The Animal 'Other': Self Definition, Social Identity and Companion Animals


Clinton R. Sanders (1990) ,"The Animal 'Other': Self Definition, Social Identity and Companion Animals", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 662-668.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 662-668


Clinton R. Sanders, University of Connecticut


In contrast to the other orienting perspectives employed by sociologists, symbolic interactionism emphasizes the subjectivity of human social actors. We operate within the context of "webs of meaning" (Geertz 1973) created and transmitted in the course of social interaction; the "reality" shaping and sustaining social life consists of definitions rather than objects possessing independent, external, intrinsic characteristics.

The "self" is the central component of the subjective world in which human beings operate. Like other features of social reality, the self is predominantly a process rather than a static object. As Charles Horton Cooley (1964 [19021) emphasized, the self derives from the actor's interactions with others as he or she interprets the intentions and orientations of cointeractants and takes these interpretations into account in the ongoing process of self definition.

It is in the course of the myriad of interactional performances which constitute social life that the self is constructed, adjusted, displayed, and understood by the actor. Not only does one perform for others, performances are also directed at the self. The common experience of being "self consciousness" is the most obvious internal performance situation. The actor's "self concept" is composed of those role based features to which he or she has the most emotional commitment and which, consequently, is most resistant to change. Roles which are most "distant" from the actor's conceptualization of the "real self" are less intimately valued and typically performed in a more instrumentally purposive manner than are the components of self which are routinely performed for the self-audience (Goffman 1959:70(375. See also Blumer 1969; Lindesmith, et al 1977; Denzin 1989a; and Manis and Meltzer 1972).

Since performances directed at others (interactions) and the self (thought) most commonly make use of the (supposedly) unique ability of human beings to employ symbols to encapsulate and carry conventionalized information, words and objects which are socially defined as having meaning are central to the process of self definition and social identity (self presentation) briefly outlined above. Consumer researchers (eg., Solomon 1983; Sirgy 1982) and analysts of material culture (eg., Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; Sanders 1989; McCracken 1988) have emphasized the importance of material objects as symbolic presentations of the self to others and as mechanisms whereby actors construct and bolster their self concepts. In a recent article, Belk (1988) has synthesized a general overview of the complex connections between what one has and who one is. In his view, things are meaningful principally as symbolic vehicles which human beings use to "extend" (present, reinforce, exercise control over) the social self. Objects are acquired, consumed, displayed, manipulated, incorporated into rituals, connected to people and events, and otherwise imbued with meaning related to how one presents-both to self and others--what he or she was, is, will be, or wishes to be.

One category of possession/self extension which Belk discusses briefly (pp. 155-156) is pets. He presents pet choice as shaped by the owner's personality characteristics, pets as surrogate family members, pet death as loss of self, pets as transitional objects easing movement through the life cycle, pets as having therapeutic functions, and pets as objects of dominance. [It is interesting, given the widespread popularity of pet ownership in the United States (some 60 per cent of American households contain pets [Cain 1985]) and the economic importance of the pet industry (each year pet owners spend approximately $4 billion on pet food and $3.5 billion on veterinary care [Serpell 1986:12; Bulcroft, et al 1986:2-3; Beck 1983:237c238) that this topic is rarely discussed by consumer researchers. Even more surprising, given the social importance of pets and their impact on social interactions, is the relative failure of sociologists to focus on this significant phenomenon (see Bryant 1979; Bulcropt, et al 1986; Wieder 1980; Hickrod and Schmitt 1982 for exceptions).] In the remainder of this paper I will expand on Belk's analysis of companion animals and their relationship to the social self. [Because of my personal interests, research access, and the dominant focus of the literature on animal-human relationships, this discussion primarily deals with human interactions with domestic dogs. Dogs are the most sociable of the domestic animals commonly kept as companions within Western culture and, therefore, their interactions with people are most amenable to sociological analysis.] First, I will discuss companion animals as they symbolically represent the social identity of the owner and extend the interaction situations in which the owner acquires information about how he or she is defined by others. Next, I turn to the ways in which the relationship between the companion animal and its human counterpart affects the latter's self definition. Finally, I will present the human-companion animal pair as an acting unit ("with"). Of particular interest here are those social situations in which the animal behaves in such a way to significantly disrupt the more-or- less smooth flow of interaction between the caretaker and the other human interactants in the situation. [My research project directed at the general topic of animal/human interaction currently is in its preliminary stages. As a consequence, the observational and interview data upon which this discussion is based are, at this point, somewhat limited. Field data are drawn from participation in an eight week "puppy kindergarten" class and a novice dog obedience course (along with my two Newfoundland puppies and their co-owner) and participant observation in another puppy kindergarten class. In addition, I conducted 6 semi-structured, in-depth interviews with owners of young dogs contacted through these classes. I also collected fieldnotes in the course of my own early experience with the developing relationship between myself and the Newfoundland puppies. These "autoethnographic" data (Denzin 1989b; see also Cooley's [1964 (1902)] discussion of "sympathetic introspection") proved to be especially valuable in providing major insights.]


