Linking animals, social justice and social work
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Subjectanimal rights; critical animal studies; participatory action research; social justice; social work
Speciesism is a social justice issue that refers to a widespread set of discriminatory beliefs, practices and structures that harm nonhumans. This research aims to contribute to the elimination of speciesism by raising awareness of this issue among social workers and by beginning to reshape their relations with nonhuman animals encountered in practice. Social workers were chosen for this study because of their commitment to social justice. Building on previous studies showing the need for education about animal-human relations in social work, this study explored the impact of education and networking on social workers’ willingness to advocate for nonhuman animals. Nibert’s theory of oppression explains speciesism as the economically driven subjugation of nonhuman animals that is maintained by a pervasive ideology that devalues them. Ecofeminism points to the intersectionality of oppressions which includes the oppression of nonhuman animals. Critical animal studies provide an understanding of the foundational role of the animal-human boundary in constructing and maintaining these oppressions and identifies this boundary as a sight for change. Using participatory action research methodology, animal advocates were recruited to form a research team with me to develop an education module that reflected needs and interests of the oppressed group – nonhuman animals. The module challenged the fundamental belief of human exceptionalism by disrupting the animal human boundary. It did this by highlighting the agency of nonhuman animals demonstrated in displays of caring among animals – human and nonhuman. The education module was delivered to social workers and students in three focus groups and follow-up interviews were held to understand its impact. After the education and networking, social workers were found to have a stronger connection of nonhuman animals in their practice as well as an expanded sense of social justice. The moral norm of social justice was determined to be an important influence in the process through which participants became more willing to advocate for nonhuman animals. The findings of this research also illuminate social work’s role in maintaining the animal-human boundary. The research points to the need for a) education about speciesism and consideration of the wellbeing of nonhuman animals in social work practice, b) professional organizations to support a community of practice related to inclusion of nonhuman animals, and c) grassroots mobilization to propel change in social work institutions. It is recommended that social work recognize trans-species social justice and make nonhuman animals, whom the profession has kept physically, conceptually, politically and morally invisible, visible.
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