Category Archives: Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Property guardians: when private security becomes precarious housing

By Mara Ferreri, Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona, Gloria Dawson, Independent researcher, and Alexander Vasudevan, University of Nottingham  

protects-by-occupation_2

Figure 1. Camelot’s ‘Protects by Occupation’ sign, North London. Source: M Ferreri

On 27 September 2016 a group of squatters occupied a vacant building in Shoreditch, East London. While not unusual in itself, the event was widely reported in local and national media because, with calculated irony, the occupiers had reclaimed the former headquarters of an international property security company, Camelot Europe. The company, with offices in six cities in the United Kingdom, specialises in a little-known yet growing form of property security through live-in guardians, also known as property guardianship. The squatters, who renamed the place ‘Camesquat’, hoped that the occupations would help “highlight the issues around property guardianship, and the rise in this new, precarious form of housing, first introduced to the UK by Camelot themselves” (SQUASH, 2016). So what are the issues with property guardianship and why do they matter for understanding contemporary cities?

Property guardianship (PG) is a relatively new form of insecure urban dwelling, existing in the grey area between informal occupation, the security industry, and housing. PG was first developed in the Netherlands by “anti-kraak” (anti-squat) companies in the 1990s and has since spread to other European countries, including France, Belgium, Germany and Ireland. Our paper ‘Living precariously: property guardianship and the flexible city’ is the first in-depth geographical study of PG in the UK that combines a study of the sector with an analysis of the lived experiences of guardians. Our research found that while until the mid-2000s the PG market in the UK had been dominated by large companies like Camelot, since the global financial crisis of 2007/2008 the sector has seen something of a boom. At least 22 out of 32 companies currently offering PG were founded after 2009 and growth in the sector is expected to continue. A high proportion of these companies operate mainly or exclusively in London, because of both a highly dynamic property market and high housing demand at a time of a double crisis of supply and affordability (Dorling, 2014).

As widely promoted by PG companies, the appeal to guardians is that of enjoying housing below market rent and often in central and ‘unusual’ locations, such as office blocks or civic buildings. However, guardians are bound by license agreements (not tenancies) that stipulate a number of restrictions on residents’ use of the premises, such as hosting friends overnight or having dependants, as well as a shorter notice period than a standard Assured Short-hold Tenancy agreement (AST). Crucially, as licensees, guardians do not enjoy exclusive possession of the buildings they inhabit (Hunter and Peaker, 2012) and are exposed to unannounced inspections and other forms of surveillance, and to the constant threat of having their licence terminated, leading to eviction. These conditions make living as a property guardian ambivalent and controversial, requiring a nuanced and qualitative approach to guardians’ rationales and experiences.

In our paper, we analyse these experiences through the narratives of guardians and their everyday precarious geographies. In-depth interviews with thirty-two long-term guardians in London reveal that choosing to live through PG can bring economic and professional advantages in a competitive job market. Guardians, who are often university educated, were able to change careers, afford unpaid or low-paid entry-level jobs or engage in further education. At the same time, everyday housing insecurity compounded by precarious work, exposed deep anxieties about the realities of ‘flexible urban living’, with many experiencing high levels of stress and the fear of being unable to leave a self-reinforcing cycle of precarity. In fact, critiques of the scheme are often met by guardians with resignation toward the lack of more secure alternatives, pointing to a much wider cultural and political acceptance of work and housing insecurity.

While the scheme so far only affects a minority of city dwellers, we argue that the logic underlying PG needs to be understood as an example of an emerging precarious subjectivity that has become normalised in response to wider dynamics of work and life precarisation in the global North. This normalization occurs alongside wider socio-economic shifts in urban centres. In London, in particular, guardians have been used to secure ‘unusual’ property in the context of a wider restructuring of the welfare state. For example, PG has been deployed by local government to secure council estates slated for demolition or privatisation (London Assembly, 2015), a process that further exacerbates the crisis of truly affordable housing in the capital. Our study of property guardianship shows the city as a site of intensified insecurity where uncertain work, life and housing co-constitute and reinforce new forms of urban precarity. While occupations such as Camesquat are useful in highlighting the iniquities that underpin PG, a geographical approach enables us to bring together a political economy critique with an understanding of the subjective dimension of the normalization of work and life insecurity in contemporary cities.