Americans "possess" an astonishing number of pet animals. Currently, US households contain some 51 million dogs, 52 million cats, 14 million birds, 95 million fish, and 9 million other animals (Anthrozoos II #2 [Fall 1988]:133). Historically and cross-culturally the types of companion animals kept, the treatment they receive, and the ways in which they are symbolically defined has varied considerably (see Fogle 1983; Serpell 1986, 1988; Fisher 1983; Tuan 1984). While the dominant reason human beings fostered relationships with pet animals was, and continues to be, the desire for companionship, there has been a consistent linkage between companion animals and social status in western culture. Typically, the keeping of companion animals has been associated with upper-class position. Those with power and economic resources symbolized their advantage by owning non-functional and expensive animal property (Tuan 1984:110; Serpell 1986:3847; ten Bensel 1984; Bustad and Hines 1984; Ritvo 1988). In turn, pet possession by members of the lower-classes commonly was condemned as inappropriate and wasteful.

To some degree, ownership of certain animals such as pedigreed dogs, cats, and horses continues to symbolize social privilege since they are relatively expensive to acquire and maintain. However, pets as they represent other aspects of self/social identity-rather than being demonstrations of elite status--is a more important factor in contemporary pet ownership.

The type and temperament of the companion animal one chooses and the instrumental purpose for which it is bred are other aspects of identity symbolization. Powerful and aggressive dogs such as rottweilers and German shepherds, for example, not only have a protective function but also reflect their owners' desires to present social selves which are correspondingly aggressive (Fogle 1983:50, 8486).

In general, it appears that possession of a companion animal does-have a positive impact on the owner's social identity. Lockwood (1983), for example, found that people pictured with animals were judged by undergraduate respondents to be more sociable, content, and easygoing. The significance of the animal as a valued possession symbolizing the owner's material status is, at best, of minimal importance here. It is most likely that this apparent effect on social definition is related to the ability of companion animals to act as facilitators of interaction--an identity enhancing feature that will be discussed in a later section.

Although there is a positive correlation between income and likelihood of pet ownership (Covert, et al 1985), owners themselves rarely define their pet primarily as a publicly displayed symbol of their social and/or economic status. Harris (19833, for example, found only .4 percent of pet owners admitting to having chosen their companion animal primarily for its function as a status enhancer.


A variety of studies demonstrate that dogs and other companion animals act as effective "social facilitators." For example, 83 percent of those questioned in a Swedish study (Adell-Bath, et al 1979) agreed with the statement, "my dog gives me the opportunity of talking with other people." Similarly, 37 percent of the respondents in Cain's (1983) study of pets in the family said that their companion animals had aided them in making friends or had increased their social contacts.

Like a wide variety of the objects displayed in public--children, kites, unique articles of clothing, tattoos, and so on--dogs act as sources of "mutual openness" (Goffman 1963:131-139; cf., Sanders 1989: 57-61). Dogs and other items openly controlled by actors in public settings provide a shared focus of non-threatening interaction between strangers or casual acquaintances. Common affinity for and experience with dogs offer a relatively neutral and accessible conversational topic. Since, as Cooley (1964 [1902]) emphasized, interactions with others are the dominant sources of information one uses to construct a definition of self, the company of companion animals increases the quantity and enhances the quality of self-defining encounters. In this way, pets reinforce the possessor's positive self-regard and extend key aspects of his or her self into the public arena.

