Social identity and veganism

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In this Project Update, Researcher Network member Tara Calder discusses her current research that explores the interaction between social identity and veganism in the context of the recent popularity of veganism.

According to the Vegan Society, there were 600,000 vegans in Great Britain in 2018 (1.16% of the population) making veganism one of the fastest growing lifestyle movements (The Vegan Society, 2016; The Vegan Society, 2018). Most restaurants offer at least one vegan option (PETA, 2019) reflecting the popularity of the diet in society. Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher who is pioneering in the vegan movement wrote the classic book ‘Animal Liberation’ in 1975 which offers an ethical justification for vegetarian and veganism (Črnič, 2013; Singer, 1995).  In 2012 he commented on his surprise to this phenomenal rise in veganism in a personal interview in Australia, “When Animal Liberation first appeared, you couldn’t use the word ‘vegan’ without an explanation” (Pendergrast, 2014). More recently vegan celebrities have been reported to have an impact on promoting and normalising the concept of veganism (Bennett, 2018; Pendergrast, 2014; Singer, 2018).

Veganism has made a visible shift from a small alternative sub culture to a more accepted part of the mainstream. Despite this, there are still many studies that have linked it to punk or anarchist sub cultures (Boisseau and Donaghey, 2015; Cherry, 2015; Foote, 2009) and few that focus on it’s growth. Perhaps this suggests that despite this move, veganism has retained an alternative identity as well as enjoying the benefits of being more accessible. There are more practicing vegans than members of vegan movement organisations (Cherry, 2006). In wider society, there has been a shift from protesting on the streets to political consumerism in the shops, ‘from the streets to the shops’ (Forno and Ceccarini, 2006). Veganism is now more about an individual choice and everyday practices in one’s lifestyle (Cherry, 2006) than a protest movement, where people use their purchasing power to instigate change. Critical consumption activity is more recently seen as an accepted tactic for advocacy (Bertuzzi, 2017). Therefore, vegan social movements may not be needed as much within society. The message is already out there. Within the media, no explanation is needed for ‘vegan’ and the assumption is that the audience is already familiar and interested in veganism (Pendergrast, 2014).

It has also been documented that friendlier approaches such as sharing recipes, leading by example, providing guidance about adopting a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle tends to “foster a greater chance of adoption of a vegetarian or vegan identity” (Christopher et al., 2018). The social practice of veganism including food experimentation, the sharing of recipes on internet forums and amongst friends and family has been seen as a contributory factor to the rise in veganism and acceptance of being vegan (Twine, 2014; Twine, 2018). These ‘pull’ factors within social networks rather than ‘push’ factors of extreme social movements (e.g. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)) have been seen to promote continued commitment to veganism (Cherry, 2006). Others, however, fear that this difference or “individual lifestyle change” has become an easier, more individualistic substitute for collective action (Barreiros and Mazon, 2017). In addition, some have argued that this popularity and move to the mainstream has the potential to produce inconsistent definitions of veganism and can become “'diluted' by capitalist imperatives to reproduce the mainstream” (Luetchford, 2016) and thus veganism itself can become compromised. However, this move to mainstream may enable the promotion of vegan beliefs and ethics on a grander scale, by continuing to help reduce the impact on the environment and increase animal welfare rather than a dilution of values by being part of the mainstream. In the same way, the much-criticised selling of The Body Shop, a company with a strong ethos against animal testing to L’Oréal, a company known to test products on animals is now recognized as a tactical move on the owner Anita Rodrick’s part where the ethics of The Body Shop has filtered through to L’Oréal and not vice versa (EcoSalon, 2012).

Has this move or shift to mainstream compromised the vegan identity or how people who are vegan define themselves? Now that veganism is part of a much bigger and largely accepted lifestyle rather than a smaller sub-culture. Has this had an impact on the social identities attached to veganism?

Food choice has often been a fundamental expression of what people believe in and who we are. In Willets study of meat-eating and vegetarianism in South-East London in 1997, the “apparently mundane aspects of food choice are thought to symbolize not only identity on a personal level, but also culturally defined value systems” (Willetts, 1997). According to Giddens, lifestyle choice is important in constructing self-identity and daily activity (Giddens, 1991). The vegan identity reflects shared beliefs, values, and politic of people (Greenebaum, 2016) and has been seen to tie in with the cultural turn from modern to postmodern where people form identities from personal choices rather than traditionally being defined by ethnicity, gender and class (Ulusoy and Fırat, 2018).

Social identity theory argues that a stronger sense of division between the mainstream and the individual group is largely due to a strong identification within a movement or group (Kelly, 1993). It is also important for a group to highlight their distinctiveness from others (Vignoles et al., 2000). This division and distinctiveness from the mainstream help to promote a positive social identity. If the division is more blurred, does the social identity of people following a vegab diet get compromised?