About the authors: Mara Ferreri is an urban researcher working at the intersection of human geography, politics and cultural theory, working at the Institut de Govern i Polítiques Públiques, Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona, Bellaterra (Barcelona), Spain;  Gloria Dawson is an Independent Researcher, based in Leeds; and Alexander Vasudevan is Associate Professor Cultural and Historical Geography at the University of Nottingham. 

References

books_icon Dorling, D. (2014). All that is solid: How the great housing disaster defines our times, and what we can do about it. London: Penguin UK.

books_icon Ferreri, M., Dawson, G. and Vasudevan, A. (2016), Living precariously: property guardianship and the flexible city. Trans Inst Br Geogr. doi:10.1111/tran.12162

books_icon Hunter, C. and Peaker, G. (2012) Who guards the guardians, Journal of Housing Law 297, 16.

books_icon London Assembly (2015) Knock it Down or Do it Up? The challenge of estate regeneration. London: Greater London Authority.

60-world2 Orbis Property guardians white paper 

60-world2 SQUASH (Squatters Action for Secure Homes) (2016) Camesquat Press Release – 3 October 2016.

60-world2Taylor D 2016 London protesters occupy former HQ of property management firmThe Guardian Online 27 September 2016

 

Speaking for science: does it matter how and where?

By Diarmid Finnegan, Queen’s University Belfast

Company: ArcSoft (hangzhou)

A diagram used to demonstrate the art of ‘chironomia,’ a system of gestures suitable for oratory taught to Michael Faraday by the elocutionist Benjamin Smart. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chironomia_Sphere.jpg Image in the public domain and out of copyright.

During every American election season, pundits find something to say about the way Presidential candidates speak. Perhaps more than ever before, the contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump invited this kind of attention. Trump’s hand gestures and Hillary Clinton’s voice were just two aspects of their campaign speeches that were closely scrutinised. Psychologists, journalists and media coaches all offered their take on the nonverbal strategies and automatic reflexes of the two nominees. One expert in embodied cognition even counted the number of times Trump sniffed during the second presidential debate (answer: 104). If nothing else, fixation on these dimensions of the live performances of Trump and Clinton demonstrated public appetite for close descriptions of their voices and body language.

However difficult it may be to demonstrate the influence of vocal performance over voting patterns, there is a long history of political speechmakers and their critics drawing heavily on the arts of oratory. But what happens when we look not at political argumentation but at efforts to persuade live audiences of the importance of science? Should any significance be placed on the voice and body language of the science communicator? One understandable reaction is to say no. After all, the truth of scientific claims is not supposed to be measured according to emotional resonance or alignment with public tastes or political convictions. Science, as one early historian of the Royal Society put it, should be communicated with ‘mathematical plainness’ (Sprat 1667).

It might be surprising to learn, then, that one of the most celebrated science communicators in the nineteenth century, Michael Faraday, argued that lectures ‘depend entirely for their value upon the manner in which they are given. It is not the matter, it is not the subject, so much as the man’. Among other things, this reflected a career-long engagement with the arts of oratory. It is perhaps yet more surprising to find Thomas Henry Huxley, the famous nineteenth-century exponent of science as trained common sense, pointing out that less than a tenth of Faraday’s audiences understood him. According to Huxley, the crucial thing was that most thought they had grasped Faraday’s meaning. Huxley was convinced that the intellectual value of lectures was extremely low. Why, then, did both Faraday and Huxley invest huge amounts of energy in delivering lectures to non-specialist audiences? As I argue in a paper published in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, both Faraday and Huxley were acutely aware of the power of speech to nurture sympathy for science and to support an agenda that placed science within a wider vision of social progress. Huxley declared on a number of occasions that he held oratorical techniques in contempt, but he also realized that the living voice could be used as a powerful means for swaying public opinion. There are good reasons, then, to reflect on how Faraday and Huxley used the power of voice and non-verbal action to persuade audiences of the relevance and public value of science.

