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Can Flexitarianism Facilitate a Vegan World? Research Suggests Another Agenda

Can flexitarianism build a vegan world? In a meta-analysis of dozens of articles on vegan motivation, flexitarian dietary patterns, and consumer psychology, I conclude that the ideology of semi-vegetarianism promoted by the vegan/Nonhuman Animal rights movement is not supported by evidence.

Research does not support that flexitarianism facilitates meaningful change, but it does support a conservative movement culture that is conducive to industry, state, and elite interests. Activists frequently default to “common sense” mantras of “pragmatism” promoted by movement elites when deliberating strategy, but movement success will ultimately rely on objective analysis of social change processes independent of bureaucratic, institutional, ideological, or celebrity hearsay.

Research supports that most people who go vegan and stay vegan do so out of concern for Nonhuman Animals. Nonprofits, however, often focus on the health benefits of veganism. This is not supported by the research as a major motivator for behavior change. Nonprofits focus on health because it is less political and threatening than the idea of animal liberation.

Nonprofits mask this rationale by claiming that folks operate on self-interest and are more likely to be swayed by appeals to their own health. Research does not support this. Humans are more likely to be motivated by compassion and altruism when it comes to relations with other animals. Therefore, by promoting veganism as a moral obligation, nonprofits would be far more likely to affect change.

The Free-Rider Problem

In my body of research, I have suggested that nonprofits intentionally engage strategic blunders because nonprofit goals are generally distinct from radical social change goals. Could the vegan/Nonhuman Animal rights movement also be intentionally alienating the public from veganism even though veganism is an unavoidable necessity to end speciesism? I think so.

Historically, social movements have had to grapple with the problem of motivating people to participate. This is a problem because, theoretically, a rationally acting individual is more likely to want to sit on the sidelines and let someone else do the risky and costly work of activism. Activism can entail social stigma, risk of arrest, and career damage. It could even simply turn off folks who do not want to be bothered with crowds, bad weather, walking, calling up politicians, etc. If someone else is willing to do that work, why not just leave it up to them?

As one means of overcoming free-riding, collectives have begun to professionalize to ensure a dedicated cadre of activists working full time on a given social problem. Since the late 20th century, movements have taken on a bureaucratic, corporate form which allows them more stability and state support at the cost of their radical politics. Industries working in tandem with the state now funnel money into nonprofits as a means of soft control. Radical politics, as a result, are simply starved while moderates are glutted. What I suspect is that social movements today are actually encouraging free-riding in order to maintain control over movement organizations and the social movement arena itself. In effect, they are helping industries and the state to neutralize and deradicalize politics.

If a movement can facilitate a public that supports its cause but is not encouraged to actually participate beyond donating intermittently, this manufactured free-riding strips the democratic essence of a movement and ultimately weakens it. Movement organizations that use this strategy can expect institutional longevity, but the ability to create meaningful social change with power centralized in this way is stifled.

Why Unstructured Incrementalism is Less Effective 

These structural influences shape a social movement’s claimsmaking. The Nonhuman Animal rights movement’s leading nonprofits mask their allegiance to conservative cash flow by making appeals to common sense notions of behavior change. Rather than asking someone to make the big leap to veganism, nonprofits insist, ask them instead to make a few changes and ease their way into it. However, social psychological research has demonstrated time and time again that “common sense” explanations are frequently misleading. Humans are far less rational than we think we are.

Although the United States is a country with major economic, political, and social ties to exploiting Nonhuman Animals, values of freedom, fairness, and compassion mean that few Americans want to see themselves as someone who is cruel to other animals. Flexitarianism, then, is a form of incrementalism that allows people to keep participating in exploitative behaviors as the system encourages them to do, while also enacting deeply held values about compassion. America is a country of animal lovers who want to keep eating animals—charities can appeal to this cognitive dissonance by promising folks that they can identify as an animal lover without having to make any real behavior changes. This is the very definition of a free-rider.

In “Free-Riders in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex: The Problem of Flexitarianism” published in Society & Animals, I have explored dozens of studies on vegan motivation and consumption change. In many cases, those eating flexitarian are not really eating any less animal products and they are less committed, more likely to exhibit characteristics of eating disorders, and sometimes actually eat more animals than people who did not identify as flexitarian.

Other research finds that participants asked to eat prescribed diets of omnivorism, flexitarianism, and veganism experienced similar levels of satisfaction and adherence to the diet—so why not go for the gold and ask folks to go vegan? After all, veganism has a bigger impact on the well-being of both Nonhuman Animals and humans.

