Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Deconstructing Playing with Katie...

As promised about a week ago, I am finally getting around to discussing something from this year's American Sociological Association meetings. I indicated then that I had the opportunity to attend a paper session hosted by the new Animals and Society section. Many of you in the Sociology community have heard of this section and, in many cases, have probably scoffed. What deep sociological insights, after all, can emerge from studying non-humans? Not merely non-humans either but, in virtually all cases, non-primates. Do we think that rats provide adequate models of human behavior? What about beavers? This scorn for Animals & Society, already prominent, has not been slowed by the kinds of papers we see emerging from these scholars. My favorite, to date, has to be the paper titled in part, "Deconstructing Playing with Katie," which is described as follows:

This paper presents written and visual data about play with the author’s companion dog. The research is an in-depth single case study employing the methods of ethnography, autoethnography and videography. The attempt is to display the intricacies and nuances of a common, mundane practice—playing with one’s dog. Data are reported about the routine of play, the structures (or motifs) of play, the inner states of players, the playing field(s), the contingencies of play and the use of language and vocalization during play. An ethnomethodological approach is used to explicate play as practices. The data are part of a larger study to be published later this year in book form.

This strikes many of us, including some rather prominent bloggers, as more than slightly ridiculous. Have we truly reached a place where playing with one's own dog is sufficent to produce not merely a paper, but a book? What will we do when Republicans in Congress happen upon this work and use it to shut down other sociological research projects- like those investigating the utility of virginity pledges, for example. I have been in this group, the animal nay-sayers if you will, and decided to go to a paper session purely to determine if my opinion was justified.

So, what is the verdict? Well, first, the good news for Animals & Society: I am now at least somewhat willing to concede that they may have something worth studying. While the explanation posted on their website is somewhat convoluted, the essence works out as follows: animals are important in society, even in modern societies, and are as-yet largely unstudied. On the surface, I'm relatively receptive to this argument. Animals, in their roles as companions, products, and co-workers, have important roles in human life. It is, in fact, one of the characteristic traits of the human race that we form long-term alliances with other species. Frankly, we do this to an extent that vastly exceeds that of any other species. We keep animals for food, we keep animals for company, and we keep animals to assist in a wide variety of occupations. In a real sense, human civilization is not limited merely to humans, but is a consortium of more or less symbiotic species. If we ignore how animals interface with human society, we may miss something critical. The key, of course, is may. So far the Animals and Society section has failed to convince me that there is anything truly unique about animal-human interaction and, as a result, I'm not certain that an entire section is warranted. But, that said, I'm at least willing to entertain the idea and see what the section can produce.

Now, we come to the bad news: the part about "what the section can produce." So far, that appears to be very little. Of the papers I saw, one was at best speculative, containing little in the way of useful data or interesting analysis. The second was even more lacking and actually focused so much on animals, that it neglected some very interesting behaviors on the part of human actors. Essentially, by elevating animals to the same level of importance as humans, the interesting details of human behavior were lost. Finally, the third paper was a theoretical diatribe against attending to human concerns and ignoring animal concerns. Given that sociology is defined as: "The study of human social behavior, especially the study of the origins, organization, institutions, and development of human society, [emphasis added]" I'm okay with this. Granted, my ethical system is staggeringly anthropocentric, but that's beside the point.

Of even greater concern is the vague odor of shame that emanates from this section. The authors in my panel session each spent a substantial portion, if not a majority, of their time essentially trying to justify the importance of studying animals. Put another way, they tried to account for their participation in a section that many think is silly or worse. It goes without saying that this weakened their presentations but, on a deeper level, signals that perhaps even some of the presenters are not convinced of the need for their own research. In an odd way, however much I disagreed with the paper arguing for "animal concerns," I at least respected its lack of defensiveness.

So, what does the future hold for Animals & Society? Shit, what do I look like, Nostradamus?* It's hard to say what will happen, especially from one panel session,** but there are really two possible courses the future can take. In the first and, at present, most likely path, this section will flounder about for a while and then pass quietly into obscurity and death. This doesn't necessarily mean that the section will dissolve- when it comes to sections the ASA often seems to be like my aunt Gertrude who keeps old aquarium filters in the attic "just in case"- but rather that it will slip into a deep lethargy. The other path is more promising- after a period characterized by iffy scholarship and weird and/or creepy papers, the section will develop a genuine research agenda and start producing meaningful contributions to the literature. I find this second option less likely than the first but, by far, more desirable. The folks I met at the Animals & Society panel seem nice enough, and definitely well-intentioned. If there is a genuine subject matter for them to investigate, I do very much hope that they can use those investigations to inform the rest of our work.

So, I can only wish the Animals & Society section luck. Happy hunting, and I look forward to seeing what you can produce.

Unless, of course, we end up with "Deconstructing Playing with Snakes on a Plane." That would pretty much kill things for me.

* I don't qualify more because my predictions are actually clear and straightforward. In terms of accuracy, he and I are probably batting about the same.

** Some readers may observe that it is unfair to judge a section based on one panel session. To this I respond, "Why yes, it is, but this is only my own half-assed opinion, and is just a stupid blog."


Blogger TDEC said...

Hm, see, I would be quite interested in "Deconstructing Playing with Snakes on a Plane."

Wednesday, August 23, 2006 12:46:00 PM  
Anonymous bookmobile said...

Seems to me what would make more sense is that the growing body of literature about Animals and Society would suggest the need for a new section, not the other way around, which seems to be occuring here. The thought process seemed to be, "Let's develop a section and see if we can drum up some interest in this new and rather unusual area!" But what do I know? I'm not sociologist. I'm just an outsider with an opinion.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006 2:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I agree with you BookMobile, and I AM a sociologist!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006 3:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two questions:

1) Does anyone know if David Goode (author of DPwK) is even aware of his status as the darling/bete noire of the sociobloggers?

2) So HOW WAS DPwK? You've left us hanging. Let's hear it, c'mon now!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006 5:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yea, don't be such a @#@% tease!

Thursday, August 24, 2006 6:09:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

Hmmm. Well, I'm tempted to answer that DPwK was about what you'd expect, but that doesn't quite cover it.

Let me put it another way instead. At one point I found myself sitting in a room at the main professional conference for my discipline watching a videotape of a highly trained professional throwing a ball for his dog. At the same time, I was listening to him describe the "playspace" and its uses in dog-human interaction.

At this moment, if only briefly, I found myself wondering, "Why in hell didn't I just become a physicist?"

And then I remembered it's because they suck it.

For those who want a similar experience, word has it that the book about DPwK includes a DVD of the author playing with his dog. You know... so you can validate the "findings." Seriously.

Thursday, August 24, 2006 9:26:00 AM  
Blogger Slag said...

Don't worry, physicists have their own bullshit studies.

Thursday, August 24, 2006 8:07:00 PM  

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