Movement Progess and the Vegetarian Identity
by Donna Maurer, Ph.D.
Originally published in Satya, vol. 8, no. 10, August 2002
Has the movement towards vegetarianism made progress over the past 25 years?  Most of use who've been around that long would say--unequivocally--yes. Certainly, dining out is easier, and people less frequently ask us vegetarians whether we eat fish.  The general public is much more aware of vegetarian diets than in the past, and the view is often positive.  Now instead of asking us where we get our protein, people sometimes exclaim, "I wish I could be a vegetarian!"
But does the "average" American citizen really want to become a vegetarian?  Substantial evidence suggests not.  While there is a strong indication of "progress" in the availability of vegetarian foods, making it easier to be a vegetarian, people simply are not becoming vegetarians in droves.
In fact, survey research (with all of its attendant problems) suggests that the percentage of the U.S. population following vegetarian diets has not changed much over the past 25 years.  Is that surprising?  Well, certainly: As the population has increased, we do have a larger number of vegetarians; and truly, current research has not adequately gauged how the percentage of teen vegetarians and vegans has changed over time.  In fact, it's certainly possible (and I believe it to be true) that a larger percentage of teens are becoming vegetarians today than in the past.  We don't know, however, whether they will remain vegetarians.
So while we might say there's some evidence of progress, the future of the vegetarian movement hinges on attracting people for whom vegetarianism (which includes veganism) holds personal meaning.
In other words, the vegetarian identity is important.  People hold all sorts of identities (which are based on ethnicity, gender, social class, religion, etc.), and these identities often provide the basis for social movements.  Being a vegetarian or vegan is different from these other identities, of course, because the vegetarian identity is not grounded in an existing social status.  As such, the vegetarian identity has to be created; people must adopt it.  When people adopt a vegetarian or vegan identity, it becomes part of their self-concept, similar to the way that ethnicity, gender, and religious identification, etc. do.
Holding a vegetarian identity and incorporating it into one's self-concept is just the beginning of "being" a vegetarian, but it is an important step.  Sharing a common identity creates a bond between people, as folks participating in local vegetarian societies are well aware.
Encouraging a situation in which more people are eating a few more vegetarian meals is not enough to ensure that there will be some kind of vegetarian movement in the future.  The future of the vegetarian movement depends on there being people who will contribute time, money, and other resources to movement activities-- and to serve as examples for potential future vegetarians.  So while we can all applaud the recent improvements in the availability of vegetarian foods and the acceptance of vegetarian diets, it is also important to consider the benefits of fostering positive vegetarian identities.
Donna Maurer, Ph.D. is a both a sociologist and a vegan, as well as the author of Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment? (Temple University Press, 2002).