Veganism: A Platform for Participatory Politics

Why We Chose Veganism

"When I first proposed the idea of doing research paper on veganism, I was reflecting back on my summer when my sister came to live with me for a month in Harvard Square. I was spending the summer working on my thesis and she was participating in an internship in the Cambridge area relating to juice blenders. As evident in her choice of internship, my sister has always held a strong interest in food and sustainability and practiced a vegan lifestyle. What I did not know, however, was the degree to which she was invested in the online vegan community. Because we lived in a small dorm room together, I was able to learn that she watched Youtube videos about vegans/vegan eating every night before she slept and that she religiously followed instagram accounts filled with vegan food. Also because we were basically eating every meal together, I would watch as she navigated restaurants and menus to fit her dietary restrictions. For instance, it was especially interesting to see how she used the advice of previous bloggers and the broader online vegan community to figure out which restaurants she should visit and how she should alter certain meals to make it vegan-friendly." -Alice Jeon

“As an avid user of Yelp and Instagram, I have crossed paths with many strangers who are vegans. The ways in which these strangers ‘talk’ to others on social media platforms have interested me. Though veganism has technically been around for a while, it is no coincidence that the movement, or lifestyle, skyrocketed in popularity post-advent of various social media platforms. Analysing the flow dynamics -- especially volume, velocity, viscosity -- may highlight the ways in which these platforms are able to give these ideas currency in the digital age. I am interested in exploring identity formation on these different platforms. Why do some vegans view themselves as apolitical while others embrace an activist mentality? Do these platforms tend to encourage more expressive community formation than structural decision-making? If so, how could we leverage these platforms as tools for influence? To what extent are these streams even separable? Different conceptions of politics is a puzzle that I would like to explore in this case, as well as the way in which vegans navigate between private and public spheres (my current hypothesis is that the boundary is very porous in this case).” - Sarah Wu

Veganism​: A Platform for Participatory Politics [Student Paper]

Introduction to Veganism

Introduction to Veganism

For the purposes of our project, veganism refers to:​ the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals and a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude...all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.1​ ​Donald Watson, one of the first modern-day vegans, coined the term “vegan” in 1944. He explained that “[vegan] marked the beginning and end of vegetarian.” This quotes highlights the fact that veganism took root in vegetarian ideals but took execution to a different level of commitment.2

Evident of the undercurrent political motivations, Watson cited the suffering he witnessed in World War II as a motivation for founding The Vegan Society. He and the other founders believed “that the first step to creating a better world would be to develop a diet that did not cause the death or suffering of any living beings.”3 Jay Dinshah, another important figure in the Vegan movement, founded the American Vegan Society; his goal was to promote “nonviolence, peace, harmony, honesty, service to the world, and knowledge.”4​ Only starting in the 1970s, 30 years after the term vegan was quoted, did people begin linking veganism as a health choice. Studies showing the dangers of overconsumption of meat and dairy, as well as studies proving the health benefits of fruits and vegetables, brought vegan and vegetarian diets into the spotlight.

Fast forwarding into the 21st century, we hope to focus on how veganism has has changed with the development of online platforms and especially social media. Vegans have been using various different online platforms such as Facebook, Youtube, Twitter to consolidatea niche but robust community. There are numerous Youtube channels dedicated to teaching people how to make vegan alternatives of mainstream foods and a plethora of Instagram pages dedicated to the photography of appealing vegan foods.

Part of the reason why we chose to focus on veganism rather than vegetarianism rests on the fact that veganism is still not as mainstream as vegetarianism: veganism has grown to 2.5% of the population up from 1% in 2009. The number has more than doubled in 3 years.5 To provide some more information about the demographics of vegans in America: 79% of vegans are women, whereas around 60% of vegetarians are women. Almost half of vegans are aged 18-34, which shows that young people are leading the vegan movement.

1 ​ The Vegan Society’s updated definition (1979),
2 ​
3 ​ 4 ​


Theoretical Perspectives

Theoretical Perspectives

We will use principles from the Youth Participatory Politics Action frame to guide our investigation of veganism. The two questions that particularly pertain to our topic of research are “why does it matter to me?” and “how can we make it easy and engaging for others to join?”