The research, in short, does not support that asking folks to go vegan repels them, but the movement repeatedly assures activists that it will. Something else is fueling this rationalization since the evidence explored in my meta-analysis is not lining up.

Evidence to the Utility of Vegan Campaigning

Some research from tobacco cessation programs supports the importance of being straightforward and honest about the desired change. Participants in some studies, for instance, who were asked to quit immediately were more successful than those asked only to cut back. Furthermore, participants who were given a scheduled means of reducing toward cessation were successful, too, since behavior change can be cognitively straining. Vegan organizations, however, are more likely to promote vague ideas about cutting back and never mention the word veganism.

Tobacco cessation research supports that either asking folks to quit altogether or providing them a clear plan towards a clear goal is effective, but Nonhuman Animal charities do neither. The reason for this is that nonprofits—as businesses–are ultimately more interested in financial stability and institutional survival than they are interested in actual social change. This is a basic sociological observation found across many industry sectors.

So long as nonprofits are beholden to foundations and the state for support, it is unlikely that vegan programming will ever be designed according to evidence-based scientific research. This is because the nonprofit goal is to promote generic, promotable social services for the purpose of ensuring its survival, not to promote radical social change which would threaten the elite-run foundations, the state, and the nonprofits themselves. Promoting flexitarianism allows the charity to appear to be doing good works without really mobilizing any radical change.

The Imperative of Critical Thinking and Scientific Accountability

Nonprofits with a genuine interest in creating a vegan world will need to reconsider the role of the public in pushing for change. Relying on foundations and the state for financial support creates an inherent conflict of interest. These organizations will also need to engage with scientific evidence to support their proscription for social change.

This research must be objective. Increasingly, nonprofits produce their own in-house research to draw on the legitimacy of science to lend credibility to tactics and strategies that, when studied objectively by outside parties, would not demonstrate effectiveness. In other words, nonprofits recognize that science helps sell their strategy as effective, but, since science cannot support their ineffective tactics, they simply create their own science.

A new movement culture that genuinely wishes to address the crisis of speciesism should, therefore, nurture unbiased, replicable research that is designed to benefit effective Nonhuman Animal liberation. Research manufactured by nonprofit staff with little to no scientific training with aims of improving the institution’s appeal to elite-run foundations is not the sort of research that will achieve a vegan world.

Ultimately, nonprofits present a serious conundrum for effective activism. Nonprofits have essentially become an extension of the state, making their long-term utility to the movement questionable. Large sums of money are too frequently thought necessary to enact social change, but this economic logic of growth has protected the nonprofit industry from necessary scrutiny. Sociological theory has demonstrated that capitalist structures both create and aggravate inequality. Grassroots mobilization that challenges hierarchical movement structures, the hegemony of capitalist interests, and concentrated decision-making could allow for an openness to strategies supported by the science.

 

Readers can access the entire article here.
A condensed version of this research in the context of wider vegan movement studies was covered by The Atlantic.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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How Effective is the Vegan Lecture? Exam Scores Tell a Horrifying Story

How Many Animals Killed?

Can you estimate how many animals are killed for food in the United States each year?

In 2015, I added this innocuous extra credit question at the end of an exam in my Introduction to Sociology course. Since we had discussed violence against animals in class, students had been assigned readings on the topic, and it was explicitly listed in the study guide, I expected that most students would guess in the ballpark of several billion. Instead, many were reporting numbers in the several millions, or even several thousands. The lowest guess was just 2,000.

I was so utterly astonished by the exam results, I was compelled to repeat the question on future exams. I have shared my findings in an open-access article with the International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food. Over the course of seven semesters, I eventually presented the question to nearly 200 students. All students (presuming they did not skip class) had been exposed to an 80 minute lecture on human/nonhuman relationships. This lecture clearly stated the FAO statistics on the numbers of animals killed in the United States (about 10 billion). I even made sure to linger on the sheer magnitude of individuals killed.

Results

Sixty-six percent of the class significantly underestimated the number of animals killed, and only 29% offered a reasonable estimate of between several billion and trillion (I clarified in lecture that FAO statistics do not include aquatic life). About 1 in 5 students were not even confident enough to hazard even a guess. Because 2% of students grossly overestimated the number of animals killed, the class average was skewed. However, the median response was in the millions. The bottom 10% of student responses averaged just 24,667. About that many chickens are killed every one and a half minutes in the United States (or 9 billion annually).

