Changing Human-Animal Relations in Environmental Communication

Last changed: 18 February 2019

Erica Von Essen, Institutionen för stad och land.

The moral duties we have toward non-human animals are functions of our relationships with them. Our relations with animals may be based in ties of kinship, family, shared habitat, affection, work relationships and more. My research interrogates what happens when these relations are disrupted across time and space. What happens to ‘out-of-place’ animals that do not fit neatly into our established societal orders, and what sort of responses do they compel from human society? I locate those processes that destabilize human-animal relationships, and responses to contain or redefine animals, through the lens of environmental communication.

I show how discourses on biodiversity conservation and animal rights, desires for human-nature reconciliation and the commercialization of nature and animals change our relationships to animals. These changed relations reconfigure animals as props, commodities, markers of place, flagships species, laborers in an ecosystem services industry or game-players in hunting. My empirical contexts for this include rewilded animals, animals in animal-based recreation, invasive species and ‘illegal immigrant’ animals, wildlife hybrids, game animals in canned hunts, and animals that defy the boundaries between wild and tame and game and pest. Many of these animals fall through the cracks of animal welfare. Out-of-place animals invite ongoing, and often violent, attempts to discipline and contain animal movements. Hence I show animal presence is resisted, physically fenced out, and symbolically vilified.

My work draws on environmental communication methods of data collection: interviews, visual media studies and netnography. Interviews capture the ambivalences people have in relation to animals, across their lives, and other actors in society. Visual media shows changing representations of animals that can tell us something about how we value it at the same, in addition to conditioning us to view it a certain way. Finally, netnography captures communication among user groups that surround and ‘make’ an animal and resolve of our duties toward them on online platforms. Insofar as our relationships with animals are an important heuristic for changes that occur in society, for power relations with vulnerable others, and for human-nature connections broadly, I wish to direct Environmental Communication much like sociology, geography, anthropology, toward embracing an ‘Animal Turn’ in its future studies.


Erica von Essen
Researcher at the Department of Urban and Rural Development 
Telephone: 018-67 19 89