The Social And Ideological Foundations Of Meat Consumption And Vegetarianism
Part 1 of 3
By Maddie Judge (Faunalytics intern)
Meat consumption is associated with multiple ethical, health and environmental issues. Considering the social issues associated with meat consumption, vegetarianism is a good potential alternative to current dietary patterns. Vegetarian food is increasingly available, and studies indicate that many people are aware of the health benefits of a vegetarian diet . However, current numbers of vegetarians in western societies are low, and appear to be fairly stable at around 1-3% . Given that our food choices are shaped by cultural norms, it is important to investigate the social meanings of meat and the ideological foundations of our current dietary behaviours . In this post, I will discuss key themes in Western culture that normalize meat eating and marginalize vegetarianism.
Although vegetarians are a diverse group of people, vegetarianism is generally understood as a particular philosophical position, or an explicit food ideology . The dominant practice of meat consumption also has a particular ideological basis [4, 5]. However, the dominant ideology supporting meat consumption has been described as implicit or invisible because the underlying beliefs are commonly perceived as the ways things should be [4, 5].**
The emphasis on meat in the western diet is often taken for granted, whereas vegetarianism tends to be treated a deviant practice that requires explanation . However, both meat consumption and vegetarianism represent particular dietary choices, and the choice to consume meat requires as much explanation as vegetarianism . It has been argued that the prominence of meat in western diets is disproportionately high when compared to its actual nutritional value . The high value placed on meat may be linked to the symbolic relevance of meat in western society .
Sociologist, Julia Twigg, suggests that in the dominant meat-consuming ideology, foods are seen as existing on a hierarchy . Red meat occupies the top position, followed by white meat, dairy, eggs, fruit, vegetables, and then cereals. Red meat is the most powerful food because it contains blood which represents the life force of the animal. There is a common belief that consuming the muscle tissue of other animals creates muscle and strength in humans. Twigg and other scholars argue that meat symbolises power and strength and is associated with masculinity, whereas vegetables are perceived as inferior foods that are associated with femininity [4, 7, 8].
In contrast to the dominant ideology, vegetarians tend to value raw ‘living’ vegetables and fruit, while meat symbolises death and violence. Vegetarianism is associated with feminism, and the link between meat and masculinity is viewed in negative terms as involving cruelty and the denial of empathy [4, 8].
A recent study investigated perceptions of the status of different food types . Participant’s ratings of the status of foods were close to what would be predicted by the theory of a food hierarchy discussed by Twigg . Apart from the highest prestige being assigned to seafood, red meat was at the top, followed by white meat, dairy, fruit, vegetables and cereals. Additionally, the results showed that participants who were motivated to improve their social status tended to choose high-status foods and reject low-status foods .
Several studies have also provided evidence of a link between meat and masculinity [10, 11]. A recent study employing multiple approaches identified that the muscle meat of mammals (red meat) tends to be metaphorically linked to masculinity . The authors suggested that the link between red meat and masculinity may occur because of the perception that red meat provides strength and power.
Feminist-vegan theorist, Carol Adams, highlights the connections between the oppression of animals and the oppression of women by patriarchal structures . Adams suggests sexism and speciesism are interconnected forms of oppression. In the context of eating meat the animals are made absent, and are objectified, fragmented and consumed .For example, animals are physically cut up, packaged, and sold as parts, and the parts to be eaten are often labelled in ways that disguise the original animal’s identity (e.g. pork not pig, beef not cow, and veal not calf). Adams argues that the concept of the absent referent in meat consumption has parallels in depictions of sexual violence towards women in our society.
A study by Allen et al. found that omnivores tend to value rationality, whereas vegetarians tend to emphasise the importance of emotion . This result could be interpreted as an example of the masculine emphasis on rationality, and the association of emotions with femininity . If the idea of killing animals for meat raises negative emotions, then an emphasis on rationality may result in these emotions being disregarded, whereas placing values on emotions may result in an unwillingness to consume meat .
Social anthropologist, Nick Fiddes, argues that meat has been so highly valued in our culture because consuming other animals traditionally symbolised human power and control over the natural world . For example, people often link the origin of our species with the development of hunting, and the beginnings of civilisation with farming. However, Fiddes suggests ideological beliefs in human supremacy are undergoing changes, and this is being reflected in the declining popularity of red meat. These ideological changes include increasing scepticism of the division between human culture and nature, and growing concern about human impacts on the environment.
