Overview

Taina Syrjämaa's private collection.
Taina Syrjämaa’s private collection.

The project is entitled Animal Agency in Human Society: Finnish Perspectives, 1890–2040, and is funded by the Academy of Finland and will be carried out in the Department of European and World History and the Department of European Ethnology at The University of Turku. The project started on 1 September 2014 and will continue until 31 August 2018.

This project will produce new knowledge on the crucial and topical question of the human-nature relationship, providing new insights into how modern and postmodern human societies in Finland and elsewhere have evolved. Regardless of their relevance in the development of human societies, animals have been largely excluded from the grand narratives of humanity’s past and present. Animals have provided humans with nutrition, shelter, workforce and companionship for millennia and thus they have agency in forming society. At the same time, the presence of humans has had a great influence on the lives and behaviour of animals. Humans, animals and the physical environment all co-exist and form an entity that consists of highly complicated interrelations.

Our research focuses on human-animal relations during the era of Finnish industrial and post-industrial society from the 1890s to the 2040s. Our main focus is on animal agency in society. In this context, we define agency in a latourian way, which means that rather than being the question of awareness or morality, agency refers to actions and their impact on other agents. Recent decades have witnessed a thorough transformation in societal research as many groups previously perceived as passive or as subjugated objects have become active subjects. Human-animal studies belong to the same continuum in the sense that their interest is to make visible and analyze animals as socially significant actors.

We examine the agency of animals in contemporary society, focusing empirically on Finnish case studies that all have a wider transnational context. In our research projects, we particularly focus on urban pets, the meaning and agency of assistance animals in the future, the interaction between wolves, reindeer and herding dogs and the agency of iconic wild animals in Finnish society. We also examine the relationship between wildness and tameness and argue that the lives of animals we perceive as wild are in many ways entangled with those of humans and vice versa. As the American historian William Cronon has argued, the wilderness does not represent the stark opposite of civilization. In his opinion it is vital that we bear in mind that environments that are considered wild have been affected by thousands of years of interaction between humans and non-human forces. The historian Harriet Ritvo also points out that “the wild and the tamed or domesticated exist along a continuum”.

Studying human-animal relations and animal agency is challenging, especially since the research material is anthropogenic and animals are defined and represented through human lenses. Since both history and ethnology have long traditions of examining “otherness”, the transition towards studying animal “otherness” is logical. We apply methods from historical research and ethnology as well as from future studies. One of the main objectives of this project is to develop joint methods for studying the entangled webs of human and animals and to promote the integration of animal agency into the research agenda of the human sciences.