A CLAN for Human-Animal Studies? Opportunities and challenges of establishing the field in Portugal – Part 1

By: Verónica Policarpo

Three sociologists meet at a conference in Athens

In September 2017, the congress of the European Sociological Association was held in legendary Athens. It was a very hot day, and as it happens to me often, my presentation was on the very last day of the conference, on the very last time slot, late in the day. Feeling all the tiredness that comes after a long week of one of these big conferences, I headed to the venue early in the morning, after a sleepless night. I had browsed the conference program several times, looking for presentations that had the word “animal”, or any other related, in the title or abstract. I had found only three. One of them was exactly on the very same panel, and the very same day, in which I was going to present my own work. Moreover, it was about a topic very dear to me: death and mourning for a companion animal.

This was how I first met David Redmalm (from the University of Uppsala back then, and now University of Malardalen, Sweden), and Nora Schuurman (from the University of Turku, Finland). I invited both for a chat over a cup of coffee, to discuss my idea of putting together a summer school of Human-Animal Studies in a near future. Earlier that year, in May 2017, I had submitted to the main Portuguese funding agency a project about children and animal relationships. However, on that summer day back in Athens, under the hot, noisy, fluttering atmosphere of the conference, we were far from imagining the outcome of that application, which would eventually be successful. Rather, three sociologists with a special love and interest for animals simply sat in a bar to discuss how they could collaborate in the future in order to transform their interest in animals into something that could be both fun and of useful to the animals themselves.

Rising strengths: connecting, networking, funding

On that very same day, Nora told us about a conference on Human-Animal Studies that would take place in the following year, 2018, in Turku, Finland. We then got back to our busy lives and it was not until July 2018 that we all reunited in Turku.

International Networks, a HAS-Summer School and the ASI-Prize: a Hub integrated in the international HAS landscape

The game had changed, though. In May 2018, to my surprise, project CLAN in its acronym had been approved for funding, inaugurating a new phase in the establishment of the field of Human-Animal Studies in Portugal. In fact, the CLAN project would be, as I coined it at its final conference, the cornerstone project of the future Human-Animal Studies Hub (HAS-Hub). After our reunion in Turku, and as the CLAN project kicked off in October 2018, I contacted David and Nora again to pursue our plan to organise a joint summer school.

The first edition of the HAS-Hub Summer School took place in Lisbon, in June 2019. Our guest speaker was Margo de Mello, by that time the executive director of the Animals & Society Institute. Margo informed me about the possibility of applying for the International Development Fund. This prize aims to support the implementation and development of Human-Animal Studies worldwide, in regions where they have not yet been established. I submitted the application by the end of 2018, and in February 2019 I was again struck by the surprising news that we had won. This prize was a central piece in establishing the field in Portugal, as it brought international recognition, in terms of both funding and networks. It also contributed to the recognition of the importance of the field within the host institution (ICS-ULisboa) and the Portuguese academic system more broadly. These would be two critical pillars in the establishment of the HAS-Hub (Figure 1). The third one would be, of course, the projects that would both bring the funding and expand the networks.

Figure 1: Cover of the project that received the ASI prize. Credits: HAS-Hub.

Cornerstone projects and rising research strands

The first project to bring substantial funding to the Hub was CLAN – Children and Animal’s Friendships, which ran in ICS-ULisboa between October 2018 and September 2022 (Figure 2). Supported by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology, with national funds on a total budget of circa 240k Euros, it enabled to contract human resources (doctoral students, junior and senior researchers), and to subcontract different services, such as communication and branding, or outputs and activities of outreach. The junior team (2 PhD students), under the guidance of the principal investigator, was also fully integrated in the organization of the many activities of the Hub – which in turn actively contributed to their academic training. The project also supported those PhD students in their thesis, by providing theoretical and empirical materials, as well as research training. All this smoothly fitted into a dynamic, albeit complex and often overburdened, synergy between CLAN and the Hub. CLAN was hence the cornerstone project of the HAS-Hub in its initial phase. Interestingly enough, a project about childhood supported the childhood of the Hub.

In the meanwhile, other projects were approved, bringing more resources to this synergy. This included Liminal Becomings (my own individual CEEC contract), supporting my salary and full dedication to the Hub and its related projects. It also included a doctoral fellowship granted to the first junior researcher of the CLAN project. Each one of these funding opportunities opened a new research strand that became the main imprint of the Hub until now: companion animals (CLAN project and PhD scholarship) and animals in disasters (CEEC contract). Other important strands run in tandem, such as food animals and transitions to plant-based meals.

Figure 2: CLAN project illustration. Credits: illustration and design by Clara Venâncio, Project CLAN, in EXPOCLAN.

Finally, an important part of the work within each project consists of applying for further funding to enable pursuing the project and the Hub itself. This is how project ABIDE was born – out of an application for a Consolidator Grant of the European Research Council in 2021, one of the most competitive grants in Europe. Aiming at exploring what we can learn from animals about how to recover from catastrophic fires, this project would be, in a surprising twist of fortune, approved for funding in 2022, after being retrieved from the reserve list, where it had been kept due to lack of funds. Beginning in May 2023, this project may be the next cornerstone of the HAS-Hub. Just as the Consolidator Grant aims at consolidating the career path of the principal investigator and grantee, so too may the ABIDE project contribute to the consolidation of the HAS field in Portugal and the Lusophone world, drawing on the HAS-Hub as a platform to make it possible.

We are therefore at a threshold. May we be slowly transitioning from the initial phase of “childhood” to the consolidation phase of “adulthood”? If so, what role does it play for HAS in Portugal and the Lusophone world? What risks and opportunities await us in this process? What are the main weaknesses and threats that we face, and how can we address them? And which inspiring opportunities await us in the corner of our dedicated efforts and persistence? More importantly: where are the animals in all this, and how can we stand for them? More to follow on this, in Part 2.

Verónica Policarpo is a human-animal studies scholar, with a background in communication studies and sociology. She coordinates the Human-Animal Studies Hub, at ICS-ULisboa, where she leads project CLAN, the post-graduate course Animais e Sociedade, and the International Summer School in Human-Animal Studies. From May 2023 on, Verónica will be leading the ERC Consolidator grant project ABIDE – Animal Abidings: recovering from disasters in more-than-human communities.


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