Fictional and Real World Anthropomorphism

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The memories of childhood are filled with adventurous dogs, Angry Beavers, a talking Cow and Chicken and a Big Blue Bear that sings songs (to name a few). It has not been until now that I’ve started to consider why animals with human characteristics populate so many childhood stories. Fast forward to the present and although I rarely watch cartoons with talking animals (unless it’s Disney of course), there are still very prominent examples of anthropomorphism within the real world. Throughout this post, I aim to explore the how’s and the why’s of anthropomorphism, both within literature and real life.

Anthropomorphism involves assigning a human trait to an animal or object (Burke, C & Copenhaver, J 2004) and is most commonly seen in literature. In almost every Disney story, there is an example this (Mickey Mouse, Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Book). Often the animals that can speak resemble a humanness presence where a real human would normally exist, e.g. Sebastian the crab is the advisor and court composter to King Triton in The Little Mermaid and in The Jungle Book, Mowgli, the human boy, is raised in a surrogate family of wolves. Animal characters are usually portrayed as heroes on an adventure or humorous or brave or sometimes mischievous, through acts in which their real-life counterparts can’t achieve. These animals are given voices, facial expressions and personalities, perhaps for entertainment and appeal or perhaps for something a little more meaningful.

Burke, C & Copenhaver, J (2004 p.212) suggest…

“The intellectual and emotional distance that the animals’ role-playing allows children and their mentoring adults, grants space in which to become reflective and critical concerning life problems and life choices.”

Basically, it is put forward that anthropomorphism (animal characters as people) can add a degree of emotional distance for the reader, particularly when the story message is very powerful, personal, or painful (Burke & Copenhaver). The idea is that animal characters are placed in human shoes to play out our roles when exposed to issues in modern culture and basic principles. For example, morals and responsibilities are taught when the animals are shown to make mistakes and face consequences, resulting in a form of education for children and adults alike e.g. Finding Nemo = listen to your parents, just keep swimming, never give up etc.

So, we can argue that the use of human-like animals in stories helps to understand our own world, but it cannot be ignored that these human-like animals aren’t always portrayed realistically in stories, (a bear in the real world is quite terrifying and dangerous; a bear in fictitious stories is likely to be friendly, cuddly and willing to share its honey with you). This is a clear difference between anthropomorphism within fiction and reality and our reasoning is totally different too. In reality, it is not so easy to teach or train animals to act in human manners. It is very easy, however, to attribute human emotions to animals when we assume we know how they’re feeling.

An article by Epley et al. (2007) describes three main motivations as to why we anthropomorphise and I’m going to use examples shown in the documentary Blackfish (2013) to apply these.

  1. Elicited agent knowledge: the accessibility and applicability of anthropocentric knowledge. In the documentary, one of the scenes shows the capturing of Orca calves. This was done because humans had the power to do so and the whale’s were left helpless in this situation. John Crowe, one of the men who participated in capturing the whales expressed how it felt “just like kidnapping a little kid away from it’s mother.” Despite this, anthropocentrism justifies their capture of the whales for human ends (profit and entertainment).
  2. Effectance motivation: the motivation to explain and understand the behaviour of other agents. The actions of a mother whale were described as “screaming, screeching and crying” to help humans understand how she felt when her calf was taken away from her. Grief as a human emotion was applied to the mother.
  3. Sociality motivation: our desire for social contact – particularly evident when it comes to household pets. In the Blackfish documentary, the relationship between the trainers and whales is described as “a very personal relationship,” “a relationship like I’ve never had,” “just like training your dog.”

But what are the risks in anthropomorphism? In the following video, Jessi describes how it can interfere with communication and relationships with non-human animals.

Thus, it’s important to understand the behaviour of animals, rather than interpret their behaviour using human norms. Had aquatic parks fully understood the behaviours of Orca whales in the 90’s, perhaps they wouldn’t have captured the whales. The good news now is that SeaWorld have now stopped their breeding program so their current Orca whales will be the last in SeaWorld captivity.

I believe it is certainly human nature to anthropomorphise because it gives a voice to the seemingly voiceless. Ironically, anthropomorphism is used in literature to help understand our world, and anthropomorphism in the world can be used as a way to understand the animal. Either way, we must consider that animals are still animals and the key to listening is understanding.

