People, Products, Pests and Pets

Interviewer: Sam Walter (Interviewer, Ideas Lab)
Guest: Dr Chris Pak and Dr Alison Sealey

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Sam: Joining us today from the Department of English, here at the University of Birmingham, we have Senior Lecturer Dr Alison Sealey and Research Assistant, Dr Chris Pak. Hello both. 

Alison: Hello.

Chris: Hello.

Sam: So, could you tell us very briefly about what you do here at the university, Alison?

Alison: Well as a lecturer I teach English Language and Applied Linguistics and as a researcher I’m working particularly on different ways that language is used to represent all sorts of things in the world, including at the moment how language is used to represent different sorts of animals.

Sam: And Chris, how about you?

Chris: Well I’m exclusively a researcher on this project – people, products, pests and pets – so all my time’s devoted to working on this project.

Sam: So can you tell us a little bit about the project – 'People, Products, Pests and Pets' – and the full title is the 'Discursive Representation of Animals'.

Alison: This project is a collaboration with Professor Guy Cooke who’s the Principal Investigator and he’s based at King's College in London, where there’s another research assistant working on the project, Clyde Ankarno, and between the four of us and two PhD students who are also working on this project, we’re aiming to look at the very many different ways that contemporary English language is used to represent different sorts of animals. Sometimes people think about animals as though they were almost people: what we call anthropomorphising – and when people have pets they sometimes regard them as members of the family, quite understandably. On the other hand we’re very happy to eat certain animals, or many people are, a controversial subject and there are different views about that and animals are used in other ways as products for their fur, for their bones, in all sorts of ways. Some animals are regarded as pests and to be got rid of or they’re found in the wrong place like in among the farmers’ crops or whatever. So we have all sorts of terms like those, like pests and pets, to denote different sorts of animals. And then of course depending on who’s writing and who they’re writing for, animals get written about in all sorts of different ways. So that includes for example the way that meat is described on food product labels, the ways in which people from say the vegan society might write about animals in their literature, the way charities like the RSPCA might represent animals in their literature and so on and so on. So the project is aimed at collecting a lot of linguistic data, that’s mostly writing but some talk, and looking for patterns in the way that people represent animals.

Sam: So this research has a particular application and interest when it comes to use of animals within scientific research, which is something you’re going to talk about at the Arts and Science Festival here at the University of Birmingham, at the lecture ‘Representing Animals in Scientific Journals – A Corpus Linguistic Approach’. Tell us a bit about the talk, is there a politically correct way to address animals within scientific research?

Well one of the things that we’re doing for the project as a whole and for the talk in particular is we’re taking a non-partisan approach to analysing the way in which people actually talk about animals. In the talk what we’ll be doing is looking at around 1,600 scientific articles. We’ll be using computerised systems to analyse that data in what’s known as corpus linguistics, so we’ll be looking for features of the language that they use to talk about animals, the ways they approach their study. Now about the question of whether there’s a politically correct way to talk about animals, that’s one of the things that we’ll certainly be looking to investigate, especially when we compare the debate about political correctness in scientific journals to, for example, campaign literature and the ways people talk about animals in that domain. We’ll be studying the ways in which these scientists actually do approach issues of measurement, control, the ways in which they interact with specific animals, so we won’t be looking at the issue of political correctness per se but the information, the data that we collect and the analysis that comes out of that will certainly go towards questions such as that.

Sam: How do you think popular literature has affected the way that scientists address animals in scientific literature? Is there a direct connection? Can we quantify that?

Alison: One of the reasons we’re interested in this topic altogether is that the ways in which people understand all sorts of things in the world: relationships between men and women, relationships between different social groups, poverty and inequality, all these big social issues are reflected in different ways of using language and the way in which we think about animals, about the environment, about climate change, global warming, all of these issues also are reflected in changes in the way that language expresses our thoughts about them. And we’re interested in the way people talk about animals, partly because of changing attitudes towards animals, changing attitudes towards our responsibility towards animals and so on. But we’re also aware that people are always making decisions about this sort of thing, so as they write something like a campaign poster or a blog on a web post or a newspaper article, they have to make decisions about how to represent the animals and the processes in which they’re involved.  So going back to your earlier question about political correctness, as Chris has said, we don’t aim to give people directions about how they should or shouldn't use language, but we do want to be aware about the sorts of things that might change people’s attitudes towards the language they ought to use and I think some of the ways in which animals have been talked about in the past have now changed. One of our PhD students, Emma McLaughlin, is looking at changes across time in the way that people have written about animals in particular domains. As people become more aware of controversies about things like animal suffering and so on, what seems to be the acceptable way to talk about it will change. And so going back to your question about popular literature and so on, I think there's bound to be a lot of cross-currence in the way that linguistic choices are made. So things like the newspaper campaigns or campaigns about animal suffering in laboratory experiments or whatever have both changed people’s practices to some extent and their attitudes and values, and also changed the way that they talk about animals. But it’s not until we’ve actually done the research that we can see if there are any connections between, for example, popular ways of talking about these issues and the more clinical scientific ways of talking about them. So the data analysis that we’re doing at the moment on these academic scientific journal articles is to try and identify some of the patterns that you might find there and having done that, we might then be in a position to say well are these the same as the sorts of patterns you find in more popular everyday discourse, or are they different from those? Are there particular ways that scientists use language to represent what they do in the laboratory when they’re working with animals that are quite distinctive, or are those practices changing, as you suggested, might be a part of the issue.

Sam: So you’ve been dealing with focus groups that are influential in this kind of language haven’t you? What have you found out from that?

Chris: We’ve got interviews with people who work with animal experimentation, people who work with campaigning groups; we’ve got focus groups planned for a variety of groups of people such as farmers or people who work with animals such as breeding horses etc. What’s important with that is that we are able to explore how these professionals who have worked in various industries have responded to debates about the ways in which animals are actually treated in our society and ways in which they’ve moderated the language that they use in response to that.

Alison: Just to add to this point about the relationship between the spoken and written data, it’s a way of thinking about language analysis that’s been developed particularly by Professor Cooke in London to try not only to look at the language data itself but also to interview the producers of that data so that they can say something about their own views on how to make decisions about language choices, in this case in relation to how animals are represented. And also the audience for the data, so people who come across that language in their everyday lives or in their working lives, to give them an opportunity to talk about how they respond to it. So the sorts of questions that you’ve been asking about the ways in which language might or might not change in relation to animals, or what’s a politically correct way of talking about animals, or popular ways versus more specialised ways – they’re all things that we’re looking at ourselves as language analysts, but we’re also interested in talking to the people who produce that language and people who might come across it as receivers of that language if you like, to what we call triangulate the different perspectives on the same data.

Sam: Fantastic.  Well I look forward to hearing the results of your research. So, Dr Alison Sealey and Dr Chris Pak, thank you very much for joining me today.

Alison: Thank you.

Chris: Thank you.

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer and producer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Sam Walter.