Category Archives: Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?

Why Can’t I Eat My Pet Fish?

This originally appeared in Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?, a monthly Q&A series about U.S. culture featured in my newsletter.

QUANDARY

So, I get why we can’t (won’t) eat our dogs. But what about pet fish?
~from Lesley

ANTHROPOLOGICAL EXPLANATION

Oh, goody! Lesley’s question gives us the opportunity to complicate our understanding of the basic cultural categories that inform our interspecies relationships, and explore what happens When Those Categories Collide…

We can think about animal-human relationships in terms of relative proximity. In the very first issue of this “advice” column, I addressed the idea that non-human animals exist on a continuum of proximity-to-humans. This continuum can be traced using the concept of edibility. Animals that humans consider to be edible (“fair game,” if you’ll indulge me) fall into a particular span on the proximity continuum: they are close enough to humans to be mundane, but not so close that they are emotionally important. In the U.S., the edibility span is where we will find cattle, pigs, and chickens. Different cultures categorize animals differently along the continuum, and for Lesley’s question about pet fish, we’ll stick with mainstream U.S. culture.

Now you might want to have a Dramamine for this next part, because we’re about to take a mobius-trip.

The meanings of animals change with practice—the cultural category a given animal is in depends on how humans interact with them. Conversely, our interactions with animals are bounded, imperfectly, by these categories. Proximity dictates practice, which dictates proximity. It’s a reciprocal loop of mutual influence. It’s also helpful to remember that emotional proximity maps onto physical/categorical proximity, thereby correlating with edibility. (Sea-sick, yet?)

Anyway, the upshot of this is: Pets are animals with whom humans maintain close physical relationships and develop emotional ties. Humans also avoid eating pet animals for supper.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but what about fish? An excellent question. In the U.S., fish can occupy different categories depending on how humans interact with them: exotic, edible, and pet. It’s the interaction that can transform a fish into friend, foe, food, or instagram subject.

Pet fish occupy a particular position within the pet category because they create an intersection of the exotic and pet categories, neither of which make them edible. Whereas “normal” fish (think tuna, salmon) are categorically edible, pet fish are decidedly not food…unless you’re Otto in A Fish Called Wanda. But the movie understands him to be a psychopath, reinforcing the normative categorical structure of animal-human relationships.

We keep pet fish close to us, so they become like-us to the extent that they become inedible. Exotic pet fish are doubly inedible. But we do not keep pet fish as close to us as we keep, say, a pet dog. Pet fish live out their lives in tanks, whereas pet dogs live out their lives without this extra physical separation. The relationships are different, the interactions are different, and their relative edibility index is correspondingly different, as well.

At the same time, many pet fish are also “exotic” in the sense that they are not typically the types our culture eats. Do you know anyone who keeps a sturgeon in their office? (Don’t answer that.)

In conclusion, because of the ways we interact with them, pet fish simultaneously occupy two inedible categories on the proximity continuum. Take your pick—just don’t fry up that betta for your next dinner party.

 
MISCELLANY

For more background on the history of pet keeping in the U.S., check out Pets in America by Katherine C. Grier.

In 2010, mid-way through writing my MA thesis about the category of cow that’s created in a petting-zoo, I had the fortune to hear Donna Haraway give the keynote address at the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s “Nature Culture” conference. Conference attendees were split into camps: those who believed nature and culture were separate and that categories were useful, and those who believed categories were no longer useful in understanding the interactions among beings. Haraway had recently written a book called When Species Meet, which explores human-animal “encounters” and posits that humans can become “companion species” with other species of animal, “becoming with” one another. After her keynote, John Law was charged with responding. He asked Haraway about fish, positing that dogs are easier to connect with—thereby becoming a companion species—than fish. I believe he said something like, “just look at it!” (Sometimes it’s difficult to break free of one’s cultural categories.) Haraway suggested that one could ratchet-up mediated ways of responding when it comes to human-fish relations. Somehow, there would be a way to create intimacy across the median of diversity. (Underwater, no less!) Law seemed stuck on the problem of “significant otherness.”

