Tag Archives: Identity

The Social Psychology of Veganism – Free-riding

When people support the need for social change but abstain from helping or participating to avoid the perceived costs and risks involved, this is known as free-riding. As rational actors, non-participants suppose that they will eventually reap the benefits achieved by others who participate and incur those costs and risks without having to contribute themselves.

The civil rights movement exemplifies this conundrum. Images of protesters being sprayed with high powered water hoses and attacked by police dogs permeated the news. This certainly discouraged a number of would-be participants from signing up. Likewise, those who come out in support of gay rights face discrimination, and some have even lost their jobs as a result (Taylor and Raeburn 1995). Participation can be scary, and it is easy to rationalize that it would be safer to stay at home and let others do the dirty work.

When protest can be so dangerous, how do movements motivate participation?

The problem for movements is that, if everyone free-rides, the common good cannot be achieved. If many participate, on the other hand, the costs and risks are more widely distributed and social change is more easily achieved. There are several ways that free-riding can be overcome, but I will specifically mention three: appealing to altruistic norms, making individual participation visible, and building a group identity.

Appealing to Altruism

As was discussed in earlier essays, there are several social norms that facilitate pro-social behavior. The norm of reciprocity suggests that individuals can be expected to return favors (so activists giving small gifts might expect recipients to be more easily persuaded). However, the norm of social responsibility finds that people will often help with no expectation of return at all. Clear appeals to would-be free-riders may help overcome the desire to stay back.

Highlighting Individual Participation

Recognizing each contributor is also vital. When individuals are made accountable for their contributions, they are more likely to continue participating. When people are made to feel invisible or are unwelcomed, it isn’t likely that they will be sticking around. Voting is a great example of how this can go wrong. The rational actor recognizes that their individual vote is not likely to sway the outcome of the election, and therefore may feel little incentive to go out of their way to participate. Political campaigns try to remedy this with personalized appeals through post and text.

Social movements have historically overcome this problem with good communication and the deployment of smaller groups. In the 21st century, however, most social movements have adopted a larger, more bureaucratic organizational structure to maximize resource mobilization. This model reduces opportunities for individual-level communication and makes it difficult for participants to feel as though their contributions are noticed and meaningful.

Donating $20 to PETA for an annual membership seems like a drop in a large, anonymous bucket, but donating an hour of time with a grassroots organization has a more tangible impact. The communication, feedback, and community experienced at the grassroots level are far more motivating than generic donation requests and online petitions.

Nurturing Group Identity

Likewise, group identity can be a powerful motivator (Armstrong 2002). Identity creates a sense of belonging and a sense of responsibility to the group. Indeed, researchers have pointed to group identity as essential for sustaining veganism in a world that is otherwise hostile to the practice (Cherry 2006). For movements, there is an imperative to overcome individualistic approaches to social change, as isolation and alienation discourage participation.

Read more about free-riding in the context of Nonhuman Animal rights here.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Foster networks and communities
  • Emphasize why individual contributions matter
  • Acknowledge individual contributions
  • Reduce unnecessary costs, risks, or dangers associated with participation
  • Emphasize rewards to participation

References

Armstrong, E. 2002. Forging Gay Identities: Organizing in San Francisco, 1950-1994. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Cherry, E. 2006. “Veganism as a Cultural Movement: A Relational Approach.” Social Movement Studies 5 (2): 155-170.

Taylor, V. and N. Raeburn. 1995. “Identity Politics as High-Risk Activism: Career Consequences for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Sociologists.” Social Problems 42 (2): 252-273.

 

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.


This essay was originally published with The Examiner in 2012.

Comments Off on The Social Psychology of Veganism – Free-riding

Filed under Essays

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.

Comments Off on Trump Veganism? Research Finds a Highly Intersectional American Vegan Movement

Filed under Publications

The Politics of the Pure Vegan Myth

Veganism as a Symbol

Social movements are not only concerned with identifying a social problem and prescribing solutions, but also with maintaining boundaries. Movements must delineate themselves from the mainstream that has been identified as problematic, but they must avoid constructing boundaries that are so rigid that they deter potential recruits and allies. Social movement theorist James Jasper refers to this balancing act as the “Janus Dilemma” as movements must be simultaneously inwardly and outwardly oriented. As a movement grows, differences inevitably arise in how problems should be defined and how best to solve them. Factions emerge as a result, and bring with them a new set of boundaries that activists must negotiate.