The first question “why does it matter to me?” seems particularly relevant because the online veganism movement is one in which motivations for participation are diverse. Some key questions surrounding the veganism movement: Are all forms of vegan activism a form of participatory politics? Are there forms of veganism that are ​not political? Or following “the personal is political” school of thought, is it possible that the veganism movement as a whole, regardless of individual motivations, is a form of participatory politics? Through an investigation of these question, we hope to look at different motivations for pursuing veganism and \how their activity blurs the line between political and apolitical.

Furthermore, the principle “how can we make it easy and engaging for others to join?” is also relevant to our research. Given that the number of vegans has surged with the digital age, we believe that the digital age and social media platforms have been instrumental to making it easy and engaging for others to join. Members in the online vegan communities have successfully used different online platforms to encourage and convince new members to try the vegan lifestyle through sharing easy cooking guides, recipes, and subscription to a greater cause. We also hope to investigate, if and how the online vegan network encourages people to ​remain vegan: we hope to look at the ways in which they build an online community to support each other.

Efficacy, equity and self-protection

If we look at the online veganism movement as a form of online participatory politics, it is worth investigating how the principles of equity, efficacy and self-protection align with the movement. Efficacy is an interesting concept to look at within the context of veganism. Because motivations for participating in veganism are diverse, it is hard to determine metrics for efficacy. Is efficacy in the vegan movement measured by the number of converts to the vegan lifestyle? Or by increased awareness for certain broader ideals such as environmental sustainability, animal rights, healthy lifestyle? Or would it require certain policies and broader structural changes to be implemented in order for the movement to be regarded as efficacious?

On the spectrum of risk, veganism tends to lean towards the low-risk end. Vegans have little at stake compared to students involved in movements such as DREAM, for instance. We cannot, however, be so quick to diminish the stakes of the entire movement. There are vegan Youtubers who “come out” about previous health issues or eating disorders in order to explain their motivations. This reflects a larger subset of vegans who have experienced similar struggles. Furthermore, since vegans and vegetarians are still a minority, they often receive pushback and face disapproval from people (including family and friends) who categorize them under the label of a “preachy vegan.”

The vegan movement also raises questions regarding equity: an often overlooked part of veganism is that it is a luxury to discern and discriminate what to eat. As mentioned above, most people do not have the time, money, or effort to not only choose not to eat certain foods but to also guarantee that they will be able to have the alternatives that will provide them necessary nutrients. In fact, there are studies that show lower socioeconomic groups “eat fewer meals as a result, and select for more caloric foods, which tend to be less healthy, in order to adjust. Starch-heavy meals, fattier fare, and sugary foods all tend to be cheaper.”6 Keeping this research in mind, we hope to investigate the demographic of the people involved in the vegan movement and whether through digital activity veganism has become more accessible to people from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Connecting veganism with the flow diagram

We will also want to investigate how the vegan digital movement affects structural or expressive discourse, specifically by examining differences in political behavior among different platforms. For example, we may notice vegans on Twitter may be more inclined towards structural decision-making than Facebook vegan users are. Another example would be the volume and pace of expression: producing Tweets and Facebook posts are easier and faster processes than producing a video on Youtube, and as such, Youtubers’ expression is relatively lower in volume/pace. Since we hypothesize that each platform’s behavior will manifest in unique flow dynamics, we plan to create a flow diagram specific to each platform.

A form of fandom?

We see a trend in which people in the vegan movement come together because of a shared interest in either food or healthy living and often end up rooting for bigger causes such as animal rights or environmental rights. In this sense, food culture is being used as a resource around which young people are making connections to civic and political worlds. Vegans build a sense of political friendship through their shared interest in food. Such affinity groups have the power to bring people together from various backgrounds and provide a productive space for participatory politics (Jenkins 112). Unlike some affinity groups, however, becoming a part of the vegan movement does not require a deep “insider” knowledge of specific content.

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Plan of Investigation


Plan of Investigation

For this research project, we will conduct in-depth interviews to collect focused data. For issues of accessibility, we decided to focus on interviewing vegans on Harvard’s campus. We reached out to the Harvard vegan society and conducted 3 semi-structured interviews. We sent out recruitment emails over Harvard listservs and especially used the Harvard Vegan Society Facebook group. We then transcribed interviews and coded transcriptions to identify thematic similarities. We first framed our analysis within the ten YPP questions and then proceeded to synthesize our findings across principles.