Come for the backlash against vegetarians; stay for the Oster eggs puns.

***
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Reminder
While some thought and research does go into answering these questions, this is largely armchair anthropology, brought to you by someone who left academia in 2010. There’s a very good reason I’m no longer a “real” anthropologist, and it’s called Fieldwork Talking to Strangers.
You can submit your own question about social norms and cultural practices to “Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?” whenever the mood strikes you. The ‘advice’ column welcomes all inquiries, animal-related or not, but cannot guarantee an answer to each submission.
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On Culture and Power

This essay originally appeared in Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?, a monthly feature in my newsletter. It has been edited slightly for this format.

Like many of you, I’ve been preoccupied by the issue of power in the United States. I’ve been thinking about how cultural change and policy interact; how power is conferred and reinforced, and how exactly to understand where our national cultural is at this moment in time. The last preoccupation is likely impossible until historians get a crack at things a few decades from now. Things are moving so fast that it’s difficult for social scientists to get a true handle on what’s going on.

Knowing full well that distrust of institutions is partly what contributed to our present, incomprehensible reality, I find myself wary of those with institutional power who have failed, over and over, to push back against the unilateral directives coming from our Executive branch. Deep down, I had more faith in both parties, and perhaps especially in the party with which I most frequently disagree. Surely Republicans held the sanctity of our national narrative in higher regard than this. Surely they would be the ones to say, “Enough” and take action to protect, if not the people being harmed, then the Constitution. I didn’t realize how much I was counting on them until I found myself shocked, again and again, by their lack of action. Here I was, assuming they were the party who truly cared about America. And now I’m not sure they even have the power to do anything, much less the will.

Power is tricky. At once simple and complicated, it can be easy to locate but difficult to trace. The origins of power are distinct, yet related to, the execution of power. But where is power located?

  • In individuals whose actions have consequences for others. An individual’s authority is granted by the populace over whom they have power – either explicitly (via democratic elections) implicitly (via cultural tradition) or by violence (see “military might,” below). Leaders have a social contract with the public over which they have power – without the public’s support, an individual cannot impose their will without additional sources of power (see below). Authority is earned and can erode if the social contract between the public and the individual leader is broken.
  • In institutions that provide the scaffolding of civil society. A few days ago, I read in the LA Times that the Getty released a statement condemning the recent executive order that resulted in a travel ban. The fact that an arts institution wrote a statement commenting on a federal action, released it, and was taken seriously by a media organization speaks to the power that institutions have within our society. But institutions, like individuals, also owe their cultural cache to the unspoken acknowledgment of the public, who confer upon them the status of institution within the broader social landscape. Institutions are authorities when it comes to certain types of knowledge, leaders by virtue of their reputations as depositories of society’s “best.”
  • The media is a special type of institution that has enormous power of information and the dissemination of knowledge. They often steer the direction of public discourse by choosing how to represent reality, and as such act as intermediaries between the state and its citizens. But the media, too, is dependent upon the public for their authority. The power to produce information as knowledge is granted by the people who interact with this institution and its knowledge. Once people distrust a source of information, that source’s power is diminished.
  • In military might – physical power. This is related to the power of individuals and the state/institutions, in that most state power is underwritten by the possibility of military force. That is, the threat of violence. I don’t agree with everything in this sobering Politico article, but this line illustrates the primacy of violence to any system of power: “We must (re)accept the notion that hard power is the guarantor of any international system: security is a precondition for anything (everything) else.”
  • In capitalist societies, power also lies in money. This is why you are often addressed as a consumer, and called upon to exercise your power by buying or refusing to buy certain items produced by certain companies. This is why the Citizens United decision was so important. Why people are up in arms with billionaires gaining direct access to government through cabinet appointments. The power that accumulated capital has over our institutions cannot be overstated, and it’s the reason – and it pains me to say this – a corporate response to the federal government may be our best hope to stop the deterioration of our national institutions and social structure.
  • But there’s an important location I’ve failed to devote separate attention: the public. The public is a consistent source of power, as many of the entities where power is located draw their authority from the complicity of the people. So ultimately, power is located in society.
  • In culture. People who shape policy respond to public sentiment, to cultural shifts. To shift the execution and consequences of power, culture must shift. Understandings of what power is, who or what can wield it, and in what ways, can change and thus alter the social fabric.