Predictably, students who scored A’s and B’s were more likely to guess an appropriate number. This suggests that students with good classroom behavior and study hygiene are more likely to retain information (at least up to the exam date). There was no significant correlation with gender.

Low Food Literacy

Low food literacy is well-documented across developing countries by food justice organizations, states, and industries which work to manipulate consumer decisions and public nutrition. Sociologically speaking, the systematic killing of other animals has been effectively removed from our social sensibility. Most consumers only relate to other animals as packaged products and menu items. Psychologically speaking, people employ a number of cognitive barriers to avoid uncomfortable knowledge.

The reasons for low food literacy are many, but the results presented here are especially sobering. Afterall, these are college-educated adults who have been trained to think critically and are exposed to current events, global trends, and multiculturalism. These are also college students who had been specifically exposed to information about nonhuman experiences in the food system. This suggests to me an inherent limitation to lecture as a means of lasting knowledge transmission.

Are Lectures Effective?

My suspicion is that, as Sociology 101 is a survey course, I am obligated to cover a large variety of sociological theories, concepts, and trends. I am not able to frequently return to each and every concept to aid with retention–that privilege is granted to key theories and paradigms. For vegan lecturers outside of academia, these results suggest that one-off lectures may not be sufficient to persuade. However, in research I conducted in 2017, I did find that a significant number of respondents became vegan after having watched a film or read a book on the topic.

There are a number of methodological shortcomings to this research. For one, my Introduction to Sociology course is aimed at first-year students, meaning that many respondents were still finding their academic footing. Second, I offered no control group. The estimates provided by my experimental group were so very low, however, I would find it hard to believe that a control group would have done much worse in having not been exposed to lecture.

I also did not conduct a post-test to measure if the knowledge was retained beyond the exam. After the exam, I went over the extra credit results with the class. When I explained how numbers so low could not possibly be accurate given that several thousand nonhumans are killed just to sustain the university cafeteria each semester, many students laughed and nodded. I would be curious to know if this debriefing had any effect on knowledge retention.

Readers can access the entire article here.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Solving Moral Conflicts in a Non-Vegan World

In “How to Help When It Hurts?” my friend and colleague Cheryl Abbate considers an ethical conundrum often facing vegan activists, advocates, and rescuers who feel responsible for the well-being of Nonhuman Animals in adverse conditions with conflicting needs. In cases of genuine moral conflict, she suggests an application of the guardianship principle to assist with decisionmaking.

By way of an example, obligate carnivores like lions who are rescued from circuses and zoos deserve a chance to thrive in sanctuaries, but their ability to thrive is predicated upon harm inflicted against other animals who must be killed for their food. Rather than support systematic violence against cows, chickens, pigs, and other animals whose bodies are purchased as food for sanctuary inmates, Abbate suggests that sanctuaries, as guardians, might take up “hunting” (a euphemism for the killing of free-living animals).

There are a number of key flaws with this application of the guardianship principle. First, although Abbate frames a sanctuary’s decision to “hunt” as a case-by-case decision, that free-living animals (specifically deers) are considered a tappable resource indicates that their status is not much higher than that of traditionally farmed animals. Abbate counters that deers, unlike rescued carnivores and farmed animals, have a higher quality of life having lived free from human oppression. Their being slated for death suggests otherwise. Worse, they are being made to pay the dearest price for humanity’s moral wrongs. If humans are responsible for the injustice suffered by carnivorous refugees, why would human flesh not be offered in retribution?

Deer communities, incidentally, are regularly harmed by humans, too. Humans “manage” their populations, constrict their movements and migrations with boundaries and barriers, and terrorize them with automobiles and pollution. Although this life is pitted as superior given the relative freedom that deers experience, Abbate contradictorily banks on the difficulties of life in the wild (poor weather, hunger, disease, and overpopulation) as justification for sacrificing deers. This justification, however, brings up some troubling assumptions about right-to-life for ill or disabled bodies. It also harkens on a colonialist politic in assuming that demographics coded as inferior must be “managed” by “guardians.”

