International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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1847-1981 :

A thesis presented to the London School of Economics, University of London,
for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, by Julia Twigg
©AUTUMN 1981 - Thesis Index

The author is now Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at Kent University, England, and has given permission for this previously unpublished thesis to be published on the IVU website. The ownership and copyright remain hers and no part of this thesis may be used elsewhere without her express permission.


[Numerical links are to the author's footnotes, use your back button to return to the same point in the text. Text links are to relevant items on the IVU website, all open in new windows]


The boundary around vegetarianism is created both by its own ideology and by the attitudes and definitions of dominant society. Vegetarianism as a symbol of apartness is reinforced by the hostility of dominant society.

There is not a great deal of overtly anti-vegetarian writing, for vegetarianism is a diffused ideology, and does not provoke the same organised response as does, for example, anti-vivisection. By and large the views of dominant society are sufficiently entrenched and secure for vegetarianism to be dismissed as humorous and slightly absurd, nearly all non-vegetarian writers on the subject until at 1east the 1970s, and some even then, felt it to be intrinsically a topic for heavy humour. However, on occasions when the arguments hit home, the response can move into the openly hostile. Many vegetarians avoid powerfully critical language and even play down what is their strongest card. – the appeal to unnecessary animal suffering - because of the hostile reception that these can evoke; vegetarians often find themselves being attacked for 'bad taste' in mentioning such things as the details of animal suffering. As a result, many keep quiet about their beliefs, put their arguments diffidently, and sometimes try to 'pass'. They can also be caught in a double bind, being presented as either fussy and obsessive if they extend their avoidance to toothpaste and shoe leather, or inconsistent, and by implication hypocritical, if they do not. This is a level of consistency never demanded of dominant culture, whose attitudes towards animals are deeply 'illogical'.

The barely concealed hostility appears out of all proportion to the social threat offered, though one can argue that such responses are not governed by objective threats to the social fabric, but are in fact overdetermined - socially, in that they arise from the hostility and prejudice engendered by the dynamics of social groups, and psychologically in that they include elements of defence against tensions in modern consciousness and its attitude towards animals.

The second and perhaps more powerful force in boundary maintenance is commensality. Food through the earliest experiences of the child comes to embody closeness and love. (1) This association is strengthened in the experience of the family: in the west habitually eating together is almost the defining characteristic of primary social relations and of the limits of the nuclear family. (2) This basic experience can be used to underwrite alternative social groupings and create family-like relations, as in, for example, the monastic tradition where communal eating, even in silence, can be a powerful moulder of consciousness. Similarly, the kibbutzim, particularly in the early years, often instituted communal eating; it was not just that this would free many women from the chore of cooking and thus enable then to join more fully and equally in the community, but also that it would undermine the family as an eating unit and thus as a powerful rival as a focus of loyalty. Meals also mark the absence of family-like relations, as in the shared flat where not eating together is a crucial definer of relations that are independent, in parallel, close in some ways yet fundamentally separate in others.

Meals carry a heavy burden of the social, so that with and through the food we ingest also the social situation. (3) In the west meals are perceived as inherently social events; eating alone is widely disliked and leads quickly to a dissolution the structure of the meal and the rules concerning it; there no social to be embodied. Significant social gatherings like weddings arid funerals are marked by communal eating. Such meals give direct expression to the union of the group or the particular social relations being celebrated or marked. This capacity has its negative side also, for as it can forge a link, so it can threaten with a union that is undesired. In the western context, eating does not overtly raise questions of social pollution, as it does in some other societies, most notably India, where eating, through ideas relating to caste: the fear of pollution, can be a hazardous occupation and closely circumscribed. In the west, the unity created eating together is primarily seen in the positive sense making one - the associations are mostly with conviviality - though the negative sense of rejection of union or closeness is present in muted form. Eating represents an eruption of the organic. Mary Douglas has argued that formal occasions are marked by the suppression of the organic and by a heightening of bodily control. (4) Organic life is confined in varying degrees to circumstances of intimacy, so that social distance becomes expressed in distance from the organic. Though in other societies and periods, it has been used as an element in hierarchy. (5) In modern western society organic closeness has come to embody the sense of the fundamental equality of men that underlies the social differences; before the needs of the body all are equal, and when people want to explode social pretension or assert the reality of equality, they remind themselves of this fact. (6) Because of this implied equality, we limit the shared experience of the organic to those with whom we wish to be on terms of closeness, (7) and who does and does not eat with us can be an important indicator of social position. Ambiguous social relations can be managed in other circumstances, but eating is peculiarly defining. (8)

Vegetarian discrimination builds upon this tradition of commensality, and though it may operate largely at an unconscious level, it represents the deployment, in perhaps more emphatic ways, of an established social language.  

