|International Vegetarian Union (IVU)|
A thesis presented to the London School of Economics, University of London,
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now Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at Kent University, England, and has given permission for this previously unpublished thesis to be published on the IVU website.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]
CHAPTER ONE: WHY VEGETARIANISM?
Sociologists of religion have in recent years, under the influence of the sociology of knowledge school and its elucidations of the ways in which reality is constructed, and in conjunction with data derived from investigations of beliefs and attitudes, increasingly shifted their focus towards what might be called the elements of meaning in people's lives. Under the banner of invisible or implicit religion, the enterprise has proved problematic. This is partly because the word religion has been a source of difficulty - a problem inherited from Durkheim, and made most apparent in the work of Luckmann. Durkheim's theory should more properly be regarded as concerned with the sources of moral obligation and reality in society. Religion has traditionally given at least some form and articulation to these, but in circumstances where such language/terminology no longer seems appropriate, or in areas where perhaps it never was, there are severe difficulties. But more than this, implicit religion has run into difficulties because of the kind of meaning it hopes to examine has proved refractory to analysis; access has been difficult and the source material has remained inchoate and elusive.
Anthropologists have had much greater success in this area partly because of the small scale of primitive societies and, rightly or wrongly, the assumptions of unity that are made about them. The assumption that meanings are shared by members of a society is regarded as relatively unproblematic, and this, together with the undifferentiated and relatively simple character of social life, enables them to interpret different realms of life within a common scheme. Thus the shape of dwelling houses, the structure of kinship, and the character of religion can all be gathered into one mutually endorsing framework.(1) Demonstrating the integrity of culture is part of the anthropologist's tradition. But anthropology has also the advantage of engaging with an alien culture where the indigenous taken-for-granted stands out with contrasting clarity, and it is this, rather than any true contrast between modern and primitive society (the term is used throughout as a shorthand and not a judgement), that has made it the arena for a number of debates centering around the nature of symbolism, the question of non-rational modes of thought and the problems of the expressive. None of these issues is exclusive to primitive societies, for all are also embedded western culture, though our analytic and cultural tradition has been such as to tend to bleach out such features in our accounts of ourselves. We can be very articulate in our treatment of areas of thought like science, but still leave large areas of the unspoken about, of which no very adequate account is given. There is a need to bring the issues back home.
It is in this field of the taken-for-granted that we should look for the kinds of meaning that invisible religion has sought. One approach lies in getting away from the term religion and from the rather free-floating and unfocused area of beliefs, to concentrate instead on a particular, concrete area within which one can attempt to uncover the implicit. One such area of the taken-for-granted is eating and eating patterns generally. Sociology has tended to neglect such areas as food, regarding them as trivial, of little sociological significance, belonging to the sub-world of the unremarkable and mundane. Faced with anthropology's interest in such matters, (2) it has been assumed that primitive societies are by their natures so limited in content and sophistication that food preparation bears a role which it lacks in advanced societies. Part of my argument will be to show that this is not the case; modern societies are not devoid of this symbolism. What the study of vegetarianism offers is an articulate body of material relating to food and food patterns, and as such an entrée into the examination of these issues.
Meaning as sought here may not be present in the articulate form of the actor's conscious intentions. It is meaning embedded in the patterns of social life itself, so that as you act through the patterns you gain the meaning. It is the world-known-in-common, but taken for granted. For example, people in western society do have extensive knowledge of the meaning of meals and eating and of their subtle manipulation to express various intentions; few, however would be able to say much concerning them. That the meaning is not consciously, or rather, analytically, thought of does not however take away from its significance: it is no less their meaning for being implicit and unstated.
Vegetarianism is not obviously a symbolic system in the ways that, for example, religion or art are; overtly it is based on a rational, non-symbolic account of its action. However the symbolic element is present very strongly, as it is also in eating more generally. Though food is primarily needed to sustain the life of the organism, any account of eating patterns that stops here has missed the greater part. The very variety of food patterns and food avoidances makes impossible any view that regards food choice as instinctual or based on a reasoned selection by flavour or nutritional fitness. (3) This fact is recognised in nutritional literature; indeed the understanding of the central importance of cultural factors has revealed nutritional knowledge itself to be a slightly shadowy area of medical science, whose base framework has, certainly in the past, been marked by cultural relativity.
