The United States slaughters approximately 34 million beef cattle annually, yet consumers know very little about beef production. This is largely by design. In a recent article (and podcast), sociologist Colter Ellis exposes the incredible role of emotional boundaries and boundary labor in beef production. Previous research has focused on the detachments necessary between consumers and the exploitation of commodities, ignoring the producers.
For most consumers, our feelings about cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals that we eat are very different from the feelings about our dogs, cats, and other animals that we keep as pets. Ellis demonstrates how this is not the case for cattle ranchers, who often see cattle as sentient, social beings with individual personalities (as illustrated by Pete the social beast and Cupcake the “teaser” steer). Through daily interactions with their cattle, ranchers develop emotional relationships, yet they have also developed narratives and emotional boundaries that allow them to treat these animals as economic assets and, eventually, as commodities.
The labor of cattle ranchers produces more than just beef. Their boundary labor creates a separation between animal-based commodities and the physical bodies these products come from. It creates a separation between consumers and the industrial practices that transforms sentient beings into emotionless commodities. Ultimately, Ellis finds, it allows consumers the privilege to disengage animal from meal.