Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment
By Donna Maurer
Temple University Press, Philadelphia
2002, 192 pages, $19.95 (paper)
Review by Mat Thomas (originally published in VegNews, July/August 2003)
Donna Maurer wants to place vegetarianism on the map of social movements. The fruit of her effort is Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment?, a sociological state-of-the-movement report that chronicles recent changes in society’s perception of vegetarianism and examines movement responses. Using sociological research, survey results, vegetarian literature, and conversations with movement leaders and activists, Maurer attempts to present a study that “is useful to the movement's leaders and participants.” A vegan herself, Maurer is sympathetic to the movement, and as such, has a unique "insider" perspective that, rather than compromising her objectivity, drives her commitment to portray the movement as it is—warts and all. In doing this, she presents an in-depth analysis of movement leaders' public expression of ideology, and the relative effectiveness of various strategies.
Perhaps because leaders of vegetarian organizations are the intended audience, their activities comprise much of the book’s content. Given this focus, the book may be of significant value to movement leaders and activists, but of limited interest to general readers. Maurer concentrates on national vegetarian organizations, citing their instrumental role in articulating movement ideology and providing structure for the emergence of a collective identity: in this case, a "vegetarian identity" that she believes is the key to the movement's ability to change cultural practices around meat eating. In any social movement, a collective identity “helps motivate people to act on their beliefs.” She posits that the extent to which individuals incorporate vegetarianism into their identities determines their commitment to vegetarianism, both in terms of diet and willingness to become active in the realization of movement goals. However, vegetarian identity has different meanings for different people: whereas an established ethically-motivated vegetarian may respond favorably to a collective vegetarian identity and develop a deepened commitment, a newcomer merely interested in eating more healthily may be threatened by the group’s expectations. Maurer recognizes the value and necessity of articulating a consistent message that will simultaneously draw newcomers' interest and cultivate experienced vegetarian/vegan activists, but questions whether this is ultimately possible.
Rather than offer prescriptions for leaders to follow, Maurer documents cultural realities and movement limitations (financial, political, and structural), and raises vital questions about vegetarianism’s current position and future. Instead of preaching, she offers a number of interlocking perspectives that take multiple factors into account. While some of Maurer's observations may appear self-evident to experienced activists on the surface, previously unseen patterns start to emerge when one looks at the work as a whole. Maurer is unique in using sociological methodology and language to explore the status and challenges of the contemporary vegetarian movement. Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment? may therefore provide essential grounding for the movement as it searches for new and better ways to effect change.