Taking seriously the lecture performances of Faraday and Huxley also means taking seriously where they spoke. In basic terms, Faraday rarely spoke anywhere else than the lecture hall of the Royal Institution in London. Huxley, by contrast, travelled extensively. Faraday’s style of speaking, which included carefully choreographed gestures and vocal performances, was well suited for an auditorium custom designed for science lectures. Huxley’s manner and mode of address – standing stock still and speaking extemporaneously – remained constant even as he moved from one venue to another. This, of course, does not exhaust the geography of these speech events. Both Huxley and Faraday took care to position themselves within a wider landscape of oratorical performance. Their efforts to speak with influence, and assessments of those efforts, reflected unique combinations of expectations and assumptions about what constituted effective communication. Their lectures on science also helped forge novel spaces of speech that had influence beyond their own particular sphere.

Cultural and historical geographers, among others, have paid increasing attention to where and how any kind of ‘live talk’ is delivered and heard. An undergirding argument is that speech performance of whatever kind is closely tied to the place in which it unfolds. That this turns out to be true for talk about science lends special support to this argument. At least in the case of Faraday and Huxley, there was no single way to persuade an audience of the virtues, values and veracity of science. The voice, and the body, had to be mobilized in different ways and in different cultural locations to win an audience’s sympathy and assent.

About the author: Dr Diarmid Finnegan is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen’s University, Belfast. His research interests fall within three main themes: (1) Science, space and culture; (2) Historical geographies of ideas; and (3) History of geographical knowledge. 

60-world2 BBC News 2016, August 16. What Trump’s hand gestures say about him BBC News. Retrieved November 17, 2016

60-world2 Beattie, G. 2016, October 14. How Donald Trump bullies with his body language.  The Conversation, Retrieved November 17, 2016

books_icon Finnegan, D. A. 2016,  ‘Finding a scientific voice: performing science, space and speech in the 19th century’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers DOI: 10.1111/tran.12159

60-world2 Khazan, O. 2016, August 1. Would you really like Hillary more if she sounded different? The Atlantic, Retrieved November 17, 2016

books_icon Sprat, T. 1667, The History of the Royal Society of London. London.

Running: In the gym or in the park?

By Eimear Kelly, Queen Mary University of London

running_man_kyle_cassidy

Runner in Chicago. Photo Credit: Kyle Cassidy CC-BY-SA 3.0

Running and whether it is better to do it indoors or outdoors is an issue frequently debated. Which will give you a better workout? Which is more enjoyable? Which is safer?

A BBC article notes that outdoor running has been seen as the better workout as it requires more energy because of wind resistance. However, a study from the University of Exeter found that indoor runners who set the treadmill to a 1% gradient could match the energy expended by outdoor runners. But outdoor running was found to be more enjoyable and better for your mental health, particularly if through green spaces.

The question of safety has been explored from an injury standpoint. In a Time article, Dr. Irene Davis argues that running on a treadmill or a flat long stretch of road or pathway increases the risk of overuse injury. In comparison, running outdoors on varied surfaces, and having to change speed and stride in response to hills or corners is safer as you won’t overload the same tendon or muscle.

Safety has also been explored through a focus on gender. Runner’s World recently found in a survey of 4,670 runners, that 43 per cent of women at least sometimes experience harassment while running outdoors, in comparison to 4 per cent of men. They found that women were more likely to consider the safety of their running route, whether it was light outside during their run and whether there were other people on their route.

However, a recent article in Transactions exploring how recreational runners come to run either inside on a treadmill or outside on paths, found that runners were usually not considering questions of higher energy expenditure, enjoyment, or safety of the competing environments. The research with a group of indoor runners and a group of outdoor runners found that both groups often initially established their running routines by chance, which then became permanent. The runners became very attached to their routines and environments, and did not like to question or reflect on this too much. They usually did not want to veer from their already established running plan, as this could result in them not continuing with their running habit which they saw as a positive aspect of their lives.

While the ideal run was seen by both groups as being outdoors, both groups felt that the opposing environment would require them to think more when they ran, which would not be relaxing. And while the outdoor runners felt that they had the superior environment, they also had ideas about how their environment could be improved. In comparison, the indoor runners struggled to think of improvements, and were arguably more content. However, over the course of the research, two of the indoor runners tried running outdoors, evidence that talking about the possibilities of running outside encouraged some to try it. The researchers found that how people talked about their running, what they wanted to talk about and what they avoided, which questions made them excited or anxious, provided insight into how habits of running indoors and outdoors were maintained.

