Generally speaking, the field of dementia studies is not one to shy away from difficult topics. Sensitive and emotive issues, including elder abuse, sexuality, and death & dying have all been interrogated within applied dementia research, leading to important insights as well as practical interventions. When it comes to exploring dementia’s relationship with other species, however, the story seems somewhat different.
Compared with other interdisciplinary fields (e.g. STIS), dementia studies has been slow to embrace attempts to ‘think with’ and ‘think about’ animals and other forms of more-than-human life. A degree of scepticism is perhaps to be expected, given how people with dementia have been excluded from what Tom Kitwood (1937-1998) referred to as ‘the Personhood Club’ for more than two centuries. Given we are still struggling to ensure people with dementia are recognised as Human Beings – with the full corollary of rights that this status entails – do we really want to start bringing animals and other lifeforms into the lens of the dementia debate? Surely this way, ‘hic sunt dracones‘(here be dragons)!
In this post, I want to explore how we might successfully and sensitively refocus the lens of the dementia debate, in ways that enable us to explore dementia’s complex relations with the more-than-human world.
Embracing the academic ‘dirty work’
As Wilkie (2015) argues, social research involving mixed (i.e. human-animal) subjects tends to challenge normative assumptions about what ‘proper’ academic work looks like. This tends to expose multi-species practitioners and scholars, to a variety of (often unpredictable) responses from their peers; ranging from curiosity and amusement, to outright hostility. Wilkie highlights that thinking with and thinking about non-human animals has potential to taint and tarnish academic reputations especially within the social sciences, which can have long-term implications for professionals careers. As Wilkie states:
‘… scholars who study interspecies interfaces are academically polluted and engaged in risky scholarship, albeit for different reasons and to varying degrees, depending on the type of academic work they perform within the field.’Wilke, 2015, p. 215
The risks that Wilkie identifies are very real within contemporary dementia studies. Since its inception in the late 18th century, the field has been both highly human-centric and deeply rooted in liberal humanist values. Animals, historically, have received little attention within the field and, when they do, they are typically positioned as prostheses in the service of those living with dementia, or as models for scientists looking for cures and disease modifying treatments. To actively, and overtly, involve animals in our attempts to understand what dementia is, and what dementia affects, risks going against the grain of over 200 years of academic thought.
Yet, there is cause for optimism: As Wilkie also highlights, multi-species work tends to exist at the margins of academic disciplines and interdisciplinary fields, which are often ripe with dynamism, enthusiasm and fresh perspectives. The academic margins tend to attract higher concentrations of pioneers, builders and hybrid scholars, whose work frequently drives innovation and promotes scientific advancement. Key to developing multi-species approaches to dementia, therefore, rests in our ability to support and protect each other, by creating nurturing intellectual spaces where researchers from different disciplines and backgrounds, at different stages of their careers, can come together to share their findings, thoughts and experiences, free from intellectualised forms of suspicion, derision and dis-respect that those willing to do this particular form of academic ‘dirty work’ all-to-often encounter. This, in a nutshell, is what the Multi-Species Dementia International Research Network seeks to provide.
Alongside our willingness to do the academic dirty work, we need to highlight the ways in which speciesism can help us understand the lived experiences, and social positioning, of people living with dementia. To do this, however, we first need to reclaim speciesism as an analytic concept and cleanse it of some of its ideological ‘baggage’.
Since the 1980s, dementia scholars have highlighted the pernicious effects of cognitive ableism – in which Eurocentric constructions of Persons as rational, independent agents capable of exercising choice and practicing self-regulation, come to disable those living with neurocognitive conditions. Contemporary dementia research is starting to explore how cognitive ableism intersects with other ‘isms’ – including sexism, racism and classism. Yet, whilst speciation was central within early attempts to define dementia as a phenomenon distinct from other psychiatric conditions, speciesism has received virtually no attention within dementia studies.
First proposed by Richard D. Ryder, and later applied by the animal liberationist Peter Singer, speciesism is defined as ‘prejudice … in favour of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of other species‘. According to Singer, speciesism is the only logical framework that explains society’s systematic violence towards nonhuman animals; animals which (like humans) possess the capacity to experience suffering and enjoy happiness.
