Sociologist’s Research Shows How Pets Are Now Family |


DALLAS – Andrea Laurent-Simpson, a sociologist at SMU and assistant research professor, says pets are now part of the American family.

During the COVID pandemic, families adopted pets for emotional support. But in a recently released new book, “Just Like Family: How Companion Animals Joined the Household,” Laurent-Simpson draws on household demographic trends from previous years.

These changes in family structures influence the relationships between human and non-human family members, his research shows.

Laurent-Simpson adopted an approach in sociology and social psychology called identity theory. This framework argues that the way in which individuals develop their internal identity is linked to different cultural definitions of particular roles within society.

Her family includes three dogs named Sam, Sadie and Tickles, as well as two children aged 11 and 14.

Laurent-Simpson explained that people negotiate indirectly with each other about what these roles will look like and whether they will be allowed to play these roles with each other.

Researchers using the identity theory framework say that identities are based on how people interact with each other, influenced by changing cultural demands and expectations. “Just thinking of [human-to-human] the interaction as an impact on identity formation is inaccurate, ”Laurent-Simpson said.

His data on families without children indicated that pets, such as dogs and cats, can fill the role of child in a family where there are no human children present. She said these families seem to derive some of the similar emotional and psychological growth from raising and caring for a dog or cat.

Many factors influence whether women have children, including career advancement and higher education and changing cultural expectations, she said. Her research suggests that the meaningful relationships that pets provide could be one of the reasons women delay having children.

And although research shows people spend a lot of money on their pets, having a dog or cat is much cheaper than having a child, she said.

Seniors with adult children also appear to take on a role of caring for their pets, Laurent-Simpson said. She added that she interviewed empty birdhouses which in some ways come close to the role of “grandparent” by helping their adult children with pet-related expenses and by regularly supervising pets during. that their adult children are at work.

Leslie Irvine, a sociologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, said that the role of pets as children in a family is not the same as that of human children. Even though couples walk their puppies in a stroller, she said, they’re not “just furry toddlers.”

“We’re just relying on language that is familiar to us,” Irvine said.

In families with children and pets, Laurent-Simpson said children tend to see the dog as their confidant, especially when they are younger.

“The book is an important addition to the literature, mainly because it is so carefully studied and there is so much evidence to support its claims,” Irvine said. She added that this work expands the way researchers understand the term “family”.

One challenge with this type of human-animal interaction work is that researchers can’t directly assess the animal’s perspective, Irvine said. This contributed, she says, to some sociological researchers calling this work trivial.

Irving recalled how the creation of the Animals and Society section dedicated to the study of human-animal interactions within the professional organization American Sociological Association was not initially well received.

“This is part of the drift from poverty and social injustice to particular issues like animal rights,” Charles Perrow wrote in 2000. He was Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Yale University until his died in 2019.

“More than 50% of US households include dogs or cats,” Irvine said, citing animal ownership survey data from the American Veterinary Medical Association. “If so, then it deserves to be understood rather than dismissed.”

Wendy Manning, professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University, said that when people who study family demographics think of family, they usually focus on how people are related by blood, marriage or marriage. adoption. US census forms have traditionally reflected these assumptions about the family. But, said Manning, the researchers recognize that this definition doesn’t necessarily account for all of the configurations of what people see as meaningful family relationships.

“We have broadened the scope of our definition of families,” Manning said, referring to other family configurations like those involving couples living together or larger multigenerational family units.

Manning, who has a French Bulldog, said pets are important parts of people’s families.

Laurent-Simpson said she had always been interested in “contrarian” research. But her own experience as a pet owner motivated her to take a closer look at the relationships between people and their pets.

About 16 years ago, Laurent-Simpson couldn’t believe his vet’s diagnosis that his dog at the time had lymphoma. She made several other vet visits and ended up at Texas A&M University Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, where a veterinary oncology resident confirmed the dog was really sick.

“As I went through this process, and especially on this particular visit, I began to realize as a sociologist that I was inextricably linked to this animal in a way that was different from just having a pet that I wanted and loved, “says Laurent-Simpson. “I was definitely more attached to her because of the grieving and denial process that I was going through as if she were a human being.”

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