Earlier in this study I referred briefly to some of the long-term changes in social structure and consciousness that have favoured the development of the vegetarian ideology - the social circumstances that have nourished the cognitive categories. (9) I want to turn now to the ways in which that categorisation operates within social experience. Vegetarianism is not just associated with the emergence of an individuated world, it plays an active role in ordering that world. Its categories can operate dynamically in such a way that cognitive structure takes on some of the attributes of social structure.

We can lock first at the communal groups. Here vegetarianism clearly operates as a boundary, and the owner of commensality is given a further symbolic force in the dichotomy within the food itself Vegetarian imagery has been strong with its emphasis on the corrupt nature of meat and blood, and it has provoked revulsion from the fleshly world at the same time as putting restrictions on social contact with it. Thus the social relations of in and out are energised by a vivid ideology. Though vegetarianism has been connected with sectarianism - notably in the Cowherdite period, though also through Seventh Day Adventism - its more common communitarian association is with groups whose basis is more fragile and whose consciousness of self more weakly perceived. These groups tend to be dominated by an open ethic that is different from the classic sectarian grouping; there are shared ideas, usually implicit, but not the developed sense of the group as marked out by grace or righteousness. In particular the epistemological absolutism that Wallis argues is the defining characteristic of the sect is missing. Here the Durkheimian formulation whereby a phenomenon like vegetarianism is regarded as a symbolic replication of a social state becomes less convincing, for in this more fluid context vegetarianism becomes not the expression of a primary social reality, but the means whereby the reality of that unity is made possible. (10) This has special relevance in the circumstances of the commune movement with its ethic of anti-structure, which rejects social structure in favour of free process, and intellectualising in favour of doing. Categorisation is still present however, but in the submerged form of the common meal. (11) The power to create primary relations that are binding and compulsory in the Durkheimian sense has a special importance where, as is the case in the communes, the people involved come together on the basis of individual choice. Vegetarianism thus becomes a way of choosing to be bound; it is both a product of free choice and an antidote to it.

This role of vegetarianism as both symbol and agent becomes clearer when we turn, to what are its predominant circumstances, those of the individual within society.  What vegetarianism offers is a form of noumos, and one that with particular relevance to an ethic of individualism, for it can provide the compulsory framework necessary for any real social relations or social reality, while yet being consonant with an ideology of autonomy and choice.

Reality is here pitched between the self and the stars. Nature takes on the role of the significant other : it is vast and object-like, there is an unsurpassable grandeur in its confirmations. At the other pole, reality is enshrined within the self, either biologically in our true natures which we must learn to follow, or spiritually, in the tradition of God indwelling (with its associated rejection of the idea of original sin, impossible in this context of the ultimate purity/trueness of the individual), or psychologically in ideas of getting in touch with your real self. Here the boundaries are drawn round the boundaries of the body - particularly protected in this ideology - and purity arid reality are seen  to lie within that realm.

Vegetarianism provides a particularly portable form of meaning. If we take one simple example in the association with rock music, references are frequently made to the eating of whole or vegetarian food, particularly on the road. (12) Vegetarianism or macrobiotics provides a framework in circumstances where the unusual props that sustain the pattern of every-day life are missing: the time-structuring of the day, travel to work, habitual actions and contacts of hone life are absent in an existence of hotel rooms, all night drives arid constant moving on. The particular value put on freedom and the right to experience anything makes conventional sources of meaning, inappropriate; but eating regularly and properly from a stock of whole, vegetarian foods provides just the right elements of fixity and self-regulation, and ones otherwise untainted in their associations.