Our social fabric is partially held together by the nation-state and the ideologies it reinforces. The nation and the state are distinct, yet interrelated, entities. The nation is a cultural entity – comprised of its citizens. The state is the institutionalization of that national culture, backed by military might. Our national culture has always dehumanized people arriving from different places. Our state has always afforded different strata rights and privileges to groups of people arbitrarily delineated and made distinct from the un-marked “white” category of person who is automatically afforded full rights and humanity. How do we change culture and enact policy that aligns with our values and serves everyone; treats everyone as fully human?

Our nation has always been broken. Our country exists because of colonialism: we are colonizers, reaping the benefits from land stolen from people white colonizers considered sub-human. Anthropology is itself a product of colonialism, and we have a moral responsibility to do no further harm with this form of knowledge production. That means listening to the people we aim to understand, ensuring they speak for themselves, bringing their truths to light. Deconstructing the many meanings of cultural practices.

We are constantly creating and reinforcing aspects of our society and culture as we go about the practice of living. This means we all have some power to shape reality, to effect change. I’ve been thinking about what I can do, besides calling my representatives, to help heal our nation. How cultural change can influence policy. It’s my duty to expend effort in service of the greater good, especially if my efforts can benefit those who have been repeatedly disadvantaged by our government, institutions, and other social systems.

After spending the past year half-heartedly trying to be a freelance writer, and falling back into grant writing and nonprofit communications, it’s clear that what I need to do is draw on my training in the social sciences and get to work. I’ll be looking for ways to contribute to organizations that are working for social justice, and that means acknowledging that while my experience of obtaining my MA was traumatic, it in no way negates the social science training that I have at my disposal. It’s my obligation, and my desire, to apply my training to the betterment of society.

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Liminal States

This is a recent column from Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?, an ongoing Q&A series about the strange inner workings of U.S. culture. The column is a monthly feature in my newsletter.

Quandary 

What are “liminal states,” and do they tend to vote red or blue in elections?
~from M.C. Mallet

Anthropological Explanation 

I was tempted to just leave this one as a joke, it tickled me so. But politics is not (entirely) a laughing matter, so I thought I’d tackle this quandary from two angles:

 

  1. Liminal states as a cultural concept [the part where I ruin the joke]
  2. Liminal states as those we think of as “undecided” (aka, swing states) in the context of U.S. presidential elections [the part where I answer the question anyway]
First, liminality as a cultural concept. In anthropological circles, this concept often comes from Victor Turner’s seminal work, The Ritual Process, wherein he describes the sequential components of ritual: removal from society, liminality (where transformation occurs), and return to society. We can apply this model of ritual to anything, from the grand pageantry of a presidential inauguration to the mundane exchange of insults over social media.

It’s much more complicated, of course, but what’s important in the context of M.C.’s question is that liminality is a state of being apart from the everyday goings on that comprise life as we know it. It’s a “between” state–not quite one thing or another.

Moving along to the second part of our analysis, this means that we’re talking about purple states! Neither red nor blue, purple states exist outside even the color-spectrum of hues that represent America. Until election night, when (enfranchised) residents of these liminal states cast their ballots, it won’t be clear which “normal” color–red or blue–a purple state will transform into, bringing it back into the normative cultural structure from which it had been set apart. Whew!

Now we can talk about these liminal/purple/swing states in more detail, and address the latter half of M.C.’s question, which deals with each state’s voting history. I’m only going to go back as far as 2000 because ugh, and also that’s when I remember this whole red-state-blue-state-drunk-state-pew-state rigmarole infiltrating our political discourse.