Within vegetarianism you can find respectable rational-scientific accounts of what the diet is about. But these do not explain some of its most prominent features. For example, they do not explain the way in which the food is regarded - the warm emotional charge that surrounds the vegetarian language of wholeness and goodness. Such accounts explain some aspects, but never the whole. For example, if we look at one small aspect of the 'goodness' in food: vegetarians strongly favour raw food, arguing with the support of rational-scientific criteria that such food contains higher levels of vitamins and minerals, having lost none in cooking. But this often-expressed and deeply-felt idea is not examined in any context of needs. A varied diet easily provides sufficient levels of such things, and there is no evidence that more than enough brings any extra benefit. The goodness of raw food has some absolute quality to it, separate from the scientific justifications; it is, as it were, charged with some special positive essence. Raw food also features in other parts of the ideology - for example through its status as 'natural' food. Rational-scientific accounts can make good sense of particular features in particular contexts, but they cannot explain their meaning and recurrence throughout the ideology, nor their links with religious and ethical ideas. Nor can they explain the recurrence in vegetarianism of parallel features; things are explained in a variety of ways that appeal to different realms of knowledge or experience, and yet share a common underlying theme. For example, accounts of what is wrong with meat are cast in different forms: thus it is prone to decay; it contains the animal's waste products that are carried in the blood and thus left in meat when the heart ceases to beat; it is full of bad 'vibrations' from the act of killing; it is full of harmful hormones secreted into the body by the fearful animal in the slaughterhouse; it is eating a corpse; it comes at the end of the food chain, and thus contains the accumulation of pollutants and disease. The spheres of reference of these accounts are different, but the underlying focus around the material embodyment of death and corruption is the same. Similarly scientific accounts of the benefits of eating, for example, sprouting seeds in terms of plant hormones, auxins, and their role in the regeneration of cells in their youthful and not aged form, are mirrored elsewhere in more mystical accounts of this taking in of the living essence of the plant.
It is not my intention to present vegetarianism as 'irrational' in any pejorative sense. Nor am I trying to expose 'irrational' elements by subtracting the rational and explaining the residue as something other than it purports to be. Rather I am concerned with the set-up as a whole, and with the ways in which rational explanations play their part in the larger evaluative scheme. Nor do I want to suggest that this sort of mixture is peculiar to vegetarianism; dominant culture's attitudes to food are no more straightforward.
The background of this analysis lies in structuralism, but less in its explicit formulations than in its more general influences. These - its most fruitful aspects - I take to centre around structuralism’s concern with communication, particularly the ways in which culture communicates, how it is patterned and the nature of the messages thus encoded. These messages and the code itself are not overtly known to the users, but have to be extracted from the use itself. Structuralism aims at unveiling order in diverse, seemingly unconnected things. The second aspect that I wish to take is its emphasis on relationality; it is the positional relation of the elements within the whole and not the elements alone that are the proper focus of study.
I should perhaps qualify these references by mentioning some of the ways in which I am not intending to use structuralism. I am unsympathetic to its claims as a full-blown theory as opposed to an analytic method, and its ultimate purposes concerning the structure of the structuring human mind, I am not concerned with here. The binary logic in which it seeks its final foundation is now widely disputed; and. the ultimate problem of how one can know the knowing mind remains unresolved.
As a method of analysis it has proved more fruitful, though again there are problems that have severely reduced the power of its application. In particular its claims to uncover deep structure need to be regarded with caution. Any scheme that relies on reducing the complexity of its subject matter to certain - frequently one-word - concepts involves some distortion and vulgarisation. It can be very illuminating to look at the underlying equations and oppositions, and it is certainly true that the structured relationship of one to another does act to define the meaning; however it is important to bear in mind how and at what expense this heuristically useful schematisation has been produced. V.L. Leymore's claim, (4) for example, that the successful reductions whereby constituent units are arranged so as to culminate in an exhaustive common denominator (by means of which she builds up her deep structure), reduces the system of appearances to its defining principle, but does not impoverish or detract from the system, is unconvincing. Structuralism can draw out - and present very dramatically - central themes in the material; however one must also allow for finer adjustments in meaning than their simplicity can allow. (5) These adjustments are carried out at the level of so-called surface structure, i.e. in terms of one's knowledge of the subtleties of meaning in different contexts, and structuralism, therefore, as a method of decoding culture, has finally to be 'corrected' at a level it claims to get below.