References:

Blackfish 2013, Documentary Film, CNN films, Netflix

Burke, C & Copenhaver, J 2004, ‘Animals as People in Children’s Literature’, Language arts, Vol. 81, No. 3, pp. 205 – 213 < https://secure.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Store/SampleFiles/Journals/la/LA0813Animals.pdf&gt;

Epley, N, Waytz, A & Cacioppo, JT 2007, ‘On Seeing Human: a three-factor theory of anthropomorphism’, Psychol Rev Vol. 114, no. 4 < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17907867&gt;

Images: Google Images

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Poverty Porn from Africa to Australia

Over the summer, I spent three weeks in Africa on a volunteer trip. Most of my time was spent in South Africa, a country that has come under the media spotlight as a poverty hotspot. All sense of luxury was non-existent during my time here. For the most part I no longer had clean hot showers, internet connection, a comfortable bed or air-conditioning. Whilst I was not placed into a state of poverty, the locals and children I met were a part of generations who have been born into it.

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According to the business dictionary, there are two main types of poverty and noting the difference between both is very important.

  • Absolute poverty:  Absolute poverty is synonymous with destitution and occurs when people cannot obtain adequate resources (measured in terms of calories or nutrition) to support a minimum level of physical health.
  • Relative poverty: Relative poverty occurs when people do not enjoy a certain minimum level of living standards as determined by a government (and enjoyed by the bulk of the population) that vary from country to country, sometimes within the same country.

The South Africans I met weren’t without necessities such as food, shelter and clothes, but they did live on very little, classing them in the relative poverty category (although what they lacked in material objects and money, they were certainly rich in spirit, friendship and aspirations to do, be and see more). The problem is that charities and the media selectively choose certain images and information for advertisements or news to exploit an entire country as one that’s in absolute poverty in order to evoke an emotional response for profitable or charitable gain. Because of this, some parts of the world, like Africa, are known to Westerners as countries that struggle due to a poor economy, less job opportunities and hold higher rates of disease and inequality, which creates an “archetypal image of the unfortunate African other” (Fyfe, T 2015) in our minds. This is the tactic known as poverty porn.

Poverty porn produces objectifying images of the poor for privileged gratification (Threadgold, S 2015). That is, those who are advantaged may feel lucky, or better about themselves when they are exposed to global inequality, disease and hunger and feel good that they aren’t in that position. It can also provide a sense of humanity when the advantaged sympathise with those suffering. There are many issues that can arise because of this, such as the ones outlined here, but in my own personal experience, being in that kind of environment ultimately did make me feel a lot more grateful for my life at home.

So after that experience in Africa, when I was introduced to the TV documentary Struggle Street, I was a little surprised at how poverty was portrayed here in Australia. Admittedly it’s sometimes easy to forget that poverty exists on our own soil when I myself have never been in that situation and too often we are reminded of the poverty that poisons other parts of the world. Struggle Street features some families and individuals living in relative poverty in Mt. Druitt. Threadgold, S (2015 p.2) argues the show itself is “denigrating the “underserving poor,” scapegoating and even pathologising them as figures of loathing, while completely ignoring the harsh structural economic realties…”. This is a good point as the producers were very selective with who they wanted to feature, exploiting the whole of Mt. Druitt.  What the show did achieve was provoking emotional responses to class relations and provide a sense of one’s place in social space (Threadgold, S 2015) A.K.A poverty porn.

Whilst both South Africa and Mt. Druitt are areas where poverty exists, there’s a clear difference between the people and how they view their situations. Words like helpless, poor, needy, desperate and dirty are often associated with the idea of poverty, however none of these words came to mind when actually meeting South Africans. They were ambitious and hopeful and  had a degree of pride like a  young man I met named Terrance, who worked for 10 hours every day as a waiter. He shared his aspirations to become a teacher one day and his dream to visit Australia and hopefully live a better life here one day. Contrastingly, based on Struggle Street alone, one could argue that the individuals in their state of poverty seemed to have given up hope to break their poverty cycle and had just accepted their dire life.

In either case, we cannot assume that everyone living in poverty in Africa all have the same attitude toward their situation, nor those in Australia. Similarly, we cannot assume that there is one definition of poverty or believe everything we see on TV. The most positive thing I take from this is that at the least, poverty porn still stirs up conversation and thought about poverty around the world and the economic and living conditions of our very own neighbours.

(I’m just going to leave this happy picture here)

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References 

Fyfe, T 2015, ‘Africans are fighting media poverty-porn by tweeting beautiful images of their real lives,’ Plaid Zebra, viewed 23 March <http://www.theplaidzebra.com/africans-are-fighting-media-poverty-porn-by-tweeting-beautiful-images-of-their-real-lives/&gt;

Threadgold, S 2015, ‘Struggle Street is Poverty Porn with an extra dose of class racism,’ The Conversation, viewed 23 March 2017

(Images taken during my time in South Africa.)

