The following outlines, in a general sense, how and, to some extent, why, boundaries are socially constructed.
For advocates of animal rights, what follows may serve to inform campaigning strategies in the sense that animal advocacy challenges some of the relevance of moral boundary drawing and yet, through Bauman’s analysis, it may be seen ~ and must be appreciated ~ that boundary drawing has a great deal of utility and advantage for those who draw them.
In other words, boundary drawing is an efficacious method of defining notions of “my group,” one of, possibly, several groups that members of society rely on for the everyday knowledge that they need to survive.
Bauman asserts that much essential and routine social knowledge is acquired in early childhood, thus a great deal of what is assumed to be required for “successful” social living involves boundary-drawing activities that may encourage a resistance toward any subsequent claims that seek to effectively weaken or destroy boundaries of discrimination that exist even among human groups.
All seasoned social movement and political campaigners, along with other advocates of change, will recognise much truth in Bauman’s implication that human beings are never entirely free from their past in which socialised boundary drawing has created meaningful “us” and “them” categories.
Boundaries effectively produce “moral distance;” thus boundaries keep “them” ~ “the other” ~ at bay, serving to emphasise distance and difference, and perhaps holding “them” up to ridicule and/or “humorous” debasement.
Often jokes and joking relations can construct and reflect the distancing of “others”: jokes can amplify the putative stupidity of “the other,” serving to dehumanise and depersonalise those placed in “them” categories, while the moral status of “us” is simultaneously elevated. A sufficiency of distance (social and moral) can apparently result in untold cruelty and utter disregard for the rights of those successfully classified as “other.” History reveals that, if a boundary of distinction is ostensibly “sturdy” enough, and especially if created and ideologically maintained by authoritative social agents, then one community can end up murdering and raping its way through another.
“Us” and “Them.”
In Thinking Sociologically, written as an introductory text, Bauman explains in detail the societal prevalence and manufacture of “us” and “them” categories, along with the vital role of the lifelong process of socialisation; the social importance of “belonging;” the significance of notions of “community;” and the construction of “in-groups” and “out-groups.”
In sum, Bauman provides a convincing sociological account of social learning and boundary construction which he connects to the concept of the “non-universal universe of moral obligations,” based on the putative human need to draw boundary lines and become involved in guarding those boundaries.
As social animals Bauman notes that human beings “live in the company of other people,” in groups in which we understand that we are interdependent. To say that to live is to live with others “is obvious to the point of banality,” Bauman notes in Postmodern Ethics, yet it is just this “we hardly need to think about it” character of living with others which endows it with much of its sociological importance. For living amongst others is to live in “manifold webs of human interdependency.”
One important “product” of this interdependency is something sociology has a special relationship with: common sense.
Bauman regards common sense knowledge and understandings as powerful social mechanisms which can fundamentally shape attitudes about the world in which humans live. The apparent “power” of common sense emerges from its general immunity to being seriously questioned with obvious implications for social movement activists who seek social and political change. It has an effective capacity for self-confirmation; its knowledge is based on precepts which are, by its own lights, largely self-evident.
Common sense understandings are maintained, argues Bauman, through repetition of the “routine,” and the enactment of the “monotonous nature of everyday life.” This enactment of routine has two characteristics: it informs common sense while being informed by common sense. Bauman adds:
- As long as we go through the routine and habitualised motions which fill most of our daily business, we do not need much self-scrutiny and self-analysis. When repeated often enough, things tend to become familiar, and familiar things are self-explanatory; they present no problems and arouse no curiosity.
In a way, they remain invisible.
- As social beings, humans live in groups which can exert an immense “hold” on the individual. The group “makes people,” and this means that resisting the important messages of the group can be a relatively hard thing to do.
Abiding by - rather than challenging - the norms and values of your group is much the easiest and most unproblematic course to adopt: “Change would require much more effort, self-sacrifice, determination and endurance than are normally needed for living placidly and obediently in conformity with the upbringing offered by the group into which one was born”:
- The contrast between the ease of swimming with the stream and the difficulty of changing sides is the secret of that hold which my natural group has over me; it is the secret of my dependence on my group. If I look closely and try to write down an inventory of all those things I owe to the group to which I - for better or worse - belong, I’ll end up with quite a long list.
