processes that constitute human interaction, and more precisely, how these processes either prevent or perpetuate domination and oppression. However, due to the narrow definition of social, critical media and communication studies have long neglected a huge part of domination and oppression processes. This limited view promoted a rationale that the topic should not be of concern to social sciences if human beings are not the direct victims. Consequently, until recently nature and nonhuman animals were nearly absent from media and communication studies in general.
Yet nature and animals have not been absent at all from the spheres of media and communications. On the contrary, they have been increasingly mediated – and consent on them manufactured – by nature programs, news, books, magazines, cartoons, films, and documentaries, museums, exhibits, and of course the Internet. This is simply a logical outcome of the position of nonhuman animals in human society; more accurately, the position we force them into by exploiting animals and nature in the name of self-interest. This use therefore must be recognized as a social phenomena inasmuch as the social in a human society cannot be defined by only some selected human deeds. All our actions make up the social. For all the above reasons, the ethical, political, economic, and social implications of our exploitation of nature and other animals are already considered part of the social by moral philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, political scientists, and other social scientists.
In the media and communications discipline, nature has already been incorporated into the critical media and communication studies through environmental concern. However, the media’s role in manufacturing human consent for the oppression and exploitation of nonhumans is still a budding research topic in which critical media studies have been primarily focused on questions of representation, and to a much lesser extent on media and communication ethics or political economy of communication.
Shared Critical Stances
The history of resistance to dominant powers, the focus on hegemony and class power, and the social totality pursued by critical research on media and communication have also been at the heart of Critical Animal Studies (CAS) ever since the field was defined (Best et al, 2007). CAS has been summarized by the coiners of the term as a “radical, interdisciplinary field dedicated to establishing a holistic total liberation movement for humans, nonhuman animals, and the Earth” (Nocella II et al, 2014: xxvi). Interestingly, however, CAS actually did exist before the term was coined as an umbrella term for bringing together scholars who did critical research on human-animal relations, mostly ecofeminists – actually, ecofeminist writings are considered to be the catalyst for debate on critical animal studies (Taylor & Twine, 2014).
It must be stressed that although CAS falls within the broader field of animal studies (AS), it is not synonymous with AS but seeks to differentiate itself by having a direct focus “on the circumstances and treatment of animals” and by linking “activism, academia and animal suffering and maltreatment” (Taylor & Twine 2014: 1-2). In fact, for the founders of the CAS concept, the inclusion of the term “critical” had an unmistakable purpose, namely to include perspectives typically ignored by the animal welfare and animal rights movements such as political economy, subjectivity, holistic understanding of the commonality of oppressions, activism, abolitionism rather than reformism, and anti-capitalism (Best et al, 2007).
Thus, like critical media and communication research, CAS argues for an engaged critical praxis, for the political economy perspective, and for political stances that dismantle structures of exploitation, domination, oppression, and power. But CAS also provides a much-needed deconstruction of the binary opposition between human and nonhuman animals and a holistic understanding of oppressions or intersectionalities, a concept that describes the ways in which oppressive institutions and systems are interconnected and thus cannot be examined separately from one another.
For this very reason, CAS research is ideally fitted to provide the theoretical and empirical basis that media and communication studies need to embrace a broader view of social justice. This view can be inspired by the politics of total liberation theory (Best, 2014) and should extend media and communication research beyond environmentalism to the animal ethics field. That is to say, studying the role of media and communication in the perpetuation of speciesism, in the power relationships and structures that sustain and promote the oppression of other animals and nature. Some questions to be raised are: What role do media and communication structures play in perpetuating anthropocentric-speciesist ideology? What links the media elites to businesses exploiting other animals and nature? What impact do communication technologies have on other animals and nature? How is labour in the communication and media sectors affected by speciesist ideology and how is this connected with other forms of discrimination (like sexism and classism)? How can a non-speciesist, non-anthropocentric mediation ethics be built? How can media and communication policies be redefined in accordance with the non-speciesist, non-anthropocentric view?
Still much uncharted territory
A number of authors (me included) have been involved in critical animal and communication research for over a decade now, following the pioneering work of Carol Adams in the 1990’s. Among others, Claire Molloy, Carrie P. Freeman, Vasile Stanescu, Debra Merskin, Tobias Linné, Matthew Cole, Natalie Khazaal, Randy Malamud, Erika Cudworth, Anat Pick, Emily Plec, Nik Taylor, Laura Fernández, Loredana Loy. A number of us have been trying not only to introduce the perspective into critical media and communication studies but also to develop the theoretical ground for it (Almiron, 2016; Almiron, Cole & Freeman, 2016; Almiron, Cole & Freeman, 2018; Almiron & Fernández, 2021). However, the majority of critical media and communication spaces in academia (journals, conferences, university programmes, funding sources) have not yet experimented with the animal turn – in other words incorporating a critical approach to animal oppression into the study of media ethics, its representation, effects, and power relations.