Obviously, solving moral conflicts such as these is no easy task, but complicating the issue is the tendency for advocates, philosophers, and consumers to constrain themselves to individual-level thinking. Sociology recognizes that oppression stems from a society’s economic mode of production. In this case, it is capitalism’s reliance on animal bodies that has created the oppressive behaviors and attitudes facing circus refugees, farmed animals, and free-living species. The problem, in other words, is much bigger than unethical or irresponsible individual choices. Only through a vegan restructuring of society will painful moral conflicts be eliminated. Whether or not sanctuaries rely on farmed animals as foodstuffs is beside the point; as long as human society is built on speciesism, farmed animals will continue to be killed en masse.

The assumption that consumers control the path of production is a misleading, if predominant, belief that has its roots in the nonprofit logic of the animal rights movement. It is actually industry and the state which control production such that sanctuaries turning to hunting are not likely to reduce the number of animals killed in slaughterhouses. Great quantities of animal products are now produced, and these quantities only increase by the year as markets deepen and expand. Consumer boycott has not been shown to be an effective means of reducing animal fatalities given state and industry control. Veganism’s political power lies in its ability to shift public consciousness and challenge the legitimacy of industries and the state, not in actually reducing the number of individuals killed in production. There must be cultural support for veganism and a political reconfiguring before the numbers begin to drop.

Little Tyke

So how to manage the conflict in lieu of a vegan world? Given the limited capability of consumer boycott in a society in which consumers have very little control, using the bodies of farmed animals who are being killed at high volumes regardless of vegan protest may be an acceptable short-term solution. The vast quantity of edible animal products which go to waste might be repurposed for sanctuaries as well. Universities, for instance, often host food recovery programs to systematize the redistribution of leftover food to the needy. Sanctuaries might also develop such a program.

That said, efforts should be invested in obtaining (or even developing) healthful and tasty plant-based or at least partially-plant based menus for carnivorous refugees. Indeed, veterinary research supports that large cats (such as the hypothetical lion used in Abbate’s thought experiment) can survive healthfully on a vegan diet. There is also the famous case of Little Tyke, a lioness raised on a farm who refused to eat flesh. She lived the whole of her life on a plant-based diet by her own choosing.

Whatever the short-term solution, it is necessary that change-makers begin to conceptualize social problems as systemic. This will entail a move away from individualized solutions that wrongfully pit sanctuaries and consumers as responsible for violence against animals. Individualistic thinking renders invisible the state, industries, and the structures the two have created to normalize and reproduce speciesism.

My full response was published with the Animal Studies Journal and may be read here.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about vegan economies and the politics of consumption in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? Factionalism in Animal Rights

The following essay was featured in Critical Mass: Newsletter of the Section on Collective Behavior and Social Movements, American Sociological Association 42 (2): 4-6.

As a long time vegan, I often use the Nonhuman Animal rights movement as a case study in my collective behavior research. My identity as an activist-scholar means that I am often in a position of bearing witness to the frustrations of activists who are often not aware that the barriers they face in mobilization efforts are actually rather ubiquitous to collective behavior. Many activists bemoan the heavy divisions that have emerged within the Nonhuman Animal rights movement specifically as it has developed and transformed over recent decades (Wrenn 2016). In the 1970s and 1980s, the movement has been divided between factions that advocate direct action and structural change (such as the infamous Animal Liberation Front) and those who advocate institutional reform (such as the Humane Society of the United States). More recently, conflicts have emerged over aims to either reform or abolish Nonhuman Animal use. Rather than seeing these divisions as healthy growing pains, they are most often viewed as a serious liability. Indeed, many movement leaders point specifically to factionalism as a primary reason for limited movement success.

Factionalism is not unique to advocacy on behalf of other animals. In fact, factionalism and the manifestation of radical offshoots tend to be characteristic of social movements. As a social movement organization increases in size and becomes more dependent upon member contributions (and thus more reliant on appealing to a larger constituency), organizational goals tend to dilute. This professionalization process encourages the manifestation of more radical splinter groups (Koopmans 1994, Wrenn 2016, Zald and Garner 1987).

Factionalism is also facilitated when resources are more plentiful (Soule and King 2008). This often happens when a movement professionalizes, as professionalization entails a specialization in attracting contributions. This is certainly the case with welfare-oriented moderate organizations in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement (Pendegrast 2011). As groups amass resource wealth, resource-hungry factions sprout up intent on implementing their own approaches.