Peter Singer cuts something of a controversial figure within dementia studies. His arguments relating to the moral treatment of people living with Alzheimer’s disease, for example, have somewhat justifiably been met with outrage, disgust, and hostility. One unintended consequence of this reaction is that the metaphorical baby (i.e. speciesism as an analytic concept) has largely been thrown out of dementia studies, along with the liberationist bathwater. Yet, to my mind, cognitive ableism and speciesism are clearly interconnected. As an epistemic community, our unwillingness to systematically attend to the latter has deleteriously impacted on our ability to deeply understand the former.
Within the Western socio-legal tradition, humans are thought to possess unique and exceptional abilities. These attributes, in turn, are used to position humans as Beings worthy of superior moral and legal consideration. Tensions arise, however, when society is presented with humans who do not fit Enlightenment-based constructions of what a person ‘ought‘ to be. In response, scholars such as Cary Wolfe and Rosi Braidotti have argued that academic communities have largely fallen into a trap, of trying to find new ways of accommodating diversity within our own species, whilst at the same time re-affirming an a priori bifurcation between human and non-human. This, Wolfe and Braidotti argue, is key to understanding why the advent of ‘human rights based approaches’ (HRBA) to disability have managed to affect limited social change.
The solution to this conundrum, I believe, lies not in collapsing the division between human and non-human, nor in seeking to create moral or legal parity between species – there are, after all, several arguments in defence of speciesism (see, for example, Tim Chappell). Rather, it lies in acknowledging that we become human through our complex relations with the more-than-human world. Philosophically speaking, the division between human and nonhuman does not pre-exist (a priori) but is made (a-posteriori), through our everyday ‘entanglements’ (Barad, 2007). As such, people (including people with dementia) become human through their relations with the more-than-human world. Understanding how such ‘Cuts‘ are made and (re)made everyday, in the context of dementia, creates space for exploring the role of speciesism; not as a call to animal liberation, but as part of an analytical framework that is designed to help us better understand the ways in which personhood is facilitated and constrained within mundane – as opposed to metaphysical – dementia situations.
Animal visitation programmes, for example, may serve to foreground the humanity of care home residents living with dementia, if attending to the animality of (say, dogs), creates conditions through which Personhood finds new expression. Conversely, ‘bestialisation’ – the process of likening people with disabilities to non-human animals – is known to facilitate institutionalised forms of abuse. In both instances, speciesism is present, yet this presence serves to affect very different expressions, each with radically different consequences for how we do our humanity.
Building a (truly) interdisciplinary community
Finally, more than any other branch of contemporary dementia studies, Multi-Species Dementia Studies has the potential to become a truly inter-disciplinary endeavour. Bringing the more-than-human (back) into dementia studies creates new opportunities for collaboration with veterinarians, ethologists, botanists and microbiologists, amongst others, who have relatively little influence in the development of dementia studies since the late 18th century. The rise of the post-humanities during the early decades of the 21st century, is facilitating an emerging ‘animal turn’ across the social sciences, creating important new opportunities for collaboration between human and animal sciences. Whilst dementia studies has clear potential to be at the cutting edge of such work, we need to develop new, shared conceptual frameworks that are capable of facilitating cross-disciplinary dialogue and stimulating inter-disciplinary thinking. For over two centuries, dementia has offered applied researchers, practitioners and theorists alike, fertile ground upon which to put philosophical concepts to the test (e.g. “selfhood”, “personhood”, “citizenship”), many of which have been found wanting in the process. To build a truly interdisciplinary multi-species dementia studies, however, involves reaching beyond the arts, humanities and social sciences, to build fruitful collaborations with the biomedical sciences. Biomedical understandings of dementia have been heavily critiqued, especially within constructionist and activist dementia research. Qualitative dementia research in particular, needs to move beyond its reliance on over simplified characterisations of ‘the biomedical model’, and recognise the diversity of biomedical perspectives; many of which offer important opportunities for (re) thinking dementia across species boundaries; see, for example, Lynn Margulis’ work on endosymbiosis.
Constructive engagement and mutual dialogue across the social and biomedical sciences is key, to my mind, to navigating the controversies of multi-species dementia studies, including avoiding mis-characterisations of the sub-field as but the latest manifestation of woke social science.
To think with-and-about Zoë 1 in dementia is not a niche area of inquiry, nor is it the exclusive domain of those of us who happen to “like” the company of animals. Multi-species dementia studies is an attempt to adjust our conceptual apparatus in ways that redirect attention, and bring heightened awareness, of the more-than-human world, so as to enable new Ways of Seeing in dementia. This is not likely to be achieved without controversy. Yet, from my experience, nothing in this world that is worth doing, ever is.
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1. From the Greek, meaning “life”