Accepted Paper:

Conceptualising agency in human-animal relations  

Author:

Nickie Charles (Warwick University)

Paper short abstract:

In this paper, and contra Latour, we argue for a sociological conception of agency as social relational, suggesting that agency cannot be readily extended to the nonhuman but that animals embedded in social relations with humans can, in a very specific sense, be seen as actors and as agentic beings.

Paper long abstract:

Animal studies, as an interdisciplinary field, embraces different theoretical and conceptual approaches to understanding human-animal relations. Many of these approaches argue that animals exercise agency, from Callon's scallops to Irvine's cats and dogs. One of the difficulties with using agency in this way is that its meaning varies and is often unclear, frequently implying that agency is equally a property of humans, animals and 'things'. Furthermore, some argue for a social ontology in which the connection between reflexivity and agency is severed. In the work of both Latour and Law, for example, the boundaries between the human and the non-human are erased through the extension of agency to non-human animals and to inanimate objects. The paper will consider these efforts to redefine agency and examine their methodological implications. It will argue for a sociological conception of agency as social relational and therefore a property only of collectivities. A consequence of being an animal and belonging to the collective constituted by animals in an anthropocentric society is that you may be subject to human abuse, violence and exploitation. Defining agency in this way implies that our positions within social relations are involuntary and come before any knowledge we may have of them, whilst recognizing that agential properties must be reflexively mediated in order to shape social action. Agency cannot therefore be readily extended to the non-human although, as we argue, animals embedded in social relations with humans can, in a very specific sense, be seen as actors and as agentic beings.

Panel P08
Exhuming the 'big picture', burying fish, cats and falcons: limits to the agency of non-human things