Privilege, Protest, and Changing Worldview:
A Look at Veganism through the Dudley Co-op
A research paper by Carla Seidl for the course Anthropology 105: Food and Culture, Harvard College, Professor James Watson, April 2003.
This paper is a look at the dietary phenomenon of veganism through the lens of the Dudley Co-op, an off-campus cooperative living community of approximately thirty Harvard undergraduates. Its aim is twofold: to illuminate the connection between food choices and the negotiation of personal identity as seen through vegan co-opers, and to locate co-op veganism within the larger discourse of modern movements of social change. Through a theoretical investigation of the anthropology of veganism and observations gained through ethnographic work within the Dudley co-op, I will argue that veganism is a protest movement dependent on privilege that enables its members to position their personal identities in opposition to capitalist and commercial values of modern industrialized society.
The scope of my ethnographic research is the Dudley Co-op, where I have been living for one year and where I frequently take on cooking responsibilities. The co-op is vegetarian; that is, all the meals cooked for co-oper consumption contain no meat or fish. This semester, there are six vegans living in the co-op who do not eat eggs, milk, or any other dairy products. Since the vegan population makes up about one fifth of the co-op, about two-thirds of co-op cooking is vegan. For baking purposes, for example, I will use egg substitute, soy margarine, and soymilk in place of eggs, butter, and milk. One vegan co-oper, in fact, does not eat honey because it is a product of bees. As a result, even though I myself am not vegan, I have begun to turn to maple syrup more often as a sweetener and to increase my use and consumption of other vegan alternatives to dairy products.
Of the six vegans living in the co-op, I conducted tape-recorded interviews with three and received emailed responses to prepared questions from two others. To protect personal privacy, the real names of my interviewees will not be used in this paper. Of the vegans I chose to interview in person, one is a very recent convert, one has been vegan for over six years, and the other for three years. The latter two vegans seem to be the most influential vegans at the co-op; they are the ones who originally stimulated my curiosity about veganism and thereby most directly influenced my choice of topic for this paper. For added perspective, I also interviewed a non-vegan co-oper who frequently voices dismay at having to eat vegan dishes and who last semester started a late-night meat club in the co-op.
In terms of theoretical resources, the references I consulted ranged from books intended to better inform the vegan reader on the dietary movement of which he is a part (Stepaniak), to books intended to influence readers to adopt a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle (Lappé, Moran), to articles by anthropologists on the related movements of organics and environmentalism (Ingold, James). Through these texts, I was able to gain a better understanding of the moral and materialist arguments for veganism as well as of the history of this dietary practice and its relation to other movements of social change.
Lifestyle and the Meaning of Being a True Vegan
The first published use of the word vegan appears in the Oxford Illustrated Dictionary in 1962, where it is defined as “Vegetarian who eats no butter, eggs, cheese, or milk” (Stepaniak 2-3). The definition of veganism, however, actually extends far beyond the realm of dietary practice into many other spheres of everyday life. As Stepaniak writes, “Practicing a vegan diet no more qualifies someone as vegan that eating kosher food qualifies someone as Jewish” (21). According to the American Vegan Society, a vegan must not only refrain from consuming animal products as food, but must also refrain from using animal products in all aspects of daily living (Stepaniak 21).
Joanna, a co-oper who has been vegan for over six years, would agree that being vegan entails more than one’s food choices, yet admits that she adheres more strictly to the vegan diet than to the vegan lifestyle. “I’m not a real vegan because I have wool blankets on my bed,” she says, “and I have leather shoes from a few years ago” (Miller 4-21-03). Joanna also notes that she is not a real vegan because she eats honey (ibid). In the past, she explains, she has been excited to meet other vegans in part to “see how vegan they [were]….I knew this guy who wouldn’t sit in a car that had leather seats” (ibid). Justin, another vegan co-oper, notes that a his father’s recent gift of sheepskin gloves caused something of an ideological crisis for him; he decided to wear the gloves, however, even though he does like to try to maintain a vegan lifestyle (Roca 4-21-03). Similar dilemmas often face vegan co-oper Dan Baker, who says that although he will not buy leather or wool products, he has decided that it does not make sense to him, environmentally, to throw out the animal products that he already owns (Baker 4-27-03).
