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1This article aims to explore the extent to which conversion to vegetarianism may constitute an empirical object of interest for the sociology of activism and collective mobilisation. Firstly, however, it is important to stress that the refusal to consume meat and meat products is a practice that is far from uniform and homogenous. On the contrary, vegetarianism has long been characterised by its many forms and justifications – arising from religious beliefs, philosophical principles, dietary concerns, or even injunctions for the protection of the environment. [1] Whatever the reasons, contemporary society is most often omnivorous, and sometimes, as is the case in France, gastronomy promotes a range of meat-based specialties. In this context, the adoption of a vegetarian diet implies a process of conversion to a practice that represents a form of conscientious objection; a more or less vehement protest against hegemonic norms and habits. This is particularly true for the activists interviewed here, who refuse to eat meat because of their commitment to animal rights, declaring ‘we are vegetarian for the sake of the animals, not for ourselves’ (E61). [2]

2This attitude is clearly a different approach from that taken by other vegetarians motivated by diet or the necessary conditions for sustainable development. Those invited to contribute their opinions here expressly attribute their dietary choices to their desire to fight against the suffering that humans inflict on animals raised for slaughter.


“At the beginning, I was part of a vegetarian organisation, Burdivéga… and there, there were some members who were more specifically vegetarians because of animal rights… So like vegetarians for ethical reasons, who wanted to emphasise that motivation. So it seemed interesting to set up a group to promote animal rights.”


“I used to associate with vegetarians who weren’t vegetarians for the sake of animals… In fact they were vegetarians for other reasons… or simply because they didn’t like meat. And it’s true that that didn’t make me want to be like them at all… I even found their way of eating a bit borderline”.

5This clearly reflects the affirmation of a close link between a very personal dietary practice on one hand, and the protection of animals on the other; in other words it is one of those forms of solidarity that defies utilitarian explanation. The aim of this article is twofold. Firstly, to explore the extent to which the comparison of numerous cases of ‘vegetarians for the sake of the animals’ justifies using the notion of career in order to analyse the origins of engagement in this cause, and the different paths leading to it. Secondly, it aims to extend and empirically support proposals relating to the analytic categories necessary to explore the affective aspects of collective mobilisation and, in so doing, the specifically activist work it entails. [3] Of course this activist work, dedicated here to the protection of animals from slaughter, implies a range of very diverse activities that cannot be exhaustively examined in the context of this article. Thus our focus here will be limited to the work related to defining, adopting and promoting a particular diet, presented as an activist orthopraxy – in other words, a self-directed effort to conform in one’s behaviour to the moral obligations dictated by the cause. Here the aim is to explain not only how but also why individuals are brought to consider the respect for certain dietary principles as a kind of test of the sincerity of their commitment to the protection of animals.

How does one embark upon a vegetarian career?

6From the beginning of the twenty-first century, French scholars in the sociology of activism began to use the notion of career, borrowed from the Chicago School and the interactionist tradition, and initially used in the analysis of the sequence of different phases in an individual’s professional engagement. In borrowing this notion, this article aims to ‘study together the questions of predisposition to activism, first steps, forms of engagement that are different and variable over the time accorded to action, multiple commitments over the life course, and the decline or extension of these commitments’. [4] The notion has proved itself able to lend support to numerous studies whilst enabling a wide range of theoretical uses and interpretations. [5] Its adaptability is so great that Muriel Darmon jokingly suggested that the notion of career could be compared to a ‘potluck meal’, where everyone can find something they like. [6] This suggestion is not surprising; an increasing ambiguity in meaning is often the unavoidable result of the success and circulation of a concept. As a result, the researcher is obliged to explain the specific meaning that he or she is using for a notion that may be otherwise understood in many different ways. In the context of this article, I will keep as close as possible to the initial source of the concept, or more specifically the meaning that Howard Becker gives it in his study of how individuals adopt non-conventional activities such as the consumption of marijuana. [7]

The empirical corpus of the study

This article is based on data collected in the context of a study over several years, based around two complementary approaches – historical and sociological. The corpus is deliberately heterogeneous and was constructed from a range of sources: the archives of nineteenth-century associations for the protection of animals; ethnographic observation of activists today; materials and texts produced for the cause; and biographical interviews. Overall, between 2005 and 2011, I was able to collect 68 interviews with activists belonging to 34 different organisations. I personally conducted 35 of these interviews, the remainder being conducted by a team of four doctoral students and one doctor in political science, whom I’d like to take the opportunity to thank here for their participation in the study: Romain Blancaneaux, Montserrat Emperador Badimon, Gael Franquemange, Maryna Kumeda, Caroline Lejeune, and Gildas Renou. Forty of the activists that were interviewed, 59% of the total population, describe themselves as eating a vegetarian diet, adopted as a result of events that are often quite different, as we will see.
It is important to remember that the interviews with non-vegetarian activists also provide an important basis for our analysis. The practice of vegetarianism constitutes a structural cleavage, and is sometimes a source of controversy within the world of animal protection. A meat-eating activist declares:
“Off the record… we aren’t vegetarian, the vegetarians are more sectarian… I say ‘don’t impose vegetarian stuff on us!’. But otherwise they help us a lot with the cause…”
Moreover, the decision to give up meat in order to spare animals is undeniably gendered. Generally speaking, groups supporting animal welfare comprise large contingents of women, and this is even more true for vegetarianism as an activist practice. Thus, whereas women make up 57% of those who agreed to be interviewed, they make up 70% of those who are vegetarian. The importance of gender cannot be dissociated from the kind of primary socialisation which contributes to the predisposition to this form of engagement. We will, however, see that it is important to avoid any form of reduction to a single causal factor. [8]

7It is no overstatement to say that Howard Becker was one of those sociologists for whom the pragmatic approach was preferable to an etiological analysis. In other words, when it came to understanding individual engagement in a given social activity, the question of how was seen as more enlightening than the question of why. This is even more the case when it comes to studying ‘deviant’ activities such as the consumption of marijuana. In straying from hegemonic norms, these practices all too often provoke the falsely explicative notions of individual pathology or social anomalies; notions which are more normative than they are explanatory. In response to this, Becker proposes two complementary ideas. Firstly, a practice is never naturally ‘deviant’, but becomes so in light of the reactions, judgements and qualifications that the majority apply to those who transgress its laws. Secondly, engagement in a deviant practice has to be analysed through a sequential model which distinguishes between successive phases. Each of these phases leads to forms of intensification of the dispositions acquired during the previous stages. Although each phase is indispensable for the phase that follows, it is never sufficient in itself to ensure the necessary advancement of the career. For Becker, at each phase new learning opens the way to subsequent options, on the basis of which there are those who do not continue with the practice in question on the one hand, and on the other hand those who invest further in it. Indeed the analysis of careers involves above all reconstructing the sequence of phases – as much analytically as temporally – in order to better understand the differential future of individuals. If advancement in a career can never be taken for granted, it is because this advancement always depends on the persistence of work; that is a certain amount of effort sustained for the increasing mastery of procedures and techniques that Becker places at the heart of the analysis. It is indeed because individuals are continuously engaged in this work that their social experience is marked by the successive changes that the concept of career aims to cover.

8The approach recommended by Becker seems entirely appropriate for the description of the conversion processes that led the activists interviewed here to adopt a diet in accordance with their convictions. As in previous studies, the material collected here leads us to distinguish between different types of vegetarianism, situated on a continuum of dietary practices that are increasingly restrictive. [9] At one end of this scale are the majority of activists who refuse to eat red meat, which is most immediately associated with bloody and brutal violence against animals. An intermediary position is occupied by a smaller group made up of those who abstain from eating any animal flesh: red and white meat, fish, seafood, shellfish etc. Amongst these, and at the other end of the spectrum, are the vegans [in French, végétaliens or vegans] who extend their restrictions to all animal products: dairy products, eggs, wool, gelatine, leather, honey, silk, and anything tested on animals. [10] Very often the strictest vegan diet [végétalien] is described as an activist ideal, all the more attractive because it is so difficult to attain.