2000: Most of us remember Florida, but there were other undecided states that election, as well, principally New Hampshire. New Hampshire swung red that year, and together with contested state Florida, decided the election for the Republican candidate.

2004: Ohio turned out to be the liminal state that would decide the election in ’04, and it swung red. Pennsylvania and Florida were also purple at the outset of the contest, eventually swinging blue and red, respectively. (Fun fact: that year, New Hampshire swung blue.)

2008: The usual suspects (Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, Pennsylviania) along with often-purples (Colorado, Indiana, Nevada, North Carolina, and my god there are a lot of states in the Union…) swung every which way that year. Florida went blue! Indiana went red! By the end of the electoral ritual, nary a territory was purple. (Liminal states rarely last, folks.)

2012: According to Politico, swing states included Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. All but the final two swung Democrat that election.

2016: This year, there’s been more discussion about the “Rust Belt” swing states. These states’ economies once relied heavily on manufacturing. Because manufacturing has, thanks to globalization and other nefarious forces, moved operations elsewhere, many Rust Belt states have become economically depressed. This has led to a voter base that is unpredictable as compared with their voting record. A few months ago, politicos were calling these states for Republicans, but now they’re not so sure. The point is, past elections won’t be as reliable of a touchstone when it comes to how likely each of these states is to vote Republican or Democrat come November. Especially since this year is [insert hyperbolic, apocalyptic  phrase of choice].

In conclusion, it’s complicated and I don’t know, and everyone should read widely and consider participating in the democratic process on every level they can stomach.

Miscellany
For those of you who are politically inclined and would love a more nuanced discussion of these types of topics from someone with an actual political science degree, I highly recommend you check out WTF is America, a newsletter by the delightful and intelligent Amy Diegelman.

You can submit your own question about social norms and cultural practices to “Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?” whenever the mood strikes you. The ‘advice’ column welcomes all inquiries, animal-related or not, but cannot guarantee an answer to each submission.

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Hold Your Applause

This is a recent column from Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?, an ongoing Q&A series about the strange inner workings of U.S. culture. The column is published each month in my newsletter.

Quandary

How do people know how long to clap/applaud at social events?
~Baylee

Anthropological Explanation

Baylee’s question sent me to JSTOR, bastion of academic articles. Unsurprisingly, music journals had a lot to say on this subject, most of it of the hand-wringing variety. (As in, “why, oh, why can’t our stupid audiences clap the way we professional performers think they should?”) But let’s step away from that cacophonous minefield–I’ve collected a few choice gems in the “Miscellany” section at the end–and talk about crowds, social norms, and communication. This discussion focuses on a U.S. cultural context, because that’s what I have the most experience with.

There are different schools of thought about what drives group behavior, some that allow for more individual agency and rationality than others. My attempt to answer this question will employ a mish-mash and I probably won’t provide an adequate literature review to trace their lineage. I’ll be talking about applause in terms of the social situation of a performance, but we can apply a similar analysis to sporting events, speeches, or any situation that involves a person or people set apart from the people whose role in the interaction is primarily observational.

Applause is a form of communication both between audience and performer and among audience members. It can encapsulate several meanings, often at once:

1. Indicating that the performance is over.
2. Demonstrating support of what just concluded.
3. Demonstrating support of the person or people who performed.
4. Indicating a positive emotional or intellectual reaction to the performance.
5. Demonstrating adherence to social expectations of polite behavior.

Let’s unpack that last one. We have been conditioned to behave in certain ways depending on what context we find ourselves in. These are social norms. People who become members of an audience have joined in a ritual that triggers a set of behaviors, one of which is clapping at the conclusion of the performance. In addition, by becoming a member of the audience, people suspend certain individual behaviors in the service of greater group cohesion. Regardless of whether an individual enjoyed a given performance or not, that individuals is likely aware that society expects them to applaud when it is over. To not engage in the group act of applause would be making a strong statement against said performance. Unless an individual has reason to make their negative reaction to the performance publicly known, they are probably going to contribute a few halfhearted claps to the group’s applause at the “proper” moment.