The circumstances of the musician on the road provide rather an extreme example of dislocation, but the process holds good elsewhere, Vegetarianism is often associated with the young and the mobile; historically it has links with those new to the cities; above all it is associated with circumstances and an ideology where social structure has been devalued and to some extent weakened. Vegetarianism can act here as a cognitive guide; the interiorised demands of post-Protestant individualism, of being conscious and responsible, of taking control of your life, engender guilt and uncertainty. Here Seed offers: 'how to take the worry out of eating and. drinking by simply eating what’s natural and rejecting the unnatural’. (13)

Vegetarianism can be regarded thus as making self-conscious and governed by rules what was previously embedded in the area of the taken-for-granted, and indeed for more traditionalist groups remains so. This is significant, in view of the earlier comments concerning the relationship of these sections of society to the idea of consciously articulated meaning. This is how we have the apparent paradox of people who vaunt freedom and spout and yet take up restricted forms of eating. It is only an apparent paradox because both are related elements in the emergence of a looser more fragmented form of social association that rests upon a shift towards increased privatisation of rules and meanings.

Vegetarianism is an extraction of certain foods from the generality of food; it is an extraction of certain persons from the generality of people. It sets one apart and gives one a sense of being set apart, while yet being in society. This sense of being in society is important because those who take up alternative ideas - pacifism, growth movement, socialism – find themselves within a minority within society, but unlike the sect, it is not a minority sustained by a community. That there are social sub-groups that sustain such ideologies is obvious, but their embrace is weak. Here the association is of a different nature, for it is one that rests wore upon shared ideas and attitudes than any true collectivity. It is an affiliation of individuals. Vegetarianism can offer here flexible basis for the creation of some elements of primary relations. Vegetarianism is an association of the pure within society, but it is an association resting not on the particularistic basis of traditional social bonds, but on a universalistic one. It draws on the discrimination of those who are of us and those who are not - one of the most fundamental distinctions whose implications go far beyond questions of kinship – and yet reconstructs its foundation on potentially universal principles. This is how they can attack the particularity as well as the privilege of conservative ideas, while yet retaining elements of the warm personal world of wholeness where people are known and valued for; their particular selves.

  1. 57. For this see, E. Pumpian-Mindlin, 'The Meanings of Food', Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Vol 30, 1954.
  2. 58. Seed believes that the fragmentation of our diet in snack and convenience foods has gone with the fragmentation of the family unit. Vol 2, No 3, p24.
  3. 59. This can at times work in a direct, almost magical way as in the wedding cake sent by post that acts as a proxy celebration and union in the missed event.
  4. 60. See her Natural Symbols, 1970.
  5. 61. See Elias The Civilisation Process, for the use of bodily intimacy by the high before the low – eg the king at the levée - as a means of embodying hierarchical relationships. Today this sense is largely lost.
  6. 62. 'The Queen goes to the lavatory just like you and me' is a common expression of such feeling, and one aimed at counteracting excessive reverence. The Palace seems aware of this, and the publications of pictures showing the Queen eating or drinking is considered unseemly and effectively forbidden.
  7. 63. Thus there are often the separate lavatories and dining rooms for factory, office and executive staff, and racialist hostility is often expressed in terms of cooking smells or eating habits.
  8. 64. Nineteenth-century novel offer numerous examples of eating together as the definer of social position no t just giving expression to a prior social categorisation but as positively defining ambiguous individuals into the servant or gentlemanly category.
  9. 65. These are an increasingly fragmented social experience and a shift from organic to voluntaristic forms of social solidarity; the growth of individualism, and with it increased internationalisation; and, the perception at least, of autonomy and choice as the proper basis of experience and judgement.
  10. 66. There is always a certain artificiality in regarding social phenomena or categories as expressions of a social reality, since they are as properly considered constitutive of it; however the distinction between the sectarian and the looser vegetarian formations is still a relevant one.
  11. 67. For an example of the central role of food preparation in commune life, see Abrams and McCulloch, p62.
  12. 68. Seed in particular has strong rock music connections.
  13. 69. Seed, Vol 1, No 5, p5

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