“I think that being vegan [vegan] is more difficult and it would come last… Being vegan is a sort of personal achievement, to be in harmony with my own convictions. Because for the moment I’m not completely… It’s difficult! Like Virginie said, sometimes she’s weak… and they go and get cheese pizza and afterwards she feels guilty. I’m not quite there yet!


“Vegetarianism yes… veganism [végétalisme] no… I’d like to get there… I’ve already tried… but because of laziness and convenience… oh I gave up! Even though, ideally I’d like to move towards it.”


“In Droits des Animaux there are a lot of vegans [vegans]. And that’s about being coherent with yourself, that’s what you have to do. And I agree, that’s what I’m trying to do, but I’m not there yet, it doesn’t happen overnight that’s for sure!”

12These comments illustrate just how much the vegan [vegan] option – the maximal exclusion of animal products – is considered to be the ultimate degree of commitment, involving discipline and the establishment of an ability that is increasingly controlled. The path towards the vegan option appears to be facilitated by two complementary types of social experiences which encourage activists to intensify and rationalise the self-reflexive work necessary to conform to the dietary regime they value the most. On the one hand, certain situations challenge the coherence of their initial commitment; on the other hand, frequenting vegan [végétalien] social groups provides them with advice and support.


“Those who pointed out my contradiction, they’re the aficionados. When I talked to them they’d say ‘you eat meat, right?’ If I said ‘yes’… it was obviously a point to them… Now when I talk to them…if they ask me ‘do you eat meat?’ I say ‘No!!’ And they say ‘he’s coherent, we don’t necessarily agree with him but he has a certain coherence.’”


“When we talk to people… well you get across your message, which depends on the action you’re taking… like in the street… after our conversation often we say we’re vegetarians because people question our coherence.”


“After all, you have to be coherent! Because like everything you want to defend, it’s not easy! In any case, people always try and catch you out on something or other… on a stand in the street or at a party with someone who’s talking… with family or friends… people always try and split hairs… Then you start with your speech… Being coherent with yourself as much as possible, trying to have a health regime that is as close as possible to your convictions, it’s not easy! So if on top of it you’re not vegetarian… And if you’re going off to talk about I don’t know what in the street, I don’t see how you can do it.”


“Well at the beginning it was hard! Because I said to myself, ‘yes I’ll be a vegan [végétalienne]’, and then there were always four cheese pizzas and things like that… I love cheese and I said to myself ‘Oh no! Oh well I’ll give in’. And I remember the last time I ate cheese I said to myself ‘Oh well’, it was a four cheese pizza with my housemate… and then the next day we did a ‘blood of the beasts’ demonstration, where we poured blood in the streets etc. And then I was like ‘Oh that’s not good, I ate cheese… Ok! No more!’ And then after I didn’t eat it anymore.”

17Mindful of defending their ‘personal coherence’ (E66), the activists are thus encouraged to give up an increasingly wide range of products that they associate with the scandalous animal exploitation that they are denouncing. It is significant that this adoption of a new dietary regime cannot be dissociated from simultaneous involvement in social networks in which the accumulated experiences of some members provides support and encouragement for the growing commitment of others. [11]


“Me, before I switched to veganism [végétalisme] I was just vegetarian. It was meeting people that made me ask myself ‘Well isn’t it going to be bad for my health? How am I going to eat? What am I going to do? How am I going to manage?’… I met two people who’d been vegan [végétaliennes] for practically ten years and who didn’t have any health problems… so I had a talk to them about it. So I tried two or three times to change to veganism [végétalisme]… Once, by stopping all in one go… I must have lasted a week… Once by eating, but… Getting rid of the pure animal products, and keeping on eating those that were made with a bit of milk, a bit of egg, or a bit of butter. So it took me a few times like that, until I was able to eliminate everything.”


“Everything started actually with a demonstration against bullfighting in Barcelona… That’s where I discovered Anima Naturalis and I got involved in their activities. I discovered that as well as being opposed to bullfighting they were also vegetarians and… vegans [vegans]! I had no idea what a vegan was! And all of a sudden I found myself surrounded by people who… well… A vegan is a person who doesn’t consume meat or fish, or eggs or milk …any product from an animal. That’s how I became vegetarian and vegan… I gradually gave up milk, eggs… but in fact as vegetarians you become passionate about cooking! And you learn to cook… Little by little you become a part of this little world and you see that it’s fascinating… vegetarians are very happy about their lives you know. You see that you actually eat three times as many vitamins as someone who eats meat! So, I became vegetarian.”


“It’s like an act of reaffirmation. Friends I met along the way, people I ran into every Sunday in front of the arenas protesting against the bullfights, they’re also vegetarians. Well, they’re more vegan [vegan]… although they eat fish sometimes, when they feel obliged to for one reason or another. There’s even a guy who has a very tough job and he takes seaweed which is a source of iodine and phosphorous… and slowly I’m getting into the habit of all that. You find people who help you and who pick you up when you’re just about to give up. They explain to you what they’re doing, ‘you know what I had yesterday? Some seaweed with a little salad… and some hummus’.”

21Thus the friendship networks among these activists enables beginner vegans [végétaliens] to access knowledge and know-how that is necessary for the maintenance and intensification of their commitment to this increasingly strict diet. Confronted with the many temptations and difficulties that stem from the refusal to eat meat in a society that values eating meat, animal protectionists see the more experienced vegans [vegans] as advisors, coaches and guides able to teach them how to persist and progress in their career. [12] Expert advice about nutrition, recipes designed to modify tastes and habits, but also tips and tricks to keep it up over the long term; this imparted knowledge implies an increasing rationalisation of the work that enables the maintenance of engagement. In fact their engagement becomes more and more thoughtful and proactive over the years. This is particularly true given that these “vegetarians because of the animals” also find support in the activist literature that justifies dietary exclusion based on higher ethical principles. Indeed, since the end of the 1970s, certain Anglo-Saxon scholars in moral philosophy have breathed fresh life into the concerns of their discipline by questioning the relationships between humans and animals. The publications of authors such as Richard Ryder, Peter Singer, Tom Regan and many others, have thus provided unprecedented discursive formulations that lend highly moral and reflexive significations to traditional practices of animal protection. The notion of anti-speciesism, that is the desire to challenge discrimination based on belonging to a particular species, has been particularly widely used and promoted by certain activist organisations which have made it a key concept for their struggle. Indeed the testimony of these “vegetarians because of the animals” shows just how important these texts are for the consolidation of their initial engagement. The proponents of anti-speciesism claim that the force of conviction of these texts not only encourages formerly indifferent readers to adopt a vegan [vegan] diet but also leads them to dedicate themselves to the fight against species discrimination. This chronology is clearly false. On the contrary, it is because activists were already more or less engaged in animal protection (or another cause) that they turned to these texts and found in them arguments that allowed them to rationalise and justify their dietary tastes and/or activist practices, and to pursue them more theoretically and methodically.


“I knew animals were treated badly but I also didn’t like the taste of meat, the two were linked. It’s hard to find the words to express how you feel. I don’t have a speech ready for others about why I don’t eat foie gras… I’ve always felt vaguely uncomfortable with meat. I thought that it wasn’t as harmless as it seemed, but I couldn’t find a way to express what bothered me.”


“I think I’d never heard the word vegetarian before I was twenty, and I had no idea that you could be an animal rights activist. I was touched by the killing of animals and my decision to no longer eat meat seemed like a private decision… without any activist dimension. My decision was generally a source of ridicule and mockery. I’ll admit there wasn’t much political thought behind it … It was really at the end of the 1990s that by chance I discovered the Cahiers antispécistes and then the authors that work on questions relating to animals: Singer, Regan, Kaplan, Francione… This enabled me to theorise my choice, to become aware that the question of animal rights was a major question for humanity and society. Above all I became a vegan [vegan].”


