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Professor receives accolade for study of people and pets

Clinton Sanders has always been fascinated by the relationships that people have with their pets. The professor of sociology and owner of three Newfoundlanders says his early research data was collected "just watching my dogs."

Sanders expanded the focus from his own pets to explore sociological aspects of relations between humans and animals in Regarding Animals, a book he co-authored last year. The book recently received a prestigious national award.

Sanders and Arnold Arluke, a professor of sociology at Northeastern University, were given the Charles Horton Cooley award from the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interactions. Published in 1996 by Temple University Press, Regarding Animals examines the sociological dynamics of human-animal relations in modern western societies.

David Karp, chair of the Cooley award committee and presenter of the award, calls the book "remarkably engaging," "sociologically powerful" and "groundbreaking."

The theme of the book is the ambivalence felt in western society about animals and how people deal with that ambivalence, Sanders says.

Social science has ignored what is really for many people a central social relationship, because they views animals as things, he says.

Regarding Animals examines, "how on the one hand, animals, particularly companion animals, are seen as people or people-like and are interacted with in that way, and how on the other hand we take animals, use them in experiments and eat them and use them as objects," he says.

The authors, both ethnographers, conducted studies in a veterinary clinic, a guide dog training program, animal shelters, primate research labs and with everyday dog owners.

People segment their views of animals based on what their interests are at a particular time, Sanders says. "What is interesting," he notes, " is that people who do experiments on dogs in a laboratory talk about them as things, but then they go home and have their pet dogs and interact with them in the same way that you or I would interact." Sanders says. "It is an interesting kind of conflict that people don't recognize," he says.

Award committee chair Karp says the book breaks new ground in sociological research. "It's occasionally striking after a book has been written that so important a dimension of social life could have gone for so long essentially unexplored. Although interactionist texts routinely talk about animals, it's largely to distinguish them as 'lower' than ourselves and certainly incapable of the sort of 'symbolic' interaction that presumably sets us apart from them," he says.

"As with much great social science, the power of the analysis rises from the authors' ability to see the paradoxes, ironies, and contradictions of human behavior."

Sherry Fisher