Now that we’ve established the social expectations that generate the group response of applause in the first place, let’s move on to tackle Baylee’s question of how individuals within the group know when to stop clapping. It seems to happen spontaneously, but as we’ve seen from how applause begins, its cessation may also be partly automatic. This question turns on the idea of knowledge, which is a tricky thing to deal with anthropologically. As my professor Anne Lorimer reminded us time and again, “culture is in practice, not just in people’s heads.” So let’s see if we can find what audience members might be thinking in what they are doing when they stop applauding.

“Nowhere has controversy about mental processes been more salient than in theories of crowd behavior.”
Richard A. Berk, ‘A Gaming Approach to Crowd Behavior,” American Sociological Review Vol. 39, No. 3 (June 1974) pp.355-373

In 2013, Royal Society Open Science published research findings that suggested applause spreads among an audience “like a disease,” with people relying on audial cues to drive their individual clap contributions. Other sociological research also takes this “contagion” view of crowd behavior, treating groups of people like mindless herds who merely follow the unidentifiable will of the collective. Of course it’s more subtle and people deserve much more credit. As I outlined above, the meanings of applause and the contexts in which it’s generated depends on people’s awareness–even if they aren’t specifically thinking about it every second–of what behaviors are acceptable and expected of them at any given moment.

As we applaud, we are attuned to the clapping of others in the audience. After a while, someone in the audience will stop clapping. Maybe their hands hurt. Maybe they disliked the performance and were only communicating politeness. Whatever the reason, that one person or handful of people who stop(s) triggers a chain reaction: we become aware, at least subconsciously, that the noise and/or movement around us has reduced, and because we have resigned our individual selves at least in part to the collective personhood of the audience, we conform to the social expectation that we slow our claps, and as a critical mass of people lessen their applause and finally stop, leaving only the stragglers to betray their non-conformity.

[Detour into the Dept. of Speculation]

The duration of applause, especially when you’re contributing to it, can feel instinctual. You stop clapping when everyone else does. Sure, it ebbs a little at the end and there may be a few stray claps, but on the whole audiences tend to synchronize their cessation. How does this happen? Are we telepathic? Sort of. It could be that, like other social norms, we have internalized experiences of the average duration of applause from past performances and are imperfectly replicating those subconscious memories. In a study on the rhetorical forces that influence audience response after political speeches, John Heritage and David Greatbatch noted that “performance factors are found to influence the likelihood of audience response strongly.” This again points to the social norms both governing and encoded within audible forms of communication. The duration of applause might be correlated with the duration of a performance, the fervor with which it was delivered, or the affiliation between audience members and the performer(s).

So it’s not that we necessarily “know” when to stop, or that there are strict parameters that govern the duration of applause, but rather that we collectively decide in the moment how much applause is warranted based on our prior experiential and cultural knowledge of how vigorously and long we’ve applauded at similar events that evoked similar emotional responses. There’s much more nuance and theoretical underpinnings to all this, but I’ve already rambled on long enough without adequately citing sources.

A final thought before we have a chuckle at the moral outrage of early 20th century musicologists: 

It would be interesting to compare the applauding practices of a group of children with that of a group of adults to see whether the children audiences contain more outlying clappers–kids who continue clapping long after the majority has stopped, or those who stop much sooner, or those who choose not to clap at all. Since children are by their very nature not yet fully socialized, I’d bet that there’s much greater variation among the individuals within the audience and between difference audiences.