“Well I haven’t read lots of things on animalism. But the book that had the most impact on me was Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer. Because I read it just after I became a vegetarian… And it was really the thing that… Well it seemed like I agreed with everything! It was like reading something I could have written… Well the founders of Cahiers antispécistes, Yves, David, Estiva… I think what they write is really good. They force you to think about things and so forth… And that’s it! Work that I came across when I first became a vegetarian.”

25As a result, in this first reading, the dietary conversions studied here confirm the relevance of a sequential analysis in terms of career. Dietary practices adopted by these activists appear inextricably linked to a progressive engagement involving continued effort. Self-reflexivity appears to be essential in maintaining a strategy of action and the ability to adapt to the more demanding phases of animal rights activism. It is also tempting here to relate the individual’s advancement in their career to the increasing importance of the rational organisation of practices, moral and ethical reasoning, and the ability to refer to higher justifying principles. Initially those who engage upon this career path are viscerally disgusted by rare or raw meat, which they refuse to dissociate from the violence the animals are subjected to. Progressively however, many come to exclude an increasing number of foods, not only out of disgust but also for ethical reasons which tell them to adopt a more systematic approach to animal products whatever their forms. With this increasing importance of reflexive behaviour, activists who are more advanced in their careers also turn out to be those who mobilise discourses aiming to influence the way their practices are labelled, and thus socially defined and accepted (or not). These men and women thus present themselves not simply as individuals who don’t like meat but as ‘vegans’ [vegans], promoters of ‘anti-speciesism’, extending previous struggles against racial or gender discrimination; or as members of an oppressed minority rebelling against ‘vegephobia’. These processes, which are characteristic of the later phases of the career, are part of a logic of differentiation which encourages the pursuit of increasingly intense engagement. If respecting vegan dietary requirements is a trial, it is not only because it attests to the sincerity of their sympathy towards animals, but also because it enables activists to distinguish themselves through performances that are not accessible to all. These include: respecting a commitment as a promise made to oneself, demonstrating unwavering self-discipline, resolving discrepancies and half-measures in programmes that are insufficiently strict, being able to respond to objections and mockery by sceptics, and enjoying the admiration of one’s comrades as an inspiration to others, or as an unattainable model. Both intra- and inter-personal experiences contribute to the feeling of pride and self-esteem that functions as a substantial recompense for activism. [13] In other words the maintenance and the intensification of activist commitments often owes more to the progressive construction of a collective belief in acting for the good, than to more selective utilitarian incitements. Without this, we would have trouble understanding that the benefits of activist action appear to be significantly outweighed by the costs for the individual activists, who – without being considered ‘irrational’ as a result – appear perfectly happy to give up their time, their money and their bodies to the cause.

Conversion to activism and reconversion of pre-existing sensibilities

26As relevant as it may be, this initial reading in terms of career has three major disadvantages which it is important to overcome. Firstly, by encouraging the reconstruction of principle phases and turning points in a career in which individuals are more or less intensely engaged, this approach ultimately produces a model that is too uniform. As a result, it tends to obscure the plurality of pathways that can be empirically observed. Secondly, because it is sceptical of all forms of etiology, pragmatic analysis does not enlighten us as to the forms of social experience that lead some individuals, rather than others, to engage in a range of activities dedicated to a particular cause, rather than to another. Finally the (perhaps too closely drawn) analogy with the professional career provides little incentive to focus on the specificity of activist work (and its affective aspects in particular). In order to remedy these three disadvantages, it is necessary to undertake a closer analysis of the data and the interviews in particular. From this perspective, although it is clearly necessary to underline the plurality of pathways through this career, we can evidently not attempt to build an inventory of all individual idiosyncrasies in the corpus. The requirements of qualitative aggregation and respect for editorial guidelines instead mean that we will focus on the contrasts between a small number of ideal types of conversion. The most important criteria for distinguishing these different types lies precisely in the range of sensibilities that the activists owe to their experiences prior to engagement. [14]

27The first large sub-group of cases concerns activists who declare they have been affected by what the American sociologist James Jasper calls a moral shock. [15] In various different forms, activists demonstrate a deep uneasiness when faced with the injunction to eat meat, when the circumstances of their socialisation have encouraged them to be sympathetic and affectionate towards animals. Brought up by parents cut off from rural life, belonging to generations marked by the animal imaginary of childhood, future activists experience troubling feelings at the idea of having to ingest the flesh of beasts that are loving and loveable. [16] Thus, the founder of the Association nationale et internationale pour la cause animale (National and International Association for the Defence of Animals), remembers the shock, incomprehension, and childish sorrow she felt when, after searching desperately for her favourite rabbit, she saw a rabbit stew on the table. Similarly, an activist in the Association Végétarienne de France (Vegetarian Association of France) testifies as to the probable influence of cartoons:


“When I was very little I thought that the animals spoke in my tummy, so I was really really unhappy… I didn’t think that they spoke in my tummy because I didn’t see the cow, but I saw little bits of meat that spoke.”

29We can see that the memory of this revulsion for meat is sometimes accompanied by painful memories of parents’ insistence or reprimands.


“From when I was six. My dad was a carnivore… he ate meat for lunch and dinner… it was torture for me, he forced me to eat meat… For him, you had to eat meat to be healthy. So it was a really difficult time… Sometimes I made balls in my mouth that I’d go and spit out in the toilet! I can remember it clearly! I really think that when you are compassionate about your fellow beings, human or animal, it starts young. It doesn’t necessarily come from parents. Already when I was really little I made that link, I used to think ‘Wait, that animal is killed for us? But why?’”


“I was quite small… I don’t know how old I was. I was quite small really. I must have been around seven or eight … I had ham on my plate and I was saying ‘No I don’t want it! It’s an animal and everything!’… Well I don’t know how but I made the link between what was on my plate and the fact that it was a living animal and everything! I never ate the baby animals: lamb, veal… So I guess I was conscious of that very young. I never ate red meat because I never liked the blood on my plate.”


“I grew up in the countryside… I learnt pretty quickly that eating a rabbit meant someone had to kill it… My grandparents raised chickens and rabbits. I went to my grandparents and I patted the rabbits. And on Sunday we ate rabbit! ‘No it’s not your rabbit!’ ‘Then which one is it?’ I could see the rabbit alive in the pot and I said to myself, ‘Oh this is crazy!’ I couldn’t accept that.”


“Throughout my childhood, there were fields nearby… I used to enjoy going to the farm because I could see the chickens, the sheep and all that… and even at my house there were chickens… Chickens, roosters, dogs, cats, so um… rabbits and that’s it! But they weren’t for eating! …It started when I was little, because I didn’t want us to eat the animals, they all had names and everything!”

34It is important to stress that the subjective experiences related here by these activists are the result of a conflict between sensibilities and social norms. The history of this conflict can easily be reconstructed. On one hand was the end of public slaughter of animals which was the beginning of institutionalised abattoirs at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and which resulted in decreasing sensibility regarding the evocation of the slaughter necessary for meat production. On the other hand was the importance of pets and the animal imaginary during childhood socialisation, particularly for the generations born in the second half of the twentieth century. It is because the individuals interviewed here had interiorised this ensemble of social norms that they had the affective experiences revealed above. Of course the high proportion of women among the vegetarians interviewed attests to the gender-oriented injunctions that, beginning in primary socialisation, further predispose women to this conflict in norms – girls are seen as more inclined towards tenderness and concern for the weak. However it is important to be wary of mono-causal explanations which would risk separating a given variable – gender for example – from the other heterogeneous social factors which lead to a normative hiatus that men too can experience. [17] What we can see from the comments above is that these activists, long before their engagement, were influenced by affective experiences which give a specific meaning to their later involvement in social groups promoting veganism [la consommation vegan]. Sensibilities linked to these troubling affective experiences, such as an aversion to meat, insistence or punishment by parents, or the feeling of being alone in a world of carnivores, can consequently be understood and lived in new ways suggested by militant activism. One activist remembers:


“Before I arrived at the Droit des animaux (Animal Rights) stand, I didn’t know anyone who was vegetarian or vegan [vegan]… It’s nice to know there are other people like you… who understand you!”