60-world2 Hamilton, M. (2016) ‘Running while femaleRunners World. Retrieved 6 November 2016

60-world2 Heid, M. (2014) ‘You asked: Is running on a treadmill as good as running outside?Time. Retrieved 6 November 2016

books_icon Hitchings, R. and Latham, A. (2016) ‘Indoor versus outdoor running: understanding how recreational exercise comes to inhabit environments through practitioner talkTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers doi: 10.1111/tran.12138

60-world2 Mosley, M. (2016) ‘Is it better to run outside or on a treadmill?BBC. Retrieved 6 November 2016

 

 

 

 

Global social movements contest the militarisation of East Asia

By Sasha Davis, Keene State College, USA

The news out of East Asia is currently filled with stories of political rivalry, nationalist antagonisms and military stand-offs. Regional tensions run high as China extends claims in the seas around Asia, Japan considers a more assertive military stance, the USA shifts more of their military forces to the Pacific, and North Korea threatens stability with nuclear tests, missile launches and blustery rhetoric. Geographers have long studied these kinds issues – in Asia and elsewhere – and have produced many insights on the ways governments regulate spaces, deploy military power, and manoeuvre for geopolitical advantage. These understandings of political geography are useful for analysing the current situation in Asia, but it is also important to recognise that governments are not the only actors trying to shape the region.

A recent article published in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers examines a frequently overlooked group of political actors: social movements. Focusing on activists contesting the construction of new military bases on the island of Okinawa, the article examines how local protesters articulate with global social movements to affect local projects as well as the political landscape of the whole region. Activists in Okinawa are concerned about the potential damage a new base could bring to their community through the destruction of wildlife habitat, environmental contamination, danger from unexploded ordinance and live-fire training, increases in incidents of sexual violence by stationed troops, occupation of large tracts of lands, and continued colonial political relationships with Tokyo and Washington DC. In addition to these local concerns, however, these social movements are also attempting to affect the larger political scene in the Pacific by promoting an agenda of demilitarisation and forging links of solidarity with groups on other islands throughout the region.

Through an analysis of the direct action ‘occupation’ style protests in Okinawa – and the way these kinds of tactics are circulated among activists from places as far away as Puerto Rico, Guam, Korea and Hawaii – this research suggests that protests like the ones seen in Okinawa are not ‘isolated’ or ‘local’ at all. Instead, they are supported and coordinated in quite complex ways across space. Drawing on perspectives from philosophers like Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault, as well as insights from the burgeoning research on social movements in geography, sociology, women’s studies and anthropology – this article contends that these social movements behave across space, and try to manifest power in place, in much the same ways as governments. Even though their aims, ethical positions, and organising structures may be quite different, transnational social movements – like governments – use tactics of operating in networks across space and setting up ‘archipelagos’ of places were their ethics can hold sway. The significance of this is that social movement occupations should not be viewed as ineffective ‘small’ protests. Instead, the article encourages us to look for the hidden connections and the links of mutual aid that binds these groups together as they aim to change international politics.

About the author: Sasha Davis is Assistant Professor of Geography at Keene State College. 

books_icon Davis, S. 2016 Apparatuses of occupation: translocal social movements, states and the archipelagic spatialities of power. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi:10.1111/tran.12152

60-world2 McCurry J 2016 Thousands protest at US bases on Okinawa after Japanese woman’s murder The Guardian Online19 June 2016

60-world2 McCurry J 2016 Japan defence ministry seeks record budget to counter Chinese threat The Guardian Online 31 August 2016

60-world2 Reuters 2016 in Tokyo Japan warns China of deteriorating relations over Senkaku Islands The Guardian online 9 August 2016

 

Violent and dangerous places? How do prisons come to be the way they are, and how can that change?