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Status Update: Self-Brands Going Viral

As our digital lives are becoming more integrated with our social lives, users fall under the pressure to create and maintain an online identity for recognition and gratification. Social media platforms are no longer solely being used for personal connection between family and friends, but for personal branding, self-promotion and connection between oneself and the world.

Personal branding refers to establishing and maintaining an image or impression in the mind of others about oneself. Social media platforms are an easy outlet for people to express who they are or who they prefer to be. Whilst most users tend to align their authentic self with their online self, deceptions are easily hidden behind a screen. What we choose to post shapes the perceptions that online individuals will have and because of this, users are becoming more aware about what goes online. Consequently, a real-sense of self can become lost online due to the fear that others may not agree or share the same interests as you. This in turn impacts our online social identities.

Social identities, as defined by Tajfel (1981), involve the knowledge that one is a member of a group, one’s feelings about group membership, and knowledge of the group’s rank or status compared to other groups (Leary, M & Tangney, J 2012). Due to our natural desire to be liked and admired, users are able to distort their social identities. As content online can go viral quite quickly, users can become popular just as fast when they post about issues or meaningful messages that send a positive message, or unpopular when they share a strong opinion or post that many disagree with. Just recently, a father in the Florida bought his ex and mother of his child groceries after discovering her empty fridge and pantry. He took this to Facebook with a post explaining the good deed he’d done. Whilst he received a lot of praise from strangers all over the world, he was also slammed for ‘self-promotion’ and criticized for uploading what he’d done instead of just feeling good about it and keeping it to himself. Whether his motive was to spread a positive message to be kind or whether he was doing it for gratification, it clearly exemplifies the power on social media platforms that users can use to their advantage.

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Source: Kurt Coleman Instagram

Micro-celebrities have done just this. This involves a self-presentation in which people view themselves as a public persona to be consumed by others, use strategic intimacy to appeal to followers, and regard their audience as fans (Marwick and boyd 2011b; Senft 2008; Senft 2013 cited in Marwick, A 2015).
Whether it be singing, comedy, making videos or just looking good, users are gaining large followers by communicating and conveying their image consistently across platforms to achieve a desired personal brand (Johnson, K 2013). This trend saw the rise of micro-celebrity Kurt Coleman who has over 30,000 likes on Facebook and over 161,000 followers on Instagram. Known for his self-obsession and vanity, fake tan and selfies, people love to talk about him. He is now paid to be in front of the camera (video and photography) and promotes brands on his social media pages as well as sells his own merchandise on his website Perf like Kurt. Although he receives as much hate as he does love, Kurt has built himself a memorable personal brand and by doing this he has become quite a success in his young, personal life.

For a little more insight on the micro-celebrity phenomenon, Sylvain Labs have created an ‘Instafame Documentary’ that showcases teenager Shawn Megira, who had over 80k followers on Instagram at the age of 15. Find the video here.

As concluded by Marwick (2015) “social media has ushered in a new era in which average people are able to command audiences as large as those made possible by broadcast media.” Regardless of how individuals choose to portray themselves online, considering that the concept of personal branding and how actions they engage in today can affect their future (Johnson, K 2013), is of utmost importance.

References

Johnson, K 2013 ‘Personal Branding in Social media, Marketing Management Association Conference Proceedings,’ Research Gate, viewed 14 March 2017, < https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281974827_Personal_branding_in_social_media_Marketing_Management_Association_Conference_Proceedings>

Leary, M & Tangney, J 2012, ‘Handbook of Self and Identity,’ The Guildford Press, USA

Marwick, A 2015, ‘You May Know Me From YouTube: (Micro)-Celebrity in Social Media’ In A Companion to Celebrity, Marshall, P.D. and Redmond, S., Eds. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Inc <http://www.tiara.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/amarwick_youmayknowmefromyoutube_2015PrePrint.pdf&gt;

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Closing the Doors

8 families.

Different structures, ages and history. 

One thing in common. Media.

Firstly I would like to acknowledge and extend my gratitude and thanks to each family who participated in this research. It has been a pleasant experience and I hope to offer them some insight with the completion of this project.

