Returning to Meat: Who is Doing It, How it Happens, and What This Means for the Veg’n Movement
For my master’s thesis I sought to answer a very simple but important question that may offer assistance to both the strength and future of vegetarianism: Why do vegetarians go back to meat? What I call “vegetarian recidivism” or “backsliding.” To begin to answer this question I thought of “going veg” within the context of a social movement. Within this body of literature researchers have investigated both what mobilizes and stabilizes members of a social movement, but there is scant research addressing why people disengage from a social movement. Further, within the body of research addressing vegetarianism specifically, there were several reputable studies investigating the process of becoming vegan, but very little about the barriers and struggles to maintaining the practice.
By Jaime Hecht
Since veganism is a lifestyle intertwined with diet, I proposed that our ex-members would have particularly interesting stories to tell. I hope that this blog can serve as a catalyst for future research in this area. The more we know about the intricacies of our movement, and the more questions we have answered, the better our chances of building a sustainable presence in the community, thus framing veganism as an accessible and sustainable option.
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Returning to Meat: Who is Doing It, How it Happens, and What This Means for the Veg*n Movement
I interviewed fourteen individuals who had either previously identified as vegetarian or vegan and no longer did so, or who were currently vegan or vegetarian but had fallen out in the past. Through these interviews I identified several themes of social and cultural barriers to vegan and vegetarian maintenance. With the general knowledge that burnout is a problem facing all social movements, I proceeded to uncover nuances in our movement often overlooked by animal advocates. An understanding of some of the barriers faced by many who attempt veganism but fail or choose to quit, can allow us to begin to allocate resources to helping maintain vegan lifestyles.
What is recidivism?
The word recidivism is commonly used within the criminology literature to refer to an individual repeating a behavior that was deemed undesirable and most likely resulted in incarceration or other negative consequences. Vegetarian or vegan recidivism occurs when an individual who previously eschewed animal products and/or byproducts from their lives begins to reincorporate these products. We often hear of someone claiming to be an “ex”-vegetarian or vegan. It is imperative that our movement cultivates strong and committed members; therefore the problem of recidivism is one that is in need of thoughtful study and action to solve.
Why is it dangerous?
As a social movement based in lifestyle change, it is important that veganism gains a reputation as something that is easy to maintain. If we continue to see members going in and out of the practice, we run the risk of alienating potential vegetarians as they may begin to view it as difficult or impractical to sustain. Success equates to the number of committed vegans who are out there demanding more options and making veganism more accessible.
What does it look like?
Animal advocates, when approaching the problem of recidivism, must always be mindful that vegan recidivism is unique and complex and needs to be analyzed and approached with flexibility. In the social movement literature, scholars that do address the “disengagement” aspect of activism tend to view it as a complete withdrawal, an all or nothing decision. During my research I found vegetarianism to be an idea embraced in a context dependent fashion, and is re-engaged in several times over the life course.
For example, some who identify as vegetarian may choose to backslide for one day during a special event or holiday. A family dinner or cultural event tends to be intimidating and some individuals would rather partake in the non-vegetarian food and then feel awkward or ostracized.
Some individuals view veganism as a cleanse or a way to eliminate unhealthy food in an extreme way for a limited period of time. Many engage in the practice with a loose set of guidelines from the start or believe vegetarianism can be expressed in whatever way suits their particular lifestyle.
For many vegan activists veganism is seen through an ethical lens, but the majority of individuals see it as a flexible idea that can be altered to suit any lifestyle. This finding is particularly pertinent as a discussion in the movement persists regarding the dilution of the word and identity of vegan.
Finally, the majority of the participants in my study cited fish as a constant in their diet even during their periods of vegetarianism or veganism. The grey area of fish consumption in vegetarian identity claims is something in need of further discussion.
Many studies will tell you (Mcdonald 2000, MacNair 1998), that people tend to engage in veganism in a typical fashion. Usually beginning with vegetarianism (by products included, and occasionally fish) and move slowly toward removing all by products from their food and skins from their wardrobe. However, what I have found is that while the initial path to becoming vegan is important, it holds very little bearing on a person's ability or propensity to sustain the practice. Other social factors such as relationships, cultures and traditions, labels and identities, approaching the practice as a cleanse/diet and unsupportive social networks have much more profound effects on the consistency and dedication to veganism or vegetarianism.
I will elaborate on those factors in the next section.
MacNair, Rachel. 2001. “The Psychology of Becoming a Vegetarian.” Vegetarian Nutrition: An International Journal (2):96-102.
McDonald, Barbara. 2000. “Once You Know Something, You Can’t Not Know It: An Empirical Look at Becoming Vegan.” Society and Animals 8(1):1-23.
Jaime Hecht has a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Central Florida where her studies focused on social movement theory and the vegan social movement. She is currently the Outreach Coordinator at A Well-Fed World, a food justice and global hunger nonprofit based in Washington DC.