36A second group of cases provides a remarkable contrast to the group just described. It may happen that activists do not feel any particular disgust for meat before their activism in organisations advocating vegetarianism. Some even admit to liking meat products and having trouble giving them up. One activist declares:


“I’m a vegetarian in spite of myself, because I really like meat…. Two years ago I stopped eating meat – organic or not – because it still goes through the abattoirs!”

38Another activist echoes him, saying:


“Me, I’m not vegetarian because I don’t like meat… no, giving up ham was the hard part… when I see it on the table I really have to make an effort not to throw myself on it and scoff it down… But I just can’t stand what we do to animals.”

40In this context, embarking upon an activist career is initially the result of sympathy with animals, not initially seen as incompatible with eating meat. Indeed, it is as a result of an initial engagement in the defence of animal rights – caring for dogs in refuges, demonstrating against bullfighting, the fur trade, animal testing and so forth – that this type of activist is confronted with situations and people that question their coherence, as we noted above. This leads to these activists engaging in a very different kind of conversion, because it means that their initial preferences and tastes have to be brought into line with the diet that is promoted within the social group they have chosen to support.


“In fact, I started out by working on a stand against fur… and then I realised that lots, not all, but lots of activists were vegetarians. And that rang a bell with me. So I started asking myself questions and very quickly I joined the stand against foie gras! Being against foie gras and eating other animals isn’t particularly logical! So I became a vegetarian.”


“The first time I went to Veggie Pride in Paris I wasn’t a vegetarian. I went because of animals! But what I saw was vegetarians demonstrating… So it was only after that that I really got involved… because that year I became vegetarian…. Practically vegan [vegan] even… Umm, no meat, no fish, no milk, no eggs, that’s it. Totally! I started to behave ethically. And then also the fact that I said to myself ‘I’m with these amazing people, I want to be a part of them… to… feel like I fit in this scene, so not…’ I don’t want them to judge me badly.”


“I’d already met Virginie, the president of ACTA, at a stand… and I took her number. But the fact that I wasn’t a vegetarian yet… it bothered me, I was afraid of being side-lined or that it wouldn’t really be accepted.”

44A third sub-group can be characterised as cases of reconversion of attitudes acquired in previous engagement in causes other than animal protection. Here the sensibilities that underlie the conversion to a vegan [vegan] lifestyle seem to have been already developed in activities in defence of other vulnerable victims. Activists recount how they were formerly involved in movements for women’s rights, soup kitchens, Amnesty International, Tibetan liberation, gay rights, and so forth. It is important to note that those activists who most readily describe themselves as anti-speciesists often come from the anarchist movements on the extreme left, as though rejection of the widespread exploitation of animals was the extension of an anger initially targeted at other kinds of exploitation. Overall, joining and leaving these organisations seems to be the result of a series of experiments which aims to find the activist connections most likely to bolster and adapt those sensibilities that are considered the most fundamental.


“Last year I worked on the prisons, on the way prisoners spend and understand their time in prison. So it’s unrelated but… Well it’s true that I’m quite sensitive to the unhappiness of other animals, humans or not. And this year my subject is animals… I could really get involved… In fact, a friend and I are looking for an organisation where we can get involved, for feminism… yeah so… and anti-racism too!”


“But I’ve always been involved in various causes… I’ve always fought discrimination. In fact, for me looking after animals is the logical next step, because they have the least amount of people to defend them… but I’ve always fought, been active against racism… Just before, the year before getting involved in the animal cause I was an activist with Greenpeace, but not for long. And a little bit with the Human Rights League, where I worked specifically on the status of women.”


“Injustice has always revolted me… and injustice takes many forms… sometimes you have to choose. The truth is that I was doing too many things. I was involved in a humanitarian organisation, for the environment too… When I arrived in Barcelona one of the first things that attracted me was the free Tibet movement. So I became really interested in the situation in Tibet… and I still have a child I sponsor, a Tibetan child who lives in Nepal. Before getting involved in the animal rights movement, I was about to get involved in one about violence against women…. but the protection of animals won me over… for more philosophical reasons. What has our relationship with animals been throughout history? What should it be like?”


“At the time, I was involved in things that seemed to me, at the time, wrongly or rightly, to be more important, like Palestine, or the abolition of Apartheid in South Africa, or like feminism. To be accurate, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to fight to improve the conditions of animals, but there were no organisations around then. Before the 1980s we didn’t talk about ‘animal welfare’. And then about twelve years ago, in the 1990s, feminism seemed to me to be a battle that was pretty much won. Apartheid was over. Palestine was still an issue but they’re not going to find a solution any time soon… So I got interested again in animal welfare. And I contacted the people who were active in France on this issue, Yves Bonnardel, David Olivier, who were involved in Cahiers antispécistes. I went to the summer workshops on animal welfare, the first year, in 2002, and after then I became completely vegan [vegan].”


“Well I come from a sort of individualist anti-social anarchism… When I was seventeen I lived in a revolutionary commune that fought against adult domination in Germany… And when I came back to France I tried to set up a collective in Lyon, we set up a squat. That’s how the group started, before taking up the anti-cars, and then anti-speciesist causes… David was part of it, one of the founders of the Cahiers antispécistes, Françoise too, before she moved into the feminist, then lesbian and then the queer networks.”

50The differences we observe between these three sub-groups of cases testifies as to the diversity of paths that bring people to conversion, and, similarly, as to the different kinds of self-discipline required of these activists in order to increase their engagement in ‘vegetarianism for the animal cause’. For some it is above all important to learn to construct an ‘intellectual armour’ (E67) around their troubled feelings and early food dislikes, which were until now not associated with a collective combat structured around shared principles. Others focus on learning to dislike foods that they may have liked before but which are now considered incompatible with their engagement in the animal cause. Still others see the conversion to anti-speciesism as a way to find new forums for sensibilities left unsatisfied in previous movements. Evidently, as is often the case with ideal types, the conversion of a given individual may combine traits that this analytical differentiation leads us to separate.

51It is also important to stress that these different types of pathways cannot be isolated from the characteristics of the different organisations these activists end up joining. Over the course of their career as activists, these protectors of animals will join – simultaneously, successively or exclusively – various groups that can be differentiated in terms of their membership base as well as the emotional register and types of action that they adopt. That is why, as an observer, it is useful to construct a general map of the different kinds of animal protection groups on offer to sympathisers with the cause. Unfortunately the length limits of this article mean that it is only possible to summarise the principle points of an analysis that will be published in detail elsewhere. For now, we must be content with a basic analytical distinction which will enable us to grasp the kinds of mobilisation structures that the engagement processes discussed above operate within.

52When combined with a historical perspective, ethnographic observation allows us to distinguish three main poles of convergence within the vast nebula of animal protection organisations. The pole that attracts the most sympathisers by far is made up of organisations focused on pets, such as cats and dogs. Much of the activity of these members consists in providing refuge and treatment for abandoned animals. A second pole brings together the organisations dedicated to the protection of wild animals, closely linked to activist environmentalists or to specialists of natural sciences and wild animals (ornithologists, zoologists, primatologists etc.). Finally, there is a third much more heterogeneous pole which is made up of organisations specifically dedicated to moral protest concerning the treatment inflicted by humans on animals: industrial breeding, bullfighting, circuses, the production of foie gras, the fur trade, or scientific testing on animals.

