Socializing Superiority: The Cultural Denaturalization of Children’s Relations with Animals

Cole, Matthew and Stewart, Kate (2018). Socializing Superiority: The Cultural Denaturalization of Children’s Relations with Animals. In Research Handbook on Childhoodnature Springer, Cham.



Children’s relations with other animals in minority (Western) cultures are shaped by a paradoxical socialization process: affective relations with some nonhuman animals (such as “pets”) are inculcated alongside norms of exploitation (such as “meat”-eating). That illogicality is central to positive self-concepts of caring for other animals while being complicit in the perpetration of routinized acts of violence against them. Caring and killing share an assumption of human superiority founded on childhood denaturalization, such that nonhuman animals are respectively civilized or commodified through their human encounters. In this chapter, we discuss the development and application of a conceptual model which “maps” this childhood socialization process. The “map” is populated by research which explores how children are encouraged to compartmentalize nonhuman animals into “types” that legitimate their existing uses, so that those uses are culturally reproduced (Cole and Stewart, Our children and other animals: the cultural construction of human-animal relations in childhood. Ashgate, Farnham, 2014; Stewart and Cole, Food Cult Soc 12(4):457–476, 2009). Cultural reproduction in the mass media, especially Hollywood films, is highlighted in this chapter: the use of anthropomorphized nonhuman animal “characters” in children’s films is enduringly popular (four of the top six films at the 2016 worldwide box office feature CGI animal “characters”). Such films invite children to develop affective relations with fictional anthropomorphic animals while diverting concern from real exploited nonhuman animals. Such an approach also reveals the precarity of the socialization process and is therefore suggestive of means for its disruption, especially through the deconstruction of human exceptionalism and the reintegration of children in particular, and humans in general, with other animals as natural beings.

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