As we set off on this research project, some guiding questions we had in mind:

  • What are people's’ motivation for becoming involved in veganism? Do these actors consider veganism a political statement?
  • What is the purpose of offline and online vegan communities?
  • How has the advent of social media changed the activities of vegans?
  • What are the risks and sacrifice involved in the modern vegan movement?
  • Do bottom-up vegan movements create structural, policy-level changes with regards to food, environment or sustainability?

Through observations of online platforms and information from interviews, we hope to find answers to these questions. We are coming from a place of curiosity and hope to better understand the current developments in the vegan sphere.


Veganism: Initial Analysis

Veganism: Initial Analysis

In this section, we will first present a brief narrative of each interviewee in order to establish a broader context for their answers. Then we will organize the information gathered from our interviews using the ten Youth Participatory Politics principles. We will use these principles as a starting point for thinking about the various dimensions of these interviews.

Personal Narratives

Interviewee A is a Moldavian-Canadian graduate sociology student at Harvard University, who is currently writing her dissertation thesis on veganism. She grew up in Russia where meat and dairy are staple items. But when she immigrated to Canada at the age of 13, she decided to follow in the footsteps of her father and try a vegetarian diet. She claims that it was not so much a political stance but a dimension of her personal identity. “I was [name], I was a sociologist, I was a dancer, I was a vegan.” When she arrived at Harvard for graduate school, she non-conscientiously began cutting out animal products from her diet. After her grandfather was prescribed a vegan diet in conjunction with his cancer treatment, she started investigating the impact of nutrition through various books, studies, and documentaries. This increased knowledge, in conjunction with the appeal of vegans on social media, led her to becoming vegan. She started the Boston Plant-based Millennials group, which is part of a broader plant-based movement called Plant Peer Nation, which aims to connect “health-oriented” millennials, who may or may not be vegan.

Interviewee B is a senior at Harvard College studying philosophy who hails from Washington, DC. She decided to forego meat in her diet at age six when she first learned that meat came from animals. “There’s nothing that is substantively different between me and these other creatures that would justify killing them and eating them for food when it’s so unnecessary,” she states. Building upon this particular affinity for animals, B solidifies her stance after watching documentaries, such as Food Inc, and learning about the conditions that farm animals had to suffer. Signaling her transition from vegetarianism to veganism, she stated that: “it just seemed very hypocritical to be worried about animal suffering and in particular my right to impose to extreme suffering on animals for such a marginal benefit to myself and to treat meat and eggs and dairy differently.” This increased awareness led her to gradually wean off factory-farmed dairy and eggs, and eventually animal products altogether. Though she identifies ethical reasons concerning animals as her main motivation, she also notes that she has become increasingly aware of the environmental and health impacts related to the consumption of animal products. When asked about her vegan community, she states that she finds support in her mother, who also identifies as a vegan. Interviewee B has a growing interest in animal law and is currently involved with the student legal animal defense fund at Harvard Law School.

Interviewee C is a freshman at Harvard College hailing from Greece. Noting that meat is a staple of the diet in Greece, she claims that her parents did not allow her to be a vegetarian when she was younger. When she turned 18, she made the choice to adopt a vegan diet. She cites documentaries about animal factories as a reason why she decided to distance herself from what she deems “injustice.” She believes that “it’s more about justice than about the animals themselves.” She distinguishes herself from “animal lovers,” claiming that she is more concerned about the cruelty and harm that people unnecessary inflict rather than the animals that are on the receiving end of that harm.

Principle 2: How much should I share?

What sacrifices are vegans making by sharing information about their vegan activity? Interviewees mention the stigma associated with “preachy” vegans and some shared hesitations about vegan advocacy and sharing information on social media. Sharing too much information, they thought, could actually backfire, because people would stop listening to them. On the other hand, one interviewee shares regardless of these hesitations and posts many of her vegan meals on Instagram. In this sense, she has an intimate relationship with social media and her followers, and sacrifices privacy for other gains, such as membership in the vegan communities on Instagram. An interviewee says that sharing information helps inform others about what other may not know about the vegan lifestyle.

Principle 3: How do I make it about more than myself?