By Dominique Moran, University of Birmingham; Jennifer Turner, University of Brighton and University of Birmingham; and Yvonne Jewkes, University of Brighton

 

John M Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0

John M Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0

The first annual report from Peter Clarke, the new Chief Inspector of Prisons warned of a ‘grim situation’ in England and Wales, with prisons ‘unacceptably violent and dangerous places’. Nick Hardwick, the outgoing inspector had previously described the prison system as being in its worse state for a decade. 

Beyond these ‘violent and dangerous’ prisons, these are turbulent times. New Prime Minister Theresa May removed Michael Gove as Justice Secretary, appointing Liz Truss in his place. The departure of Gove, following his prominent and controversial role in Brexit, has drawn additional attention to the criminal justice system, and its challenges in light of this new leadership. Truss says she is under ‘no illusions’ about the scale of the challenge.

Before the EU Referendum in the UK Gove, and the then-Chancellor George Osborne, unveiled a major prison reform programme. It included plans for 9 new prisons ‘fit for purpose’ in the 21st century, and closure old Victorian city centre prisons, selling sites for housing. This was a high-profile policy, championed by then-Prime Minister David Cameron, in the first speech on prison reform by a PM for twenty years, and in the Queen’s Speech, as he announced the ‘biggest shakeup of Britain’s prison system in more than 100 years’. In the post-referendum turmoil, we wait to see how policy will shift, and how much of this momentum will be maintained.

Closely tracking the prison reform programme as it unfolded in parallel with our ESRC-funded project on prison design, we have explored the significance of prison building in relation to geographies of architecture in our recent Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers paper. The paper draws attention to non-iconic, non-utopian, banal buildings – new prisons. It argues that by attending to ‘signature’ buildings, architectural geographies has overlooked the critical and under-explored circumstances and contingencies of more quotidian constructions, neglecting the mundane processes of procurement, commissioning, tendering, project management and bureaucratisation. Advancing scholarship in carceral geography by considering the processes and assemblages that shape (what will become) carceral spaces, it focuses on what happens before a building takes physical form. The paper seeks to move architectural geographies more meaningfully towards a consideration of the bureaucratisation of architectural practice, as underexplored aspects of building ‘events’. It calls for geographers to pay greater attention to the banal geographies of architectural assembly, and to the banalities of production more widely.

There was much to be hopeful about in Michael Gove’s prison reform programme. There was a sense in which Britain had a once-in-150-years opportunity to design a new prison estate with environments that are safe and secure but also sensual and stimulating, for both inmates and staff. In detailing how prisons have been built up to now, our paper pointed out the opportunities that could be presented by working closely with architects to achieve these aims. There is policy flux around Brexit, and economic uncertainty is anticipated, and with our prisons ‘in crisis’, the resolve of government to follow through on prison reform will be tested.

About the authors: Dominique Moran is Reader in Carceral Geography at the University of Birmingham. Jennifer Turner is a Post Doctoral Research Associate in the School of Applied Social Science at the University of Brighton. Jennifer is also an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham. Yvonne Jewkes is Research Professor in Criminology in the School of Applied Social Science at the University of Brighton. 

60-world2 BBC Prisons ‘in worst state for a decade’, inspector warns 14 July 2015

60-world2 Carceral geography: a geographical perspective on spaces and practices of incarceration 

60-world2 HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales Annual Report 2015-16

60-world2 HM Treasury, Ministry of Justice, The Rt hon Michael Gove MP and The Rt Hon George Osborne MP Prison building revolution announced by Chancellor and Justice Secretary 9 November 2015  

books_icon Moran D, Turner J and Jewkes Y 2016 Becoming big things: Building events and the architectural geographies of incarceration in England and Wales Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers doi:10.1111/tran.12140 (open access)

60-world2Wright O 2016 Queen’s Speech: David Cameron to announce biggest UK prisons shakeup in more than 100 years 17 May 2016

60-world2 Prison Spaces: Fear-suffused environments or potential to rehabilitate? 

 

 

 

A great north post-capitalist plan?

By Paul Chatterton, University of Leeds

gnp-blueprint-thumb

Blueprint for a Great North Plan. IPPR North.