53What is of interest to us here is that the probability of adopting a vegetarian diet varies significantly depending on which pole we focus on. Within associations dedicated to collecting and caring for abandoned animals, vegetarianism is certainly not a central and widely promoted practice. [18] Organisations close to political environmentalism on the other hand may accord vegetarian practices a certain importance but on the basis of technical arguments that those concerned with animal suffering would find inappropriate (giving up meat is a necessary step because of the environmental impact of industrial farming practices, for example). Ultimately, as we might expect, it is the pole concerned with moral protest where the ‘vegetarians because of animals’ are most present. Organisations opposing bullfighting, circuses, the fur trade, experiments on animals, industrial breeding, or foie gras, often have large contingents of vegetarians amongst their members. However, veganism [veganisme] appears even more central in collectives which focus on animal liberation or anti-speciesism, such as Dignité Animal (Animal Dignity), Droits des Animaux (Animal Rights), Contre l’exploitation des animaux – CLEDA (Against Animal Exploitation), or the Collectif de libération animale de Montpellier – CLAM (Montpellier Collective for Animal Liberation). The modes of action of these organisations, which are smaller than those discussed previously, is partly the result of an appropriation of the transnational model provided by the animal rights or animal liberation movements. [19] This Anglo-Saxon model is in truth relatively eclectic, combining tactics such as: direct action against laboratories and farms (begun in 1976 by the Animal Liberation Front), references to academic publications which introduced animal ethics into moral philosophy; and, more specifically, promotion of ‘rights talk’ and, as such, the affirmation of a link to the civil rights movement. In 1991 a group of French activists, some of whom were from anarchist backgrounds, came together to form the Cahiers antispécistes. Réflexion et action pour l’égalité animale. This online journal has since published numerous texts in moral philosophy, particularly translations and commentaries of Anglo-Saxon authors such as Peter Singer or Tom Regan, the authors of the notion of anti-speciesism. [20]

Sensitising devices or the creation of activist emotions

54Observing what activists do within these organisations reveals the importance that they attach to proselytism, in other words the range of efforts to convince their fellow citizens that their cause is just. This activity is largely based on the many invitations to share their emotions regarding the wrongs that the activists aim to right. More specifically, it is based on the fermentation of indignation against the treatment of animals destined for slaughter. In order to stimulate this indignation, the mobilisation entrepreneurs have no choice but to count on the sensibilities and normative codes of the public that they address. Moreover, the expression and enactment of these shared emotions means resorting to sensitising devices that are considered, rightly or wrongly, most likely to provoke a unanimous moral judgment.

The concept of a sensitising device

A sensitising device refers to all the elements of material support, arrangement of objects, staging, and so forth that activists use in order to provoke affective reactions which predispose those who experience them to become engaged in or to support the cause in question. These sensitising devices activated by cause entrepreneurs often provoke a wide range of emotions, which lay the ground for several processes which are indispensable for collective mobilisation. Here, however, we will concentrate on those that aim to provoke disgust for meat and other animal products. Ethnographic observation attests to the diversity of operations carried out to this effect. We might consider, for example, the ‘human meat’ operations carried out in the street: naked activists painted with fake blood and wrapped in plastic to evoke the packaging of human flesh.
“The goal of the demonstration is to show that all animals are made of flesh and blood, that all feel suffering and fear, and that eating meat is nothing more than killing and eating a dead body.” [21]
The ‘blood of the beasts’ operations, on the other hand, involve pouring a large quantity of false blood in front of butchers’ shops, to protest against the generally accepted consensus that these shops are inoffensive. Photographs, drawings, hidden-camera videos from abattoirs, music, leaflets and posters, all constructed and used during demonstrations, at stands or on the websites of these organisations, are all ways in which these sensitising devices are deployed. The website of the ‘L214’ organisation (in reference to an article of the Agriculture and Maritime Fishing Code relating to the protection of animals), provides details about many operations aiming to ‘open peoples’ eyes about farming and abattoirs’. [22] Sometimes incorporating statements by experts, the sensitising devices often draw on artistic practices: drawing, painting, emotional music, dramatic techniques, cinema and so forth. In this connection it is worth noting the importance that the activists interviewed here awarded to Earthlings, the documentary by American filmmaker Shaun Monson. Released in 2005, this film contains horrific images of animal exploitation compiled by the director; images that are often described as being as unbearable to watch as they are essential to the cause.

55The testimonies collected over the course of this study have much to tell us specifically as to the means by which different sensitising devices encourage engagement at different stages of the vegetarian career. Firstly, sensitising devices often constitute a powerful catalyst for conversion, in other words, for the adoption of practices which are experienced as a means of finally dedicating one’s life to the most just convictions. The intense emotions provoked by these devices are often considered a sign, an irresistible call to arms, commanding rapid action against this perceived scandal. When the trigger occurs at a very young age – particularly for generations accustomed to high levels of exposure to audio-visual media – this phenomenon can be considered a situation of moral shock. [23]


“When I was an adolescent, I became a vegetarian… when I had the choice… when I understood what was happening… when I saw what was happening on a show with Brigitte Bardot… I saw what was happening in China… with eating dogs… I was really shocked and my dad said ‘You know, they eat dogs, but we eat other animals’… And that’s when I made my firm and final decision to never eat animals again! I was seventeen… You might say that it was my first activist reaction.”


“Like I said, it was above all the images on the TV that made me change… On hunting, abattoirs, live animal transport, animal trafficking, animal fighting… Lots of TV programmes, particularly the ones Brigitte Bardot made around 1988-1990… I was ten or twelve years old… They were called SOS Animals… They did 90% of the work on me because the visual impact was very strong… It was essentially there that the change was made.”

58This decisive intervention in the process of activist conversion can also happen later on in life. What is important here is to understand how these sensitising devices – which of course have different effects on different targets – activate, prolong and change pre-existing feelings, which individuals acquire in the course of their various social histories and without which these devices could not have an impact. From a methodological perspective, this is what forces us to systematically cross-examine the analyses, in relation to the semiology of the sensitising devices on one hand, and the effects of the socialisation of those they influence on the other.


“What really made me become a vegetarian was Compassion in World Farming which sent us a film, at the Society for the Protection of Animals, on the transport of animals, which I found euh… nauseating! It really revolted me! And from that day on I said ‘No, I don’t want to eat meat any more… I don’t want to digest… to be complicit in this animal suffering!’”


“I’m a vegan [végétalienne]. It’s been a year and a half since I made the decision. It was a small revolution… I stopped eating meat overnight after seeing a film about abattoirs… the way meat is made… So I decided to stop eating meat, just by myself. Then I became involved in these activist groups, and I heard about veganism [végétalisme] and I thought ‘Why not?’ Might as well go all the way.”


“Before I knew about the abattoirs, I knew that we killed animals and that it probably wasn’t much fun for them… But it’s true that it was something that I’d put aside a bit… I kept eating meat… Then I went online and I saw some films…well… The dog carved up alive in particular. One day I ended up at the PMAF website, Protection des animaux de la ferme (Protection for Farm Animals)… with all the protests they organise about the conditions of animals in farms, live animal transport, etc. So I really discovered that it wasn’t just accidents but that there were really problems in the application of the law. So I became a member of the PMAF. I was on a stand on the fur trade and I realised that the others there were vegetarians. So it happened quite quickly in fact.”

62Far from being simply catalysts for conversion, sensitising devices are also instruments of an ascetic discipline that the activists force themselves to submit to. Therefore, the emotions that they provoke are a valuable aid to those trying to make their diets more compatible with the cause. It is important to note that exposure to these sensitising devices, as disagreeable as it may be, is often described as a necessary evil, and as one of the most appropriate means for undertaking identity work, and for changing one’s habits – both activities characteristic of militancy. Some activists emphasise the efforts required to find these sensitising devices – images, videos or documents – which bolster their repugnance and thus their convictions.