For a group often associated by the general public and even many non-vegan co-op dwellers as extremist or radical, especially concerning food, the vegans I interviewed seemed surprisingly flexible with regard to their eating habits. Joanna, for example, will eat eggs and dairy for pragmatic reasons when traveling outside the country (Miller 4-21-03). Tom writes that although he eats vegan ninety nine percent of the time, he sometimes intentionally eats non-vegan foods in order to “avoid becoming purist or religious” about his veganism (Anderson 4-25-03). “Most recently,” he notes, “during spring break I had an omelette and a tuna sandwich on the same day and didn’t think much of it” (ibid). Lisa, another co-op vegan, tries to make sustainable, vegan-appropriate lifestyle choices, but will occasionally eat dumpstered food even if it contains small amounts of eggs or dairy (Smith 4-26-03).
The relationship between veganism and lifestyle seems to be one that provides a fairly wide spectrum of individual choice in which ideological concerns often supersede rigidity of practice. In deciding whether or not to eat honey, use wool blankets, or sit in leather seats, people who identify themselves as vegans can decide how vegan to be according to their personal circumstances and values. Through frequent challenging of their own ideological positions on the use of animal products in daily living, veganism thereby allows followers to actively negotiate their personal identities while still being part of a larger philosophical movement of compassion.
Why Vegan?: Reasons and Implications
When searching for the reasons why certain people become vegan, I divided my thinking into two camps: materialist and mentalist. Like Mintz, in Sweetness and Power, I wanted to find out how matters of practicality, health, and resource efficiency can influence food practice. However, I also wanted to consider the mentalist approach taken by Jean Soler, who argues that people’s ideas about food are more broadly dependent on their image of themselves and of their own place in the universe (55). On the materialist side, people may become vegan for nutritional or environmental conservation reasons, among others, while on the mentalist side, people’s reasons for becoming vegan are more directly a result of their political and ethical views. My ethnographic work at the Dudley Co-op has led me to the conclusion that the mentalist approach is far more useful than the materialist approach in locating reasons for vegan food practices. As I consider arguments for veganism from both schools of thought, it will become clear that veganism is not a dietary practice that is poised to become a practical way of life for most of the world’s population, but that, instead, it is a practice that can best be explained as an intellectual attempt to ally personal daily practice and identity with notions of worldview.
i. Materialist Explanations: Nutrition and Environment
According to Allison James, most buyers of organic produce do so for health reasons rather than ethical or environmental concerns (213). The choice among vegans not to eat animal products, however, does not seem to be similarly nutritionally motivated. Of the five vegan co-opers I interviewed, none cited health as the primary reason for his or her choice to become vegan. Joanna, for one, is glad that she does not have to worry about clogged arteries, but feels that veganism is not a “complete diet” (Miller 4-21-03). Similarly, Justin was not at all influenced by health factors in his choice to become vegan. In fact, he says that he thinks veganism is less healthy than consuming a small quantity of animal products in one’s diet (Roca 4-21-03).
In her article, “Nutritional Implications of ‘Vegetarian’ Lifestyles,” Erica Wheeler explains that most vegetarians who consume dairy products run little risk of dietary deficiencies, while reaping the nutritional benefits of high fiber and antioxidant intakes that are associated with lowered risk for heart disease and certain types of cancer (77). In refraining from consuming all types of animal products, however, Wheeler notes that vegans are at risk for various dietary deficiencies including vitamin B12, iodine, riboflavin, and zinc. She mentions, too, that the children of vegans tend to be smaller in height and weight than those of omnivores (84). While the recorded incidence of dietary deficiencies in vegans is less than would be expected based on dietary guidelines (Wheeler 85), the nutritional implications of vegan eating habits still do not seem to favor adopting a vegan lifestyle based on health concerns.