When you write an academic article, it’s always useful to watch out for contemporary events to connect to. On 17th June 2016 I had that opportunity when a Blueprint for the Great North Plan (for the north of England that is) was launched. The idea for a Great North Plan has been building momentum for a number of years, especially on the back of the now-defunct Northern Way . The whole context for this current great North plan is a desire to see economic devolution and elected Metro mayors under the brand of the Northern Powerhouse, a strategy led by the UK Government Treasury that aims to re-balance economic growth between the South East/London and the rest of the UK. The Blueprint for the Great North and was launched by the Institute for Public Policy Research North (IPPR), along with the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI). While it began largely as a transport strategy, its purpose has grown into laying out a vision for the North and a set of collaborative strategies around the economy, transport, environment population and place.

On one level it could be read as a business-led economic growth and inward investment strategy.But, from the position of the recent article that I wrote in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, this whole process raises a fascinating example of the complexities and contradictions in future transitioning, and the potential of advocating for an embedding more radical options beyond the capitalist present.

The Great North Plan represents a desire from various stakeholders to undertake some kind of socio-technical transition to a more socially, environmentally and economically sustainable future. What kind of plan actually emerges over the next few decades will largely be determined by the extent to which stakeholders are prepared to experiment with novel, and often uncomfortable forms of development, and take leaps into the unknown. If a region like the north of England is genuinely serious about reducing its carbon footprint by 80% and making headway in reducing persistent levels of multiple deprivation, then, this kind of risky innovation and experimentation will be key.

Moreover, this will need to be underpinned by novel meso-level institutional forms (linking bottom-up and top-down processes) that bring together civil society, universities, government and business can come together to co-produce solutions. A Great Plan for the North would also need to avoid lock-in to options that yield weak gains.

To embark upon what I call ‘post-capitalist transitions’, a Great North Plan would need to tackle many difficult and uncomfortable issues such as automobile dependency, critical levels of air pollution, dependency on outdated and centralised energy provision, and climate vulnerability. It would need to have an open, honest debate about some of the real limitations and negative consequences of the contemporary, pro-growth free-market society we live in. A realistic assessment of these challenges would free is up to explore more creative and durable solutions that could deliver brought prosperity and sustainability.

Geographers like myself who are taking part in these debates, have a key role to play in advocating for novel and disruptive policy solutions, reminding stakeholders of the profound level of the challenges we face, as well is process level innovations such as co-production and participatory research. Given our often pragmatic yet critical approach to societal challenges, geographers can help steer the future trajectories of our localities in very positive ways.

About the author: Paul Chatterton is Professor of Urban Futures in the School of Geography at the University of Leeds. 

60-world2 Blueprint for a Great North plan http://www.greatnorthplan.com/ 

books_icon Chatterton P 2016 Building transitions to post-capitalist urban commons. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12139

60-world2 Institute for Public Policy Research North http://www.ippr.org/north

60-world2 Northern Way Transport Compact http://www.northernwaytransportcompact.com/

60-world2 Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) http://www.rtpi.org.uk/ 

60-world2 UK Northern Powerhouse https://www.uk-northern-powerhouse.com/

Collaring domestication: human relationships with pets and pests

By Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

4 apr

Source: Author’s own photography

Pet-keeping in Britain is at an all-time high, so it hasn’t come as much of a surprise that The Secret Life of Pets, the latest animated film from the makers of Despicable Me, has proved so popular with the British public. Animal geographers often turn to domestication in order to understand human-animal relationships, the term, itself contested, serving to both separate and bind nature and culture, human and animal. From the turn of the twenty-first century, research in geography began to demonstrate the limitations of human control – in part due to animal agency – challenging the extent to which humans have control over domesticated animals. Whilst by no means a socio-cultural commentary on modern pet-keeping, The Secret Life of Pets reveals some of the key themes that challenge animal geographers today, most notably the idea of animal agency vs human control.

That age-old mystery of what our pets do when left alone in the house sparks excitement and imagination, in true Schrödinger’s Cat style. The Secret Life of Pets provides a rather comical answer to the puzzle; pets enjoying the freedom of the house getting up to all sorts of antics. The film shows pets watching TV, raiding the fridge, throwing house parties, and em-bark-ing on an even bigger adventure. Whilst these scenes are thought up for entertainment, many pet-owners can testify to having found the evidence of their pets’ mischiefs when left alone. Others have strapped GoPros to their animals in the hope of uncovering ground-breaking footage of their furry friends. Our apparently innocent intrigue, some argue, is underpinned by a desire for control, to be able to regulate our pets’ lives. An interesting piece in The Guardian has recently argued that being left alone often makes pets anxious or depressed, and, thus, the resultant (mis)behaviour is, in fact, caused by us, their owners (Pierce, 2016 [online]). Nevertheless, pet-owners, particularly dog-owners, often work hard at disciplining their pets, teaching them ‘good’ behaviour.