The simple answer to this question seems to be: it depends on your starting motivations for being vegan. Ethically-motivated vegans hold a disinterested perspective, because they approach food choices from an objective standpoint. However, one of our interviewees holds more of a rooted cosmopolitanism outlook. This is driven by equitable self-interest, “a form of self-interest oriented toward the preservation of one’s community and one’s social good.” Her health-motivated vegan perspective most explicitly aligns with this orientation, for one is seeking optimal health, while doing so in a way that is good for the environment and prevents animal suffering. To be clear, though these are trends we noticed, there is overlap between the two
 outlooks for many vegans.

Principle 4 & 5: Where do we start? How do we make it fun and engaging?

We decided to combine these two questions because the two converge in our study of veganism: people often become vegan because it is easy and engaging to join in. As mentioned by our interviewees, in the digital age, there are many online resources in addition to traditional offline resources for vegans: Instagram, blogs, family friends, vegan groups, documentaries, books, newspapers. Specifically, the role of social media has increased the popularity of veganism. Our initial hypothesis was that the rise of social media helped make veganism popular. Because of our small sample size, we are not able to know if this is really the case. One of our interviewees claims that she thinks that different instagram posts are what made veganism “cool,” and that this photo-sharing platform makes it easy for vegans to connect with one another and visually share with one another their lifestyle habits and tips. It is worth noting that another one of our interviewees stated that she does not use social media at all, and instead looks to blogs and her vegan mother for advice. Many have also noted books and documentaries as helpful resources.

Principle 6: How do we get wisdom from crowds?

Vegan groups create a social network and source of information that people can tap into. For example, they are can able to navigate different and foreign cities and figure out which restaurants to go to and which food to eat through Instagram posts and Yelp. Also, since they realize that it is not always easy to find vegan alternatives, many Youtube websites have information videos trying to help vegans alter foods so that they can create appealing meals. Social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook groups, and Reddit help vegans stay connected and share wisdom.

Principle 7: How do we handle the downside of crowds?

One interviewee mentioned the echo-chamber effect, but also notes that in today’s generation, vegans have become more diverse, especially with regards to their vegan philosophies. With this diversification, she believes that the echo-chamber effect has had a more limited effect. She also mentioned that inter-group policing happens in the form of one vegan questioning another’s vegan philosophies. Furthermore, another downside of crowds may be that it is hard to sift through all the information to find what is or is not accurate; sometimes there are wrong nutritional values. In these cases, failing to fact-check can have a direct impact on health.

Principle 8: Does raising our voices count as civic and political action?*

The vegan community is still very small and truth be told, it is very rare that their voices are changed into structural, legislative changes. Then we turn to the question: is it worth it? Here, we would like to bring up Shelby’s argument: his article uses impure political hip-hop to show how there could be an intrinsic value of voice apart from its potential for influence (61). Shelby argues that voice can have value as symbolic expression. It is important, he argues, to refrain from solely using consequentialist type reasoning that ultimately reduces voice to influence i.e. evaluating only the ends. In the same manner, we think that there could be an intrinsic value of “coming out” as vegan. It is a sign of solidarity against the meat-industry, animal cruelty, and the whole industry.

Principle 9: How do we get from voice to change?

What begins as voice has the potential to lead to change, as seen be seen in the converting power of influential activists.  One interviewee discussed how the words of one famous American animal rights activist, Gary Yourufsky, created a huge impact in society. Gary Yourufsky had given a lecture on veganism, in which he made rather radical claims about the parallels between animal slaughterhouses to concentration camps. After being translated into Hebrew, this video became a viral hit in Israel that reached almost 1 million views. Some news outlets claim that Yourufsky converted up to 8% of Israelis to try veganism.7 Though this serves as one anomalous example, it demonstrates the far-reaching influence of the expressive discourse loop. Though the video has not reached decision-making at the polity level, it is worth noting that Israeli media reports a significant economic impact in decreased demand for meat and dairy products and increased demand for vegan product.8 This harkens back to the circular and intertwined relationship between the expressive and influential discourse loop: each strengthens the other.

Principle 10: How can we find allies?

Through the interviews, we learned about how vegans use offline and online communities to tap into networks and find allies. Interviewee A created a group called the Boston Plant-Based (BPB) millennials that  has an educational purpose and brings together different people who are interested in veganism.  BPB holds vegan potlucks, panels and other information sessions. She also leads the  Harvard Vegan Society (in which all our interviewees are members), which brings together vegans in Harvard as well as outside Harvard. Non-Harvard vegan groups and brands have expressed interest in connecting with the Harvard Vegan society label; one interviewee believes this is because the association with Harvard provides legitimacy. Furthermore, online social media networks provide a base to  connect with vegan activists from around the world (we will talk more about this in P3-2). In addition, our interviewees stated that vegans  find allies through  leveraging the voices of powerful people: Bill Clinton and Ellen DeGeneres are vegans who helped gain momentum for the vegan movement.