The purpose of the family interviews was to identity the media usage of each member and ultimately identify any similarities or differences between them and the impact that media has on their family relations and engagement. Australian lives are exposed to media everyday  whether we like it or not. It was interesting to see how families are embracing this media domination (or trying not to). Based on this sample of 8 families, here are the main findings:

  • Families who had subjects aged between 15 – 22 tended to have more devices within the household, in particular the Brooks, Johnsons and the housemates.
  • Families with middle age members tended to have fewer devices used mainly for work purposes.
  • Smaller families overall had fewer media devices such as the Prices.
  • Media usage has fostered family relations to an extent, particularly during meal time when they congregate in front of the TV, such as the housemates, the Brooks and the Watsons as well as the Moncadas, where media allowed them to communicate with overseas relatives.
  • However, engagement and communication between younger members in the family and older members has consequently been hindered by media usage as illustrated in the Johnson family, the James‘, BrooksWatsons.
  • Parents with younger children had expressed their concerns about their children growing up surrounded by such media, (Cardwells, Watsons) and prefer to interact with them personally then give them a device to play with.
  • Older members in families (50+) tend to use less media as they traditionally prefer physical activities and communication such as the Prices and illustrated with subject 3 from the Moncadas.
  • Younger subjects (15-22) largely used their personal devices for social media, entertainment and study, there was a commonality between younger subjects and students to be the biggest media users in the households.

It is clear that each family embraces the media usage norm within the household on varying levels and for individual reasons. Families with younger individuals experience higher media usage due to the fact that many of these members have no experienced a world without such technologies, whereas members who are older can go without extensive use of media as they feel they don’t have the same dependence on it as younger generations.

Surprisingly, every family apart from the Prices, own a number of devices that is above the Australian average –  6 devices per household or 7 with children under the age of 15 (ABS 2014-2015). This reiterates that emerging technologies are increasing the power and the want for consumers to access a variety of devices at will for work, social and entertainment purposes. The impact of this within the household has benefits and consequences as illustrated in the family profiles. To further explain these, an article written by Alessondra Villegas, The Influence of Technology in Family Dynamics offers some depth and explanation into my primary research.

Villegas similarly looked at the effects of computers, the Internet, mobile media and television on the way a family interacts, however on nuclear American families. She concluded:

  • Children between 8 – 18 years spend an average of 71/2 hours a day with media. Not surprising due to the ever expanding opportunities for them to do so due to more TVs and computers and media-ready cell phones and iPods (Rideout et al. 2010 as cited in Villegas 2013).
  • The number of TVs in the home has increased over the past 10 years with 71% of children containing TVs in their bedrooms (Rideout et al. 2010 as cited in Villegas 2013) potentially shaping  the way in which families socialise.
  • Findings conclude that watching TV at mealtime is a distraction and makes it difficult for family members to engage in conversation, therefore hindering effective communication  ( Villegas 2013 pp. 7-8)
  • Overall children and parents television viewing is different, often undertaken in non-common areas such as bedrooms.
  • A relationship was identified between greater use of the Internet and declines in communication between family members within the household resulting from a reduction of face-to-face social interaction (Kraut et al. 1998 as cited in Villegas 2013).

“Overall, the results demonstrated that media, cannot be tucked into a precise group of positive or negative since different media devices serve diverse purposes within family life as well as within individual families”. (Villegas 2013 p.13)

One last point I wanted to mention is that according to Villegas (2013 p.4), “it is feasible to propose that a key component of children’s media practices could be observed and mimicked by the media habits and the example their parents set.” This is particularly relevant for most of my interviewed families as they all had children aside from the Prices and the housemates. It is obvious that parents make decisions about their children’s media environment, as particularly depicted by the Cardwells, in that they don’t want their children to be surrounded by media all day. It is also the parents decision whether TV is on during meal times, for example it is for the Brooks, but is not for the Johnsons.

HealthyChildren.org offer some media use plan tips aimed at parents who want to regulate the media use by their children in the household, however I believe this can be applied to all members in the family to help balance out their online and off-line lives.

Thus, to conclude, as suggested by my findings and supported by existing studies such as Villegas’, there is strong correlation between media and family relationships within the home, however I cannot conclude that there is a causation, simply because families use media for a variety of different reasons and each individual is different. It is important to note that there are specific measures that individuals can undertake to ensure such as turning off media during family meal times to ensure that connections between members still exist.

References

Villegas, A 2013 ‘The Influence of Technology on Family Dynamics,’ Proceedings of the New York State Communication Association Vol. 2012 no. 10 <http://docs.rwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1062&context=nyscaproceedings&gt;

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The Household Diaries – The Watsons

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Family Profile

Subject 1 | Male | Age 44

Subject 1 owns his iPhone and laptop. His phone is primarily used for communication via calls and messaging with both friends and work as well as social media. He enjoys watching TV in the family room of a night during and after dinner.

