Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A sociological look at ex-vegetarians

An issue in our movement that is beginning to get more attention is the number of vegans or vegetarians who struggle with the diet and end up reincorporating animal products, or succinctly, ex-vegetarians. A recent piece by psychologist Harold Herzog will hopefully serve as a catalyst for this important discussion. Backsliding as a general rule gets scant attention within the social movement or vegetarian literature. However, I believe it is important to begin looking at this issue with more intensity as our movement can only thrive if committed and passionate vegans take up our cause. While I believe that we need to be tolerant and garner an understanding of the limitations within people, I don'want that to be misconstrued for my personal belief in the ethical rightness of veganism for not only animals, but for environmental, health and world hunger reasons. While it is easy to say that ethically the issue is black and white, reality paints broad strokes of grey.

Years of studying our social world reveal just that, it's social. We live in groups, in communities, in societies. These societies create pressure to conform, to adapt, to socialize and to adhere to cultural norms. I struggle with this reality in my everyday life. On the one hand, i'm an academic, standing firmly behind the theories and scholarship of brilliant people who tell me that food choice is fluid, contextual, and rooted within the idiosyncratic biographies of individuals. These individuals are juggling gender roles, cultural and religious expectations and identity struggles, financial struggle, and the pressure to obtain status and cultural capital. On the other hand I am a vegan and animal rights activist. Clinging firmly to the belief that leaving animals off your plate is the ideal.

Through my research I have discovered social and cultural factors that act as barriers to vegan or vegetarian maintenance. It is my hope that by understanding these barriers we can both work to overcome them as well develop some empathy and tolerance toward those who struggle. My sample is limited but the breadth with which I got to know these individuals is not. Thus is the paradox of small scale qualitative research.

The responses I found within my limited study shed light on the complexities within food choices. Therefore, trying to scale down factors into neat, broad categories, has a tendency to lose a deep understanding of the social factors inherent in these lapses. While I appreciate Dr. Herzog's attempt to shed light on this “problem” I hope that by sharing some of my findings, we can begin to think of some big picture solutions, as well as continue to exercise tolerance and patience with those that do struggle.

I took a cursory glance at the poster presentation for Dr. Herzog's paper, and he lists “social reasons” as one of the three reasons for going back on what I call the “food choice continuum.” Since my degree is in sociology not psychology, I can offer my elaboration on this finding. During the course of my 14 interviews I ascertained 6 main themes or factors that acted as barriers to vegetarian maintenance. They are: family relationships, identity, guidelines and cleansing, gender roles, peer influence and social networks, and trend participation.

1. The role of family and spousal relationships were shown to be areas of negotiation and compromise regarding food choice. We especially see the home as a consumption site in which many tastes and preferences are at play. Many individuals found the introduction of a new spouse or partner to be particularly detrimental on their previous held beliefs. Often, participants would compromise when eating with family as a way to "not cause trouble." They recall feeling the pressure to be polite and go with the flow. Within most family structures, compromise on tastes are frequent and used as a way to build cohesiveness within the unit. Using theories of the sociology of consumption help to elaborate the complexities within food choice and avoidance. Family acts as a substantial agent within consumption choices and should be studied intensely to gain a broader understanding of the barrier it creates to vegan diets.

2. Issues regarding the label and definition of vegetarianism as strict and inflexible serve as a deterrent. This ambiguity lends to the vegetarian identity competing with other identities stemming from culture or religion. Although a strong collective identity is a central aspect to social movement mobilization, the vegetarian identity is particularly complex as it constantly competes with other personal (wife, daughter) or culturally assigned (baptist, Puerto Rican) identities. Bisogni et al (2002) reveal that over the life course, people obtain several identities and meaning is constructed for each by the people, groups and objects around them. These identities are managed by assigning greater levels of importance to some, and enacting certain identities at different times.

