Moving home? The social and spatial (re)configuration of student accommodation

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

University campuses up and down the country are looking rather bare at the moment, but at the end of the month the students will descend once again, moving into halls of residence and shared houses or flats. This important rite of passage into adulthood is seen as a means of teaching young adults domestic skills. However, Holton’s (2016) paper in the most recent issue of Area suggests that shared student accommodation is perhaps not the best environment in which these skills can be learnt, providing some thought-provoking findings that may be of interest to students this autumn as they prepare to move.

There are subtle differences between ‘house’ and ‘home’, although we almost invariably use them interchangeably. In general, a house is simply a building, a space which is bought, occupied, and sold. Its foundations make it a permanent space, but its use is transient and ever-changing. A home, then, is more than just bricks and mortar; it is a house with meaning, a space in which we can express identity, a tool for fashioning familial relationships, and a means of fostering a sense of belonging. Houses become homes when they become lived spaces, spaces which define us and mean something to us. That is what makes a house a home.

With this definition in mind, then, students moving away to university leave their homes and move into houses (or flats). This, as Holton’s (2016) work suggests, raises the question; can students really call their student house a ‘home’? He considers the micro-scale geographies of student interactions in shared accommodation, interactions which are spatially mediated. Shared student houses, he argues, are dynamic spaces in which multiple, fragmented identities are performed and different versions of ‘home’ are embodied.

In moving into shared accommodation, students are thrown into hybridised spaces, very different to their home environments. They try to make their new abode a ‘home from home’, taking with them things from their home life; a few photographs, clothes, and books, but also, more importantly, Holton (2016) contends, taking preconceptions of how ‘home’ should be lived. All of a sudden, the ways in which they behaved in various spaces at home are challenged in the new environment of student accommodation. In their new residence, students have to renegotiate their time-space routines, changing the ways in which they use space, the habits that they have acquired, and the norms in which they believe.

With each student having their own individualised behavioural norms, house-sharing inevitably involves compromise. Whilst a lot of students who live together get on like a house on fire, tensions arise when conflicting norms clash and compromise is unheeded. Such tension, Holton (2016) identifies, is spatialised, arguments invariably being caused by the (mis-)use of space; leaving dirty dishes on the kitchen side, not taking the bins out, or being inconsiderate and noisy whilst others are studying. These are just a few clichéd examples, the point being that space has an important role to play in student relationships. Appropriate behaviour is judged based on its spatial location, variously deemed ‘in place’ or ‘out of place’. For instance, it may be acceptable to be untidy in your bedroom, but, relocate this behaviour to the living room, and it becomes a misdemeanour.

Thus, in student accommodation, it is the shared spaces in which most problems occur. Holton (2016) refers to these spaces as ’24-hour spaces’, flexible and communal, facilitating constant interaction and socialisation. In the lounge, for instance, students watch TV, play video games, drink, and chat. In the kitchen, they may cook or eat together and, when hosting house parties, the whole house can become a space for social interaction and general merriment. These shared spaces are a contrast to the relative privacy of students’ bedrooms; very individual spaces. Bedrooms become personalised with posters, photographs, and other keepsakes reminding students of home, but they also personalise these spaces with their behaviour, the only space in which they can do as they please. Nonetheless, this is all within reason, an inconsiderate use of these personal spaces also causing many arguments in student houses, where walls are thin and noise can travel.

So how do students resolve the conflicts that seem so inevitable? It is quite possible that the reason behind students being untidy and inconsiderate is not that they behave like that at home but, rather, because in their shared accommodation there is no authority figure to map out and implement domestic norms. Thus, Holton (2016) identifies that some student houses create house rules or rotas, in an attempt to keep order. In other student houses, Holton (2016) states, students adopt almost familial roles, some becoming ‘parents’ in order to enforce behavioural norms, in the formation of an albeit fragile hierarchy. Other houses still may resort to, what Holton (2016) has termed, ‘boundary-making’, students locking themselves away in their rooms and dodging shared spaces to avoid confrontation.