Besides nutritional implications, another materialist argument for veganism is that of environmental resource conservation. The book Diet for a Small Planet, published in 1971 by Frances Moore Lappé, has influenced thousands of people, including myself, to become vegetarian because of the extreme wastefulness of producing meat for consumption. According to Victoria Moran, Lappé’s book caused “a minor revolution in the outlook of many Westerners,” for it opened their eyes to the gross inefficiency of meat as a source of nutrient in light of world hunger and the growing shortage of agricultural resources (45-6). For philosopher Peter Singer, this utilitarian argument for vegetarianism is extremely compelling; he argues that the gain for humans both in terms of increased amounts of grains and soybeans for consumption by undernourished populations and the environmental benefits of ending energy-intensive factory farming are significant enough to warrant the conversion of people who can afford it to vegetarianism (333-4).
Within the Dudley Co-op, all of the vegans I interviewed said that they identified with the environmental movement, yet only one cited damage to the environment by the dairy and meat industries as the major reason for her switch to veganism (Smith 4-26-03). In terms of pragmatism, in fact, veganism in many locations seems untenable. As Meat Club representative Frank Thompson explains, “Many people don’t think about socio-economic side of veganism….To be vegan, you need to buy fresh produce and expensive meat replacement products. Many people don’t have access to that, or time to prepare [them]” (4-22-03). Joanna admits the difficulty of being vegan outside of communities like Cambridge where access to such animal product replacements is limited (Miller 4-21-03).
Veganism may yield utilitarian benefits to humans and the earth on a global scale, but on an individual level, both nutritionally and economically, it does not seem for most people to be a pragmatic lifestyle choice. Turning now away from the materialist approach toward the mentalist approach, we will see that it is theoretical, much more so than practical concerns, which generally influence a person’s decision to become vegan.
ii. Mentalist Explanations: Animal Rights and Politics
Eva Batt, onetime secretary of The Vegan Society, defines veganism as “one thing and one thing only--a way of living which avoids exploitation, whether it be of our fellow men, the animal population, or the soil upon which we rely for our very existence” (Moran 19). The title of Moran’s book on veganism, Compassion: The Ultimate Ethic, summarizes the philosophy contained therein, that veganism is an appropriate lifestyle change for those with strong moral convictions about kindness toward and reverence for life. The two major theoretical categories for arguments in favor of veganism that I will now investigate are animal rights and politics, which, based on my interviews, are the primary reasons behind co-oper veganism (Anderson, Baker, Miller, Roca, Smith).
As an ethical position, animal rights is a highly controversial and personal choice. As meat-eating co-oper Frank explains, “I don’t have any logical argument for why I don’t feel the suffering of animals as deeply as I feel the suffering of humans….I think I am a pretty sensitive person” (Thompson 4-22-03). Frank brings up a religious argument about our ability to digest meat as being indicative of what we are meant to eat, but then qualifies his argument, saying, “I’m not a totally self-satisfied meat-eater...I definitely don’t approve of a lot of the ways the meat industry is run in this country...I guess I don’t think about it as much as I should” (ibid).
For both Dan and Joanna, the decision to become vegan was based on reducing animal, rather than human, exploitation. Dan explains that his switch to veganism was based solely on a realization that he should not eat things that he himself is not willing to kill. It was only later that he began to think about the environmental reasons for adopting a vegan lifestyle (Baker 4-27-03). Joanna cites similar animal rights arguments for her turn to veganism and uses the term “cycle of cruelty” to describe the slaughter of animals for human consumption (Miller 4-21-03). Her major ideological position with regard to veganism is that people should be conscious of what they eat and of where it comes from in order to be able to make an informed ethical decision as to whether or not it is something they still want to eat (ibid). On a personal level, Joanna feels a religious aspect to her vegan practice. Sometimes, she says, she is “aware of the spirit of the animal….” (ibid). She concludes her position on animal rights by saying, “I have no more right to life than an animal” (ibid).