The linguistic model implicit in structuralism has brought many benefits in the understanding of symbolism and ritual; however, it also has severe limitations. Because language is so highly developed and differentiated, it is capable of great elaboration and precision of meaning; translating symbols into categories can give them too definite a meaning that ignores their soft focus and their essential ambiguity. It is not so much that the symbol's referent is only perceivable fully through the symbol - though this is ultimately true - but that symbols gain their power from their condensation of referents and their ambiguity of meaning. Symbols work by the haze and penumbra around them. Their 'simplicity' compared with the articulation of language is bound up with their capacity to draw on a powerful range of feeling and meaning. Structuralism also tends to be too classificatory and insufficiently interpretive. There are two different purposes in a structuralist analysis. One is to show that culture is structured; this should be understood as showing more than just that the elements can be arranged in a formal pattern, but that cognitive styles and structures cross from one area of meaning to another. This is a perfectly proper aim, but a structural analysis should also be to another purpose. The final aim should be the uncovering of meaning - and preferably meaning we were unaware of before. Too often structuralism seems to be a round-about way of telling us things we already know.
Lastly - and most seriously - structuralism tends to suffer from a lack of social structure. The working through of the logic is not one of random permutations but is highly constrained by social structure. The problem is that there have been two methodological traditions; one which interprets in terms of logical, intellectual structure concentrating on myth and symbol, and interpreting social action as communication; and the other which interprets in terms of social structure in the more traditional sense employed by sociology. The first tends to regard the primary reality as the hidden one; the classifications in people's minds, which are endowed with a false sense of fixity and autonomy. Thus social life becomes abstractified. The logical categories and their expressions become the sole focus and how the category system is generated and how it relates to the material concerns of society is left aside. The reverse error of some sociological analysis is to regard the symbolisation as unreal, a mere surface illusion, a froth on top of social reality, and cultural features are here reduced to their socio-economic carriers or roots, and symbolisation can come thus to be just a direct expression of utilitarian concerns or perhaps of social values, whereas the fit is not, in fact, of that simple one-way, causal nature.
What I would like to do is to break down this division and focus instead on the interpenetration of the two. This involves both attempting to describe the realm of social action - and its historical development - that generates and nourishes the categories found in vegetarianism, and examining the nature of the 'cognitive' structure (6) that gives underlying form and unity to their preoccupations. It also involves showing how the two meet at the experiential level; how vegetarianism - and of course other cultural phenomena - by virtue of existing in both realms, from a bridge between the abstract level of society as ideas held collectively in people's minds and material society as concrete objects and actions.
In vegetarianism we have an example of the science of the concrete. It is part of the wider process whereby we give to our abstract ideas a material representation. We realise our thoughts in concrete objects and in concrete actions – in rules of behaviour, in patterned expectations, and also in the conscious breaking of these. Meaning is thus projected out on to the physical world, which in turn by virtue of its objective reality acts back on consciousness. Just as we build up and develop our thoughts by means of the abstract forms of words or mathematical concepts, so too can we do so - though in a slightly different way - by means of the material objects of the world. They can act as the building bricks of thought.
By stressing how meaning is projected out and used to structure time, space and social existence, I do not intend to suggest a totally idealist scheme. Material reality has its full force, and indeed acts upon the development of the meaning. It becomes one of the elements fed into the symbol system. For example, within vegetarianism much stress is placed on the capacity of meat to rot. Frequent mention is made throughout the periods studied to cases of bad meat being sold, to outbreaks of food poisoning traceable to treat, and it is certainly true that by comparison with vegetables and fruit, meat is much more susceptible to decay and to being a health hazard, But vegetarians then go onto regard treat literally as rotting matter, sometimes equating it directly with excrement.
