How Do Veg*ns View Each Other?
Vegetarians and vegans (“veg*ns”) often face prejudice for violating the near-universal social norm of eating meat. But the veg*n movement is far from homogenous, and members frequently experience negativity even from within the veg*n community. In recent survey research, researchers examined how different veg*n subgroups viewed each other. These subgroups were defined along two dimensions: whether an individual is vegetarian or vegan, and whether the individual is primarily motivated by animal welfare, the environment, health, or religious/spiritual reasons. The results suggest that while veg*ns are largely supportive of each other, there are distinctions between how members of the veg*n community view these subgroups.
Researchers recruited 556 survey participants from online veg*n Facebook groups, subreddits, and forums. The resulting participants were predominantly female, and largely from the United States and Canada. After categorizing themselves into a veg*n subgroup, each respondent was asked a series of questions that measured different facets of their attitudes towards other veg*n subgroups. For example, participants were asked how they would feel to have a member of a particular subgroup as a neighbor or family member; whether they would feel heightened anxiety around a member of that subgroup; and whether they felt that members of that subgroup understood and contributed to the goals of the broader veg*n community.
Differences in perception between veg*n subgroups would be consistent with research on social identity, which postulates that people naturally sort themselves into ingroups and outgroups, and tend to seek to maintain a positive view of ingroups that they are a part of. For example, the “horizontal hostility” theory suggests that people tend to reject other subgroups in order to increase the distinctiveness of their own subgroup. The “black sheep effect” theory suggests that this rejection may target subgroups that are viewed as less positive or warm in order to maintain the positive nature of individuals’ own group. This may be performed by constructing a moral hierarchy that ranks the ethical status of other individuals and groups. All of these theories have been previously suggested as explaining differences in perception between different veg*n subgroups.
Overall, the researchers found that veg*ns viewed other members of the veg*n community quite positively. Despite this general warmth, however, there were important differences in how subgroups perceived each other, suggesting a degree of fragmentation.
Both vegetarians and vegans surveyed viewed their own group more positively than the other group: vegetarians reported feeling more comfortable with other vegetarians, and vegans reported feeling more positively towards other vegans than about vegetarians. Sampled respondents, who were predominantly ethical veg*ns with animal welfare or environmental concerns, viewed other veg*ns differently based on their motivations for veg*nism, generally feeling more warmly towards those with ethical (animal welfare or environmental) motivations.
Vegetarians reported or anticipated more negative interactions with vegans – particularly vegans motivated by animal welfare – than with other vegetarians, anticipating feelings of self-consciousness, irritation, impatience, or defensiveness rather than happiness and acceptance to a greater degree than they did around other vegetarians. Among other vegetarians, they generally viewed those with animal welfare and environmental motivations more positively, and those with health or religious motivations somewhat less positively.
Vegans exhibited more bias towards other subgroups than vegetarians did. In questions evaluating desire for social proximity, heightened vigilance, and intergroup anxiety, a clear hierarchy of preference emerged: vegans generally viewed animal-welfare-motivated vegans most positively, followed by environmentally-motivated and health-motivated vegans, then religiously-motivated vegans, animal-welfare- or environmentally-motivated vegetarians, and finally health- or religiously-motivated vegetarians. These differences, however, did not prevent vegans from scoring other veg*n subgroups very highly on measures such as “reported a high willingness to work with at work or events,” suggesting that these differences in perception would not lead to major divisions.
Overall, the study suggests that there are small but definite differences in how veg*ns view other veg*n subgroups. Understanding and remedying negative views between subgroups is important for animal advocates because it may limit the health and effectiveness of the veg*n community. Indeed, the survey found that participants who viewed other veg*ns more negatively reported lower desire to remain veg*n and participate in a range of collective actions, showing that perceptions of veg*ns is important both within and outside of the community. The results of this study should remind animal advocates of the importance of providing acceptance and support to anyone who chooses to reduce their meat consumption.