Although more moderate than Joanna in his views on animal rights, vegan Justin Roca also cites poor animal treatment in food production practices as influential in his turn to veganism. He explains, “…my animal rights concerns center on the dishonesty, mechanization, and closed-dooredness of the non-vegan-products industries; I’d have few qualms about animal rights if I got milk and cheese from my neighbor’s only cow “Betty” as happens in many non-industrial societies” (4-21-03). Justin would describe the major reason for his decision to become vegan as a combination of “interwoven political-spiritual views” (ibid). His position provides a useful bridge to a discussion of politics and veganism, a relationship that is crucial to understanding the position of veganism both within the co-op and more globally in the context of other movements of social change.
Of the vegan co-opers I interviewed, all identified themselves as politically left, and all but one identified themselves as activists and admitted that some would call them radicals (Roca, Miller, Baker, Smith, Anderson). Tom, Justin, and Lisa have recently been very active in anti-war organizing and protest, for example, such as through the Harvard Initiative for Peace and Justice. Tom, along with other non-vegan co-opers, played a large role in the Living Wage Campaign in 2001, a cause with which Justin also identifies strongly (Roca 4-21-03). Lisa is involved in various feminist groups, including a self-health-collective, and Dan has been highly influential in campaigning for the serving of fair trade coffee across campus (Smith, Baker). Although Joanna does not consider herself an activist, she says that in the past she has been very active in Vegitas, Harvard’s vegan and vegetarian animal rights group (Miller 4-21-03). Clearly, a common theme among the interests of co-op vegans is a proclivity for leftward-leaning social action. While the specific issues that drive these co-opers to action varies, all believe in using their personal actions and resources to influence the policies and decisions made by others.
Dr. Michael Fox has argued that vegans are living a “biospiritual ethic,” “…a vital human imperative to evolve beyond the limited ego-states of individual, corporation, nation and the like to a true sense of global community…united in terms of the highest ethical values and rational conduct, as well as empathetic compassion and reverence for all life” (Moran 73-4). With their leftist political views and activities, the vegans in the Dudley Co-op do seem to be adhering to this ethic. As Justin explains, anti-war activism and other politically liberal activities are connected with veganism in their view of the sanctity of other creatures in the world. “By focusing my efforts just on the anti-war side of things, as I’d done,” he says “...it was natural for that to extend to...other related issues” (Roca 4-21-03). For many, veganism seems to be a sacrifice of pragmatism on an individual level for the sake of morality on a global level. Through its strong relationship with political arguments and animal rights, the decision to become vegan rests much more stably on mentalist explanations than on materialist ones.
‘Alternative’ Lifestyle and Shifting Worldview: Veganism as Privilege and Protest
As meat-eating co-oper Frank puts it, many vegans need a reality check. “…At this point,” he argues, “[veganism] is not something everyone can afford to do” (Thompson 4-22-03). As we have seen so far, veganism seems to be based on an intellectual notion of the global good, directly tied to such issues as environmentalism, animal rights, and anti-corporatism. And yet, practitioners of veganism and related lifestyle movements such as the organic and natural foods movements tend to belong to the upper and middle classes as part of what James terms a “rejection of modern industrial culture” (212). According to Rachel Einwohner, for example, animal rights organizations in the US are predominantly female and middle class (56). Although the vegan population at the co-op is not significantly gendered and I did not make specific ethnographic inquiries as to the economic backgrounds of my interviewees, I think it would be fair to say that, as students at Harvard University, the vegans at the co-op are generally a privileged group, both economically and socially, who can also be identified as intellectuals. In order to better understand how this sort of privilege ties in with the choice to adopt vegan dietary habits, I will now turn to Tim Ingold and Allison James, both contributing writers to the anthropological anthology entitled Environmentalism.
In “Globes and spheres: the topology of environmentalism,” Ingold writes about the new “global outlook,” a modern conception of the environment in which humans consider themselves to be separate from, rather than integrated into, the world in which they live (31). According to the author, participants in environmental movements no longer think of themselves as actors within the world, but rather, as actors upon the world (41). In thinking that we live on the surface of the globe rather than at its center, as historically has been the view, Ingold argues, environmentalists inadvertently underscore the large division between themselves and the experience of the rest of the world (37).