In my research of factionalism in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, I have identified a number of symbols that are heavily politicized and contested in the social movement space. Symbols are ammunition in the crossfire between competing groups as they seek to define, protect, and breach boundaries. Veganism is one of the most vulnerable concepts in this intramovement battle for jurisdiction. What does it mean to be vegan? How important is veganism? Who is really a vegan, and who is not?

“Pure” Veganism

What I have found is that professionalized organizations expend considerable effort in denouncing veganism, what they generally refer to as a practice of “purity.” Oftentimes, they will frame this in individualist and ableist terms, describing “pure vegans” as “obsessive,” “angry,” or “self-absorbed.” Out of tune with reality, these “pure vegans” are alien from the more “practical” activist majority. As an alternative, large nonprofits advocate a variety of carnivorous diets that arbitrarily omit various animal bodies or products (vegeterianism, pescatarianism, veg*anism, plant-based, veggie, etc.).

Radical collectives are thus portrayed as unrealistic and self-righteous by contrast. Their relative powerlessness in the social movement space inhibits their ability to challenge the denigration of veganism or to defend their continued promotion of it.

Sociological thought acknowledges that social meanings do not necessarily correlate with objective reality. Instead, meaning is political in that it is constructed to serve particular interests. In this particular case, “vegan purity” is a a myth. It is not grounded in the daily reality of vegan life. The Vegan Society defines veganism as:

A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.

Notice that this definition emphasizes exclusion of animal products as far as is possible and practicable. No practicing vegan actually believes that purity is achievable. Most vegans take medicine, drive cars, use computers, eat vegetables grown in animal waste, or shop in nonvegan grocery stores. Because speciesism is systemic, a human cannot exist in this society without indirectly benefiting from nonhuman oppression (this is the same reason why all whites who live in a white supremacy are “racist” even if they actively reject racism).

Nonprofit and Radical Applications

If real-world vegans recognize these common sense limitations, then where does the pure vegan myth come from? My research supports that the myth is constructed to invisibilize radical discourse that threatens hegemonic power structures in the movement. As an organization abandons the grassroots model in favor of professionalization, it turns on veganism by reframing it as impractical. In short, veganism interferes with access to grants. Even organizations that avidly touted the importance of veganism as a grassroots group would come to view it as a matter of “personal purity” after incorporating as a nonprofit and becoming dependent on fundraising.

Nonprofits are not the only players. I have sometimes observed radical activists feign an adherence to impossibly pure veganism. Among radicals, the pure vegan myth is employed most frequently to advance one’s own status or to undermine that of others. Purity is employed not to advocate for the interests of animals, but to protect boundaries and subdue contenders.

For instance, an American vegan society not long ago recommended Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in its vegan starter guide, innocently unaware that most commercial cereal products are fortified with vitamins sourced from animal bodies. A fact of vegan life is that “going vegan” is a lifelong process. Nonhuman oppression is so thoroughly saturated in our social worlds, we must be diligent in checking ingredients and challenging habitual consumer trust. It was an honest mistake and a real a shame, too, since corn flakes were invented in the 19th century to transition flesh-eaters into vegetarianism. The offending organization was roundly criticized for the accident by other radical collectives, but the assault had nothing to do with Nonhuman Animals, and everything to do with destroying the organization’s legitimacy as a contender in the radical space.

Veganism is not just a strategy for the emancipation of other animals, but a means of protecting jurisdiction. Professionalized organizations engage myths of vegan purity with hopes of appealing to elite-run foundations that are obviously less likely to award grants to nonprofits determined to undermine elite-run speciesist industries. Nonprofits thus distance themselves from radical collectives and their vegan agenda. As nonprofits trade ideals for resources, their power grows and reduces resources available for others. As a result, radicals disingenuously double down on the vegan myth in their struggle for survival in a movement that is increasingly dominated by large nonprofits.

 


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

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

 

Comments Off on The Politics of the Pure Vegan Myth

Filed under Essays