Through metaphorical transformations this rottenness as a quality of food becomes rottenness in other senses – the corruption in human relations or in the state, for example. The implications from one are linked with the implications of another. A physiological quality is taken up and woven into a much larger scheme concerning the nature of impurity. It is not that the scheme originates in this material reality of meat; rather it is a feature that can be made to fit; it is useful; it opens up a new expressive area. Not all such features, however, are taken up. For example, whisky is a sweet drink. It is however a masculine drink, and so its sweetness is overridden; for sweetness both as a taste preference and as a feature of character is thought to belong to women. The pattern of the meaning is selective. It is in this sense that I want to show how food can be in Lévi-Strauss' words: 'good(s) to think with as well as good(s) to eat'.
Vegetarianism, unlike other more exclusively cerebral ideologies, has written into it a powerful expressive quality - and in this it employs similar processes to those of religious ritual. Ritual makes concrete the abstract idea and emotions of religion; the actions and images provide units through which the ideas can be manipulated and elaborated, and this making manifest in doing can have a depth of impact stronger than words. There is a special power that comes from doing. As Turner (7) rightly points out, ritual is not just cognitive ordering, it also involves the whole person, rousing up and channelling powerful emotions Ritual acts back on the participants, structuring reality you start by dipping your hand in the holy water and you end up believing in God. In the action of eating there is a direct uniting of bodily experience and the symbolic meaning carried in the food. Thus the transcendent conceptual world - here ideas of purity, of wholeness in life, of right living, of spirituality – is merged with the actual world. Through eating the two realms are brought into conjunction; the ideal is made actual. It is important to understand that this thinking is not primarily carried out at the level of formal, rational argument, though vegetarians do at times present portions of their arguments - usually the ethical aspect - in this more academic philosophical form. It is more like thinking in the style of Lévi-Strauss's bricoleur. Certain features are brought into prominence in the context of one argument, or explanation, or expression of feeling, but then allowed to fade out in another. (This will become more apparent when we examine the ways in which nature is perceived and presented). It became clear during the research that it did not help greatly in the understanding of the ideology to put the 'logical' inconsistencies to people, for one can end up with an accusatory tone whereby one seems to be trying to expose weaknesses in the argument. Such confrontations did sometimes produce revealing answers, (8) but more often they produced either a dead end of 'Well, we must do what we can,' or 'I'm not sure, I never thought about it'. The point I am making is not just that there are limits to the extent to which people pursue consistently - though that is true but also that such paradoxes and unresolved 'logical' problems are part of the actual fabric of the ideology. It is a net to capture meaning, force it too hard and it tears apart. There are logical inconsistencies in any ideology that attempts to make sense of these sorts of dilemmas, and vegetarianism is a system that works as much by feeling and symbolising as by the more superficial operations of logic. The meaning is elusive and ambiguous by its nature. This is characteristic of many religious and similar ideologies where analysis aimed at logical consistency does great violence to the real significance of the body of beliefs and attitudes, whose ambiguities and elisions are the source of its richness and its power to generate meaning.
I would like to argue that these illogicalities and ambiguities are in fact negotiated by means of an underlying structure, and the unity that can be felt so strongly in the various strands of vegetarianism and its recurrent associations is a unity present at a deeper layer.
The vegetarian ideology exists at a number of different levels in physiological experience; in the presentation and character of the food; in nutritional ideas; the styles of living; in a wide range of associated interests and causes, in moral propositions, in theories about the nature of humanity and of existence. Meaning in one context is carried over and builds up meaning in another; the way we perceive things in one realm can structure our perceptions in another. Certain images have a special importance in the ideology. Such words as pure, whole, natural bear a key role, slipping over from one context to another, linking and validating, underwriting and building up the congruences between the different levels. They strike special chords of recognition and commitment; they carry great emotional warmth. Take, for example, wholeness. Whole food is food that contains the whole grain, fruit or whatever; but the word is embued with much more. Associated within the vegetarian milieu are also ideas of psychic wholeness. There are the associations with holistic medicine which aims to treat the whole body rather than the partial instrumental intervention of modern drug therapy) or the whole body and spirit (with all the ideas of the unity of mind and body and the role of the psychological that that implies). In their ecological interests, there is again the emphasis on the integrated whole. We find it crowned in ideas of the unity of all living creatures (central in arguments concerning the evil of inflicting suffering on animals); and above all in the cosmic union of man and nature, and in the belief that the summation of religion and philosophy lies in holism and immanence. Without losing their distinctiveness in context, these different meaning are at the same time allowed to merge into one another, so that there is an undefined carry-over from one province of meaning to another; the concepts are not clear cut and custom made for the context, but washed over from other fields.
