The Unified Model Of Vegetarian Identity
The idea that vegetarianism (and by extension, veganism) is an identity position that informs how we move through the world is not exactly new. Eating meat is typically viewed as something fundamental to human nature. And asserting oneself against it can be seen as violating a social norm. While many people who are veg aren’t necessarily trying to be “norm-violators,” many of them do self-categorize themselves and through that process. This can mean that it becomes a meaningful part of their social identity. And it may help them to answer the age old question of “Who am I?” That being said, even social identity can inconsistent. And not all those who identify as veg actually are. A recent survey found that 5% of U.S. adults identified as veg, while only 3% actually ate a veg diet. An older survey found a bigger gap with 7.5% identifying as veg, while only 1.5% ate veg.
There is an “extensive body of literature” on the psychological aspects of vegetarianism. But there are a number of avenues that haven’t been explored yet. There is also a lack of unification of the various literatures into a conceptual whole. In this study, researchers wanted to develop a “unified model of vegetarian identity” (UMVI) to try to measure the ways in which “vegetarians internalize their food choices into their self-concept and enact this identity through behavior.”
To create this UMVI, they drew together the various bodies of literature on developmental and social psychological identity related to vegetarianism. They combined them into one conceptual model that “brings together common psychological constructs in order to outline the dimensions of a vegetarian identity.” The authors note that much of the research on vegetarian psychology is based in the U.S. They tried to make their model “flexible to cultural differences and useful for research universally.”
How did they do this? Their model is quite thorough. It includes three levels: contextual—including dimensions of historical embeddedness, timing, and duration; internalized—including dimensions of salience, centrality, regard, and motivation; and externalized—including dimensions of dietary pattern, label, and strictness. The researchers call these three levels and accompanying ten dimensions “unique and measurable facets of a vegetarian identity.”
Though the meaning of some of the terms above may be self-evident, some may not be, so here are the definitions in full:
- Historical embeddedness: The historical and sociocultural conditions under which an individual is vegetarian
- Timing: The time course of an individual’s engagement with vegetarianism throughout his or her lifespan
- Duration: The amount of time that an individual reports being vegetarian
- Salience: The extent to which being vegetarian is a relevant feature of an individual’s self-concept in a particular context
- Centrality: The extent to which an individual views being vegetarian as a predominant feature of his or her self-concept
- Regard: The perceived valence of vegetarian and omnivorous social groups and their defining behaviors in terms of positive-negative evaluations
- Motivation: An individual’s reasons for following his or her dietary pattern
- Dietary pattern: The typical food choices an individual makes regarding the consumption of certain animal foods, given sufficient control over his or her food choices
- Label: How an individual identifies to others in terms of dietary pattern
- Strictness: The extent to which an individual adheres to his or her dietary pattern
All of these dimensions can be analyzed and measured. The researchers don’t necessarily provide the exact framework for how to measure and analyze the different aspects here. But the model in and of itself is thorough.
For advocates, the study is of great interest. It is worth reading in full. The “cross cultural applicability” of the model is perhaps the most interesting aspect. The researchers note that “being vegetarian in one culture may present radically different experiences than being vegetarian in another culture.” And they note that cultural constructs around vegetarianism can touch many of the dimensions that are part of the model.
Since the model is (as of yet) untested, the researchers note that it needs to be tested before cultural appropriate refinements can be made. In the meantime, the UMVI stands as a thorough way to evaluate and examine vegetarian identity. This could be invaluable for animal advocates in a variety of ways.