Rhoda Wilkie receives the British Sociological Association’s Philip Abrams Memorial Prize

Livestock/Deadstock by Rhoda Wilkie received the British Sociological Association’s Philip Abrams Memorial Prize for the best first and sole-authored book within the discipline of Sociology. In this blog entry, Dr. Wilkie is interviewed by Network, the BSA newsletter, about her work and the award.

Dr. Rhoda Wilkie was awarded the Philip Abrams Memorial Prize by the British Sociological Association for her book Livestock/Deadstock about people working with farm animals; the book explores the experiences and attitudes of those involved in the daily tasks of breeding, fattening, marketing, medically treating and slaughtering food animals.

One of the judges, Dr Garry Crawford, of the University of Salford, said: “Rhoda Wilkie’s book is an excellent contribution to British sociology and sets a great example of what contemporary academic writing should be like.”

“Wilkie deals with a very pertinent and important issue – our treatment and relationship with farm animals – and in doing so manages to produce a book that is balanced, engaging, insightful and accessible, which all-round is a real triumph.”

The prize is for the best first and sole-authored book within sociology and was established in honour of Professor Philip Abrams, whose work contributed substantially to sociology and social policy research in Britain. He is remembered for the encouragement and assistance he gave to many sociologists at the start of their careers.

The BSA President, Professor John Brewer, who gave out the prize, said: “In this anniversary year for the BSA, it’s fitting that this prize honours Philip’s legacy. He had a great commitment to the BSA and to the profession of sociology. He was one of the chief organisers of the 30th anniversary conference celebration.

“Indeed, he went on to co-edit one of the conference volumes, which is well known to many of us under the title Practice and Progress: British Sociology, 1950 to 1980.  And thus it seems in a way so fitting that his immense contribution to the BSA, and to British sociology, is kept alive with this prize.

“It’s going to be difficult for me at this point not to be sentimental and give something like a father-of-the-bride speech, because I’ve known Rhoda ever since she was a PhD student.

“She’s now a colleague with me at the University of Aberdeen. So I feel as if I ought to explain that while the president is normally a judge on the Phillip Abrams Prize, the conflict of interest has meant that I had to withdraw. So congratulations to Rhoda.”

In an interview with Network, Dr. Wilkie said: “I hope the book will encourage people to think in a more nuanced way about human-livestock interactions because it challenges the view that people working with farm animals see them only as commodities. My book illustrates that livestock can be more than just ‘walking larders.’

“For example, livestock workers have different opportunities and constraints depending on their roles in the productive process from birth to slaughter. Breeders tend to have more knowledge and more opportunities to handle their animals than those who specialise in fattening up animals for slaughter.

“Agricultural workers and hobbyists form varying degrees of emotional attachment to and detachment from the animals they work with. They might start off being emotionally aloof then get to know some of the animals.

“This may occur when animals deviate from the routine process of production – for example, if an animal becomes ill or if an animal is on the farm for many years. Although livestock are routinely slaughtered it can be emotionally challenging for some workers to send individually-known animals to be killed.

“This indicates that, in practice, the commodity status of livestock is ambiguous and far from static. To varying degrees, workers commodify, decommodify and recommodify the animals they work with.

“I use the term sentient commodity to highlight this dynamic status and the fine perceptual and emotional line that workers have to negotiate in terms of seeing livestock as both economic commodities and sentient beings.”

She found though the profession could be poorly paid, and outsiders often saw it as dirty work, many of her interviewees talked about how they enjoyed working with the animals.

She carried out fieldwork in 1998 and 1999 mainly in north east Scotland, but in other areas of Scotland too. She wrote this up for her PhD at Aberdeen and then into the book.

Her fieldwork took place mainly among those working with cattle and sheep, and she met farmers, slaughterhouse staff, vets, auction workers and hobby farmers.

“This is one of the first attempts to explore human-livestock relations from a sociologically informed perspective,” said Dr Wilkie.

“It also begins to animalise our understanding of work within sociology as it reminds us that people don’t just work with people, they work with animals too.” She remains interested in interspecies work contexts and has just designed a new fourth-year course entitled “Animals and Society.”

Interview and photo reprinted from Network Summer 2011, the magazine of the British Sociological Association with the permission of the BSA.

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