Flexible Personhood

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 Cover art: Misfit st Bernard/mouton, Thomas Grunfeld 1994.

by Dafna Shir-Vertesh (Ben-Gurion University)

Pets as Flexible Persons
Webcast live on Google Hangouts, archived on YouTube
Where Princeton Environmental Institute, 100 Guyot Hall
When Thursday, October 8th, 2015.  Lunch and discussion 12:30-2
Reading  “Flexible Personhood”: Loving Animals as Family Members in Israel – by Dafna Shir-Vertesh

The term “Flexible Personhood” brings together the notions of flexibility and personhood. Many anthropologists have contemplated the notion of “person,” and have maintained that the modern or Western sense of personhood takes the division between “human” and “nonhuman” as fundamental. According to this perception, “person” is a subcategory of human, that is, one must be human in order to be regarded as person. However, personhood is widely understood in different cultures as the ability to be with others and to form connections with them, whether human or not. As Bird-David (2006) illustrates, the separation between self and other, humans and animals, is tacit and crossed, creating a perception of we-ness. In Western cultures we can similarly find people who have a certain sense of kinship with animals, and come to see them as individual beings, often close friends and prized members of the family. Animals, as persons, can expand possibilities of interconnectedness, as they provide emotional outlets and new forms of bond.  They offer opportunities to practice, rehearse, and experience relationships.

However, this perception of animals as persons and their inclusion into the family is not static. The acceptance of animals as children, family members, and persons, constitutes a complex and fluid relationship. Life-changes – for example the birth of a human child – can challenge the status of pet-as-persons. The animals’ roles in the home and the family can change, and in certain cases the pets are removed from the household or given away.

Since animals can be both loved as family members, even as children, but at the same time abandoned and abused, it is often claimed that human treatment of animals, and especially companion animals, is liminal or ambivalent. But there is more to it than liminality or ambivalence. The inclination to view animals both as person and as nonperson points not only to an inherent ambiguity but also to fluidity in the category “pet.” Pets offer a dynamic wide range of either/or possibilities, as they can sometimes be viewed as persons and at other times as (nonperson) animals.

The notion of flexibility, and specifically flexible personhood, affords an alternative perspective on questions of boundaries and inconsistencies in human–animal relations and love. Perceptions of animals are fluid, ever changing, turbulent, instable and in constant motion. Given that the pet category is indistinct and changeable, it can be viewed along a human–animal continuum, flexibly positioned at different parts of the gamut as changes occur in the lives of the humans. Thus, diverse patterns of treating animals can subsist under conditions of flexible personhood in such a way as to enable a variety of familial and human practices that are prompted and facilitated by the changes in life styles and the makeup of families. Pets epitomize options: animals can be included in families and homes as “flexible persons,” but their nonhumanness sanctions the possibility of exclusion at any juncture. From this point of view, individuals can be seen as forming a flexible perception of humanness as a strategy to expand possibilities – of friendships, of families and parenthood, and of relationships in general.

Further Reading

Bird-David, Nurit (2006) “Animistic Epistemology: Why do Some Hunter-Gatherers not Depict Animals? Ethnos vol 71 (1): 33-50.

Shir-Vertesh (1987) “Flexible Personhood”: Loving Animals and Family Members in Israel” American Anthropologist vol 114 (3): 420-32.


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a companion to the book