The Study of Human-Animal Interactions The CAIRC Scholarship Program Summary of the Past Researches
Summary of the Past Scholarship Research
From "Letter from CAIRC" July 2000
Research Theme: "What do People Want from Pets? Why do Dog Owners Resemble their Dogs? — A Sociological Inquiry into Changing Views of Pets in Japan"

By Noriko Niijima
The past few years have seen a drastic increase in media exposure of pet-related stories. The new term "companion animal" is now here to stay as the relationships between human beings and their pets undergo major changes. The research by Ms. Noriko Niijima, who studies sociology at the University of Tokyo Graduate School, addresses these changes in the times. It analyzes the relationship between humans and pets and humans' views of pets from the perspectives of sociology and ego sociology. According to sociology, the human ego is formed through interaction with others. However, so far in the field of ego sociology, animals have not been viewed as others in the technical sociological and psychological sense as having an essential role in the formation of the ego.

Many have argued that animals cannot be called important others influencing the formation of the ego because they cannot communicate verbally with humans. Yet there is research indicating that words are not necessarily essential to this process. The argument presented by this research is that mother and infant can establish emotional relationships because emotional ties between the two grow through visual contact — watching and being looked at by each other. However, there has been no such research report that specifically recognizes animals as others. The study by Ms. Niijima, who says animals can be others that influence the formation of the ego, is an epoch-making work, studying for the first time pets from the viewpoint of ego sociology.

First, Ms. Niijima presented her survey on the significance of the existence of pets. In a keyword search of a growing database that was representative of current research papers and magazine articles, the word "animal" appeared 95 times in fiscal 1996, but that number increased to 679 in fiscal 1999. The word "pet" appeared in five places in the database in fiscal 1996 and the frequency rose drastically to 101 appearances during the same period. The words "companion animal" yielded no hits at all until fiscal 1997, but registered in five places in the database during and after fiscal 1998. Ms. Niijima also commented on contemporary society as a background factor.

The rapidly expanding and changing nature of contemporary society increasingly presents us with the challenge of problematic situations that are impossible to comprehend using conventional common sense. Under such a problematic social milieu, there may be a significant gap between the reality that one person perceives with respect to a certain subject and the reality perceived by others. The same pet dog might be thought of by one person as something like his or her own child, while to another person, the pet is simply the cause of noise that degrades relations between neighbors. Such clashes of perception can be termed reality dissociation, in which the ego, which is formed through interaction with others, tends to more easily fall into crisis. A feeling of exhaustion with regard to human relationships builds up, and as a result, a feeling that life is not worth living can emerge.

Ms. Niijima conducted face-to-face interviews with a total of 30 pet owners and former pet owners in their 20s to 70s, and analyzed their relations with and perceptions of their pets. People took issue with pet owners who were overfond of their pets as a substitute for human relationships, and those who disregard the rights of their pets and treat them as objects. However, the survey showed that relations between pet owners and pets were so diverse that they could not be fully comprehended in terms of these two simple categories.

She found that the meaning of the existence of a pet can be determined in part by the perceptive reality of a given person or the reality of a particular situation. She believes that in such human-animal relations it is essential to view animals as animals, to understand that they have a different existence and are not substitutes for humans. It is also important to see pets themselves as others on equal terms in some respects. Humans can make contact with animals straightforwardly and without concern for social ranking. So it can be assumed that by listening attentively to animals, humans receive tremendous input into the formation of the ego. Since a pet dog, for instance, has an equal sense of existence, it is possible for owners to accept a pet dog's behavior, and therefore to come to resemble the dog in certain respects.