Extending identity theory: parenting and identity formation in human-animal relationships




Laurent-Simpson, Andrea

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Both traditional and structural perspectives in symbolic interaction have conceptualized the formation of self as arising out of lingual interaction between human actors. This was based on Mead’s original premise that non-human actors were alingual, and thus incapable of intersubjectivity. Identity theory, founded in the roots of structural symbolic interaction, has solidified that conceptualization by framing the development of identity as bound by both the perspectives of other human actors with which self interacts as well as with the social structure from which cultural expectations for particular identities are derived. However, this reliance on Mead’s statements concerning non-human animals overlooks other key passages of his thought that would suggest the importance of non-human entities as allowing humans to forge a complete sense of self in mutuality with nature rather than isolated from it. Using a posthumanist lens to magnify Mead’s contention that humans can take the role of other non-human entities in the development of self, the purpose of this dissertation is to address whether or not non-human animals can be directly implicated in the formation of human identity. Using the parent identity as a basis for identity formation in the relationship, this study asks four research questions. Original, in-depth interviews are examined for evidence of behavioral output indicative of the presence of a parent identity in two groups: companion animal owners that do not have human children and those that do. NVivo, a qualitative analysis software package, is used for data analysis. Deductive reasoning based on identity theory and behavioral domains found in the parent identity is used alongside inductive reasoning based on participant voice as a means of developing themes and subthemes for the analysis. Five major themes of the parent identity emerged within the group without human children. These were: 1) caregiving, including in-depth healthcare, protection and night care; 2) promoting development; 3) parental relationship with the “child”; 4) life modification for the “child”; and 5) external support. Taken together, these domains, supported in the literature as behavior culturally expected from the parent identity, provide empirical evidence that human identity based on perception of intersubjectivity in the animal is indeed possible, though likely contextual in nature.



Companion Animal, Family, Identity Theory, Parents, Symbolic Interaction