Zald and Garner (1987) have also suggested that factionalism is more likely to manifest when a movement is especially hostile to authority and when short-term goal attainment is less likely. Achieving Nonhuman Animal liberation is certainly a long-term goal, meaning that schism is likely to form across generations and different demographic groups. This movement could also be categorized as potentially “hostile” to authority as it challenges entrenched power and systems of oppression. Indeed, Nonhuman Animal rights activists have been targeted as a leading domestic terrorist threat in the United States. While this is understandably discouraging to anti-speciesists, other social movements have shared similar experiences. Social movements of all kinds often share predictable patterns of growth and professionalization that facilitate radical factionalism. Unbeknownst to many activists, this is rather typical movement behavior.

The normalcy of factionalism has been established by social movement researchers, but whether or not it is detrimental to goal attainment is still under debate. Many social movement theorists and advocates argue that infighting among factions damages public credibility (Benford 1993), diverts resources (Benford 1993, Miller 1999), leaves the movement vulnerable to countermovement attack (Jasper and Poulsen 1993), or even leads to its demise (Gamson 1990). Others, however, argue that factionalism can work to the benefit of the movement. This can be accomplished when factions draw attention to the cause with radical tactics and claimsmaking (Haines 1984). Movement infighting can work positively to penetrate across multiple class and cultural boundaries (Benford 1993, Gerlach 1999, Reger 2002), minimize overall failures, and increase solidarity for specific groups (Benford 1993). It can also fuel positive competition and motivate participation and inspire tactical innovation (Gerlach 1999). Factions also act as a mechanism for managing conflict, and thus promote continued collective action (Reger 2002). In short, factionalism increases movement adaptability.

Factionalism forces a movement to engage in critical reflection. Radical factions in particular function to create an ideal towards which the movement might aspire. Radical advocates in favor of abolishing (rather than reforming) Nonhuman Animal use serve this purpose by imagining a critical vegan utopia where species inequality and exploitation are rejected (Wrenn 2011). The vegan abolitionist faction offers an alternative vision, motivates participation, and promotes a fundamental paradigm shift that is integral to reaching the goal of Nonhuman Animal liberation. Factionalism does not necessarily push a movement into decline (Rochford 1989), and a movement that survives factionalism can emerge stronger and more focused.

Moderates in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement often promote dominant welfare-oriented organizations as necessary for member recruitment. However, it is more often the case that a moderate stance is maintained to attract and maintain highly impersonalized public membership and external monies from conservative funding sources (McCarthy and Zald 1973, McCarthy and Zald 1977). As an organization becomes mainstream it often becomes decreasingly committed to social change and more focused on organizational survival. These large organizations can become less interested in attracting new activists and more concerned with attracting paying members who will have no obligation to participate beyond financial donations. When organizational framing exchanges emphasis on social change for an emphasis on advertising, the important role played by radical factions becomes much clearer (Schwartz 2002).

Activists in my field regularly plead for the various factions to overcome their differences and to work together. Whether animal lover or animal user, vegan or meat-eater, moderate or radical, we’re all supposed to be on the same page if we care about the well-being of other animals. Generally, it has been my observation that the ones making these pleas for cooperation in the movement are those who identify with the professionalized regulationist organizations that dominate the Nonhuman Animal rights space. From this perspective, factionalism might be denounced as part of a strategy to encourage radicals to forgo their critical, utopian stance and retreat back into the more profitable moderate approach.

Factionalism is known to drain resources, but its presence is integral. The dominant regulationist paradigm in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement has failed to seriously reduce the reification and exploitation of nonhumans, and radical activists make this point central to their claimsmaking. As the movement professionalizes and large regulationist charities increasingly compromise goals and tactics, the role of radical abolitionism becomes critical in offering an alternative vision, motivating activism, and advocating a necessary vegan paradigm shift. It is my hope that the stigma surrounding factionalism might be reduced in the service of more effective social justice advocacy and social movement research. At the very least, increased awareness to factional patterns could alleviate the stress felt by radicals who are disproportionately burdened, ostracized, and sanctioned by a movement’s displeasure with factional tension.

 

References

Benford, R. 1993. “Frame Disputes within the Nuclear Disarmament Movement.” Social Forces 71 (3): 667-701.

Gamson, W. 1990. The Strategy of Social Protest. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Gerlach, L. 1999. “The Structure of Social Movements: Environmental Activism and Its Opponents.” Pp. 85-98 in Waves of Protest: Social Movements since the Sixties, edited by J. Freeman and V. Johnson. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Haines, H. 1984. “Black Radicalization and the Funding of Civil Rights: 1957-1970.” Social Problems 32 (1): 31-43.