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At the time of investgation, student used an old version for  Questions 8, "Does raising voice cound as political action?"  The current version "Are we pursing voice or influence or both?"  came out aftewwards. 

Veganism: Discussion and Conclusion

Veganism: Discussion and Conclusion

In this section, we will synthesize our findings from the three interviews. Using the information we have found through our initial analysis as well as feedback from our presentation, we will look at broader conclusions that we can form. Specifically, in this section, we will talk about: 1) the role of social media in the creation and sustenance of vegan groups 2) the motivations for why people go vegan and how this connects to the bigger question: what is political? 3) how vegan activity shows the way in which voice becomes influence 4) how veganism fits into the flow-dynamic model.

The Role of Social Media

In line with our initial hypothesis, two of our participants claimed that social media created platforms for vegans to foster a sense of community. One of our interviewees explicitly states that she dislikes social media but recognizes how useful it can be when mobilizing people together. Wanting a support group to help sustain her vegan lifestyle, she decided to bring people together through organizations. She revamped the Harvard Vegan Society and created a new group called the Boston Plant-Based Millennials. Her main means of garnering interest was through social media platforms. She underscores the far-reaching social capital that social media can help her accrue; she claims that these social media platforms keep her connected to the most prominent vegan activists from countries such as Germany, France, Australia, Britain.

Social media also serve as tools to disperse information. Certain captions or photos may have a promotional or advocacy slant. Interviewee A talks about how she used Instagram for the commercial purpose of advertising a vegan leather bag. She states:

“I don’t usually do that with products so much but I do that with ingredients. Like for example, I just posted saying ‘discovered that Black strap molasses is the only sweetener that actually has nutritional profile, check it out on Michael Gregor’s website here.’”

In this way, through different social media platforms, vegans from around the world share information about different types of products and other vegan-related information and advice. Interestingly enough, while two of our interviewees were active social media users, one claims she does not engage with social media. While she stated that she often finds resources online in the forms of blogs or informational websites like PETA, she emphasized the importance and relevance of offline resources such as traditional newspapers or vegan parents.

 “I had a lot of support at home which I think a lot of people doing this don’t,” she states. She does however feel like social media might be a helpful resource in the future: “I guess if I were on a Facebook group and had a specific question, I could ask people about it or tweet a specific question”, she said. Although unclear whether there is a correlation with her lack of social media activity, she also states that she does not feel like it is necessary to belong to vegan communities. Her perspective provided an interesting comparison with the two other interview participants who not were not only active on social media but also used social media in order to tap into a broader vegan community. It remains unclear whether this interviewee does not feel a need to be involved in a vegan community because she has the privilege of a natural support system at home.

Political and Apolitical Motivations

Motivations for becoming vegan were varied for all three participants. None of the participants explicitly stated that their motivations for turning vegan were political. We will return to this discrepancy between intention and perception at the end of this section. All of the interviewees told us a nuanced narrative that incorporated various different factors such as the influence of family members, social media, unexpected events and more. One common theme that arose for all three participants was that heightened awareness of the realities of meat and dairy production (animal rights) or of nutritional impact (health) .
Underlining the role of unexpected events, Interviewee A recounts a situation that made motivated her to adopt a vegetarian diet at age thirteen. She stated:

“My grandfather who got sick from cancer was prescribed a vegan diet. And I was like why would they prescribe him a vegan diet? If that’s the
 thing you should be eating when you have cancer, why wouldn’t you eat that all the time? The more read about it, the more that my mind was blown by the impact of nutrition. I just started reading more and more about it and I went down the rabbit hole.”

Two of three participants agree that content on social media websites such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter motivated them to adopt a vegan lifestyle. Interviewee A admits that the pictures of vegan and vegetarian food that she saw on Instagram as well as food documentaries played a “huge” factor in her decision to go vegan. In line with our initial hypothesis that social media has boosted the popularity of veganism, she claims: “Instagram is what made veganism sexy!” Participant B states that social media websites are a good source of information, although she states that it is important to fact-check to see if the information on these sites are true.