The student house, then, is a complex space, simultaneously facilitating and thwarting social interaction through the use of space within it. It is, thus, a halfway house, not quite home, but more complicated than most houses. Holton’s (2016) article hammers home just how vital compromise is to inter-student relationships. Thus, whilst not a true reflection of domestic life, living in shared accommodation teaches some very important life-lessons of its own.

books_iconHolton M 2016 Living together in student accommodation: performances, boundaries and homemaking Area  48 57-63.

60-world2Cahalane C 2016 Halls or Houses: where will you live at university? The

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? 




Using spatial science and lightning to predict thunderstorms

By Joseph J. Bailey, University of Nottingham

Lightning, while visually stunning and often quite exciting, poses a very real threat to humans (e.g. Europe in May; increased deaths in the USA) and associated thunderstorms can endanger lives and livelihoods through high winds and intense rainfall. An improved ability to predict thunderstorms may help to mitigate their impacts. Using spatial science to study lightning patterns has the potential to assist in this area of research and ‘save lives rather than end them’ (p. 196), say the authors of a recent Geography Compass article (Ellis and Miller, 2016).

'Shocking Lightning!' by Darren Hsu via flickr. Available at:

‘Shocking Lightning!’ by Darren Hsu via flickr. Available at:

The behaviour of lightning can be reflective of a storm’s intensity. Short-term storm intensity is very difficult to predict, even when forecasters are confident in the coverage and direction of a storm. Indeed, a rapid increase in the frequency of lightning strikes may be observed before a storm that produces severe weather. With this in mind, spatial science might be able to help us analyse the vast spatial datasets of lightning strikes and contribute towards understanding these systems and predicting ‘imminent storm severity’ (Ellis and Miller, 2016). Specifically, this work addresses lightning jump algorithms (LJAs) and understanding storm-specific lightning trends and the importance of their spatial and temporal components. By doing this, lighting strikes can be clustered in space and time and the overall patterns understood and hopefully linked to short-term storm severity.

Increased quantity and quality of data nearly always assists with science, where the analytical skills and technology exist in parallel. As discussed in Ellis and Miller (2016) a new instrument called Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) will soon be integrated with NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (also see this NASA article). This will be able to monitor lightning from space, providing novel data and enhancing our ability to monitor and predict storms, complementing (and providing a backup for) existing, ground-based instruments such as radar.

Such an advancement seems all the more important when we consider that the number of lightning strikes (Romps et al., 2014) and overall storm intensity (NASA Earth Observatory) are expected to increase with global warming, as well as overall storm intensity. These are therefore very interesting times for understanding and predicting storm activity. Hopefully all of these efforts from spatial scientists, geographers, and meteorologists will lead to fewer losses and a reduced numbers of deaths and injuries from thunderstorm events and lightning strikes.

books_icon Ellis, A. and Miller, P. (2016). The Emergence of Lightning in Severe Thunderstorm Prediction and the Possible Contributions from Spatial Science. Geography Compass, 10, 192–206.

60-world2 Romps et al. (2014). Projected increase in lightning strikes in the United States due to global warming. Science, 346, 851–854.

A great north post-capitalist plan?

By Paul Chatterton, University of Leeds


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 

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

60-world2 Northern Way Transport Compact

60-world2 Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) 

60-world2 UK Northern Powerhouse

Opposing Development? Development narratives of oil palm production in Sarawak, Malaysia

By Anna Frohn Pedersen, Víctor Suarez Villanueva, Milja Fenger, Simone Klee, Lærke Marie Lund Pedersen, Thilde Bech Bruun, Astrid Oberborbeck Andersen, and Kelvin Egay 

(c) Anna Frohn Pedersen

(c) Anna Frohn Pedersen

What is ‘development’?  While this term is frequently used in various contexts, we rarely take a step back and look at the meaning of the word. Our reason for posing this question begins in a small Iban village in Sarawak, Malaysia. We went to the village to study oil palm production and its effects on the local community. However, when we asked the villagers about their newly established oil palm plantation, their replies most often involved the word ‘development’. The connection between oil palm production and ‘development’ struck us. When we asked the leader of the village about his reasons for engaging in production of oil palm, he explained:

“We must change our mentality, our style of life; if you just keep quiet you never see development. Then people get poorer and poorer.”