Jasper, J. and J. Poulsen. 1993. “Fighting Back: Vulnerabilities, Blunders, and Countermobilization by the Targets in Three Animal Rights Campaigns.” Sociological Forum 8 (4): 639-657.

Koopmans, R. 1993. “The Dynamics of Protest Waves: West Germany, 1965-1989.” American Sociological Review 58: 637-658.

Pendegrast, N. 2011. “Veganism, Organisational Considerations and Animal Advocacy Campaigns.Humanities Graduate Research Conference. Perth, Australia.

McCarthy, J. and M. Zald. 1973. The Trend of Social Movements in America: Professionalization and Resource Mobilization. Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.

McCarthy, J. and M. Zald. 1977. “Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory.” American Journal of Sociology 82 (6): 1212-1241.

Miller, F. 1999. “The End of the SDS and the Emergence of Weatherman: Demise through Success.” Pp. 303-324, in Waves of Protest: Social Movements since the Sixties, edited by J. Freeman and V. Johnson. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Reger, J. 2002. “More than One Feminism: Organizational Structure and the Construction of Collective Identity.” Pp. 171-184, in Social Movements: Identity, Culture, and the State, edited by D. Meyer, N. Whittier, and B. Robnett. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Rochford, E., Jr. 1989. “Factionalism, Group Defection, and Schism in the Hare Krishna Movement.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 28 (2): 162-179.

Schwartz, M. 2002. “Factions and the Continuity of Political Challengers.” Pp. 157-170, in Social Movements: Identity, Culture, and the State, edited by D. Meyer, N. Whittier, and B. Robnett. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Soule, S. and B. King. 2008. “Competition and Resource Partitioning in Three Social Movement Industries.” American Journal of Sociology 113 (6): 1568-1610.

Wrenn, C. L. 2016. Professionalization, Factionalism, and Social Movement Success:  A Case Study on Nonhuman Animal Rights Mobilization (Doctoral dissertation). Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO.

Wrenn, C. L.  2011. “Resisting the Globalization of Speciesism:  Vegan Abolitionism as a Site for Consumer-Based Social Change.”  Journal for Critical Animal Studies 9(3):  9-27.

Zald, M. and R. Garner. 1987. “Social Movement Organizations: Growth, Decay, and Change.” Pp. 121-141, in Social Movements in an Organizational Society: Collected Essays, edited by M. Zald and J. McCarthy. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Inc.

 

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about factional politics in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Trump Veganism? Research Finds a Highly Intersectional American Vegan Movement

Following the explosion of identity politics that culminated in the shocking 2016 presidential win for Donald Trump, I was curious as to whether these wider cultural trends could be related to the vocal resistance to intersectionality and feminist theory in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, a phenomenon I have dubbed “Trump veganism.” In my article, “Trump Veganism: A Political Survey of American Vegans in the Era of Identity Politics,” published with the peer-reviewed, open-access sociological journal Societies, I surveyed almost 300 American vegans to ascertain their political attitudes and propensity for intersectional awareness and behavior. 

Previous research conducted of vegetarians and animal rights activists from the 1990s and 2000s found this demographic to be particularly left-leaning, and my survey results supported this trend. In fact, this was a very liberal group. The majority were atheist or agnostic, most voted for Hillary, quite a few identified as socialist or anarchist, almost half chose not to report their gender, and about 40% were non-heterosexual. Most respondents were white, under 35, and female-identified.

Yet, there was a streak of conservativism that did give pause. For instance, 14% of respondents either supported Trump or were neutral to his campaign. These conservative vegans participated in slightly fewer social justice movements other than veganism. They were also more likely to be vegan for reasons of personal health, not out of concern for other animals. Even liberal voters demonstrated some level of conservativism when it came to vegan ethics. When asked if they supported the concept of “Nonhumans first,” about half of all respondents agreed.

The Nonhuman Animal rights movement has a bit of a bum rap given its historical legacy of exploiting racist and colonialist tensions to advance its interests. My research supports that, while activists are eager to prioritize the interests of Nonhuman Animals in their campaigning, they are certainly not ignorant of human oppression. Respondents believed that other social justice movements were relevant to speciesism. They were involved with four other social justice movements on average. Respondents also indicated that they did not believe the vegan movement did enough to prioritize diversity, especially women and people of color.