“It’s bad to just wait for the information to come to you. Now, what I’ve learned about the milk industry… or how they cut off hens’ beaks and so forth… it’s because I went looking for it. My last few years, it’s all been research!”


“Whilst demonstrating with other vegans, someone said ‘you should see that video’ because, of course, I couldn’t let go of that piece of ham I was eating… you see? ‘You have to see Earthlings.’ It’s a video that explains the methods of exploitation of animals by humans, around five themes… I watched it in three goes… I had to keep stopping, there were things that were unbearable, indefensible… Well, after that, the next day I stopped eating meat.”


“What convinced me to become a vegetarian was the film Earthlings, you might know it. I never stopped crying, and it lasts an hour and a half… it’s really realistic, it’s about the United States but it’s the same thing here… You see those famous abattoirs, and it’s like umm yeah! To see how it happens in the abattoirs! That’s why I really love meat, I’m a real carnivore, but after that, no!”


“What affected me was a photo of a cow, or a calf… you can see it turned around, sitting, clearly sick… that photo touched me, and it’s clearly linked to the meat. So that was the first photo I saw, when I still wasn’t a vegan [végétalienne]… It’s what made me stop eating meat. After that, it was enough to think of that photo to tell myself ‘No I’m not going to eat meat. It might be an animal like that that I’m eating, treated like that.’”

67In fact, throughout a vegetarian career, these sensitising devices have an important impact on the somatisation of the cause, in other words, modifying feelings, emotional reactions and even the body [24] to conform with the objectives outlined within the activist group. In doing this they impact on the phenomenal conscience of these animal rights activists, enabling them to experience feelings that contribute to the evolution of their temperament. However, the changes that they make to the subjective perspectives of activists cannot be reduced to this single dimension. Far from simply exacerbating pre-existing sensibilities, part of the material produced by those who promote a vegan [vegan] lifestyle aims to make practices which are otherwise treated only with indifference appear scandalous. It is in fact a very self-reflexive way of thinking, operating by logical deduction, that persuades these antispeciesist activists that the principles of their struggle against discriminations demand the criticism of forms of animal exploitation unjustly considered as inoffensive. Sensitising devices are indispensable in order for the majority to see that these scandals have been ignored for too long. The sensitising devices are not simply exercises in making people sensitive so that they become more receptive, more likely to be moved by these issues and become engaged in the cause. They also transform formerly non-issues into scandals, make them visible, inconvenient and worthy of moral controversy. In so doing, they stimulate the awareness of activists to the extent that they bring to their attention an increasing number of facts worthy of critical reflexion and moral judgments. Where white meat, fish, eggs, milk or cosmetics did not previously provoke any kind of immediate revulsion, the devices mobilised aim to reveal their production as an outrage. One animal rights activist declares:


“There is as much suffering and death in a glass of milk, an ice cream or in an egg, as in a steak.” [25]

69Videos thus show images of industrial battery hens piled on top of each other in cages that are too small; images and statistics remind us that the possible toxicity of cosmetics is systematically tested on unfortunate animals. Leaflets force the public to make disturbing comparisons: imagine that dairy cows are women, artificially inseminated by an industrial system throughout their whole existence, women deformed by incessant procreation, women deprived of their babies after each birth, babies destined for butchery. Women condemned to give up their milk to another species! In so doing, these sensitising devices mobilise the reflexive conscience of activists and encourage them to experience emotions that are much more controlled and reflexive than the immediate feelings that led them to embark upon this career. In other words, as activists move forwards in their career, their most basic emotions, those that come from their own past, make room for a moral indignation that requires repeated self-reflexion in terms of one’s habits, one’s ability to overcome one’s tastes and preferences in terms of food, and the strategic and argumentative abilities needed to vanquish the indifference of the public. Without these sensitising devices, which guide the older sensibilities towards new objects, those who have become adepts of veganism [veganisme] would doubtless find it more difficult to engage in ever-increasing dietary exclusions.


“It was really when I learnt about farming that I got rid of those products from my diet… Well, when I was learning about how certain foods were made, meat, you know! I stopped eating eggs for example… well battery hen eggs… so I didn’t eat any more. Veal, well it’s the same, once I knew how the veal was raised, it wasn’t possible for me anymore! It was the same for rabbits, but I just read about it on the internet… same with breeding rabbits… and above all they made an appeal online.”


“[Being vegan] [vegan] will be very, very hard! … In milk chocolate for example ‘how am I going to not eat Kinder knowing there is milk in it?’ But dairy cows well it’s the same! I’ve seen a bit how they’re treated! So it’s not possible!”
(E 50)

Figure 1

Careers of vegetarians motivated by animal rights. Different pathways and interventions of sensitising devices

Figure 1

Careers of vegetarians motivated by animal rights. Different pathways and interventions of sensitising devices

Note: In phase 3, activists progress from being vegetarian (végétarien) to being vegan (végétalien, i.e. not eating animals or animal products), then vegan (vegan, not eating, or otherwise consuming or wearing, animals or animal products).

Activists’ work and changes in subjective perspective

72This way of describing the plurality of pathways to conversion presents many advantages for the sociology of activism and collective mobilisation. In the first instance, it reminds us that it is necessary to investigate the diversity of these activists’ relations to their shared cause; relations which the activists owe to their respective social histories. The fact that these activists can come together around shared slogans is the result of an ability to appreciate the emotions provoked by engagement based on relatively heterogeneous affective social experiences. If sensitising devices are crucial, it is because they enable infra-argumentative agreements which are more likely to lead to the expansion of the mobilisation than simple justifications produced by those activists with the most academic capital would achieve. This is true not only for relatively homogenous groups like ‘animal rights vegetarians’ but also for more composite groups such as opponents of bullfighting who, beyond their shared indignation over the corrida, are very different in terms of their social history and ideological references. [26] Moreover the analysis provided here shows just how impossible it is to dissociate the sociology of activism from the study of the construction of public issues or the frames of injustice that frame analysis scholars have focused on. [27] The activists both produce the materials necessary to reach out to their peers, and at the same time activism provides them with the opportunity to render themselves coherent, [28] or more accurately to make the multiple sensibilities that they owe to their social history coherent.

73Finally, the analysis of vegetarians’ activist engagement allows us to specify the particularities of activists’ work, which cannot simply be reduced to the analogy of the professional sphere. Involvement in the defence of a cause implies the production of a continuous effort which provokes or consolidates ‘the moving perspective in which the person sees his life as a whole and interprets the meaning of his various attributes, actions, and the things which happen to him’. [29] A closer examination reveals that this moving perspective operates on three independent planes. Firstly, in terms of sensibilities, habits and discipline of the body, likes and dislikes, so much so that it is appropriate here to speak of self-reflexive work that sometimes borders on asceticism. Secondly, in terms of social connections, relations within a group sharing practices and discourses; if involvement means getting close to comrades in a shared struggle, disengagement generally means leaving behind those relationships that are fundamental to the long-term development of activism. Finally, activist work generally also operates in terms of the acquisition of specific expertise and knowledge. This cannot be dealt with exhaustively here, but it includes: the arrangement and use of sensitising devices, modes of self-presentation, ways of modulating arguments, or tactical strategies, anticipation of the expectations of media professionals, legal and administrative knowledge useful to the cause, management of possible confrontation with authorities etc. It is clear that the issue of animal protection is all the more relevant given that the perspective it has enabled us to explore can be readily transposed to other forms of engagement that might initially seem more resistant to the decisive substrate of sensibilities.