To him, the establishment of the oil palm plantation was  “when the development came.”

Globally speaking, palm oil is the most used edible oil and can be found in many industrial baking goods, cosmetics, and a wide array of products we use in our daily life (see WWF guide to products containing palm oil and The Guardian for examples). In Malaysia, many communities engage in oil palm production in order to earn money from land that was otherwise seen as ‘idle’ or ‘empty’, and be part of what the Malaysian government praises as the country’s ‘development’. Yet, a problem arises when tropical forests are swiped to cultivate this panacea for smallholders. This is not only a source of environmental concerns but it has also become a problem for several local communities, causing internal conflicts (for similar perspectives from neighbouring Indonesia, read this news story from Inside Indonesia).

When leaders of the Iban village we visited characterised the decision to engage in large scale oil palm production as a way to ‘bring development’ to the village, other villagers described the decision-making process as secretive and suspicious. As we discuss in our research paper, recently published in The Geographical Journal, they felt excluded from the process and did not approve of the oil palm scheme that was chosen. Moreover, they feared that the oil palm scheme would only accentuate the inequality of the village. As some villagers expressed it: “The rich are getting richer, the poor, poorer”.

Based on these concerns, the opposing villagers formed a group and initiated a court case against the oil palm company. This resulted in two differentiated groups within the village: a group for the oil palm scheme, and a group against it.

Politics were deeply embedded in the conflict. The pro-group was led by a government leader using the argument that the oil palm plantation would bring ‘development’and get farmers out of poverty. On the other hand, the opposing group was being supported, legally and economically, by the national opposition party, even with the risk of being branded as ‘anti-development’ for disagreeing with the governmental development narrative. In this way, the oil palm plantation caused the Iban village to become a political battlefield, where national politics became of local concern and divided the community. Even within families, opposing opinions emerged and family ties were challenged — in some cases broken.

The story of this Iban community shows that in order to understand the impacts of development narratives, we have to look closely at how these are replicated and enacted in local communities. When we explore the issues related to oil palm, we must avoid reducing these to merely a question of right vs. wrong, good people vs. bad people, development vs. anti-development. These categories rarely reflect the complicated ways in which oil palm production influences the concerns and everyday lives of the affected communities. Instead, this story leads us to question how we define development in relation to oil palm, and what the consequences of this might be — locally as well as globally.

About the authors: Astrid Oberborbeck Anderson is a postdoctoral researcher within the Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen; Thilde Bech Bruun is an Associate Professor within the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management at the University of Copenhagen; Kelvin Egay is a Senior Lecturer within Faculty of Social Sciences at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak; Milja Fenger is a MPhil candidate in Zoology at the University of Cambrige; Simone Klee is a Sociology Student at the University of Copenhagen; Anna Frohn Pederson is an Anthropology Student at the University of Copenhagen; Lærke Marie Lund Pedersen is based at the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, University of Copenhagen; Víctor Suárez Villanueva is a Research Assistant within the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of Copenhagen. 

books_icon Andersen, A. O., Bruun, T. B., Egay, K., Fenger, M., Klee, S., Pedersen, A. F., Pedersen, L. M. L. and Suárez Villanueva, V. 2016 Negotiating development narratives within large-scale oil palm projects on village lands in Sarawak, Malaysia. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12181

60-world2 Afrizal 2009 The trouble with oil palm Inside Indonesia 98 Dec 2009

60-world2 Park J 2015 Is Malaysia’s palm oil worth the cost? BBC News online 4 August 2015

60-world2 The Guardian 2014 From rainforest to your cupboard: the real story of palm oil – interactive 10 November 2014

60-world2 The Guardian 2016 The palm oil debate 

60-world2 WWF Which everyday products contain palm oil? 