Companion animals facilitate social interaction and extend the situations in which caretakers receive self-definitional information in yet another way. Shared possessions, activities, and interests act as the organizational focus of what Herbert Gans (1974) refers to as "taste publics". Like antique cars, comic books, polkas, or other items of taste culture, companion animals can act as central elements in extensive social rituals and organizations. Dog and cat shows, breed specific organizations, and animal activity competitions such as obedience work extend the social interactions of pet enthusiasts. Within these subcultural contexts, owners can achieve status and prestige. In this way, enthusiastic involvement surrounding and cooperative work with companion animals expands owners' social encounters and enhances their positive self definitions (see Veevers 1985:15-19).


The self is a social construction built on the information derived from a person's social relationships. As discussed above, companion animals act as facilitators of human-to-human interactions, thereby increasing (and enhancing) self-defining situations. However, the connection between companion animals and the caretaker's self concept is direct as well as mediated. Owners consistently define their pets as "persons" with whom they share lasting, intimate, and emotionally involving relationships (cf., Bogdan and Taylor 1989).

One of the most simple forms of personhood assigned to companion animals is seen when they act as surrogates for human others (Veevers 1984:19-26; Beck and Katcher 1983:39-58). Within this assigned role the animal acts as a "stand-in" for a human parent, child, friend, or other significant cointeractant. But companion animals act as much more than surrogates for real or imaginary persons; they are consistently defined as persons in their own right and are the direct focus of person-to-person interaction. From approximately half (Katcher, et al 1983) to three-quarters (Cain 1985) of pet owners define their companion animals as "persons" or as having "person status." In this role as person the animal is talked to (Beck and Katcher [1983:44] found that 80 percent of the veterinary clients they studied talked to their pets "in the same way they talked to people") and confided in. This communicative activity typically is defined as an authentic conversational exchange in that human caretakers believe that the animal understands what they say and responds appropriately (Cain 1985:7).

As a defined person, the companion animal is incorporated into the owner's extant network of relationships. The most common form of incorporation is for the human interactant to regard the animal as either a family member or close friend. Somewhere between 70 (Beck and Katcher 1983:59) and 99 percent (Voith 1983) of pet caretakers define their animals as members of the family and from 30 (Nieburg and Fischer 1982) to 83 percent (Bryant 1982) consider the pet to be a "special" or "close" friend.

Human-pet interactions proceed along the same lines as do human-to-human social exchanges. The social exchange entails mutual acknowledgement of coparticipation in the encounter, mutual definition of the perspective of the other, imaginative estimation of the other's intentional definition-of the situation, and mutual adjustment of behavior based on the essential social process of "taking to role of the other."

Human participants in relationships with companion animals are engaged in the "social construction of humanness" in orienting their interactions vis-a-vis their pets. The human caretaker comes to construct the personhood of the animal--seeing him or her as an individual, communicative, feeling, reciprocating, and companionable being who is an integrated member of the group. From this socially defined position the companion animal acts as a "significant other" for the owner and their face-to-face interactions provide important, commonly rewarding, social experience containing direct information which the owner uses as part of the process of self definition.

Human interaction with the companion animal/person presents a variety of rewards. Like all primary relationships, that between people and pets predominantly affords intrinsic, rather than instrumental, social compensations. The research on companion animals persuasively establishes that companionship and affection are the primary advantages of this unique relationship as defined by the human participant. The animal is seen as nonjudgmental, accepting, and genuine, requiring nothing from the relationship other than the affectionate reciprocation of attention.

Surveys of pet caretakers demonstrate the significance of the companionship and affection which are central to the animal-human relationship. For example, of the pet owners questioned by Bulcroft and his associates (1986), 94 percent agreed that "pets are an importance source of affection," 85 percent agreed that "my pet accepts me no matter what I do," and 83 percent agreed with the statement, "my pet makes me feel loved." This stable, emotionally rewarding, nonjudgmental relationship with the animal is defined by caretakers as reflecting their self worth--heir self definition as deserving affection is reinforced by their experience of the presumed relational definition held by the animal cointeractant.


