Can pets give and receive at Christmas?
It's been a busy week for pets in the press, with recent reports drawing our attention to the rise of matching outfits for people and their pets, as well as a new Snapchat update which recognizes pets in photos. These developments aren't surprising with a season of family festivities approaching that pets are increasingly part of.
Last week, my first year students learnt about the sociological theorist Georg Simmel and the influence of his approach, taking the minutia of social life and translating it into bigger questions about order and division, on the contemporary sociological imagination. In referring to Simmel's work on the 'Sociology of the Meal', discussion took us to the subject of celebratory meals that we might engage in over the university vacation and of course, our pets' roles in them. How do pets celebrate Christmas alongside us? Do pets receive a special dinner or gift on Christmas day?
Initially, the above questions may seem strange to ask, given that pet-keeping is a fragmented practice which manifests quite differently depending on the type of pet one cares for. For example, in most cases, I'm referring to dogs or cats, as they are commonly deemed actors in reciprocal relationships, compared to the likes of hamsters that may be bound by a spatial distinction. However, it's not always the case. The type of relationship one engages in with a pet seems idiosyncratic based on a number of individual circumstances and biographical details of both owner and pet. This very observation, would be of interest to Simmel in understanding taken for granted practices and how they represent the contradictory and messy networks of relations that define social life.
My previous research (Robertson, 2016) shows that intimacy with pets is formed over the threshold of the home and sharing that space becomes symbolic for physical and emotional closeness. Pets tend to actively contribute to family life and are integrated into multi-species households through their participation in events, for example Christmas. The contribution of pets to the rituals of family ceremonies may be a ‘tie sign’ symbolic of their treatment as insiders.
Specifically, lets take the example of presents for pets. This offers an opportunity for reciprocity - they receive a gift and will show their affections in return. The exchange may also be a form of identity work, not only in terms of showing your 'pet-loving' identity to others, but also to (re) construct a pet’s personality or identity; their likes and dislikes. Examining our pet's part in Christmas contributes to debates surrounding their simultaneous status as person and possession. At some times, cooperation may be emphasised, yet at other times we are reminded of division, as shown by training them to keep away from the table for example. Order shifts differently at different moments so othering and comparison between pets and ourselves is contingent on this fluidity.