If one wants to witness these processes in action with regard to human-nonhuman relations, we need look no further than the case of podcaster and erstwhile Burger King customer, Erik Marcus. His broadcasts are littered with appeals to conform to the existing norms and values of a speciesist society.
While Bauman at least implies that existing values can be negated with difficulty, Marcus pessimistically asserts that the vast majority of living north Americans will only stop eating chickens when they themselves die. Marcus thinks that animal advocates need to have something to say to these militant meat eaters – the only possible concession from these people is their adherence to the principles of animal welfarism: apparently even speciesists want to exploit “humanely.”
The problem with this assertion is that it is not well supported by empirical evidence, not even in the links Marcus provides in the belief that they support his views. For example, in a web link to a forum about a recent story about Burger King, there were plenty of voices supporting the notion that there indeed are plenty of militant meat eating speciesists ~ and yet, contrary to Marcus’ claims, many of them clearly do not care at all about animal welfare concerns.
For example, “RVGRANDMAV” writes, “I really couldn’t care less about how the animals are treated….they are grown for our food…if you don’t like what is done to them … then don’t eat them!” Meanwhile, “Ana” states that, “Frankly, I don’t care. What livestock eats and perhaps how they live too does get to the palate - and I certainly do care for taste!… If the difference is nowhere in the plate, I really don’t care.”
“Dax” asserts in the same forum, and without any discernible commitment to animal welfarism, “I really do not care as long as the food taste good, but I understand that the better the animal is care the tender their meat. Humane stand on animal care: I think is an oxymoron. They raise animals to be eaten….base on this principle I do not care how they raise them; just how good they taste. If you choose not to eat meat please stay away from my plate!”
“Tony” says, “… As for industrial farming, we need more of it not less. I care much more about hungry people in developing nations than I do about individual chickens which don’t even have a sense of self”. Likewise, “Oahu” pondered: “Hm, I’m really concerned about the way our chickens are cared for? NO”.
This correspondent further suggests that people, “Stop applauding them and give BK a smack. What the bigwigs more likely said is ‘Hm, I noticed our profits could be a lot higher if we catered to the growing trend of people who are opposed to animal cruelty. So, let’s make a minor move…’ So, while all of you pat BK on the back, they are patting their fuller pockets.”
“Meredith” says, “Certainly most Americans are either not aware of how their meat is raised and slaughtered, or do not care. This suggests ignorance - not an admirable characteristic in a culture considered to be “advanced.”” “Gordon” tells us: “I love a good steak and I don’t care how they kill the cow,” while “BB” states, “I could not care less. What I’d really like to see is an on/off switch for the nanny’s who spend so much time trying to tell everyone else how to live...”
I’m not actually sure what any animal advocate can say to such people: they will reject animal rights just as they plainly reject Marcus’ new welfarism. Rather than thinking that anyone should bend to the opinions of such speciesists ~ or even those who will graciously tolerate the odd welfare move ~ we could think ahead and plan for the future.
Advocates for change can assert veganism as the moral baseline position for animal rights supporters and they can openly claim that nonhuman animals are rightholders who have their rights violated routinely by human society.
Radical ideas take time to be assessed and evaluated by society: it is the job of the new animal rights movement to get the public used to hearing the claim that animals other than humans are also rights bearers. What can be regarded as second-wave animal advocacy had a false start in the 1970s when utilitarian welfarist Singer beat rightists Regan and Francione to the position of movement initiator.
It is only the rights advocates who assert that nonhuman animals are rights bearers and their treatment by humans are rights violations; and it is such people who are fittingly wary of peacemeal welfarist reforms.
 Bauman, Z. (1988) ‘Sociology after the Holocaust’, The British Journal of Sociology, Vol 14(4): 469-97; (1989) Modernity and the Holocaust. Oxford: Polity; (1990) Thinking Sociologically. Oxford: Blackwell. (1992) Mortality, Immortality and Other Life Strategies. Oxford: Polity; (1993)Postmodern Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell.
 Regan, T. (2001) Defending Animal Rights. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
 Davies, C. (1988) ‘Stupidity and rationality: Jokes from the iron cage’, in C. Powell G.E.C. Paton (eds.) Humour in Society: Resistance and Control. Aldershot: Arena.