Food documentaries were also a central reason why B and C became vegan at age of 13 and 18 respectively. C brings up the famous quote by Paul McCartney: “if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian,” and states that Youtube videos and the transparency of the internet were able to serve as those glass walls that influenced her to become vegan. Food Inc., Cowspiracy, Forks over Knives, were a few of the several popular documentaries about food and animals repeatedly mentioned by our three interviewees. These documentaries capture the brutal realities of the meat industry and the benefits of veganism and has led interviewees to become more aware of environmental and health issues.

One broader theme we can see here is the disconnect between intention and perception. Whereas through the lens of participatory politics, we were able to discern how their vegan activity indirectly connected to broader political action, it was interesting to see that the interviewees themselves did not see their actions in a political way. Motivations for becoming vegan were varied for all three participants but none of the participants explicitly stated that their motivations for turning vegan were political. Through their explanations, we garnered the sense that they separated between the personal and the political; for instance, their interest and love for animals was a personal interest not a political statement. In fact, at some points, there seemed to be a conscious effort made to reject their actions being made into a political statement. On the other hand, we saw how their seemingly ‘apolitical’ actions inevitably connect to a broader political agenda.  Although a loose hypothesis, we suggest that although the realm of participatory politics may be changing with advances in technology and social media, there is a lag with societal perception of what is political.

Furthermore, interviewees had different behaviors while navigating the public online spheres, which seemed to stem from varying conceptions of social media and the level of trust they had of the online domains. Interviewee A freely shares about her consumption habits, updating her Instagram followers several times throughout the day about what she eats. Interviewee B is far more hesitant to post about her vegan lifestyle in fear of being perceived “political.” Although, as per the flow diagram, vegans move through the expressive discourse loop, and thus are political. Interviewee B states that posting things online may cause strangers to think that she is “preachy” and it leads her to feel that she has more of a need to be cautious about her online profile.

From Voice to Influence

Another interesting YPP concept to explore was how vegan activism through words or “voice” became “influence.” Interviewee A stated that the words of famous celebrities who identify as vegans serve to bridge the gap between voice and influence. Interviewee A notes there are many famous allies of the vegan movement including Ellen Degeneres, Ariana Grande and Bill Clinton. For instance, Bill Clinton has been featured in different publications proclaiming the health benefits of veganism, which has previously spurred a lot of media attention. Furthermore, another participant tells us about how association with credible institutions can give a group more legitimacy, as has been the case for the Harvard Vegan Society. She states:

“If you tie the word Harvard to anything it gains legitimacy. I think the point of that group is to show that there are people at Harvard who are interested. I know, being an admin of the group, that people constantly reach out to us. They constantly want to be associated with the Harvard group if they are vegan or want to sell something vegan.”

Though the influence of Gary Yourufsky’s speech in Israel serves as an anomalous example, it also demonstrates the far-reaching influence of the expressive discourse loop, even to the extent of creating economic consequences.One trend we have noticed among our interviewees is that their advocacy often remains on a smaller scale, limited to friend groups, family and others in closer social circles. They each discussed the notion of “converting” others, with different stances on how to influence others. One interviewee states that she is assertive in giving people around her resources and materials such as informative books or vegan food samples. Recounting one of her proudest moments of “converting” someone, she states:

“I made my dad realize that the dairy and meat industry is actually one and the same. There is this misconception that the dairy industry is one thing and the meat industry is other. In fact, we impregnate cows and then we take their children away half and hour after they are born. When I told him that, he was much more moved by it.”

Another interviewee, on the other hand, expressed more hesitation for being “aggressive” when telling other people to switch to the vegan lifestyle in fear of being “preachy.” Rather, she states that targeting people who already express some kind of interest in the vegan lifestyle is the method of advocacy she has found most effective:

“I do try to inform people when they ask for the information but if someone is totally disinterested, I’m not going to talk to them about it, because I feel like if someone isn’t interested on their own, there’s no way that I’m going to convince them. They have to want to pursue this knowledge on their own. Only if they’re open to conversation and start asking me questions, I fill them in as much as I can. It’s proved fairly effective because I have friends that have converted and people that are considering going vegetarian.”