Presuming this sample to be generalizable, Trump veganism can be said to be a marginal position in the American vegan movement. Instead, this demographic is politically intelligent and heavily involved in a variety of social justice efforts. These respondents are certainly not ignorant to the suffering of marginalized humans and its relationship to speciesism.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about intersectional politics in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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Fat Vegan Politics: Why Health-shaming, Body-policing, and Fat Stigma Hurts Humans and Other Animals

This month I published a qualitative study on fat vegan experiences in the journal of Fat Studies. Sixty-one respondents kindly gave their time to fill out a questionnaire asking a range of questions about their experiences as vegan activists. The results were surprising.

PETA ad reads, "'I hate men's guts.' Don't be a whopper go vegetarian." Has a blond white woman in an American bikini giving a beer belly the cold shoulder

Veganism is a food-focused movement that consistently banks on fat-shaming rhetoric and ideologies of thin privilege to persuade its audience to go vegan. In a sea of fat antagonistic claimsmaking, where does this leave fat vegans? After all, veganism is not a diet and many people do not lose weight after going vegan (some may even gain). Sizeist claimsmaking not only alienates fat audiences, but could also alienate fat activists.

What I found was that size discrimination was common, with one in four self-identified fat vegans having experienced it. What I also found, however, was that most were not deterred from participating. They resisted or sought out inclusive communities.

PETA billboard that reads, "Save the Whales. Lose the blubber: Go vegetarian." Features a fat woman in a bikini on the beach

While their resistance is admirable, it should not detract from the inappropriateness of sizeism in a social justice movement. The Nonhuman Animal rights movement has a long history of banking on human inequalities to shock, shame, or scare its audience into compliance. It is inconsistent with movement goals and is not sustainable. Rather than burn bridges and flame bigotry, the movement might instead appeal to intersections of oppression and shared identities. Like Nonhuman Animals, the fat community has been vilified, marginalized, an exploited, their bodies otherized and butchered (with diets and surgeries). Empathy will encourage behavior change, but scientific studies reliably demonstrate that stigma will not.

PETA ad that reads, "Obese in the USA? Go vegetarian." Image of a fat man's behind in front of an American flag

 

 

Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

 


Readers can learn more about the problems of aggravating human inequality to advance anti-speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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Review of “Our Children and Other Animals”

Our Children

My review of Matthew Cole and Kate Stewart’s sociological text on childhood studies and vegan theory is now available free to download from Volume 19 of Between the Species. This is an important contribution to the socialization processes involved in speciesism.

 

Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

 

Readers can learn more about vegan theory in my own publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

 


 

whyveganism.com

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White Women Wanted? Research Uncovers Diversity Strains in Vegan Media Spaces

Cover of BUST magazine showing a white woman, cover of VegNews showing a white woman, and cover of The Advocate showing James Franco

A two-part content analysis I began in 2012 has just been published in Societies and the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. The first study, published in JAEE examined media diversity in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, the second study, published in Societies, expanded that analysis to include other movements for comparison. I conducted this research with the understanding that the vegan movement, for the most part, has escaped scientific analysis, although many theorists (such as Dr. Breeze Harper) have commented on the curious tendency for anti-speciesist media to portray mostly white, thin women. Vegan media is a vast and varied landscape, and my content analysis could only give a limited perspective. Yet, with so little prior research to inform vegan studies, a magazine analysis of high-profile publications is as good of a place to start as any.

I wanted to see exactly who was dominating the covers of vegan media (I particularly looked at VegNews and Animal Times). I was concerned that, as with Yoga Journal, which features almost all thin white women and reflects (or aggravates) the same demographic in yoga classes to the potential alienation of people of color and people of size, the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, too, could be presenting (and thus attracting) a very limited demographic. For comparison, I analyzed two magazines from the feminist movement and two from the gay rights movement. 

The conclusion? None of the movements are adequately representative of their actual movement constituency or the diversity found in the wider public. The Nonhuman Animal rights movement, in particular, seems to loves its skinny white women (probably as much as Yoga Journal, come to think of it!).

This is important for movements in two ways. First, any movement in the business of social justice should be concerned if its strategies are complacent in the marginalization of vulnerable groups. Second, a diverse constituency is not just an ethical problem, but a strategic one. Diversity is important for movement success.