Cricket farming as an alternative livelihood strategy

By Afton Halloran, Nanna Roos, University of Copenhagen, and Yupa Hanboonsong, Khon Kaen University

A cricket farmer in Nahon Rachisima Province

A cricket farmer in Nahon Rachisima Province

Rapid urbanization, major losses of biodiversity, climate change, water shortages, and desertification. This is the depressing list which reflects our global society’s failure to maintain ecological balance. The impacts are manifold and widespread, and they quickly lead us speculate how our basic needs will be met in the future: what will we eat?

For every single issued fact, there is amplitude of both far-fetched and realistic solutions of how to ensure sustained food supply like farming with robots, growing algae and in vitro meat and eating invasive species. For others, the future of food lies in the mass-farming of insects in lieu of more conventional livestock like cows and pigs.

To put this all into perspective, we first need to imagine a timeline of agricultural history. Between 13,000 and 10,000 years ago, human beings began domesticating and farming wild animals in the so-called Fertile Crescent. Moving onward in history, we can see honey bees were the first insect species to be domesticated for human use nearly 7000 years ago. Few farmed animal species have been domesticated in the last thousand years; in fact, current trends have tended towards the loss of genetic diversity of the multiplicity of breeds which once dotted our agricultural landscapes.

Small-scale cricket farming was developed in Thailand nearly 20 years ago. Domestication of wild insect species has been proposed to relieve pressure on the hunting and collecting of wild populations as well as to create a safe food product for consumers and generate rural employment. The easy-to-implement and low-investment farming techniques faced few barriers to their adoption, partially due to the existing prevalence of insects (including crickets) within the local diet.

In our article, published in The Geographical Journal‘Cricket farming as a livelihood strategy in Thailand,’ we offer insight into why and how farmers have added this relatively new form of farming to their repertoire and the social and economic impacts that it has had thus far. We examine how farmers organize themselves, obtain knowledge and problem solve, and how they interact with other farmers and other stakeholders. By doing so, we formulate a complex picture of how rural communities in northern and northeastern Thailand interact with this livelihood strategy. We also explain that cricket farming was not created out of a food crisis, but rather an economic and ecological one.

This exploratory study arises from the GREEiNSECT research project which looks at producing insects as an alternative contribution the green economy in Kenya and examines the farming systems that have developed in some countries in order to gain more in-depth knowledge of their contribution to rural livelihoods. Thailand has the largest known global production of crickets for human consumption, and therefore provided a suitable region for such a case study.

About the authors: Afton Halloran is a PhD candidate within the Department of Nutrition, exercise and sports at the University of Copenhagen. Nanna Roos is a Project Coordinator at the University of Copenhagen. Yupa Hanboonsong is Associate Professor in Entomology at Khon Kaen University, Thailand.

60-world2 GREEiNSECT Research Project – Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports, University of Copenhagen

books_icon Halloran, A., Roos, N. and Hanboonsong, Y. (2016), Cricket farming as a livelihood strategy in Thailand. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12184

60-world2 Kameoka R 2016 Crickets cast as the future of food in project to beat global hunger May 29 2016

60-world2 Malakoff D, Wigginton N S, Fahrenkamp-Uppenbrink J, Widle B 2016 Use our infographics to explore the rise of the urban planet  Science 

60-world2 Munchies (Vice) 2016 Whole foods wants you to eat this invasive, poisonous, awesome-looking fish 31 May 2016

60-world2 North A 2016 California’s Water Future The New York Times May 20 2016

60-world2 Palmer H 2016 Africa’s Great Green Wall is making progress in two fronts PRI

60-world2 Simon M 2016 The future of humanity’s food supply is in the hands of AI Wired


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: