More than Human: Why (a more) Critical Dementia Studies Should Embrace ‘Multi-Species’ Perspectives

In their opening blog, Linn Sandberg and Richard Ward call for a coalition with postcolonial, feminist, crip and queer movements in the development of (a more) critical dementia studies.  In this post, I would like to make a case for an additional ‘messmate’ (Haraway, 2008) within a coalition of critical perspectives; namely, the ‘multi-species’ movement.  

At first glance, consideration of non-human animals within critical dementia studies might appear strange – even downright insensitive.  Hasn’t dementia studies, after all, spent the last three decades trying to resist the de-humanisation of people with dementia? Do we really want to talk about people with dementia and “animals” in the same breath?  Surely, trouble this way lies…

In response to these understandable concerns, I would argue that key to our thinking differently with dementia is the attempt to free ourselves from what Latimer (2014) usefully refers to as ‘the thinking shackles’ of liberal humanist philosophy.  From Philippe Pinell (1745-1826) to Tom Kitwood (1937-1998) and beyond, getting people with dementia (back) into ‘the Personhood Club’ has been the central concern of dementia activists.  Whilst this has undeniably led to tangible gains for people living with progressive neurocognitive conditions, what such advocates have tended to leave in-tact is the very belief in the Human as a Being distinct from and superior to other beings; as a form of Being-in-the-World that is set apart from the rest of the natural world, characterised by unique capabilities and attributes that serve to make Humans worthy of exceptional moral consideration. These are the very normative understandings of subjectivity that have come to position people with dementia as Other to begin with. As such, and despite repeated attempts over the last two centuries to remodel understandings of Personhood (e.g. Pinnel 1794; Kitwood 1998), Selfhood (e.g. Sabat & Harre 1992) and Citizenship (e.g. Bartlett & O’Connor 2010) in ways that make them more inclusive of people with dementia, what we invariably see within global policy communities is a regression to the very hallmarks of cognitive ableism – such as the promotion of ‘individuality’, ‘choice’, ‘agency’ and ‘autonomy’ in dementia.  What we need is a new language of subjectivity; one that recognizes, as Donna Haraway (2008; 2016) argues, that to be human is to be entangled within interspecies relationships with other (non-human) beings.

Radically re-thinking subjectivity in dementia in this way may help to bring dementia studies back to the worldly realm, to understanding the ways in which lived experiences of dementia are intricately entangled with broader issues of planetary survival and climate justice.  We know that dramatic changes in our climate that the IPPC predict will occur over the coming decades will lead to changes in planetary systems that will have a disproportionate impact on people living with Alzheimer’s Disease and associated conditions. Anthropogenic changes intersect with divisions of ageism, racialization and economic inequality in dementia and thus, people living with progressive neurocognitive conditions across the Global South, in communities of color and within economically marginalized populations will likely experience the highest increases in, for example, acute health conditions resulting from extreme heat events (see Scheltz et al., 2017) and increased incidences of neurocognitive conditions brought on by deteriorating air quality (see Moulton & Yang 2012) to name just two examples.

Related to re-connecting dementia studies to understandings of naturecultures, taking a multi-species approach may help us to better understand the root causes of dementia-related violence and oppression.  Critical animal sociologists, for example, have usefully highlighted how ‘animalising’ forms of discourse have been instrumental in justifying systematic and State-sponsored forms of oppression towards human populations, as well as how violence towards humans and violence towards animals have historically intersected – see, for example, the work of Erika Cudworth (e.g. 2015); Nik Taylor (e.g. Taylor & Sutton, 2018) and David Nibert (e.g. 2003).   Such critical scholarship reminds us that dementia studies should not, and must not, reduce its focus to the violent behaviours of a minority of ‘disturbed’ individuals.  Rather, (a more) critical dementia studies needs to understand the ideologies that serve to propagate, perpetuate and legitimate violence and oppression. 

Researchers working from animal rights and total liberation perspectives, for example, have highlighted the ways in which the non-criminal putting to death (Derrida, 1991) of non-human animals has become widely legitimised, institutionalised and normalised within Western societies. Melanie Joy (2009) for example, explores the everyday logic of Carnism (as an aspect of the broader ideology of speciesism) which enables certain animals, like pigs, cows and chickens, to be positioned as disposable bodies whereas others, such as cats and dogs, become cherished companions whose bodies are off-limits to the food industry. Whilst activist research within critical disability studies has started to explore connections between speciesism and ableism as mutually-re-enforcing systems of oppression, such activism has yet to find expression within what Bartlett (2014) usefully refers to as the ‘emergent modes of dementia activism’, which – for very understandable reasons – largely remains wedded to human essentialism and to the language of human rights as primary vehicles for liberation.

The decision to cultivate multi-species approaches to issues of social justice in dementia is not to be reduced to questions of whether (or not) you ‘like’ animals (see Wolfe 2003; 2010).   Rather, it is to recognise that dementia studies have always been multi-species endeavors.  Non-human animals have been on the scene since the word ‘dementia’ was first coined within psychiatric nosology during the late 18th century. Animals have been on the scene both in a material sense (the therapeutic value of human-animal interactions in dementia was highlighted by Samuel Tuke in 1813) and in the realm of conceptual relations, as attempts to challenge the bestialisation of ‘the insane’ were at the heart of European Enlightenment psychiatry (see Foucault 1964/1988). What the multi-species movement offers (a more) critical dementia studies is the opportunity to think differently with dementia, by being alongside non-human animals in ways that address the core sources of oppression.  In this respect, emphasising the essential, indivisible and exceptional humanity of Persons is not, in my view, part of the solution – it is part of the problem.

Dr Nicholas Jenkins is Senior Lecturer in Sociology & Social Policy at University of the West of Scotland




  • The notion of being alongside comes from Joanna Latimer’s (2013) critical appreciation of Donna Haraway’s understanding of multispecies entanglements


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