This article is intended to encourage scholars, in particular young people, to join us in this task. This can be achieved in all the areas of media and communication research ranging from media and communication ethics to the political economy of communication and cultural studies approaches. The study of journalistic practices, deontological codes, advertising, films and documentaries, public relations, interest groups, lobbying and advocacy, media audiences, as well as any communication practice conducted in the cultural/creative industries must expand beyond the narrow humanitarian and social justice views that exclude other species by deeming them morally irrelevant. Decentring humanity to embrace a truly egalitarian view is a logical step in a field such as critical media and communication studies; or at least it should be for scholars committed to moral values, the merging of theory and praxis, and who are concerned with the inequality triggered by power relations.
Let me finish with a recent example provided by one of the graduates of the master’s program I coordinate at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. The final thesis titled “Nonhuman Animals in Media for Children: Vessels for Anthropocentric and Anthropomorphic Representations” by Olatz Aranceta-Reboredo, a vegan researcher and activist, is an excellent literature review on the portrayal of nonhuman animals in the media for children from a critical animal studies perspective and an an anti-speciesist stance. Her thesis defence opened with an image from a Disney cartoon, which perfectly reflects the (absurd) extent to which speciesism has permeated our mediated culture. The image features Minnie Mouse encountering a mouse and yelling in fear, “Eek! A mouse!”, dropping the (cow) milk bottles she is carrying. While research on Disney has been very prominent in critical media studies, the sexist/speciesist anthropomorphising stereotypes of cartoons are still an under-researched topic, as are many other aspects of our mediated lives. Indeed, the media and communication field is a largely uncharted but rewarding territory for anyone approaching it from a critical animal studies perspective.
Almiron Núria, Matthew Cole, and Carrie P. Freeman. 2018. Critical animal and media studies: Expanding the understanding of oppression in communication research. European Journal of Communication 33(4): 367-380.
Almiron, Núria & Fernández, Laura. 2021. Including the animal standpoint in critical public relations research. Public Relations Inquiry, 10(2): 139-161.
Almiron, Núria; Cole, Matthew; and Freeman, Carry P. (eds.). 2016. Critical Animal and Media Studies. Communication for Nonhuman Animal Advocacy. New York, NY: Routledge.
Almiron, Núria. 2016. Beyond Anthropocentrism: Critical Animal Studies and the Political Economy of Communication. Political Economy of Communication 4(2): 54-72.
Best, Steven, Nocella, Anthony J., Kahn, Richard, Gigliotti, Carol, Kemmerer, Lisa. 2007. Introducing critical animal studies. Journal for Critical Animal Studies 5(1), 4–5.
Best, Steven. 2014. The politics of Total Liberation. Revolution for the 21st Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Nocella II, Anthony J.; Sorenson, John; Socha, Kim; Matsuoka, Atsuko. 2014. Defining Critical Animal Studies. An Intersectional Social Justice Approach for Liberation. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
Taylor, Nik and Twine, Richard. 2014. The Rise of Critical Animal Studies. From the Margins to the Center. New york, NY: Routledge.
Núria Almiron is co-director of the UPF-Centre for Animal Ethics and a tenured professor in the Department of Communication at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF). Her main areas of research include and combine the ethics and political economy of communication – particularly interest groups and persuasive communication – with critical animal studies, climate change, animal advocacy and interspecies ethics. Her work has been published in academic journals such as Climatic Change, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, Environmental Politics, Journalism Studies, Environmental Communication, International Journal of Communication or European Journal of Communication. She is the author and editor of several books in various languages, including ‘Like an animal’. Critical Animal Studies Approaches to Borders, Displacement, and Othering (coedited with Natalie Khazaal, Brill 2021). She has been a visiting researcher at various universities, such as the University of Amsterdam, Université Paris 8, London School of Economics and Political Science, Lund University and Simon Fraser University. She is currently the director of the MA in International Studies on Media, Power, and Difference and coordinator of the research project COMPASS (Lobbying and Compassion: Interest groups, Discourse and Nonhuman Animals in Spain).
Núria Almiron je sodirektorica institucije UPF-Centre for Animal Ethics in redna profesorica na oddelku za komunikologijo na Univerzi Pompeu Fabra (UPF). Med njenimi področji raziskav sta etika in politična ekonomija komunikologije – še posebej se ukvarja z vprašanji interesnih skupin in prepričevalne komunikacije – skupaj s kritičnimi animalističnimi študijami, vprašanjem podnebnih sprememb, zagovorom pravic živali in čezvrstno etiko. Objavlja v akademskih revijah kot so denimo Climatic Change, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, Environmental Politics, Journalism Studies, Environmental Communication, International Journal of Communication or European Journal of Communication. Je avtorica in urednica večjega števila knjig v različnih jezikih, med njimi ‘Like an animal’. Critical Animal Studies Approaches to Borders, Displacement, and Othering (sourejanje z Natalie Khazaal, Brill 2021). Kot gostujoča predavateljica je nastopila na različnih univerzah, kot so denimo Univerza v Amsterdamu, Université Paris 8, London School of Economics and Political Science, Univerza v Lundu in Simon Fraser University. Trenutno je vodja univerzitetnega programa MA in International Studies on Media, Power, and Difference in koordinatorka raziskovalnega projekta COMPASS (Lobbying and Compassion: Interest groups, Discourse and Nonhuman Animals in Spain).