A Sociological Look at Vegans

We live in an era brimming with food alternatives. As technology advances, so too does our selection for meal options. From fat-free frozen yogurt to organic almond milk, the engineering of food has provided the world with a multitude of choices to choose from. Catering to individual needs of nutrition and preference, such alternatives bring rise to different kinds of consumers, among which vegans begin to take prominence. Vegans are people who abstain from the usage of animal products in everyday life, especially as it pertains to diet. Generally, all vegans avoid the consumption of animal products, but the extent to which they embrace the vegan lifestyle varies among individuals. 

The emerging prevalence of private issues such as veganism reflects broader sociological workings of human development in general. How exactly does a person choose what to do with his or her life? What does it mean to be vegan in society? And how does society influence someone’s everyday choice of eating oatmeal over eggs for breakfast? 

Vegans consist of individuals from vastly different backgrounds, yet they unite in their behavior of abstaining from meat, dairy products, and the like. Thus, it seems reasonable to speculate that there is some single factor that ties them all together. Vegans are becoming more and more prevalent in countries that are highly industrialized. This may be due to the fact that developed nations have the luxury of addressing concerns to health and morality given that technology is readily available and basic needs are no longer pressing issues. Going vegan for health reasons, for instance, may be due to the emphasis of physical well-being by the government or popular culture, which often correlates fitness with beauty. On the other hand, morality and ethical concerns are unique traits stemming from human empathy. The emphasis of kindness and compassion taught at school provides yet another explanation of people’s dietary transition from the basis of animal welfare and environmental concern. The sense of moral obligation is one that is instilled in us by institutions and is kept alive by those who feel strongly to its teachings. In other words, society shapes our beliefs and in turn manifests itself as lifestyle changes in particular individuals. Being vegan is a mere example of this. 

Vegans differ from most other groups in that they have a drastically different social construction of reality. Most people do not give a second thought to a chicken fried steak that arrives at the dining table. To them, chicken has become an integral part of their diet: no feelings, no symbols are attached—chicken is plain food. On the other hand, vegans assign vastly different meanings to the same meal that another indulges in. When they see the chicken, they may think of the horrid conditions that it must had suffered for its first six weeks of life before entering the slaughterhouse to be butchered. That is undoubtedly a tragic backstory. Hence, for vegans, the chicken can no longer be viewed as food. It is seen as a victim of human selfishness, a life that was brutally murdered for the sake of human consumption. In assigning their own meanings to the plate of chicken, vegans redefine their construction of food away from that of popular culture. As a group, they then shape their own ethics around animal consumption. This helps to explain the rational behind following a vegan diet—it is inhumane to kill lives that feel pain. But what exactly makes such acts inhumane? What does it mean to be morally corrupt? If everybody else labels chicken as food, are vegans deviant? These questions again become lucid under the social construction of reality. 

A primary trait of said reality is that rules and behaviors are collectively enforced. The accounts of police use of normal force demonstrate how society paradoxically gives birth to moral dilemma: while mandating police the right to use force, the line drawn between normal and excessive force is often blurred along moral and legal concerns. What the police deems as “normal” force contrasts that of the public due to differences between social realities (Hunt 1985 : 479). Likewise, vegans play a similar role to police, except this time, the public takes center stage of ethical scrutiny. Mainstream society is desensitized from the cruelty involved in meat and related production because collective behavior of the majority (consuming animal products) speaks to normalize the action. Thus, it would appear strange that vegans have a conflicting perspective entirely when it comes to such subject matter. However, taking a closer look at society reveals that another joint behavior is involved in forming veganism. As moral beings that we claim to be, humans value virtuous character and repeatedly emphasize its importance in every generation. This is never more true than in industrialized nations where resources and technologies are readily available for the strong to aid the weak. Essentially, society teaches us to make noble actions in spite of self-interest because we, as humans, have come a long way from our “primitive ways.” Thus, we are constantly reminded of our existence as morally upright beings. In fact, we subconsciously behave according to such standards in everyday life. For example, we “naturally” feel sorry for people suffering from abuse, and we find it heart-wrenching that many children still struggle in poverty. Vegans are driven by the same sense of morality; except in their case, they feel a sense of righteousness toward animal lives. Hence, it seems appropriate to propose that veganism is one of many natural consequences of social construction. The seemingly juxtaposition of the mainstream and vegan diet in fact follows the characteristics outlined by social realities, each retaining their own validity. 

Although not all veganism stems from the ideas mentioned above, we can at least say that society plays a critical role in shaping these values to a certain extent.