I hope to show that throughout the different levels of vegetarianism can be discerned transformations of the basic structure and that it is through the congruences between the different levels that the range of features that make up the ideology is united, thus actions of a simple domestic nature can be symbolic of issues of the highest and most abstract kind. These processes have relevance to the larger question of how culture coheres, for it is through such congruences that meaning and significance are built up and the different realms of existence connected.
I should, however, like to make one proviso here. While I believe such assonances are real and crucial in the way we structure the flux of existence and integrate experience and meaning, there is a danger in pursuing too dogmatic a fit. Allowance must be made for discontinuity, dislocation and absence of cross-meaning. It is proper to look for uniting structures, but not to assume them, particularly in so complex and differentiated a society. Furthermore, while there may be the kind of satisfaction which Mary Douglas argues for in such cognitive cross-fits, there is also an interest in singularity and difference. Culture must not be spun up too tightly.
In saying that modern English vegetarianism has an underlying structure, I am not of course implying that this is the underlying structure of the society. It is just one of many such. A variety of symbolic systems and cognitive classifications, together with their social-structural formations, go to make up the social and cultural system. The potential range of these is vast, and is only limited by the desire for coherence, the degree of which may vary greatly between different societies. In this study I have confined myself to a particular historical period - from the emergence of vegetarianism as a movement in the early nineteenth century until today - and a particular society - England, and no cross-cultural statements are implied (though there are important parallels and links with Germany and America, the centres of the other significant western vegetarian movements) The structure I outline therefore is of a vegetarian ideology - its coherence will be discussed in the next chapter - and not the vegetarian ideology. The meaning and structure of vegetarianism is not fixed. For example, medieval 'vegetarianism', that is the use of the avoidance of animals and animal products as part of monastic abstinence, has a different meaning and is contained within a different structure. The context there is one of virtuosi religion, the patterning of fast and feast days and the straightforward denial of the flesh. (9) If we turn to the radically different cultural tradition of India, though there are shared ideas concerning vegetarianism, they are again worked through within a very different structure; in India, vegetarianism is used to underwrite the elaborate hierarchy of caste, and is therefore fully part of social structure, whereas in the western version, it is strongly associated with an egalitarian, anti-structural ethic. (10) Western vegetarianism is also dominated by the imagery of Eden and of its recovery; whereas in India the concept of such a return to a primordial innocence of matter is an alien one.
Though the potential range of objects and relations that are used symbolically is vast, and no 'natural' assumptions ought to be made, it does seem that certain things are potentially more evocative than others, and consequently make more frequent cross-cultural appearances. As with bodily symbols, with which it has associations, the distinction between the eating and non-eating of animals and animal products is a symbolic category that has often been taken up, though what has been made of it has varied. Placing the emphasis very properly on symbolic relations rather than objects, the cross-cultural appearance of a symbol does not necessarily imply any cross-cultural meaning; thus we can speak of culture as having a relatively small vocabulary but a vast grammar. Having stated this firmly – and it remains the predominating view in this study - there are certain recurrences in vegetarianism that raise the issue of ethnographic parallels in symbolism. For example, Indian vegetarianism reiterates some central ideas found in the English version: meat as heating to the blood, as stimulating to sexuality and to aggression, as tying one down to earthly and bodily existence. Pythagorean ideas, while there is dispute as to the exact significance of the texts, do seem to suggest a similar concern with the suppression of animal passions. The recurrent associations in the early modern period with 'spirituality' and the rejection of the carnal, the worldly and the material are very strong.
This raises a much larger question, beyond the scope of this study, and to discuss it adequately would require extensive graphic knowledge of the several cultures in which vegetarianism has featured. The issue, however, at least deserves to be alluded to; partly just to note the existence of such parallels, but more important because of their possible implications for an account of vegetarianism within a particular culture, for such recurrence does leave open the possibility that there are mechanisms at work, if not determining, at least inclining the selection of symbols in particular ways.
