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Pet-Keeping in American Material Culture and Identity Formation


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Companion animals are a unique and complex part of American culture. They are frequently regarded as family members, yet legally they are considered property and are often obtained with an exchanged of money. As with other consumer goods, pets are culturally imbued with symbolism and are used by the consumer to form and express their self-identities. Different breeds of dogs and cats, as well as various display-oriented pet supplies, constitute a symbolic system of material culture. Interaction with pets in public, or other public displays of pets, serves to express the owner's identity socially. Interaction with pets in private enforces the owner's self-identity on an individual level.

Dogs and cats differ from each other in their roles in identity formation. Dogs are often associated with public display and are regarded as extroverted. The culture associated with dog-keeping is relatively materialistic, which is reflected in the remarkably extravagant pet products industry. Cats are regarded as being more introverted, individualistic, selective, and associated with personal independence. Cats' symbolic value is expressed through images of cats, whereas dogs are widely popular for their associations with people and accessories made for the dogs. Dogs take the forefront or center stage in American popular culture and media, while cats are often seen in more specialized areas of culture and are sometimes portrayed negatively.

Date April 2010
Edition Updated 2014
Pages 21
Language English
Notes This paper was originally presented at the Central States Anthropological Society 2010 conference under the title of "The Role of Pets in Contemporary American Identity Formation and Material Culture."
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal roles
  2. Animals in culture
  3. Cats
  4. Consumers
  5. Dogs
  6. Films
  7. identity
  8. Materials
  9. Media
  10. Pet ownership
  11. Pets and companion animals
  12. Popular Culture
  13. United States of America