Allison James continues the discussion of the problematic relationship between followers of alternative lifestyle movements and the environment in her article on the organic food movement, arguing that the organic movement involves a restructuring of the division between humans and the natural world (209). According to James, the use of organic food as a part of an ‘alternative’ lifestyle actually symbolizes an erosion of the nature-culture divide. Eating organic, James explains, is often a way for people to try to return to a more natural and traditional lifestyle (212).
Both Ingold’s theory about the new global outlook of environmentalists and James’ ideas about the anti-structural, counter-cultural vision of followers of the organic food movement seem to apply well to the topic of veganism. For both Lisa and Justin, the divisions between past and modern and between underdeveloped and industrial society emerge as a key distinctions in their explanations for their turn to veganism (Smith, Roca). Lisa criticizes our taking food “from animals that we are very far detached from” as an “unsustainable system,” one that was a major reason in her decision to become vegan (Smith 4-26-03). Justin, too, finds this detachment aspect of our food production practices in modern society to be particularly objectionable. He explains, “our whole process is designed to seem very sanitary and very not like taking the animal and killing it, but that masks that the animals are still in there and that they’re no longer even getting human recognition of their role in the process”(Roca 4-21-03). Justin spent last summer in a rural village in Mexico, where he had no moral problem with the way that meat and dairy products were produced and consumed (ibid). His perspective on what is or is not ethical to eat is clearly dependent on the level of development of one’s society. “Veganism,” Justin argues, “is the natural answer for how to maintain respect for animals in an industrial society” (ibid). Justin’s veganism, like that of many others, as suggested by Ingold and James, is contextually based upon his position of privilege but is simultaneously a form of protest against certain aspects of that modern, industrial world of which he is a part.
Vegans in the Co-op: Community or Convenience?
The Dudley Co-op is an exceptionally vegan-friendly environment compared to other on-campus living options. For both Dan and Joanna, in fact, it was mainly as a result of their vegan dietary habits that they moved from the House dormitory system to the co-op (Baker, Miller). Not only is the Dudley Co-op vegetarian, but it is also often considered a hotbed for liberal activism. From personal experience, the co-op usually attracts leftward-leaning, hippie-ish, and environmentally conscious students. We recycle, compost, order organic produce, use natural soaps and detergents, bake loaves of fresh bread every night and clean our own bathrooms. According to Justin, “There’s this issue in the co-op about how radical anti-establishmentarianist are you?” (Roca 4-21-03). By adopting vegan food habits several months after coming to the co-op, Justin says, he was making one step toward personally being and also making the co-op more radical (ibid).
Justin says that the co-op environment was directly responsible for his decision to become vegan (Roca 4-21-03), and Dan similarly characterizes the co-op as “a great community [in which] to be vegan” (Baker 4-27-03). And yet, other co-op vegans cite the co-op as a place that has not particularly fostered a sense of community among vegans. When asked to rank from one to five, one being least and five being most identified, how much they felt they identified with other vegans in the co-op, the responses of my interviewees ranged from 2 to 3.5 (Miller, Smith, Anderson, Roca). Joanna, for one, does not feel like there is a community of vegans in the co-op. If anything, she explains, there is a “community based on oppression and exclusion” (Miller 4-21-03). She cites the revival of Meat Club as one indication that vegans are ostracized in the co-op, and complains that co-opers are wary of electing a NEFCO steward who is vegan for fear that he or she will not order any non-vegan food (ibid). Lisa shares Joanna’s sentiments about the lack of a sense of social grouping among vegan co-opers, but notes that she would probably identify herself more with other vegan co-opers if it were harder to be vegan in the co-op (Smith 4-26-03).
Outside of the co-op, in contrast to inside, veganism does seem to incite community formation. As Lisa explains, “There is definitely kind of a vegan subculture, especially in radical circles, and sometimes to find out that someone else you know is vegan feels like someone joining your team or something” (Smith 4-26-03). In fact, Dan raises an issue, linked with the notion of close vegan community, that he has heard much discussed among his outside vegan friends: whether or not vegans should also marry vegan (Baker 4-27-03).