Flow Dynamics

There are different conceptions of influence using the flow diagram: broadly, it splits participatory politics into the expressive discourse loop or the structural-decision making loop. In our analysis of vegan communities, we have found that the flow is mostly contained within the expressive discourse loop. Vegans expressing their voice through identity and community formation and circulation of information. However, vegans do influence the public sphere--though not explicitly at the structural level, the changes in consumption are inherently influencing demand and increased awareness of vegan motivations set foundations for structural change. Therefore, while veganism does not usually venture into the structural decision-making loop, it creates the conditions for future influence in that direction. Building upon our premise that the cultural and political are heavily intertwined, we argue that cultural changes create an environment in which it is more feasible to achieve political action that aligns with vegan ideals.

Social media also affect the volume, velocity, and viscosity of the flow (arrows) in the flow diagram. Social media offer vegans more platforms on which to express their views, their consumption habits, and to form communities and networks. Hypothetically compared to the pre-internet age, the rate of engagement with veganism has increased dramatically. With veganism being more easy and engaging post-advent of social media, velocity and volume of flow has increased. However, there are stumbling blocks that increase viscosity. As mentioned by our interviewees, social pressures and self-censorship can prevent vegans from fully expressing their views. This willingness to express and circulate is intimately linked to trust on social media, and the distance between intention and perception.

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Individual Reflection Note [Wu]

Sarah’s Reflection

Prior to starting our research project, for me, the word vegan invoked associations with vegan foodie accounts on Instagram, vegan suggestions on Yelp, and vegan cooking videos on YouTube. Reflecting on this, it surprises me that I thought more of how vegans “talk” to each other on social media, rather than why they interact in this way. Social media have encouraged identity and community formation, but not in a way that most vegans perceive to be political. In our interviews, it became clear that each interviewee had strong motivations for becoming vegan, whether those be ethically-motivated or health-motivated. In their interactions online, vegans tend to focus on the expression of vegan lifestyle and the circulation of resources. This engagement in the public sphere is political, and yet there exists a general conception of veganism as largely apolitical, with occasional advocacy efforts.

Veganism began as a political movement, though people increasingly view it as more of a lifestyle option than political action. Social media and technology have changed the way in which people interact with one another, and it has enabled faster and broader flow in the expressive discourse loop. Veganism involves mostly “expressive discourse”  and is not “influential discourse” in the sense that it does not directly influence the decision-making mechanisms of a polity. However, it is “influential discourse” in that it affects the “individual-choice space,” the broader impact of individual choices (Allen, 184). Contemporary veganism is challenging and changing cultural norms around animal ethics, dietary and material consumption, and in this way serves as a precursor to structural change. For different vegans, there are different ways of measuring efficacy of the vegan movement. Some would measure efficacy in terms of number of friends they have converted, while others define changing attitudes towards animal products and sustainability. Social mindset must change in order for institutional change to occur. Vegans, who understand themselves as political actors, seem to be more likely to focus attention on advocacy and influential discourse. If we had more time, a demographic analysis of vegans could reveal insights as to how different age and socioeconomic groups approach their vegan identity, which could in turn shape how each group moves from voice to influence. Whether it is expressive discourse or influential discourse, all discourse in the public sphere is political.  So why do so many people, including some of our interviewees, not view it as such?

Two answers I have been thinking about are 1) the disconnect between intention and consequence and 2) the distance between perception and intention. Professor Allen mentioned Hannah Arendt’s theory on the unpredictability of action—one can choose their intentions for action, but not the consequences. Arendt believes that “ action always takes place within an already existing web of human relationships, where every action becomes a reaction, every deed a source of future deeds, and none of these can be stopped or subsequently undone.”10  The implications of her theory on this case are that while vegans can choose whether to be or not to be political, they cannot control the political consequences of their action. Here, I think of how, even though an interviewee may intend to avoid political action, her choice to become vegan, to join vegan communities and to inform others, all contribute to cultural change, which sets the foundations for future institutional change.

This is related to how the terrain of participatory politics is expanding. Our interviews suggest that many vegans still subscribe to the  traditional conception of political terrain, which does not include their veganism-related actions, and thus they do not perceive their actions as part of this expanding scope.   In thinking about the expanding participatory politics terrain, I return to a major theme throughout our course: that is, civic education has not been following the changes of our digital age. As civic education curricula evolve, I imagine societal conceptions of participatory politics will change, along with ideas of how to engage in expressive and influential discourse. We have discussed the notion of voice inherently having influence, which has led me to wonder how our perception of voice and influence will change as the terrain for participatory politics expands. Could the distinction between expressive and influential discourse loops be smaller than originally imagined?