The good news is that this is an easy enough fix. Vegan media producers could work more mindfully to ensure that no demographic is underrepresented. However, even if more diverse body types and backgrounds were to hit the covers, I don’t think the solution is so simple. If the movement structure itself doesn’t change to become less white-centric/thin-centric, non-normative cover subjects will only act as tokens. Diversity isn’t a matter of checking off quotas; it’s about redesigning the space to be more inclusive and safe for a variety of experiences and identities.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about gender and race politics in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Essay on Incorporating Diversity into Vegan Advocacy published on The Vegan Society

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I have just published an essay originally authored in 2013 on The Vegan Society’s blog. The essay is titled, “In a world of food deserts and many other inequalities, Professor Corey Wrenn gives tips on how vegan outreach can be made more inclusive for all walks of life.” It explores how white-centrism in our discourse and attention can alienate communities of color who might otherwise be interested in or benefit from vegan outreach. Diversity is important for improving resonance, and this should be incorporated into our dialogue, our outreach materials, and our campaign frameworks.

 


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Medicalizing Animal Rights: New Publication

Animal rights graphic of a fox, reads, "Fur is for animals not rich idiots"

What do you think? Are meat-eaters sick? Are animal abusers psychopaths? Do you think people who love some animals but eat other animals are morally schizophrenic?

There is an awful lot of ableist claimsmaking taking place in the American Nonhuman Animal rights movement. In my new article, published with the leading journal in disabilities studies, Disability & Society, I explored this issue quantitatively.

In addition to coding mainstream newspapers for comparison (as consistent with earlier studies, anti-speciesism activists were mostly portrayed negatively), I also coded 50 leading vegan and Nonhuman Animal rights blogs from across the spectrum.

Overall, about one fourth of the blogs in the study were using ableism enough to be coded as ableist or very ableist. The most frequently surfacing words among nonvegan newspapers were “crazy,” “problem” (in the context of, say, ‘this activist has a problem’), “loony,” “nuts,” “different” and “freak.”

And activists? A greater variety of disability stereotypes were used in addition to “crazy” and “different,” such as “dumb,” “depressed,” “insane,” “psycho,” “sad,” capable of “violence,” and “schizophrenic.”

It turned out that food blogs and non-profit blogs were less likely to frame speciesism as a symptom of mental illness, but theory-based blogs not associated with any organization were the real sites of ableist rabble-rousing. In fact, Gary Francione’sAbolitionist Approach blog was the outlier in the study, averaging more than one ableist term for each essay included in the sample (in total, 319 hits were attributed to this blog, mostly the term “schizophrenic”).

The problem is that using disability as a pejorative in a social movement framework to villainize or shame the audience into accepting the movement’s claim actually banks on social inequality as a point of resonance. This should be problematic for any social movement that has egalitarianism as an end goal.

Cartoon that shows a cross-eyed woman speaking gibberish to a kitten who she gives excess attention to while also disregarding other species she kills for food

Although Vegan Sidekick was not included in the study, the memes it produces are excellent examples of the disability framework used to frame speciesism.

Unfortunately, the study has some limits. Some words like “problem” and “violent,” that were included as disability stereotypes (I used list of terms used by disability researchers in another study) can muddy interpretation, as speciesism necessarily entails violence and any social movement is likely to frame its target as having a “problem.” Coders were instructed to mark these terms as present only when a person or humans were specifically targeted, rather than abstract ideas (“Meat-eaters engage in violence” would be flagged, for instance, while, “Speciesism entails violence” would not). Some disability pejoratives like “stupid” or “idiotic” were not included, though these words are highly likely to have surfaced. Finally, I used VeganFeed to select the blog sample, as it provided a good variety of blog types. Unfortunately, it excluded some prominent non-profit organizations such as PETA. Additional studies could expand on these findings.

The first 50 visitors can download a copy free of charge by clicking here. Otherwise, you may access the research by visiting my Academia.edu profile.

 


Abstract:

Nonhuman Animal rights activists are sometimes dismissed as ‘crazy’ or irrational by countermovements seeking to protect status quo social structures. Social movements themselves often utilize disability narratives in their claims-making as well. In this article, we argue that Nonhuman Animal exploitation and Nonhuman Animal rights activism are sometimes medicalized in frame disputes. The contestation over mental ability ultimately exploits humans with disabilities. The medicalization of Nonhuman Animal rights activism diminishes activists’ social justice claims, but the movement’s medicalization of Nonhuman Animal use unfairly otherizes its target population and treats disability identity as a pejorative. Utilizing a content analysis of major newspapers and anti-speciesist activist blogs published between 2009 and 2013, it is argued that disability has been incorporated into the tactical repertoires of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement and countermovements, becoming a site of frame contestation. The findings could have implications for a number of other social movements that also negatively utilize disability narratives.

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