Perhaps one reason why the vegan community in the co-op is not very cohesive is that most co-opers, regardless of food consumption habits, feel more or less identified with the same liberal-leaning causes. Meat Club representative Frank, for instance, says that he has similar views as other co-opers on almost every issue that has to do with human, as opposed to animal, suffering (Thompson 4-22-03). In the Dudley co-op, it seems, it is co-op community, rather than vegan community, that takes precedence. Although the co-op is a more convenient place to lead a vegan lifestyle than the undergraduate houses and attracts people who for political reasons have a greater proclivity toward veganism than the average Harvard student, veganism in the co-op is by far more of an individual negotiation of personal identity than a community movement.
The idea of a vegan lifestyle as an added component to vegan food practice creates a situation in which the vegan must constantly re-negotiate his personal ideology based on context. Being a “real” vegan is an ideal that, at least among the vegan co-opers interviewed for this paper, seems unrealizable. And yet, for these liberal-minded, social-activism-tending students, the ideal of a vegan lifestyle is one that motivates a significant number of personal decisions in everyday life.
The decision to become vegan seems more intellectual than practical and therefore can be explained better by mentalist arguments than by materialist ones. Relatedly, as we have seen through the lack of strictness in food habits of some vegan co-opers, the vegan lifestyle seems more based on orthodoxy, or adherence to ideas, than on orthopraxy, or strict adherence to ritual or practice. As individuals whose food habits are highly conceptually structured, vegans in effect extend their worldviews into the personal sphere of daily living. These worldviews, while distinct from person to person, have in common a changing conception of the global in which the vegan identifies his place in the world as more distanced and conceptualized and less directly experienced than in less developed areas of the globe. In many cases, ironically, veganism may in fact be a form of protest against things, i.e. industrial and corporate, associated with the very type of separation from the world upon which it depends.
The Dudley Co-op, while a convenient and politically friendly haven for individual vegans, is not a place of particular vegan community. Instead, the co-op serves as yet another environment in which vegans can, in the form of their food practices and other vegan habits, continue to renegotiate their individual identities and position themselves as personally opposed to various commonly accepted values and practices of modern industrial society.
2003 Email interview, April 25.
2003 Interview, Dudley Co-op, April 27.
Einwohner, Rachel L.
1999 Gender, Class, and Social Movement Outcomes: Identity and Effectiveness in Two Animal Rights Campaigns. In Gender and Society 13 (1): 56-76.
1993 Globes and Spheres: the topology of environmentalism. In Environmentalism. London and New York: Routledge, 31-42.
1993 Eating Green(s): Discourses of organic food. In Environmentalism. London and New York: Routledge, 205-218.
Lappé, Frances Moore
1971 Diet for a Small Planet. New York: Ballantine Books.
2003 Interview, Dudley Co-op, April 21.
Mintz, Sidney W.
1985 Sweetness and Power. New York: Penguin Putnam.
1985 Compassion: The Ultimate Ethic. Wellingborough, Great Britain: Thorsons Publishers Limited.
2003 Interview, Dudley Co-op, April 21.
1980 Utilitarianism and Vegetarianism. In Philosophy & Public Affairs. 9 (4): 325-337.
1997 The Semiotics of Food in the Bible. In Food and Culture: A Reader. New York and London: Routledge, 55-66.
2003 Email interview, April 26.
1998 The Vegan Sourcebook. Los Angeles: Lowell House.
2003 Interview, Dudley Co-op, April 22.
1991 Nutritional Implications of ‘Vegetarian’ Lifestyles. In Indian Anthropological Society Journal. 26 (1-2): 77-87.
Carla Seidl is a singer-songwriter, writer, and independent radio producer who graduated from Harvard with a degree in Expression and Culture Studies in 2004. To read and listen to more of her work, visit www.carlaseidl.com.
Copyright 2003 Carla Seidl. Unauthorized use prohibited.