74Whatever the nature of the causes studied, the analysis of collective mobilisations must be able to reject the reductionism that results from those dichotomies criticised by Norbert Elias: society versus individuals, determinism versus intentionality, affect versus rational judgement. The sequence of events that leads individuals to adopt activist practices is constructed in an incessant interaction between these different poles, which the theoretical perspectives that marked the history of this area of study have often given exclusive priority to. Simply analysing the processes of adopting an activist practice such as veganism [veganisme] demonstrates the need to examine the inextricable interconnection between socially constructed predispositions on the one hand and reflexivity and intentional action on the other. As we have seen, the life stories collected in these interviews allow us to observe the close affinities that these forms of engagement have with prior sensibilities forged in other social, family or activist experiences. However, although these sensibilities constitute a necessary pre-condition, they are not sufficient to ensure individuals’ participation in collective action. Indeed, the analysis of the political scientist only really begins with the examination of the ways in which mobilisation entrepreneurs transform these pre-existing sensibilities into motivations, encouraging the greatest number to engage in appropriate action. In other words mobilisation develops from the interaction between pre-existing sensibilities and activist work – interaction which is certainly not inevitable. Indeed, socially constructed emotional predispositions constitute a potential for engagement that could just as easily never be accomplished in the absence of decisive encounters. These encounters, sometimes fleeting and accidental, then lead to more regular social contact with activists who are further along in this effort of rationalisation which is indispensable for appealing to even a slightly broader public.

75Within these social groups, the emotions experienced as a result of sensitising devices allow activists to call upon potential members whilst also reinforcing their own engagement. This is what enables us to say that activist work is performed simultaneously upon the self as well as upon the other. Up until now, the sociology of collective action has most often focused on the aspect of activism oriented towards the other, towards the public and spheres of public decision-making. Here it is important to remember the essential contributions made by studies analysing the rules and performances that characterise the formulation of public issues and the frameworks of injustice. Joseph Gusfield’s account of the construction of public issues, Robert D. Benford and David Snow’s frame analysis, or even Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot’s sociology of justification, all underline the importance of the skills required for individuals to aspire to the condemnation of an issue and appeal for mobilisation of the greatest number. The close study of these animal rights activists confirms that a significant part of their engagement consists in ascribing to the incriminated practices those interpretations that are most likely to mobilise potential members and gain public support. Like any other cause, the protection of animals requires its defenders to master a certain know-how concerning the selection of shared meanings, as well as the respect of rules regarding the condemnation of injustices within the public space. However, the position defended throughout this article has been to avoid the idealist and strategist bias of an analysis exclusively focused on the ways these animal rights activists attempt to convince their peers to become vegetarian. In any case, a whole book would probably not be sufficient to retrace the plurality and variability of the frames, counter frames and reframes [30] that result from attempts to set up the consumption of meat as a social problem. Such a book would have to ensure that it included a complementary analysis of the prior development of sensibilities and the ways in which the latter extend into more or less diverse activist careers. In other words it would have to avoid giving the impression that the main resources for mobilisation against meat-eating can be reduced to argumentative exchanges, or rhetorical struggles conducted by those who have the means to debate the morality of the ordinary social order. In the face of such intellectualism it is important to recognise that the success of mobilisations is not solely dependent on the proper arrangement of frames of injustice. These frames will never be sufficient in themselves to attract those whose social history has not furnished them with the necessary sensibilities to provoke their adherence to the cause. Moreover, as we have seen, the fact of coming together through shared indignation often conceals very different attitudes towards the cause, which an analysis that is faithful to reality must reflect. Without this, the sociologist of mobilisations runs a very great risk of simply duplicating the effort of homogenisation undertaken by the cause entrepreneurs, [31] within social movements as well as in partisan institutions. [32]


References of interviews quoted in the article

tableau im2
E3 Woman, aged 32, Comité radicalement anti-corrida (Radical Anti-Bullfighting Committee), Montpellier, June 2005 E5 Man, aged 48, Fédération des luttes pour l’abolition des corridas (Federation for the Abolition of Bullfighting), Montpellier, May 2005. E20 Man, aged 34, Protection des animaux de la ferme (Protection for Farm Animals), PMAF, Paris, June 2008 E22 Woman, aged 23, Coalition anti-vivisection (Anti-Vivisection Coalition), Paris, December 2008. E29 Woman, aged 48, Collectif de libération animale de Montpellier (Montpellier Animal Liberation Collective), Montpellier, March 2009. E30 Woman, aged 27, Collectif de libération animale de Montpellier (Montpellier Animal Liberation Collective), Montpellier, March 2009. E36 Man, aged 33, Cahiers antispécistes, Lyon, May 2010. E38 Woman, aged 32, Association végétarienne de France-Veggie Pride (Vegetarian Association of France), Lyon, June 2010. E39 Woman, aged 28, Association végétarienne de France-Veggie Pride (Vegetarian Association of France), Lyon, June 2010. E41 Woman, aged 61, Dignité animal (Animal Dignity), Lyon, July 2010. E42 Woman, aged 35, Croc Blanc-Ensemble pour la cause animale (Together for Animal Rights), Lyon, July 2010. E44 Woman, aged 33, Droits des animaux (Animal Rights), Paris, August 2010. E45 Woman, aged 22, Droits des animaux (Animal Rights), Paris, August 2010. E46 Woman, aged 35, Coalition anti-vivisection (Anti-vivisection Coalition), Paris, August 2010. E47 Woman, aged 45, Contre l’exploitation des animaux (Against Animal Exploitation), Paris, August, 2010. E49 Woman, aged 29, Agir contre la torture des animaux (Collective Action Against Animal Torture), Pessac, May 2010. E50 Woman, aged 28, Agir contre la torture des animaux (Collective Action Against Animal Torture), Bordeaux, July 2010 E52 Man, aged 32, Agir contre la torture des animaux (Collective Action Against Animal Torture), Bordeaux, June 2010. E53 Woman, aged 26, Partido animalista contra el maltrato animal (Party Against Bullfighting, Cruelty and Animal Mistreatment), Barcelona, June 2010 E54 Woman, aged 54, Asociación contra la tortura y el maltrato de los animals (Association Against the Torture and Mistreatment of Animals), Barcelona, July 2010 E55 Woman, aged 40, Asociación defensa derechos animal (Association for the Defence of Animal Rights), Barcelona, July 2010 E57 Man, aged 34, Plataforma Prou! Para la abolición de las corridas (Platform Prou! For the Abolition of Bullfighting), Barcelona, June 2010. E59 Woman, aged 29, Association national et internationale pour la cause animale (National and International Association for Animal Rights), Douai, May 2010. E61 Man, aged 37, Veg’nord (Veg-North), Lille, July 2010. E65 Woman, aged 26, Animalsace-Défense des animaux et végétarisme en Alsace (Defence of Animals and Vegetarianism in Alsace), Strasbourg, January 2011. E66 Man, aged 22, Animalsace-Défense des animaux et végétarisme en Alsace (Defence of Animals and Vegetarianism in Alsace), Strasbourg, October 2010. E67 Woman, aged 50, Animalsace-Défense des animaux et végétarisme en Alsace (Defence of Animals and Vegetarianism in Alsace), Strasbourg, October 2010.