Leach rightly points out in his criticism of Lévi-Strauss that his mathematics of sensory objects fails to allow for the fact that while symbols used in mathematics are neutral, those used in 'primitive thought' are not. Taboos, evasions and repressions confuse the logical symmetries. The chief candidates for such underlying influences are either the bodily symbols claimed by Mary Douglas and rooted in our common bodily experience, or psychological factors.
There are two senses in which one might speak of the psychological as being relevant here. The first is in the narrow sense of psychological accounts of the individuals who take up vegetarianism. I have not in fact attempted to provide these. This is partly because proper evidence is lacking for the historical periods: the severe weakness of psycho-history has been its willingness to make assumptions concerning deep psychological motivations on the most superficial evidence. The techniques of psychoanalysis in particular rest upon the most intimate knowledge of the individual (and arguably the accuracy of its interpretation is only assessable in the context of its capacity to generate therapeutic insight) material that is grossly lacking even in the case of quite well-documented lives.
However a more fundamental reason why I have avoided such psychological explanation is that I have been concerned to show vegetarianism as a social phenomenon. It is a choice made available within culture. Too often in the past the emphasis has been on individual psychology, vegetarianism being seen either as part of the mechanics of adjustment in personality or, at a more popular level, as individual eccentricity or faddyness. It is conceived in terms of individual character, and its social ramifications and theories are regarded as having little reality compared with the working through of personality.
But there is a second and wider sense in which psychological explanation tray be seen to be relevant; this relates to its possible role in symbolism. The meaning of blood, of meat and of abstinence carry in them an emotional charge whose exact nature and derivation is unclear and hard to pin down. If we turn to the symbolism of eating more generally this factor stands out more clearly. The power of commensality; the degree to which people remain emphatically fixed in their eating habits, and the identification of these with stability and rightness, the 'goodness' and 'badness' of food and the emotional charge it bears: all these draw on the primary experiences of childhood, and all can be said to have a psychological component. Psychoanalysis has traditionally tended to see symbolism as in the nature of evasions determined by the deeper patterns of the unconscious which in turn determine the content of culture. Vegetarianism in a simple Freudian account is seen as an ego defence against the recognition of sadistic feeling, and such an account is extended to the parallel movements like pacifism. (11) However, the study of vegetarianism itself does not provide evidence relevant to such a view which, like all fully Freudian accounts of culture, tends to be an explanation by fiat whose ultimate plausibility rests elsewhere. However, what there is in vegetarianism is: the suggestiveness of the cultural parallels; the strong affective input around blood and the ingestion of animality; and the frequently observed relationship between sexuality and food; together with certain other, as it were, 'Freudian' themes that will emerge later.
What I want to suggest is a view that allows for the possibility of psychological factors but not in a crude reductive way. Victor Turner has explored this problem and his formulation offers a possible approach. In the Forest of Symbols, he argues that symbols juxtapose the grossly physical and the structurally normative; and that these are represented by two poles; the ideological pole which is concerned with the elements of moral and social order, and the sensory or orectic pole (Turner seems to use the terms interchangably) which is concerned with natural physiological events. The sensory significata arouse desires and feelings, and the ideological guides and controls. The power of the symbol lies in its unification and condensation of the disparate elements. Turner takes psychoanalytic accounts to task for regarding the ideological merely as rationalisation, in a direct parallel to the rationalisations of neurotics, and thus ignoring the reality of the social and moral order expressed in the symbol. Anthropologists, he believes, are well trained in the interpretation of the ideological pole; the problem comes with the sensory, for they cannot discriminate between the precise sources of unconscious feeling and wishing which he, agreeing with depth psychology, sees as helping to shape the form of the symbol. Turner believes that it is enough for anthropology that the symbol evokes emotion, even though the exact constituents of that emotion may lie outside its scope.
In the case of vegetarianism, the psychological can be seen as another element feeding into the system. Just as the vegetarian bricoleur takes up certain characteristics of meat and uses them to build up the larger symbolic patterns, so psychological factors may impart to the ideology a particular emotional charge and meaning. They serve as it were to push to the fore certain potential symbols in a way that may encourage their selection for certain meanings. They do not determine the content or form of the symbol - other cultural factors can override them and even reverse the meaning – but they do potentially influence the selection of symbols in a particular way.