Subject 2 | Female | Age 42 

Subject 2 only owns an iPhone and TV situated in the master bedroom. She uses her phone at home for social media purposes and often watches TV in the main lounge room whilst cooking and eating dinner. Recently her media usage has been higher as she’s been home looking after the family newborn.

Subject 3 | Male | Age 22

Subject 3 mainly uses his iPhone for media usage. He is a big social media user, particularly Facebook, snapchat and Instagram. He also uses his phone for phone calls and daily messaging. Occasionally he’ll play join his brother to play on the playstation.

Subject 4 | Male | Age 18

Subject 4 owns an iPhone, used for social media and communication, a playstation in which he’ll often play every afternoon, and a laptop, mainly used for study purposes. As he is completing his final year of school, he has been the biggest media user.

Subject 5 | Female | Age 10

Subject 5 loves watching TV and owns her own iPad. She mainly uses this to play games, watch videos, play music and Snapchat family. Often she’ll be playing on her iPad whilst watching cartoons.

Subject 6 | Female | 8 Months

No media usage aside from staring at the TV.

The Impact on Family Engagement

When all at home, the family is brought together in front of the TV to eat dinner and talk. However, other than this, they’re usually separated in different rooms using their individual devices.

Acknowledgements

Watson 2016, pers. comm., 28 October

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The Household Diaries – The Cardwells

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Family Profile

Subject 1 | Male | Age 34

Subject 1 is the biggest media user of the household, mainly for work purposes. He owns a phone, laptop and uses the family home computer quite often to work from home, communicate via phone and email and . On occasion at night he will watch TV when the kids have gone to bed.

Subject 2 | Female | Age 32 

Subject 2 owns her mobile phone and an iPad, usually used for leisure purposes. When she needs to do some work she will use the home computer. Most of her media use takes place within the lounge room where she can use her phone or iPad whilst watching the kids in front of the TV of a night.

Subject 3 | Male | Age 5

Subject 5 does not own any devices but enjoys playing games on mum and dad’s phones (however, only allowed on occasion). He enjoys a lot of cartoon TV shows, particularly in the morning and afternoon and spends a couple of hours watching these. He has recently been introduced to computers at school, however these are only used during class time on special occasion.

Subject 4 | Female | Age 3

Subject 4 prefers to play with toys rather than any interactive devices (still too young to understand how to use mum and dads phone properly). Most of her media usage involves watching some TV shows with subject 3 and watching some videos at pre-school.

The Impact on Family Engagement

Subject 1 and 2 ensure they spend plenty of time with the kids playing outside rather than all sitting inside consumed by media. They are a close family and Subject 1 and 2 prefer to use media when the kids are at pre-school or asleep so they can still interact with them and the kids aren’t distracted by mobile phones and the TV. This has ensured the children are active every day and are not always asking to use media devices when they are bored, rather they play with toys or each other.

Acknowledgements

Cardwell 2016, pers. comm., 26 October

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The Household Diaries – The Moncadas

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Family Profile

Subject 1 | Male | Age 54

Subject 1 owns a phone, laptop and iPad and uses these devices mostly for communication, social media and news purposes and doing duties such as online banking and paying bills. He watches TV occasionally of a night however prefers to interact with the family.

Subject 2 | Female | Age 50 

Subject 2’s media usage is quite low as she only owns her mobile phone in which she uses for general communication.

Subject 3 | Female | Age 75

Similarly, subject 3 also only owns a phone, only used for calls. She occasionally watches the family TV of a night.

Subject 4 | Male | Age 38

Subject 4 owns a computer and phone and uses these devices mostly for overseas communication to connect with family.

Subject 5 | Female | Age 20

Subject 5 is currently studying at university and is the biggest media user in the house. Due to her studies, it requires her to spend a fair amount of time on her laptop. Socially, she uses her phone quite often for messaging and social media purposes. In free time she often uses her laptop to watch movies and shows online rather than the TV due to the availability of programs and also does other functions such as online shopping.

The Impact on Family Engagement

Media usage within the household doesn’t affect family engagement negatively as they usually only use media in their own time and refrain from using it when they’re together. Media also allows them to connect with relatives overseas, resulting in their close family relations.

Acknowledgements

Moncada 2016, pers. comm., 24 October

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