This month we review a pioneering study that examines vegetarianism as a movement.
Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment?
Temple University Press, 2002
What does a typical vegetarian look like?
She is most likely a single white middle class woman who has a friend or friends who are vegetarian. She chooses this lifestyle because she is concerned about her health. She is less apt to drink or smoke. She is one of 2.5 to 7 million vegetarians in the United States. The number varies because people asked differ on what vegetarian encompasses. She may have become a vegetarian for a variety of reasons: health, concern for farm animals, world hunger, or disgust at eating animal flesh.
The profile of a vegetarian is one aspect of Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment?, a research project that has been part of sociologist Donna Maurer's life for more than 10 years. A vegetarian who moved toward veganism during that time, Maurer undertook a project not attempted previously, an examination of vegetarianism in North America as a movement. One of the key questions she had to address was whether vegetarianism is a fad or a trend.
Sympathetic to vegetarianism, Maurer does not hesitate to be critical of the movement and its leaders. The movement has focused on the health benefits that have been borne out by research and has lobbied for more vegetarian options. Yet, she reveals two reasons why the movement has not convinced people to become vegetarian. The vegetarian movement has failed to persuade the public that meat eating is dangerous or immoral.
As a movement vegetarianism has not attracted large numbers over the last two centuries. Vegetarianism involves a diet of personal choice rather than a commitment to a collective effort. In order to succeed as a movement, Maurer feel its leaders have to convince people their personal food choices will have an impact on society. Maurer points out that in order to establish a collective identity vegetarian organizations must answer the question, "What does it mean to be a vegetarian?" Many movements have a collective identity based on gender, ethnicity, or sexual preference. Their shared trait becomes the most important trait to their personal identity.
With vegetarians there is no shared trait. Their only commonality is what they avoid -- eating animal flesh. They also do not have an adversary or common enemy. Meat eaters are not adversaries because vegetarian leaders want the message to remain positive to encourage conversion to vegetarianism.
Vegetarian leaders believe people, perhaps after initial resistance, will become converts if they have positive interaction with vegetarians. Maurer found that those who change their diets gradually were more likely to commit to vegetarianism than those making overnight changes. The gradual approach contrasts with the opinion espoused by Drs. Neil Barnard and Dean Ornish. They both feel that rapid change will lead to health improvement and more motivation to continue a vegetarian diet.
The vegetarian movement finds itself overlapping other movements that are concerned with animal rights, health, and the environment. In the case of animal rights, organizations such as PCRM and PETA have embarked on extensive dietary campaigns that are primarily vegan. Membership growth in vegetarian organizations has been static in the 1990's except for increased interest by teenagers and college students.
She concludes by stating that the future of the vegetarian movement depends on convincing people that participation in the movement is important. People have to realize that their food choices can make a difference. By selecting vegetarianism they can help themselves, others, animals, and the environment.
In Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment? Donna Maurer has created an overview for anyone wanting to study vegetarianism on the North American continent. After reading its 150 pages, one comes away with knowledge of the history of vegetarianism, the attitudes of health professionals to the diet, and the activities of vegetarian organizations. The reader is also introduced to the strategies of its leaders, the role the food industry in promoting vegetarian diets, and the ideology of the movement.
The book is filled with information she has gleaned from interviews, questionnaires, publications of local and national groups, participation in regional and national conferences, and attendance at lectures by prominent vegetarian leaders. In the process she has turned what might have been a dry dissertation into very readable and fascinating work.
Reviewed October 2002