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The Case for ‘Purity’: A Sociologist Finds Vegans Are Too Open to ‘Free Riders’

While permitting free-rider participation in a movement may extend its longevity, it ultimately weakens it by diluting a social movement’s message and making it more difficult for a movement to mobilize resources.

ANGELA LASHBROOK: ‘In the past couple of decades, vegetarian diets have achieved enormous visibility in the United States. Consumers now include more plant-based foods in their diet, as sales of these foods continue to rise. But the extent to which vegetarianism and veganism have led Americans to actually give up eating meat remains unclear… A recent Gallup poll found that only 5 percent of Americans identify as vegetarian and 3 percent identify as vegan, signaling little to no growth in the movement from 2012…

In a new study, Corey Wrenn, a sociologist at Monmouth University and an outspoken advocate for veganism, puts forth a theory for how the vegan movement could be more successful—and uses it to illustrate how social movements in general tend to undermine their own progress. There are many reasons social movements across the spectrum can have difficulty retaining members, she says: social stigma, risk of arrest, or even because members don’t want to bother with bad weather or calling politicians. So how does a movement attract more people while staying true to its core principles?

Wrenn finds that many organizations behind social movements loosen the expectations they have of their followers, allowing people to identify with the cause without actually changing their behavior. But this relaxed approach, she argues, jeopardizes the movement as a whole. Take “flexitarians,” people who are interested in vegetarianism but still eat meat. Under Wrenn’s critical eye, flexitarians are an example of what she calls “free riders”: passive participants of a social movement who benefit from the work core members put into the cause.

While permitting free-rider participation in a movement may extend its longevity, she contends, it ultimately weakens it by diluting a social movement’s message and making it more difficult for a movement to mobilize resources. An influx of free riders, Wrenn says, “maintain[s] the illusion of mass support, [while] real power is reserved for core members”… Wrenn points to 25 studies she says showcase the shortcomings of allowing flexitarianism or an unstructured “incremental” conversion to veganism… In Wrenn’s view, “becoming bureaucratic” stifles social movements’ “ability to create meaningful social change”.’ SOURCE…

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