We already took note of the complexities that family offer with regard to food consumption, building on that we see recipes and cultural food connections within families substantiating that barrier. For example, one of my interviewees, a female PhD student mentions:

To go vegan, I think of every recipe I know and how would I modify it? That was the hardest p art for me.. thinking of all the family memories.. all these meat dishes are there, how do I start s upplementing these?

An additional barrier is the occasional perception of veganism as a rigorous lifestyle. To deal with this perception, many individuals will approach the practice in an individualized way. Many studies have echoed the notion that "vegetarians" will often frame vegetarianism in a way that suits their individual lifestyle.

3. In my study, many participants viewed the practice as a means to cleanse, as a loose set of guidelines for healthy living, and as a fluid and permeable lifestyle. To overcome the stigma associated with the label of vegan or vegetarian, many individuals will approach the practice as a loose framework for a healthy lifestyle. For these individuals, deviation was perfectly acceptable. The boundaries between meat eating and vegetarianism were unclear.

Anna Willett (1997) has confirmed in her study that for many, meat eating and vegetarianism are not dichotomous entities. For Willett vegetarianism is not a practice that can be rigorously defined, but instead should be viewed as a "fluid and permeable category, embracing a wide range of food practices." I can see why this idea might be troubling to activists, but I believe these findings to be rooted in the realities of our social world and should be included when discussing campaigns and other strategic planning efforts.

4. A major finding within my study that I fail to see emphasized elsewhere is the role of gender in food choices, especially for women in a family setting. Majorie Devault goes into detail about the role of women with regard to “feeding the family” in her book of the same name. In this extensive work she takes note of the tendency for women to favor the wants and needs of their partners and children over their own. In my study I heard several narratives regarding picky husbands and children who wanted to eat meat, dairy and/or eggs and the inconvenience that fall to women of having to prepare separate meals. Keep in mind the majority of female participantswere left leaning academics. While not a major finding of my most recent project, there is a robust scholarship of the relationship between meat and masculinity that needs to be included in any conversation regarding gender and food.

5. We see social networks and peer pressure play a substantial role in influencing the instability of a meat free life. Social networks have an amazing ability to provide positive encouragement or act as a substantial barrier to social movement participation as well as other forms of behavior change. Elizabeth Cherry (2006:167) in her study on veganism echoes the importance of social networks and support in lifestyle based movements: "supportive social networks are invaluable to maintaining a vegan lifestyle and thus sustaining the vegan movement." While not a new notion, movement leaders must continue to allocate resources in ways that provide social support to new and long time members alike.

6. Fish, especially eating out for sushi, was employed as a means of gaining social status and trend participation. While pointing me in the direction of food as a means to obtain social capital it is also important to note that the majority of my participants did not realize (or care) that fish is well, not a vegetable.

Recently we have seen pages of academic writing dedicated to the topic of food as new instruments of social capital (Johnston and Baumann 2007). We are beginning to see cuisine as a realm where individuals can engage in status displays and participate in trends. Calling on Bourdieu (1984) we see the claim that "food, in all its modes of consumption, acts as a form of cultural capital."

While I do see momentum of trendy vegetarianism, we should be continuing to brainstorm reaping a high brow reputation.

When asking the question why do vegans backslide? it is important to look deep into the complexities of our social world. It is no longer acceptable to offer simplistic explanations. My research has revealed several factors within the lives of my respondents that made adherence difficult. The family, culture and tradition, social networks and peer pressure, fluid approaches, deeply ingrained gender roles, and a desire for social status all weigh on an individual when making lifestyle and identity choices.

Again, our movement should seek to garner an understanding of human limitations. I have realized the rarity of veganism and the ability to strictly adhere to be challenging. This does not mean that we should stop striving for change. Veganism is certainly still the ideal that I believe to be making amazing progress. Perhaps though, we should begin with small steps, positive reinforcement for incremental changes, and a focus on healthier, animal free options that can be integrated into our fast paced nation.