Miscellany

I can’t not share some of my more amusing findings from these music journal articles. The ones that problematize applause set up a power struggle between the audience and performer/conductor. In the musicologist authors’ estimations, audiences are comprised of uneducated sheeple who should be either domesticated or skinned alive. Behold:

In 1897, a disgruntled patron of the arts wrote the editor of The Musical Times to complain of his fellow audience members’ uncouth propensity to clap before the conclusion of a piece. It seems that the music was too often “marred by a din of applause” before the proper moment. (The editor replied that “the protest of our correspondent is much to be commended.” Snobs gotta stick together.) Western society seems to have gotten the message: rarely do I hear people clap before the end of a classical piece of music–we all must have our eyes glued to the conductor, waiting for them to lower their arms and signal that the music has, indeed, concluded.

“Audiences capable of genuine discrimination are very rare, and in any discussion of them the question of applause has to be faced.” Thomas Russell, The Musical Times Vol. 82, No. 1176 (Feb., 1941), pp. 54-5

There’s an article from a 1925 issue of The Musical Times entitled “The Tyranny of the Audience.” Hear that, people? WE HAVE THE POWER!!!

You can submit your own question about social norms and cultural practices to “Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?” whenever the mood strikes you. The ‘advice’ column welcomes all inquiries, animal-related or not, but cannot guarantee an answer to each submission.

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Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?

What follows is the first in an ongoing Q&A series about the strange inner workings of U.S. culture. 

Quandary

Why can’t I eat my dog?

Anthropological Explanation

Many forces conspire against the enterprising individual who fixes a side-long glance upon their household pet and thinks, “In a pinch…” The majority of these dissuasive forces are cultural, and therein lies their strength. There is a logic underpinning our taboo against eating pet animals, and it has to do with our close relationships with them, and the different categories these practices create.

You’ve no doubt noticed that certain animals are more “edible” than others. In the United States, most people think nothing of eating a hamburger, but grow queasy at the thought of horse meat having slipped into their ground beef, and positively livid at the idea that cat meat might grace someone’s plate. The reason is simple: we have a social aversion to mixing up different categories of animals. A taboo, if you will.

For anthropologists, taboos are a “repression of interstitial states produced by the application of discrete conceptual classes on the continuum of experience” (Valeri, p.63).

Animal-human relationships are arranged into these categories on an axis of “closeness.” The closer an animal is to humans in their cultural relationship, the less edible it becomes. Eating is a practice that creates lines of distinction between humans and animals that are not-human enough to become food. Because we have placed dogs firmly in the “pet” category, they cannot also be in the “food” category. This is why pets are taboo as a source of food: humans have formed such close bonds with them that they have become inedible. The inverse is true to a lesser extent: animals that are far from humans (exotic animals and pests) are less edible, but not quite as taboo as those closest to humans on the relationship spectrum.

Different cultures consider different animals close (and therefore inedible). Conversely, some cultures consider the animals Americans tend to think of as pets as a category of creature that is perfectly edible. It all depends on each culture’s relationships and practices with regards to each animal. Last September, a brief story appeared on KPCC about dogs from South Korean meat farms being “rescued” and brought to the United States for adoption. In this case, Americans were imposing their culturally-specific logic of animal-human relationship taxonomy onto a different culture.

Cultural norms constrain our every thought and action, and the taboo against eating the (potential/technical) food source in closest proximity to us is merely one of them. Most Americans–even enthusiastic carnivores!–likely take this comestible constraint as a given. They are “naturally” repulsed by the idea of boiling Fluffy for supper, if they’ve ever allowed themselves to consider it in the first place. (They should be repulsed; everyone knows Fluffy would be much tastier fried.) This blatant assault on American’s gastronomic freedom ensures that our taxonomy of animal-human relationships remains intact.

Originally published in my newsletter. This question sent me down a nostalgic rabbit hole of thesis notes, so count yourselves lucky there’s only one citation: “The Forest of Taboos” by Valerio Valeri.

You can submit your own question about social norms and cultural practices to “Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?” whenever the mood strikes. The ‘advice’ column welcomes all inquiries, animal-related or not, but cannot guarantee an answer to each submission.
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