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Why Pets Should Be Included in Sociological Inquiries

A new paper argues that academics have been missing important connections.
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Margaret Gorman, the first Miss America, posing with her Greyhound. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Margaret Gorman, the first Miss America, posing with her Greyhound. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Sociologists study humans: their institutions, social networks, organizations, and, often, their families. They concoct theories about the way all of those things function, map the associated variables, isolate for some, and control for others. But in society's most basic unit, the family, there's one crucial relationship that Nickie Charles, a sociology professor at the University of Warwick, suspects that the field is regularly overlooking.

In a new paper published earlier this month in the British journal Sociology, Charles argues that "the so-called species barrier" has long concealed the important kinship between humans and their pets. Her recent research suggests that it's a bond that should have long ago figured into sociological analysis.

A recent survey in the U.S. revealed "that 91 per cent of pet ‘owners’ regard their pets as family members." In Australia, Charles writes, 88 percent do. While some researchers may scoff at the notion that this type of relationship rises to any level of complexity, pet owners' own recent qualitative descriptions also seem to offer compelling contradictory evidence.

This relationship, as Charles notes, isn't new. It just hasn't been probed in the way one would expect. Pet-keeping, as we conceive of it today, was first popularized in the 16th and 17th centuries, as urbanization shifted the human-animal relationship "from function to affect." Charles writes:

Pets are often defined as not having a function, in contradistinction to animals bred for food or draught animals, although, as Grier points out, pet keeping co-exists with other forms of human–animal sociality and is not conditional upon an unfamiliarity with strictly utilitarian uses for animals (2006: 239). This notwithstanding, human–pet relationships ‘are based primarily on the transfer or exchange of social rather than economic or utilitarian provisions’ (Serpell, 2005: 131). The other distinctive features of pets are that they live inside the home, they are named and they are not eaten. Naming individuates an animal, endowing it with attributes that are conventionally seen as human; this practice blurs the species barrier and became common in Britain in the 18th century (Thomas, 1984). The idea that pets are like children, faithful servants, and friends also has a long history, emerging in Britain at the end of the 17th century (1984: 117–19) and in the USA in the 18th and 19th centuries (Grier, 2006: 198–9).

Some have argued that the relationships between animals and people have shifted since the 1970s, when families and community relationships were supposedly "being undermined." Under that theory, Charles writes, "people turn to animals for companionship and intimacy; pets provide the ontological security which is no longer forthcoming from relations with humans, which are fragile, fluid and contingent."

Charles doesn't buy the atomization that those theories are premised on. She believes that animals have consistently been treated, to some degree, "as social actors." But the evidence for that kind of theory is mounting, she argues. "Thus, in a recent study of family formation and kinship networks, a significant number of people spontaneously included animals in their families; this was a particularly interesting finding as interviewees had not been explicitly asked about animals." 

To advance her analysis, Charles gathered and analyzed 249 qualitative responses to questions about the role pets played in participants' lives. The answers were obviously not representative of the general population, but they were illuminating nonetheless.

Some made comparisons to siblings. "All through my childhood he was there as companion and comforter. I was an only child, and so I regarded him as my brother," one 69-year-old former teacher wrote. Others made the friend analogy:

We had moved house several times and I had started a new high school. I didn’t find it especially difficult to make new friends but for a while I didn’t have that all important ‘best friend’ that adolescent girls need. In the meantime Stripey seemed to fill that role; I talked about her in school as though she were an actual friend; it can’t have been that bizarre (as it now sounds) though as I was never teased about it. (H4294, F, 41, married, housewife)

In these descriptions, Charles notes, the animal relationships are equated with human ones. But they are more than just an institutional bookmark for a missing human soul. Pets also have their own dynamic personalities, and relationships can hinge on perceived traits. One woman explains the differences between her dogs, William and Sarah:

Sadly, my husband died when William was 4 yrs old and I was left with him and Sarah to care for. They were an absolute blessing for me, especially Sarah who sensed my sadness, and for the first three months I was on my own, slept on my bed every night. I had a very close relationship with Sarah, which lasted for 12 + years and she left a big gap in my life when she died. I still had William, but our relationship was more that I took him for walks, and fed him, he was not as close to me as he had been with my husband. (M2061, F, widow, retired nurse)

Other stories intimated love and powerful grief. "By careful calibration with other deaths, I can report that we found it as upsetting as the deaths of human, including friends and family members," one man wrote. Some people also went a step further, arguing that their pets were better family members than their human counterparts. "They are very soothing to have around (most of the time). They seem to love and need me – and that’s mutual. In some ways it’s simpler than life with humans – more straightforward. ... And, given the way my brother stopped talking to me Dec 1999, I have found cats far more of a comfort and far more ‘family’. (G2640, F, 57, divorced, civil servant)"

Though the relationship between animals and humans is often communicated through familial parlance, it can sometimes be even more meaningful and rewarding. One respondent insisted that animals were not judgmental or dismissive in the way that humans often can be. The "significant and enduring connectedness" between animals and humans is certainly important, especially considering other recent polls and studies. What's not clear is why this relationship is being neglected when it comes to analyzing the most basic social unit. What effects are sociologists missing? Perhaps the dog will soon emerge as a new and powerful explanatory variable.