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Animal studies is a recently recognized field in which animals are studied in a variety of cross-disciplinary ways. Scholars from fields as diverse as art history, anthropology, film studies, history, sociology, biology, psychology, literary studies, geography, philosophy and feminism or queer theory seek to understand both human-animal relations now and in the past, and to understand animals as beings-in-themselves separate from our knowledge of them. Because the field is still developing, scholars and others have some freedom to define their own criteria and structure for the field.

In part, animal studies developed out of the animal liberation movement and was grounded in ethical questions about co-existence with other species: whether it is moral to eat animals, to do scientific research on animals for humans benefit, and so on. Works in this vein include the Australian philosopher Peter Singer's seminal work, Animal Liberation,[citation needed] and J. M. Coetzee's novel, The Lives of Animals.[citation needed]

Cultural historians take a different approach, studying how representations of animals create understandings (and misunderstandings) of other species. To what extent do we anthropomorphize animals? How can humans avoid bias in observing animals? For instance, Donna Haraway's book, Primate Visions, examines how dioramas created for the American Museum of Natural History showed family groupings that conformed to the traditional human nuclear family, which misrepresented the animals' observed behavior in the wild.[1] Conversely, people often mistakenly identify with animals, believing that they understand the thought processes of other species.[citation needed] This is the theme of Werner Herzog's documentary film Grizzly Man, in which bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell believed that he was part of the bear community and understood the mindsets and social hierarchies of the bears he documented, only to be killed by a bear at the end of the film. Given the complexity of human-animal relations, one aspect of animal studies is to emphasize that animals are very like us, and yet not at all like us, in interesting ways.[citation needed] As Claude Lévi-Strauss's famous dictum puts it, "animals are good to think with".[citation needed]

Critical animal studies

The emergent nature of animal studies as a field produces the possibility for non-advocacy based research (some which is even tolerant of practices such as vivisection or livestock farming), as well as for research that either consciously or unconsciously works on behalf of either animal welfare or rights agendas as part of a single-issue ideological approach. These tendencies can be seen in journals such as Society & Animals and Anthrozoos, as well as on public listservs for the field such as H-Net's H-Animal and H-Nilas (Nature in Legend and Story) lists.

In contrast to these mainstream orientations of animal studies, as well as to conservative tendencies prominent throughout the animal welfare and animal rights movements, the Institute for Critical Animal Studies has sought since 2003 to develop a Critical Animal Studies that:

  1. Pursues interdisciplinary collaborative writing and research in a rich and comprehensive manner that includes perspectives typically ignored by animal studies such as political economy.
  2. Rejects pseudo-objective academic analysis by explicitly clarifying its normative values and political commitments, such that there are no positivist illusions whatsoever that theory is disinterested or writing and research is nonpolitical.
  3. Eschews narrow academic viewpoints and the debilitating theory-for-theory’s sake position in order to link theory to practice, analysis to politics, and the academy to the community.
  4. Advances a holistic understanding of the commonality of oppressions, such that speciesism, sexism, racism, ablism, statism, classism, militarism and other hierarchical ideologies and institutions are viewed as parts of a larger, interlocking, global system of domination.
  5. Rejects apolitical, conservative, and liberal positions in order to advance an anti-capitalist, and, more generally, a radical anti-hierarchical politics. This orientation seeks to dismantle all structures of exploitation, domination, oppression, torture, killing, and power in favor of decentralizing and democratizing society at all levels and on a global basis.
  6. Rejects reformist, single-issue, nation-based, legislative, strictly animal interest politics in favor of alliance politics and solidarity with other struggles against oppression and hierarchy.
  7. Champions a politics of total liberation which grasps the need for, and the inseparability of, human, nonhuman animal, and Earth liberation in one comprehensive, though diverse, struggle; to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr.: a threat to liberation anywhere is a threat to liberation everywhere.
  8. Deconstructs and reconstructs the socially constructed binary oppositions between human and nonhuman animals, a move basic to mainstream animal studies, but also looks to illuminate related dichotomies between culture and nature, civilization and wilderness and other dominator hierarchies to emphasize the historical limits placed upon humanity, nonhuman animals, cultural/political norms, and the liberation of nature as part of a transformative project that seeks to transcend these limits towards greater freedom and ecological harmony.
  9. Openly engages controversial radical politics and militant strategies used in all kinds of social movements, such as those that involve economic sabotage and high-pressure direct action tactics.
  10. Seeks to create openings for critical dialogue on issues relevant to Critical Animal Studies across a wide-range of academic groups; citizens and grassroots activists; the staffs of policy and social service organizations; and people in private, public, and non-profit sectors. Through – and only through – new paradigms of ecopedagogy, bridge-building with other social movements, and a solidarity-based alliance politics, it is possible to build the new forms of consciousness, knowledge, social institutions that are necessary to dissolve the hierarchical society that have enslaved this planet for the last ten thousand years.[2]

The Institute is composed of an international board of scholars and publishes a bi-annual journal and conducts an annual conference at various universities throughout the United States.

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