From a geographical point of view, Power’s (2012) study of pet dogs provides a framework for theorising this relationship. She states that pet dogs are created as ‘domestic’ bodies, disciplined to behave in ways deemed appropriate for the home. House training is a ritual for all new dog owners; dogs are taught to “modify their bodily rhythms”, such as toileting and sleeping, enabling them to be “integrated into household rhythms” (Power, 2012:376). Dogs, therefore, Power (2012) claims, are malleable and help their owners perform ideals of domesticity. However, our four-legged friends, of course, rarely fit with such an ideal. This leads dog-owners to make changes – conscious and unconscious – to their lives; they change their routines, they make decisions about house-layout, and they give special care to their companions’ individual peculiarities. Some cunning canines don’t even try to be subtle, manipulating us to give them treats or let them sit on the sofa! Whether consciously or not, people with pets allow themselves to be moulded by their cuddly companions, re-imagining and re-making their lives, their homes, and their relationships with their pets. Dogs, therefore, Power (2012) postulates, have agency to shape and control our everyday lives. In this way, through domestication, humans and animals are both (re)shaped. Domestication, therefore, is collaborative, humans working with their dogs, learning to understand each other.

This relationship can, of course, be juxtaposed with animals that do not conform to our expectations, such as feral animals, pests, or some wild animals. Such animals become marginalised by human society as their behaviour is deemed ‘out of place’ in the spaces that they share with us. Our reaction is to try to control them, either removing them entirely or limiting their spatial range. Whilst examples such as the grey squirrel, the feral pigeon, and the urban fox have been well-documented and hotly-contested, Ginn’s (2014) study of garden slugs proves that there is a huge range of animals that are not quite as lucky as our domestic companions. Living in close proximity with humans, their innocent slimy trails and taste for garden plants are behaviours with which we cannot live, ranking them highly in that imaginative category of ‘pest’, a category produced by humans to label – and simultaneously legitimise the exploitation of – any non-human whose behaviour does not fit with our own.

Whilst the title, The Secret Life of Pets, promises, and delivers, a film about domestic companions, the contrast with pests is pertinent. The stars of the film, pampered pets of all varieties, come face-to-face with a gang of abandoned pets, living in the sewers, going by the name of ‘Flushed Pets’. This vast army of human-hating, Pest Control-dodging animals includes dogs, stray cats, reptiles, rats, a tattooed pig, and, their leader, Snowball the rabbit. Their bitter hatred towards humans is extended towards domesticated animals, the simple collar seen by them as a tool for human control, defining pets as property or slaves. An exaggeration, yes, but perhaps something which should not be completely disregarded in an age when animal cruelty is worryingly common.

At the risk of giving away any spoilers, I’ll stop at that! A deep analysis of multi-species cohabitation, it is not, but The Secret Life of Pets can still help us reflect on our relationships with domestic and wild animals. The more geographers study human-animal relationships, the more they break down that once-rigid division between humans and animals that has underpinned the ways in which animals have been considered. Such studies of domestication show that the superiority and control over Nature, which mankind once thought was irrefutable, is being broken down, bit by bit, by every stray cat, every garden slug, and every mischievous pet.

 

books_iconGinn, F. (2014). “Sticky lives: slugs, detachment and more-than-human ethics in the garden”, Transactions of the IBG, 39(4): 532-544.

books_iconPower, E.R. (2012). “Domestication and the dog: embodying home”, Area, 44(3):371-378.

60-world2Pierce, J. (2016). “The Secret Life of Pets? Forget the movie, here’s what it’s really like”, The Guardian Online. Available at: www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jul/28/the-secret-life-of-pets-forget-the-movie-heres-what-its-really-like