The reasons why people follow vegan diets have been widely reported as ethical, health and environmental related (Morris, 2018; Pribis et al., 2010; Whitley et al., 2018). The reasons why people become vegan and vegetarian can strongly influence how they practice the diet and the longevity of keeping to the diet. People who changed diets for ethical reasons were reported to have stronger convictions to remaining vegan and were more likely to be vegetarian and vegan for longer (Hoffman et al., 2013). Also, people who are vegan or vegetarian for animal rights reasons are less likely to ‘lapse’ because this reason is more difficult to compromise (Menzies and Sheeshka, 2012).

The reasons people choose to be vegan can also define a person’s identity more than the diet itself and can cause divisions within the vegan community. For instance, ‘health’ vegans and vegetarians are more likely to be identified by health whereas ‘ethical’ vegans and vegetarians are more likely to be defined by animal welfare (Fox and Ward, 2008b). In the same way the existence of ‘lifestyle’ (such as health) and ‘ethical’ vegans has caused problems for researchers when defining veganism because they can be seen to have oppositional meanings even though both are practicing the same diet (Hookway, 2014). Some studies have found that this major difference can lead to conflict within the vegan community. Ethical vegetarians have been found to criticize people who are vegan for health reasons, believing this reason to be selfish (Christopher et al., 2018; Fox and Ward, 2008a). Also, some people do not view veganism as identity defining at all. Larsson, and colleagues' study identified ‘individualistic’ vegans who do not participate in activities such as animal rights demonstrations and therefore do not see being vegan as contributing to their identity (Larsson et al., 2003). Some people who follow the diet conceal their veganism by using food allergies as a reason (Fox and Ward, 2008b). In other cases, a vegetarian or vegan identity may be a more private part of their identity, one people following a vegan diet do not wish to divulge whereas for others it is a means to promote the reason for veganism such as animal welfare, environment or health consciousness (Stiles, 1998).

An adopted identity can be stronger than the physical practice of veganism or vegetarianism itself. Interestingly, a ‘lapse’ from strict vegetarianism does not necessarily stop a vegan or vegetarian from continuing to use that definition (Willetts, 1997), highlighting a blurred distinction of the definition. Also, it has been noted that motives and reasons for adopting a vegan and vegetarian diet are likely to adapt over time and people are likely to incorporate other reasons when exposed to new environments (Devine et al., 1998; Stiles, 1998). For instance, ‘health' vegetarians and vegans can adopt environmental reasons to further justify their lifestyle (Fox and Ward, 2008b). This potential for change has also been highlighted by Giddens. “The routines people put into practice are reflexively open to change, making self-identity open to change as well” (Giddens, 1991). Food eating habits are a part of long-term decisions people reflexively make in late modernity (Sneijder and Te Molder, 2009).

However, the strong association with vegan consumption and values for some means that this change may not be as easy or straightforward as it seems. A complete change may require an adoption of a new lifestyle or identity and consumers may not be in a position to do this freely and may require “a conversion experience” (Campbell, 2005). Therefore, with these varying reasons and the likelihood of adopting more than one reason over time there has been criticism of previous studies that focus on the ethical side of veganism when a large number are not heavily involved in activism and where health is increasingly becoming one of the main reasons to adopt a vegan diet (Merriman, 2010).

Veganism is widely discussed in the media, from the popularity of ‘Veganary’ (a charity encouraging people to try veganism in January each year) (Miceli, 2018) to the presence on many TV programmes (BBC, 2018a; BBC, 2018b; Dispatches, 2019). Even Greggs have launched a vegan sausage roll after a large petition driven by the animal right’s organisation PETA (Smithers, 2019; Williams, 2019). One commentator noted the following:

“If a sausage roll and a vegan sausage roll could exist quite happily side by side, if honest, hard-working meat eaters and self-righteous vegans could all go to the same shop […] your identity, your honour, your right to brown sauce, will be obliterated”

                                                                                                                                                   (Williams, 2019) 

It is doubtful that the power of the vegan sausage roll is so huge to influence or at least worry the traditional meat-eating population and associated identity by being sold in the same shop, but it is interesting that the popular press believes that the identity of carnivores may be compromised and is worried about the rise in veganism. This reflection on the identity of vegans and wider society makes this proposed study very relevant to wider society.

Using sociological theories on identity such as Social Identity Theory and incorporating the perspectives examined above the proposed research will aim to examine the relationship between veganism and social identity especially considering the increased popularity of eating vegan food.



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The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.

The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.

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