The ongoing flow of interaction between human beings and the companion animals with whom they are associated is an eminently social exchange. Both members of the animal-human diad mutually construct definitions of the other and the situation and devise plans of action which require them to adjust their behavior relative to these situated understandings. The cointeractants are engaged in "collective action"--adapting their goals and activities within the context of their definition of the situation so as to achieve some degree of cooperative interaction.

Mutual recognition of the other as cointeractant and imaginative estimation of the other's orientation toward and response to the situation entails the construction of a mutual understanding of the other's "personality." Research accounts (eg., Bulcroft, et al 1986:8; Hearne 1987) testify to the human actor's propensity to define his or her animal as having a distinctive personality and using this definition of the other to orient his or her behavior toward the pet.

The owner's ongoing interaction with the animal based on his or her knowledge of the animal's unique personal characteristics, has significant impact on the owner's definition of self. This intimate connection and the mutual behavioral orientation and control it implies is played out and expected (sometimes even legally required as in the case of "leash laws") when the owner and companion animal appear together in public settings. In this type of situation, the animal and the owner constitute what Goffman (1971:19) refers to as a "with." The mutual "togetherness" of the with is typically symbolized by "with markers" (Goffman 1971:65) or "tie signs" (Goffman 1971:188-237) which display the connection between the parties. Leashes, mutual gaze, physical contact (eg., petting, nuzzling), the owner's calling the animal by name, and a variety of other tie signs are used to publicly demonstrate that the animal and caretaker constitute a with. As a public acting unit, the animal-human with is bound by expectations of propriety and mutual responsibility. The weight of these expectations rests most heavily on the owner who is seen as being most capable of exercising "intelligent self-control" (Goffman 1971:121). Consequently, when the animal member of the with fails to perform in accordance with public expectations the owner typically is held to be responsible. Socially problematic behavior by the animal has the potential of degrading the social identity of the human partner. This judgmental social response by others typically generates the uncomfortable internal experience of guilt, shame, or embarrassment within the caretaker (Goffman 1982 11956]).

The failure of the animal member of the animal-human with to abide by widely shared expectations of propriety disrupts the more-or-less cooperative, flow of public interaction. The experience of threatened identity and problematically impeded interaction presents an uncomfortable situation for the owner. As in other situations where problematic events occur which disrupt social interaction, the owner with a misbehaving animal is obliged to take steps to regain equilibrium and reestablish the smooth flow of interaction. In so doing, the owner also attempts to restore his or her positive social identity and regain those aspects of positive self definition which have been degraded by

the negative responses of human others. [Goffman (1971:95-187) refers to these modes of interactional repair as "remedial interchanges." Alternatively, Stokes and Hewitt (1976) discuss "aligning actions" used by interactants to reestablish identities and relationships disrupted by problematic events. Discussions of "disclaimers" (prospective justifications presented to explain potential problems) (Hewitt and Stokes 1975), "accounts" (retrospective explanations) (Scott and Lyman 1968), "neutralization techniques" (explanations presented to self and others in order to ease feelings and ascription of guilt) (Sykes and Matza 1957), and other aligning actions are oriented around the symbolic interactionist perspective on motives. Rather than being seen as initiatory "motors" of human action, motives, from this standpoint, are regarded as verbal presentations offered to the self and others which are intended to situate the behavior in question in an understandable context (see Mills 1940; Blum and McHugh 1971).]

When encountering problematic situations generated by their animals' misbehavior, owners call up and present definitions of the immediate situation and/or offer accounts of their animals' motives so as to smooth out the disrupted interaction and repair their damaged self esteem. I will refer to the activities of owners in the face of the disruptive behavior of the animal member of the with as excusing tactics

It is possible to identify at least seven kinds of excusing tactics employed by owners. These various styles may be used separately or in combination and are typically chosen on the basis of what kind of violation is presented by the animal and the degree of apparent "harm" caused by the infraction.

