Recent Research Regarding The Symbolism Of Meat That May Be Useful For Vegetarian Advocacy
Part 3 of 3
By Maddie Judge (Faunalytics intern)
In the previous posts in this series I have discussed theories and research regarding the symbolism of meat in western cultures, and how this symbolism is reflected in perceptions of people who don’t eat meat. In this final post I will summarise some recent research regarding strategies for reducing meat consumption that may be useful for vegetarian advocates.
Social anthropologist Nick Fiddes discusses how the value of food can draw from the underlying symbolic qualities of the food that are not openly discussed . Once this symbolism is exposed, the food can lose its value. For example, Fiddes argues that veal used to be so highly valued in part because it involved such excessive cruelty to calves and was such a potent symbol of human domination over other animals. When the cruelty and domination was exposed, veal began to lose its appeal . Fiddes suggests that in a similar way, meat may have been so highly valued partly because it requires the death and subordination of other animals, and the process of making this knowledge explicit may be occurring for meat in general.
It may be possible to influence an individual’s attitude towards meat by pointing out that the symbolism of meat does not fit with their personal values. A recent study attempted to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables by increasing people’s awareness that meat symbolises human dominance and power over nature . Participants were informed that research has found that people who endorse values of dominance and social power eat more meat, while people who endorse equality eat more fruits and vegetables. Attitudes towards meat, fruits and vegetables were measured before and after the presentation of this information. For participants who rejected dominance and valued equality, this information resulted in meat being seen more negatively. In a follow-up to the study three weeks later, some of these participants reported they had reduced their meat consumption (though when their actual meat consumption was measured there was no apparent decrease). These participants also reported more sympathy for animals, which the authors concluded may show that these people were now thinking about meat as part of an animal, rather than just food .
The authors of the study suggest meat consumption may be discouraged by pointing out that meat symbolises inequality and human dominance over nature . Conversely, fruits and vegetables may be advocated by highlighting that these foods symbolise the rejection of dominance and support for equality (values that are increasingly endorsed in Western cultures). However, the results of the study also showed that this strategy may not be effective for certain people, such as those who are relatively less open to vegetarianism and more confident about their food decisions.
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Part 3: Recent Research Regarding the Symbolism of Meat That May Be Useful for Vegetarian Advocacy.
Research also suggests that people who value dominance and social power and identify highly with meat are less likely to pay attention to information about the nutritional deficiencies of with meat . This finding suggests that advocating the health benefits of vegetarianism may not be effective for people who attend to the symbolic qualities of meat. Vegetarian advocates need a greater focus on addressing the symbolism of meat and the underlying ideological beliefs that support meat consumption. There may be a need to actively modify the symbolism of meat, or increase the symbolism of vegetables and fruits to match the values of high meat identifiers . Rozin et al. mention this point briefly when they discuss how vegetable protein can be made to resemble meat .
A recent article highlights the need for large-scale cultural changes to reduce the negative consequences of meat and dairy consumption . The author Jane Daly suggests a four-step research process to encourage cultural changes in the consumption of meat and animal products:
(1) Understand the main factors underlying meat and dairy consumption; (2) Understand the main factors underlying adherence to plant-based diets; (3) Use theories, insights, lessons, and empirical evidence from relevant fields (including insights from steps 1 and 2) to design appropriate dietary behaviour change initiatives; and (4) Evaluate behaviour change initiatives and embed lessons into future initiatives” (p.226).
Some potential strategies suggested for increasing the consumption of plant-based diets included increasing social support by encouraging team-based changes to dietary behaviour, and increasing awareness about the values symbolised by food . Daly emphasises the importance of thinking about the language used in campaign strategies. For example, it has been suggested that the phrase ‘meat-free’ might imply that vegetarianism is ascetic, which is a common negative characterisation of vegetarianism [6-8]. Daly also describes the pressing need for research evaluating the effectiveness of current advocacy strategies such as providing information about vegetarianism, promoting meat-free days, and asking for pledges to try vegetarianism.
In this blog series I have discussed some current theories and supporting evidence regarding the symbolic meanings of meat. It would be useful for animal advocates to consider this area of research in developing effective strategies to promote vegetarianism and veganism.
*Most current research in psychology tends to merge vegetarians and vegans under the label of vegetarian. In this blog I will be using the term ‘vegetarian’ to refer to both vegetarians and vegans, and will specify if a distinction has been made.
- Fiddes, N., Meat: A Natural Symbol1991, New York: Routledge.
- Allen, M.W. and S. Baines, Manipulating the symbolic meaning of meat to encourage greater acceptance of fruits and vegetables and less proclivity for red and white meat. Appetite, 2002. 38(2): p. 118-130.
- Allen, M.W. and S.H. Ng, Human values, utilitarian benefits and identification: The case of meat. European Journal of Social Psychology, 2003. 33(1): p. 37-56.
- Rozin, P., et al., Is Meat Male? A Quantitative Multimethod Framework to Establish Metaphoric Relationships. Journal of Consumer Research, 2012. 39.
- Daly, J., Reducing Meat and Dairy Consumption: A Cultural Change Approach. The International Journal of Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability, 2011. 7(2): p. 223-234.
- Cole, M., Asceticism and hedonism in research discourses of veg*anism. British Food Journal, 2008. 110(7): p. 706-716.
- Cole, M. and K. Morgan, Vegaphobia: derogatory discourses of veganism and the reproduction of speciesism in UK national newspapers. The British Journal of Sociology, 2011. 62(1): p. 134-153.
- Adams, C.J., Living among meat eaters: the vegetarian’s survival handbook2003, New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
Maddie Judge is a passionate animal advocate from Aotearoa, New Zealand. She resides in Wellington with her partner, and is undertaking a PhD in Psychology focusing on the psychological and ideological foundations of meat consumption and abstention. Her research draws on a variety of areas, including discursive and rhetorical psychology, the symbolism of meat, and cognitive-motivational models of ideology. Her wider research interests include vegan advocacy, speciesism and feminism.