Last week I was lucky enough to be able to attend a BIRTHA funded symposium at the University of Bristol Department of Historical Studies on the subject of ‘Animals and Empire’ – involving a cross disciplinary approach to research in the form of animal studies. The day included papers on subjects as diverse as ‘Mules in the English Empire’ and ‘Gould’s Hummingbirds in the Natural History Museum’. It was a valuable personal experience and enabled networking with others who are engaged in active research on animal history and other areas of animal studies. Many thanks to Andy Flack from the University of Bristol for organising the event. I also want to thank him and Bristol Zoo Gardens for holding a related event the evening before at the zoo with an historical tour of the zoo and a lecture by Professor William Beinart, of St Anthony’s College, Oxford, entitled entitled ‘The Adamsons, Born Free and the late colonial era: the images that captured the world’.
So, what is animal studies?
Only very recently recognised as a study in its own right, animal studies is a field in which animals are studied in a variety of cross-disciplinary ways. Indeed, the diversity of subjects studied by those who attended the seminar last week reflected the subject areas that are becoming increasingly interested in animal studies. Scholars from history, art history, geography, anthropology, biology, fine art, psychology, philosophy, sociology among others are getting increasingly on board. The field is about integrating the social and natural sciences with the arts and humanities to understand animals in a new way. It is an engagement with agency, with notions of ‘animality’ and ‘brutality’. It also pays attention to how humans anthropomorphize animals and how we might avoid bias in observing non-human animals. As the field is still emerging, scholars are still able to largely define their own criteria when writing work under the subject parameters. This was one of the key issues discussed at the conference. The scope for expansion in this field is immense and it is another positive sign that interdisciplinarity is a viable medium in the future of academic research.