The 84th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2015)

Drawing the Line: An Exploration into the Complex and Contradictory Relationships between Humans and Other Primates


Department of Anthropology, University of Notre Dame

March 28, 2015 , Gateway Ballroom 2/3/4/5 Add to calendar

In the United States, the practice of keeping animals in captivity has become a norm that is justified by the advancement of humanity. Our culture holds a position of dominance over the other primates, which often results in constructing them as the "Other," allowing humans to use them as we see necessary. Expanding upon the current research in ethnoprimatology, which examines the human-other primate interface, this research explores the ways in which humans relate to and perceive other primates in the captive settings of a biomedical research facility, a zoo, and an animal sanctuary. I used the ethnographic methods of semi-structured interviews, observation, participant observation, and discourse analysis. Over eleven months, I interviewed two lab workers, two zoo-keepers, and three caretakers, observed zoo-visitors interact with zoo animals, and participated as a lab worker and sanctuary volunteer. I then transcribed and coded my fieldnotes and interviews for data analysis. My findings show that the discursive practice of human exceptionalism has facilitated human treatment of other primates so that their captivity is justified on the basis of advancing humanity. I demonstrate that in each site, humans exercise ‘biopower’—a Foucauldian concept used to understand how a dominant group maintains total control over subalterns—over the other primates, who are deemed ‘bare life,’ a notion of valueless existence. This study will help us to understand our hierarchical relationships with other primates, how they allow for exploitation, entertainment, or conservation values, and what this teaches us about the construction of "human nature."