Human-Animal Studies in Portugal: Interview with Verónica Policarpo

Verónica Policarpo, you are coordinating a new postgraduate course at the University of Lisbon, Animais e Sociedade (Animals and Society). Tell us more about this course!

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The course Animais e Sociedade is part of the activities in the context of the Human-Animal Studies Hub. In late 2018, my research institution ICS-ULisboa submitted an application to the US-based International Development Fund do Animals and Society Institute, to bring Human-Animal Studies to Portugal. In this application, we proposed a number of initiatives to launch the basis for this discipline in Portugal, in order to ensure a stepwise and sustainable development of the field. This postgraduate study program is one such initiative. In fact, this type of initiative is what the development fund is for: to promote the implementation of courses in countries where there is little or no activity in the field of human-animal studies. In February 2019, our proposal was awarded funding, which allowed us to continue existing activities as well as launch new ones, such as this course.

What is the unique objective of this course? To provide a scientific, pluralistic and interdisciplinary perspective on the relationship between human and non-human animals, from the viewpoint of the Human-Animal Studies field, and in Portuguese. The course brings together a broad and diverse set of themes, to suit the training needs of students from different professional and disciplinary backgrounds. The program includes themes as diverse as companion animals and multi-species families, the relation between children and animals, the situation of animals in disasters, questions related to wildlife conservation, animals for food production, the welfare of animals used for entertainment and kept in captivity, animal rights and animal politics, media representation of animals as well as the questions of animal law under discussion in Portugal right now. Teachers and specialists from different disciplinary fields will contribute: sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, biology, veterinary medicine and law. The aim is to stimulate critical thinking about human animal relations, based on state-of-the-art scientific information from a variety of fields of knowledge.

The course is part of the initiative you coordinate in establishing this new field of study in Portugal. Tell us more about the field internationally!

Human-Animal Studies is an interdisciplinary field of study. It started to develop in the 1980s, in the USA, in parallel with the modern animal rights movement, following the publication in 1975 of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and in 1983 of Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights. This first phase is characterized by philosophy coming back to the question of the value of animals, a question raised by philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century – changing the focus from the capacity of animals to think to their capacity to suffer. At the same time, the social sciences were producing emprical evidence of the extraordinarily diverse and complex relations that develop between humans and animals, with focus on the human benefits. Focus was on companion animals and primarily using quantitative methods. In response to this movement, the more interpretative social sciences and the humanities (fields such as history, literary studies and cultural studies) explored the cultural aspects of the framework in which these relations develop. This includes studies of how animals are represented in literature, art and media, or how human-animal relations have changed over time in a historic perspective.

In the 1990s, the second development phase of Human-Animal Studies widened the scope to include all types of human-animal relations: past or present, physical as well as virtua co-existence, harmonious and beneficial relations as well as those characterized by conflicts and risks to one or several of the species involved. Qualitative methods became more common, and geography, especially human geography, emerged as an important field. In disciplines such as psychology, emphasis is on the human-animal bond. In the humanities, the focus is on deconstructing what it is to be an animal, and in the attempt to understand what animals are. In this phase, important input also comes from gender and feminist studies, looking at correlations between different groups that have been oppressed historically: women, ethnic minorities, animals. Criticism of the patriarchy and the notion of intersectionality become important.

Starting around 2000 the field of study virtually explode in what can be described as the third wave. In North America and the UK, courses or university program multiply. From the field of anthropology, innovative ethnographic perspectives emerge, in which animals are integrated as research subjects in multispecies ethnographies. A parallel development are the Critical Animal Studies, a current which brings together academic research with an activist agenda of animal liberation. The academic publishing is thriving and in 2012 the main journal in the field is established:  Animals & Society. In 2014 the International Development Fund of the Animals and Society Institute is established, providing support for courses and training programs in countries where there is no tradition of Human-Animal Studies.

In Portugal there is much less research and far fewer researchers dedicated to the study of human-animal relations, compared to the vibrant international production. Nevertheless, during the last decade there has been some work, although not under a common framework. The Human-Animal Studies Hub aims to be that framework, bringing together under the same “intellectual ceiling” researchers from different fields with a common interest in animals and the human-animal relationship.

The Hub is organized along three axes: research, training and society outreach. I invite all researches with activity in this field to visit our web page and read our Mission, Values and Vision. If you identify with these, you are encouraged to contact us. The objective is to establish a network of synergies, creating a space for dialogue and collaboraiton. At the moment, the Hub hosts projects about companion animals, animals in disasters, feral and abandoned animals and production animals. There are several training activities, including a biannual International Summer School, a monthly reading group and this recently established postgraduate course. We also organize workshops, conferences and seminars.  grupo de leitura mensal, ou este recentíssimo curso pós-graduado Animais e Sociedade.

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Outside the academic context, for whom is this course relevant? In which walks of life do we need more knowledge about animals and society?

We definitely need to produce, and to share, more knowledge about how we live together with animals in society. In my view, everyone who works with and for animals in society need more training: ONGs, animal shelters and other organizations. Training needs to be available for professionals who deals with complex human problems such as poverty, unemployment, separations and physical and mental disease. Social assistants, psychologists, lawyers, educators, teachers. These problems have a human origin but they affect human and animal lives. And also complementary training for professionals who work directly with animals but whose education has not included a comprehensive view of the social problems around human-animal relations, such as biologists and veterinarians.

Find out more by following Verónica Policarpo @VMPolicarpo and Human-Animal Studies Hub @humananimalics on Twitter.

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