Sociologists note that processes of socialisation never end: they start virtually the moment human beings are born (arguably in the womb) and they go on until the day they die. The assumed social influence of these processes can be gleaned from other terms which have been used interchangeably with socialisation, such as “acculturation,” meaning the process “by which persons acquire knowledge of the culture in which they live,” and the anthropological concept of cultural transmission, “enculturation.”
Students in sociology learn that primary socialisation is extremely important as it represents basic but foundational social knowledge which human beings draw upon to navigate their way in the social world. Individuals’ long and intense experiences of processes of socialisation are tremendously important in understanding how human beings relate to other animals in the ways that they do. These processes shape social attitudes and practices.
Many social scientists suggest that early (primary) socialisation is extremely important in terms of a person’s “life career” in society. Social philosopher Zygmunt Bauman shows how “the group” helps to make the person. Concentrating on language and social interaction, critical theorist Jürgen Habermas states that “the process of socialisation takes place within structures of linguistic intersubjectivity.” While regularly giving recognition to views that some accounts may suggest the “oversocialised” view of “passive humanity,” the claim that socialisation processes have a powerful impact on individuals nevertheless appears entirely justified.
Moreover, Bauman argues that the “utmost exertion” is required of those wanting to change what they have been “made” into. Therefore, a wish to change and resist involves effort, self-sacrifice, determination and endurance: quite clearly, it is far easier to go with the flow and live “placidly and obediently in conformity.”
A social psychological approach to the issue also helps us appreciate both its institutionalised and internalised dimensions. For example, while Piaget notes the important part socialisation plays in cognitive development, andFreud claims that a family setting leads to the acquisition of a solid moral and personal identity, sociologist George Herbert Mead suggests the simultaneous acquisition of the concept of self and social identity.
In 1984, poet, playwright and author Maureen Duffy wrote a book about human-nonhuman relations which is hardly ever mentioned any more. However, her Men and Beasts: an Animal Rights Handbook perfectly illustrates some of these sociological points about upbringing. For example, expressing the experiential reality of most modern British people, she writes, “I grew up in a meat-eating world.” Social anthropologist Nick Fiddes has shown that there have been several “meatologies” about the assumed goodness and even the biological “necessity” of meat-eating, and Duffy says she was brought up to believe that meat was “goodness itself” and consequently a meal without meat did not have “a bit of goodness in it.” For the young Maureen Duffy, meat was something everyone she knew wanted to eat, although some could not afford to do so.
If people sometimes did not to eat meat, she could only imagine that they belonged to a different social class. Their “elegant restraint” from meat was to give them, apparently through a form of inverted logic, some additional social standing - or, more practically, they were enjoying a variation from the large amount of roast game they usually consumed. Whereas some staples such as white bread were understood as bulky stomach-filling foods, it was known that “flesh foods” were absolutely necessary for growth and health “as if by eating a dead animal its strength and powers were transferred to you.” This latter point is something of a remarkable throwback to accounts of cannibalistic thought.[see Here.]
Once Duffy experienced overseas travel and observed the gradual availability in England of what she had been brought up to regard as “messed-up foreign food,” she increasingly found that she needed “some explanation of the world which included meat eating.” Of course, she quite readily found several conventional animal-harming explanations open to her, including most of the religious, philosophical and animal welfare views I have explored elsewhere and, she notes, she probably adopted all of them one after the other.
The effects of social processes such as socialisation are not to be ignored if one wishes to get some valid understanding of sociological patterns of behaviour and the grounding of long-influential social views and widely-held attitudes and orientations. Bauman’s statement that individuals are greatly dependent on the group which “holds” them appears entirely plausible, while in Taking Animals Seriously, philosopher David DeGrazia argues that resisting dominant values and ideas takes a great effort and an extraordinary independence of mind.
However, people can and do break away from their socialisation; the existence of animal rightists among speciesist populations proves that.
Nevertheless, precisely because socialisation processes are powerful social influences, it would greatly assist the case for animal rights if people were socialised into a world in which animal rights claims were both frequent and widespread. Regretfully, the chances of anyone hearing genuine animal rights views in present society are slim. Such views are generally drowned out by the cacophonous rhetorical rights claims of new welfarists. Animal welfarism - and the legal provision inspired by it (see Animals, Politics, and Morality by Robert Garner) – amounts to “going with the flow.” Traditional animal welfarism seductively suggests that no root and branch changes are necessary or desirable in human-nonhuman relations. New welfarism claims to want radical change, but in the name of practicality it will proceed slowly and make small and “realistic” reformist demands. Society merely needs to observe a certain extra vigilance to ensure that regulatory and social control mechanisms are sufficiently robust to meet all the requirements embedded in the welfarist notion of “non-cruel” animal exploitation.
Given a sociological understanding of social processes, it is not difficult to imagine why this orientation can appear seductive to so many. However, many more in the animal protection community or elsewhere need to gather the wherewithal to make claims that challenge cultural speciesism rather than try to work within its welfarist-informed precepts.