This study has left me wanting to expand my conception of principle 3: “How can I make it about more than myself?” It is hard to generalize from only three interviews, but their experiences suggest that vegans subscribe to rooted cosmopolitanism. Many vegans are ethically-motivated, to some extent, and understand themselves as part of a larger community that is harmed when people choose to consume animal products. They feel a moral obligation to become vegan, and in this way, the movement is not only about vegans, but also about a larger community that is affected by consumption patterns. Equitable self-interest seems to sustain the vegan movement: vegans understand their flourishing, and the flourishing of society at large, as a function of their subscription to veganism. To me, this is a compelling argument to become vegan. Social media plays a key role in cultivating an understanding of this argument. At this point, I have thought about principle 3 as “ Why should I make it about more than myself?” rather than “How can I make it about more than myself?” It seems to me that our society is driven by incentives, but that this phenomenon can be leveraged for social change.



Individual Reflection Note [Jeon]

Alice’s Reflection

In our project, Sarah and I have looked at online and offline vegan groups as a platform for political and civic activity. In this reflection, I wanted to use this opportunity to create a comparison between Robert Putnam’s conception of civic groups and civic society with that of ours (especially as it connects to veganism). Robert Putnam is a leading scholar when it comes to theories about political and civic groups, his theories widely cited and analyzed; I think that a research paper about civic activity that does not include the works of Putnam would be dismissing a huge foundation in the literature. In this short reflection, I want to argue that our means-based conception of civic society differs from Putnam’s ends-based conception of civic society. I also want to argue that this difference stems from the fact that we use the idea of participatory politics to underpin our research.

Putnam famously argued that there has been a decline of social capital in America by showing that the number of people in bowling leagues has decreased. Similar to our analysis, he understands affinity groups as a platform for civic action. He argues from a neo-tocquevillian stance that civil society plays an important role in establishing democracy, because civic groups help people build norms of reciprocity and trust. It also allows people to creates an identity as a citizen, which motivates them to uphold their responsibilities. However, where Putnam and I tend to diverge is that Putnam emphasizes the importance of these civic group because they have the power to affect something structurally, in realm of the traditional civics and political institutions. Although often not explicit, his argument that regards civic groups in an ends-based way, as a breeding grounds for a broader, tangible political purpose.

On the other hand, Sarah and I utilize a more means-based conception of civic groups, given that the participatory politics framework underpins our analysis. The participatory politics framework redefines the political: the conceptualization of politics extends beyond the electoral focus that often dominates literature about political participation, and includes a broad array of activities undertaken by individuals and groups to influence how the public sets the agenda. It is an acknowledgement that the “political” also takes place outside of traditional civics and political institutions and recognizes that often, the cultural and political bleed into one another. Applied to our analysis of veganism, we find value in offline and online vegan groups not just because it is an ends to what we traditionally conceive as civic action, but because we believe it has value in itself as a form of politics.

In fact, through our research, we were able to find that veganism rarely leads to bigger structural changes. But this is not the standards through which we decide whether they are important. What we find important, however, is that these groups provide a platform for political friendships to develop and for norms of reciprocity and trust to form among each other. Social capital is created and networks of community are established in which people are prodded to exercise their democratic values. Fostered within these vegan communities are the same virtues that Putnam extolled, but it requires a certain shift in understanding of the “political” in order to recognize these values and ends in itself.

As an end note, I would like to make a couple of remarks about how I think this project can be improved. Firstly, if I had the opportunity to increase the scope of the study, I would increase in the sample size of interviews. I understand the value of a case study. I understand that the story of one person has the power to inform us on many different levels. However, I am left curious whether I could have held a clearer stance on our hypotheses (ex. that the rise of social media led to the rise of veganism) if we had interviewed more people. I also would’ve wanted to gauge the generalizability of certain statements that interviewees made such as “Instagram is what made veganism sexy!” Furthermore, I would also be interested in interviewing people of different ages in order to test the initial diachronic hypothesis we had to examine how vegan communities of older generations may differs with that of millennials.

Presentation Slides