  • [1]
    Alan Beardsworth, “Comprendere il vegetarianismo: una prospettiva sociologica sull’astensione dalle carni nell’occidente contemporaneo”, Rassegna Italiana di Sociologia, 4, October-December 2004, 543-70; Florence Faucher, “Manger vert: choix alimentaires et identité politique chez les écologistes français et britanniques”, Revue française de science politique, 48(3-4), 1998, 437-47.Online
  • [2]
    The references of the interviews quoted in the article can be found in the appendix.
  • [3]
    Here the reader should refer back to the complementary material outlined in the article, “From feelings to emotions (and back again). How does one become an animal rights activist?”, Revue française de science politique (English), 60(1), 2011, 219-40.
  • [4]
    Olivier Fillieule, Nonna Mayer, “Devenir Militant. Introduction”, Revue française de science politique, 51(1), 2001, 19-25 (23).
  • [5]
    See the many contributions to the special issue of “Devenir Militant”, in the previous footnote, or the book edited by Olivier Fillieule (ed), Le désengagemet militant (Paris: Belin, 2005). More recently, see the issue edited by Catherine Leclercq and Julie Pagis, “Les incidences biographiques de l’engagement”, Societés contemporaines, 84(4), 2011, 11.
  • [6]
    Muriel Darmon, “La notion de carrière: un instrument interactionniste d’objectivation”, Politix, 82, June, 2008, 149-67 (150).
  • [7]
    Howard Becker, Outsiders, Études de sociologie de la déviance (Paris: Métailié, 1985) [First English-language edition: 1963].
  • [8]
    On this form of over-interpretation based on reduction to a unique causal factor, see Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, “La violence faite aux données. De quelques figures de la surinterprétation en anthropologie”, in “Interpréter, Surinterpréter”, Enquête, 3, 1996, 31-59 (41).
  • [9]
    Alan Beardsworth, Teresa Keil, “The vegetarian option. Varieties, conversions, motives and careers”, The Sociological Review, 40, 1992, 253-293.Online
  • [10]
    In French, the activist literature uses the terms végétarien (eats no meat or fish), végétalien (eats no meat, fish or animal byproducts, including honey, eggs etc.) and vegan (neither consumes nor wears animals or animal byproducts, including leather, fur etc.) in order to designate an increasing degree of refusal of animal products. However, the exact definition of each term can vary considerably from one activist to another. This relative vagueness is reflected throughout this article because the observer can by no means presume to resolve the controversies relating to the way in which social actors name their practices, and whether they agree with each other or not. [Translator’s note: since in English the term “vegan” broadly covers both the latter terms a distinction is made in the text between vegan and végétalien when translated as “vegan”.]
  • [11]
    It is not unusual, especially among younger activists, that online meetings on internet websites and forums provide an initial contact for the establishment of social connections based on dietary practices and shared beliefs.
  • [12]
    On the notion of advisors, coaches and guides, see Darmon’s book, specifically focused on the notion of career. Muriel Darmon, Devenir anorexique: une approche sociologique (Paris: La Decouverte, 2008).
  • [13]
    On this point, see the key works of Daniel Gaxie, “Économie des partis et rétributions du militantisme”, Revue française de science politique, 27(1), 1977, 123-54; see also “Rétributions du militantisme et paradoxes de l’action collective”, Swiss Political Science Review, 11(1), 2005, 157-88.Online
  • [14]
    Here sensibility refers to a long-lasting inclination to react affectively in a particular way when faced with similar objects or situations. Regarding the analytical distinction between feelings, sensibilities and temperament see C. Traïni, “From feelings to emotions (and back again)…”.
  • [15]
    James M. Jasper, The Art of Moral Protest. Culture, Biography and Creativity in Social Movements (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), 106ff.Online
  • [16]
    On the historical relationship between the animal imaginary of childhood and animal protection see Christophe Traïni, La cause animale (1820-1980), Essai de sociologie historique (Paris: PUF, 2011).
  • [17]
    This mono-causal explanation is characteristic of the perspective of activist authors, such as Carol Adams or Paola Cavalieri, who combine principles of feminism and animal protection. In this perspective, women are considered to be more likely to give up meat given that, for the authors, discrimination based on gender and exploitation of animals are the result of the same masculine domination. For these women, being vegan [vegan] is thus the equivalent of rising up against age-old patriarchal violence. This militant theory, constructed in a gender studies perspective, is presented as irrefutable from the outset because academic methodology – and its claims to objectivity – are also seen as the results of male domination. See in particular Carol Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990).
  • [18]
    However, membership in one of these organisations is often a very early stage of engagement for those who will go on to join organisations that are stricter in terms of foods produced through animal exploitation.
  • [19]
    On the social heterogeneity and the historical development of this movement, initially emerging in Great-Britain and then in the United States, see my book, La cause animale.
  • [20]
    Following Richard Ryder, these authors use the notion of speciesism in order to link the discrimination behind the exploitation of animals to injustices based on racism or sexism. Claiming to be an anti-speciesist means fighting against discrimination not only between men and other species but also between different species (rats and snakes are no less worthy of defence than cats and dogs).
  • [21]
  • [22]
    See <>, accessed 12 March 2012.
  • [23]
    However, generally speaking, we should distinguish in analytical terms between situations of moral shock and being confronted with sensitising devices. Sociologically, it is one thing to experience intense feelings resulting from unexpected situations (visiting family who farm animals for consumption, seeing a foal being killed, associating meat with the death of a loved animal etc.); it is quite another to be confronted with these sensitising devices, intentionally deployed by activists. Moreover, as we will see, individuals who are already engaged may deliberately expose themselves to these sensitising devices in order to promote their cause.
  • [24]
    To the extent that the adoption of a vegetarian diet produces a transformation of one’s figure and feelings about one’s body.
  • [25]
    Gary L. Francione, Anna E. Charlton, “Les droits des animaux. L’approche abolitionniste”,, accessed 18 April 2012.
  • [26]
    On this point see “L’opposition à la tauromachie”, in Christophe Traïni (ed.) Émotions… Mobilisation! (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po. 2009), 193-213.
  • [27]
    Lilian Mathieu, “Rapport au politiques, dimensions cognitives et perspectives pragmatiques dans l’analyse des mouvements sociaux” Revue française de science politique, 52(1), 2002, 75-100.Online
  • [28]
    Michaël Voegtli, “Du Jeu dans le Je: ruptures biographiques et travail de mise en cohérence”, Lien social et Politiques, 51, spring 2004, 145-58.Online
  • [29]
    H. Becker, citing Everett C. Hughes, in Outsiders (New York: The Free Press, 1963), 102.
  • [30]
    Robert Benford, Scott Hunt, “Cadrage en conflit, Mouvements sociaux et problèmes sociaux”, in Daniel Cefaï, Dany Trom (eds) Les formes de l’action collective. Mobilisations dans des arènes puliques (Paris: Éditions de l’EHESS, 2001), 163-94.
  • [31]
    Bernard Pudal, Prendre parti. Pour une sociologie historique du PCF (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po. 1989); Frédéric Sawicki, Les réseaux du parti socialiste. Sociologie d’un milieu partisan (Paris: Belin, 1997).
  • [32]
    I would like to thank Lilian Mathieu, Johanna Siméant and the anonymous readers on the editorial committee of the Revue française de science politique for their feedback which enabled me to improve the initial version of this text. Of course, all responsibility for any shortcomings or limits of this article remains my own.

This article aims to show how the conversion to a vegetarian diet represents highly relevant empirical material for the sociology of collective mobilization and activism. It draws on 39 interviews with animal rights activists who refuse to eat meat or other products derived from the exploitation of animals. This empirical material is used to specify the categories of analysis required to take into account the affective dimensions of activist commitments. This perspective attempts to best describe the multiple and complementary dimensions of activists’ work and careers.

Christophe Traïni
Professor of political science at the Institute of Political Science in Aix-en-Provence, Christophe Traïni is a junior member of the Institut universitaire de France (French University Institute). His publications include: Les braconniers de la République. Les conflits autour des représentations de la Nature et la politique (Paris: PUF, 2003); La musique en colère (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2008) (‘Contester’); ‘From feelings to emotions (and back again). How does one become an animal rights activist?’, Revue française de science politique (English), 60(1), 2011, 219-40; ‘Dramaturgie des émotions, traces de sensibilités. Observer et comprendre des manifestations anti-corrida’,, 21, November 2010; ‘Les émotions de la cause animale. Histoires affectives et travail militant’, Politix, 93, 2011, 69-92; La cause animale (1820-1980) Essai de sociologie historique (Paris: PUF, 2011). He also edited the collected volume Emotions... mobilisation! (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2009). His research focuses on the sociology of activism and collective mobilisation (Sciences Po Aix, 25 rue Gaston de Saporta, 13625 Aix-en-Provence, cedex 1,).
Translated from French by 
Katharine Throssell
Uploaded on on 03/03/2014
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