Situating Perhaps the most common excusing tactic is seen when the owner emphasizes the unfamiliarity or chaotic character of the immediate situation in which the animal is expected to perform appropriately. In the puppy kindergarten in which I collected field data, observations such as, "I don't know what's wrong with him tonight. He always does it at home; He just gets excited with all the other dogs around," were offered with considerable frequency.

Justifying. Owners also deflect responsibility for their animals' misbehavior by redirecting the blame on the human actor outside the with who is typically the aggrieved party. "You can't just walk up behind her like that" or "he gets really nervous when you touch him there" focus the blame for the infraction on the other person for having behaved stupidly or precipitously.

Redefining It is common for owners to attempt to defuse the negative feelings generated by their animal by recasting the behavior as a positive rather than negative action. Often the human companion labels the behavior as "cute" or "smart" in order to move it back into the realm of permissibility. In my experience, this tactic offers, at best, only limited success as a means of smoothing disrupted interaction.

Behavioral Quasi-Theorizing Quasi-theories are commonplace cultural explanations employed in everyday interactions to "explain problematic situations and give them order and hope" (Hewitt and Hall 1973:367-368). When used as an excusing tactic, quasi-theories tend to emphasize that the behavior in question is "natural" (ie., justifiable) given the animal's phylogenetic position (eg., "That's the way dogs are") or stage in the developmental process (eg., "I'm sorry she chewed up your purse. She's just a puppy and she's teething").

Processual Emphasis Related to quasiheorizing is the excusing tactic which emphasizes that the companion animal acquires behavioral self control in the course of maturation and as part of a training process. Owners often acknowledge that the violation is indeed troublesome and present themselves as "working on" the animal's training in order to extinguish it from their behavioral repertoire. The lesson is in process but has not as yet taken hold to the owner's--or, presumably, to the affronted other's--satisfaction.

Demonstrative Disciplining When owners confronted by problematic social encounters precipitated by their pet emphasize the animal's stage in the training process, they commonly link this excusing move with overt, commonly rather harsh, corrective actions directed at the animal. Through loudly shouting "NO!," jerking on the leash, striking the animal, and other disciplining gestures, the embarrassed owner symbolically acknowledges the violative character of the act while overtly demonstrating his or her desire to assert effective control.

Unlinking. This is the excusing tactic of last resort. It is a public confession that the animal-human relationship itself is in serious trouble. Frustrated and confused, the guilt-ridden owner publicly acknowledges that the animal other is "out of control" ("I just don't know what to do. I can't get him to stop barking. I've tried and tried but nothing seems to work") and, in essence, dissolves the animal-human with. The fault for the disruptive action is presented as being the animal's and, in turn, the human coactor is absolved of responsibility. Understandably, owners who come to employ this type of excusing tactic with any frequency usually soon end their relationship with the animal. [Compare this discussion with that offered by Cahill (1987) focused on the misbehavior of children in public settings and the remedial actions taken by their caretakers.]


The foregoing discussion has employed the symbolic interactionist perspective and its central conceptual element--the socially constructed self-to briefly explore the relationship between humans and their companion animals. To a major degree, this presentation was initiated by Belk's (1988) wide ranging and insightful paper on the self as it is connected to and extended by consumer products. Despite scientistic critiques (eg., Cohen 1989), Belk's article identifies central features of the relationship between human actors and material culture while constituting a major step in the movement of consumer behavior research out of the traditional confines of the natural science model into the realm of post-positivist social science (see Sass 1986).

I would argue that one of the most apparent, self extending, and emotionally involving relationships meaningfully discussed within the general phenomenon of consumer behavior is that between people and their companion animals. As a unique element in commercial culture, the companion animal provides comfort, protection, love, health, companionship, and an enlarged definition of self like no other thing which can be bought, sold, or traded. Hopefully, it is through the recognition of the special gifts we receive from our animal companions that we will come to remove them from the category of consumer product where they are defined as having commercial value and can be callously discarded when they are used up or otherwise lose their appeal as commodities.


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Clinton R. Sanders, University of Connecticut


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17 | 1990

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