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Part 1: The Social and Ideological Foundations of Meat Consumption and Vegetarianism
Part 2: Attitudes Towards People Based on Their Dietary Identity
Part 3: Recent Research Regarding the Symbolism of Meat That May Be Useful for Vegetarian Advocacy.
If meat symbolises power and dominance, then we could predict that people who eat meat will be more likely to endorse these values than people who don’t eat meat. There is some evidence of basic value differences between omnivores and vegetarians. People who rate themselves as omnivores tend be higher in authoritarianism, prefer hierarchical structures, and place more importance on social power . In comparison, people who identify as vegetarian tend to be lower in authoritarianism, value hierarchy less, and place importance on social justice, peace and equality. These findings are consistent with the theory that meat is consumed partly because it symbolises power and dominance .
A recent study investigated whether the values associated with meat influence food preferences . Participants filled out surveys measuring basic human values and then were asked to rate the taste of a beef or vegetarian sausage roll (preliminary investigations showed that the vegetarian sausage roll tasted very similar to meat). Half the participants were told the correct identity of the food they were given, and the other half were misinformed about which option they had actually received. Participants who rejected the human values of power and dominance over others generally rated the vegetarian option as tastier than the beef option, even when they had been misinformed about what they were eating. In contrast, participants who valued social power and control tended to rate the beef option as tastier, even when they had been misinformed. These results suggest that preferences for meat or vegetarian foods can depend somewhat on whether the values symbolised by the food fits with the individual’s personal values .
In the next blog in this series I will discuss links between the symbolism of meat and perceptions of vegetarians and vegans. I will also discuss some interesting recent research findings that may be useful for vegetarian advocates. Continue Reading…
* 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.
** Melanie Joy  has recently addressed the invisibility of the dominant ideology by developing the term, ‘carnist’, to refer to people who believe that eating certain animals is ‘natural, normal and necessary’  (p.96). Although ‘carnism’ is a useful label, for the purposes of this blog series I have chosen to use the term ‘omnivore’ to describe members of the dominant ideology, to be consistent with the research I am discussing in this area.
- Lea, E. and A. Worsley, Benefits and barriers to the consumption of a vegetarian diet in Australia. Public Health Nutrition, 2003. 6(05): p. 505-511.
- Heinz, B. and R. Lee, Getting down to the meat: The symbolic construction of meat consumption. Communication Studies, 1998. 49(1): p. 86-99.
- Fiddes, N., Meat: A Natural Symbol1991, New York: Routledge.
- Twigg, J., Vegetarianism and the meanings of meat., in The sociology of food and eating, A. Murcott, Editor 1979, Gower: Aldershot. p. 18–30.
- Joy, M., Why we love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows: An introduction to carnism2010, San Francisco: Conari Press.
- Wilson, M.S., A. Weatherall, and C. Butler, A rhetorical approach to discussions about health and vegetarianism. Journal of Health Psychology, 2004. 9(4): p. 567-581.
- Potts, A. and J. Parry, Vegan Sexuality: Challenging Heteronormative Masculinity through Meat-free Sex. Feminism & Psychology, 2010. 20(1): p. 53-72.
- Adams, C.J., The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory1990, New York: Continuum.
- Allen, M.W., Social structure, status seeking and the basic food groups., in ANZMAC Conference2005: University of Western Australia.
- Rozin, P., et al., Is Meat Male? A Quantitative Multimethod Framework to Establish Metaphoric Relationships. Journal of Consumer Research, 2012. 39.
- Ruby, M.B. and S.J. Heine, Meat, morals,and masculinity. Appetite, 2011. 56: p. 477-450.
- Allen, M.W., et al., Values and Beliefs of Vegetarians and Omnivores. The Journal of Social Psychology, 2000. 140(4): p. 405-422.
- Allen, Michael W., R. Gupta, and A. Monnier, The Interactive Effect of Cultural Symbols and Human Values on Taste Evaluation. Journal of Consumer Research, 2008. 35(2): p. 294-308.
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.