Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Emancipatory Promise of Veganism: Upcoming British Sociological Association Panel

Excellent news, there will be a special event panel on veganism at next year’s British Sociological Association annual conference.  See below for an overview and paper abstracts.  They all look so fascinating!  We're making progress!

1944 and All That: Sociology and the Emancipatory Promise of Veganism
Panel organizer: Kate Stewart, University of Nottingham

In 1944, Donald Watson and a small group of colleagues formed the world’s first Vegan Society and coined the word vegan. Although ‘vegan’ practices and philosophies have a much longer history, this founding moment is significant for its envisioning of radical social change, based on a fundamental reordering of human relations with other animals. Watson and colleagues presciently highlighted the interrelationship between chronic human disease, environmental degradation, global hunger and the human exploitation of other animals. In the intervening 70 years, scientific evidence has accumulated to support the vegan case, yet veganism has hitherto been a marginal concern within sociology, despite some consideration of human-nonhuman relations and the interdisciplinary rise of critical animal studies.

The four papers in this panel challenge that marginal status and represent a critical, sociological and ethical engagement with the emancipatory promise of veganism. The presenters deploy sociological analysis in a range of empirical domains which: examine veganism as a radical social movement; challenge social policy to respond to public health and environmental consequences of animal-based diets; advance our understanding of the social context of transitions to vegan eating practices; and reflect critically on challenges of ethical review processes that deploy problematical and, paradoxically, unethical assumptions about  sociological empirical work on veganism. Emerging from a context of massive human violence, the modern vegan movement pointed towards the impossibility of enduring peace and social justice, as long as war continued to be waged against other animals. In 2014, this argument is more salient and urgent than ever.

Veganism, Health, and the Social Construction of Food Choices
Kate Stewart
This paper focuses on how the sociological study of one prominent practice associated with veganism (plant-based diets) can and should be part of the sociological study of health, illness and disease prevention. There is increasing acknowledgement of the health benefits that could result from reducing the consumption of meat and dairy and transitioning towards plant-based diets in the developed world. Food related ill health costs the NHS approximately £6 billion annually, largely due to unhealthy diets rather than food borne disease, with overconsumption of animal products and under consumption of plant foods key. 
The paper presents a discourse analysis of four major online sources of public health information in the UK (NHS Choices, Change 4 Life, and the British Nutrition Foundation), which show plant-based diets are constructed as marginal and dangerous in the structure and language of advice provided, not only failing to capitalise on the health benefits associated with the vegan diet, but actively rejecting them. 
This manifests a wider sociological insight into the social construction of food choices. The paper will further discuss how a sociological engagement with this emphasis on the construction of the marginal status of plant-based foods does, however, mean that they can also be reconstructed as normal, routine and pleasurable, and how a positive reframing of the nutritional, aesthetic and economic value of plant-based meals and diets could play a central role in the prevention of diet-related chronic disease.
‘The Greatest Cause on Earth’: The Historical Formation of Veganism as an Ethical Practice
Matthew Cole
In this paper, I present a discourse analysis of archival documents from the UK Vegan Society, focussing on the first five years of The Vegan magazine. It was at this point that hitherto dispersed ethical practices were forged as a recognisable moral code named ‘veganism’, towards which individual ‘vegans’ could orient themselves in the context of a community of ethical practice. The Society itself, the ethical practice of veganism, and the very word vegan, aimed to instantiate a new form of ethical relationship between human and nonhuman animals. This process therefore bears interpretation in light of Foucault’s model of ethics, the ‘ethical fourfold’. Briefly, analysis reveals that the ‘ethical substance’ of veganism connotes a re-evaluation of the relationship between humans and other animals, including a reconfiguring of corporeal desires for food, etc. The ‘mode of subjectivation’ is manifested in the relationship of individual vegans to The Vegan Society and to other vegans through it, as a moral community that constitutes veganism as a way of life. The ‘ethical work’, by which vegans work on themselves in order to become ethical subjects, appears, for instance, in practical advice on cultivating dietary and other habits that are non-exploitative and coping with a wider society hostile to veganism. The ‘telos’, or the moral goal towards which vegans orient themselves, emerges as not only the ideal of living a compassionate and non-exploitative life, but also the utopian ambition for a wholesale reordering of human-nonhuman animal relations founded on the renunciation of exploitation.
Vegan Transition and the Relationship Context
Richard Twine
Set in the context of social science work examining transitions to low carbon practices this paper explores the relationship context of vegan transition.  Drawing upon interviews with 40 vegans in three UK cities: Manchester, Lancaster and Glasgow, it explores the meanings of veganism and animal consumption with a specific interest in how eating practices perform allied practices and identities of social life. Here I follow the conceptualization by Shove et. al. (2012) of practices as comprised of the following three elements – competence, materials and meaning.  Their general argument is that “practices emerge, persist, shift and disappear when connections between elements of these three types are made, sustained or broken” (2012, p14-5 original emphasis).  This paper considers how the embedding of practices across relationships shapes their extent of normalisation and illuminates pathways toward, or blocks against, ‘recruitment’; and therefore contributes to debates within practice theory.   In the context of a hegemonic and gendered meat eating culture how do lived alternative food norms in the shape of vegan practice raise tensions and conflict within familial and friendship relationships? How are such conflicts negotiated? Do they act to constrain or diffuse low carbon food transitions? Finally I hope this work will contribute to the nascent scholarly consideration of the everyday lived realities of vegan or vegetarian practice (Potts & Parry 2010; Merriman 2010).
‘Fear of Reprisals’: Ethical Review, Empirical Work and Veganism
Kay Peggs and Smart, B., Burridge, J.
In this paper we explore the assumptions inherent in, and the potential effects of, university ethical review processes on critical sociological empirical work on veganism.  The catalyst for the discussion in this paper comes from comments made on a proposed research project that seeks to explore the complexities of motivations for veganism, to examine marketing strategies for vegan products, to investigate national trends in veganism, and to compare and contrast the perspectives of veganism in terms of gender, class and other pertinent social divisions.

In this paper we engage with some of the challenges of university ethical review processes that deploy problematical and, paradoxically, unethical assumptions.  The problematics discussed cover areas such as what is deemed to be ‘acceptable’ research, assumptions about the need for ‘neutrality’, the ‘permissibility’ of critical sociological empirical work that advocates on behalf of nonhuman animals, and presumptions about the ‘effects’ of specific forms of research on the subjects of the research and on the reputation of universities.  The paper will conclude with a discussion in which we invite members of the audience to share any experiences they have of university ethical review (or associated) processes concerning projects on veganism.