Despite the strict construction & slight nerdy-ness of what you are about to dive into, I wanted to share my senior thesis project for my Communication Capstone Class. This paper utilizes Goffman’s (1959) Impression Management Theory to connect to something all LA natives can relate to: the veganism craze.
I develop the Research Question (RQ) “What kind of performances do vegans use (with various audiences) to manage their impressions?”
Using various data bases, original sourcing and detailed investigation, I divulge deep into Food Identity.
Overall garde: A
Professor: Dean Scheibel (LMU Communication Studies Department Chair)
A Food Constructed Identity
Food, in the end, in our own tradition, is something holy. It’s not about nutrients and calories. It’s about sharing. It’s about honesty. It’s about identity.—Louise Fresco (2009).
From grandma’s recipe covertly handed down generation-to-generation, families uniting together over a dinner table & society’s constant thirst for the next trendy diet, food indeed speaks volumes about culture, affection and self-expression. The topic of food is a conversation starter, a bonding force and a way to present one’s identity in terms of religion and personal believes.
One form of self-induced dietary restriction that presents this method of identify is the vegan diet. According to The Vegetarian Resource Group (2016), “Vegetarians do not eat meat, fish, or poultry. Vegans, in addition to being vegetarian, do not use other animal products and by-products such as eggs, dairy products, honey, leather, fur, silk, wool, cosmetics, and soaps derived from animal products.” Furthermore, according to the VRC approximately 3.7 million American adults consider themselves to be vegan. Although motives for embracing the vegan identity and lifestyle are “oftentimes complex and personal,” most are vegans for reasons of health concerns, environmental concerns, and ethical concerns (Paxman, 2016, p. 2). In fact, most studies conducted about veganism revolve around the topics of health (Fox & Ward 2008), sustainability (Kalof et al.,1999), ethical issues (Bosworth, 2012), authenticity (Greenebaum, 2012), an adjusted form of veganism (Christopher, 2013), and identity (Paxman, 2016).
Along with adopting such a strict lifestyle, research has proved that vegans frequently encounter issues discussing their identity with non-vegans (Greenebaum, 2012; Hirschler, 2011; Paxman 2016). Hirschler (2011) noted that this issue derived from vegan’s “non-traditional” outlook on life (p. 158). It is evident that veganism is “one of the most restrictive diets, if not the most restrictive diet, in existence and it is an identity that often extends to other parts of life (e.g., use of vegan household product)” (Paxman, 2016, p. 2).
It is this non-traditional stance about food (as well as lifestyle) that typically causes both disputes with non-vegans and bonding relationships with fellow vegans. In fact, according to Goffman (1959), “Information about the individual helps to define the situation, enabling others to know in advance what he will expect of them and what they may expect of him” (p. 1). Understanding the vegan lifestyle coupled with Goffman’s outlooks on impression management (otherwise referred to as impression management theory) functions as a beneficial way to understand the complexity of how vegans convey their identity to social networks.
Veganism is a strict diet that members willingly chose to eliminate all animal product and by-products. Veganism is not prescribed by doctors to help prevent allergies (such as the elimination of gluten for those Celiac Disease), but rather a self-induced lifestyle voluntarily chosen by the consumer. The three main reasons behind the movement are concerns for personal health (Fox & Ward 2008), concerns for the environment (Kalof et al.,1999), and animal rights issues (Bosworth, 2012).
One chief reason for adopting the vegan lifestyle stems from the motive to “combat a present ailment (e.g., chronic diseases such as arthritis, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, etc.), or as a preventative measure against the development of a chronic disease” (Christopher, 2013, p. 5). Christopher furthers his statement by explaining that many vegans note that the ingestion of meat is “questionable food hygiene,” meaning that meat naturally has “food-borne diseases and antibiotic content typically found in meat” (p. 5). Additionally, Cole (2008) describes that “potential harms of diets high in animal products and low in plant foods include elevated level of risk of serious degenerative diseases including heart disease, breast, colon and prostate cancer and type 2 diabetes” (p. 707).
Issues regarding the environment are directly related to the consumption of animal products. In fact, it is found that veganism contributes to decreasing rates ofgreenhouse gases (Fox & Ward 2008), deforestation (McDonald, 2000), and reducing pollution (Cole, 2008). LA Timestook a stance on this issue and revealed that “You need 600 gallons of water to make a burger” (2014). The vegan lifestyle is sustainable and eco-friendly— one of the key reasons why vegans choose the vegan régime.
Animal welfare issues is the final (and most evident) reasoning behind veganism. By removing all animal products from both the diet and personal life (including the closet, cleaning products, makeup items, etc.) veganism offers “substantial benefits in relation to reducing the suffering of farmed animals” (Cole, 2008, p. 708). Through “promoting a more humane and caring world,” vegans’ ethicality is president over taste-bud satisfaction (VCR, 2016).
Introducing Impression Management Theory: Veganism as a Form of Identity
Paxman (2016) describes that “from a historical standpoint, scholars have argued that food is inextricably tied to the cultural and personal identity of many Americans” (p. 16). The concept as food as a connection with identity is directly tied to Goffman’s (1959) theory of impression management. It is within Goffman’s book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) that he creates a concept in which “Impressions that the others give tend to be treated as claims and promises they have implicitly made, and claims and promises tend to have a moral character” (p. 161).This notion of moral character is a form of expression in which humans have the ability to perform or play a role to a social front in order to “Mobilize [their] activity so that it will convey an impression to others which it is in [their] interests to convey” (p. 2). Goffman defines this performance as “The activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants” (p. 8).
Goffman focuses on two vital concepts within the theory: teams and staging. When individuals are incompatible with others, it is evident that these performers will “conceal or underplay activities, facts, and motives” (p. 30). However, when vegans encounter like-minded folks who “co-operate in staging a single routine, [they] may be referred to as a performance team or, in short, a team” (p. 48).
These teams of performers (as well as on an individual level) act according to the setting. Goffman refers to the backstage as the setting in which individuals or teams act in an “informal, familiar, relaxed way” (p. 80). However, when in public and performing on the frontstage these individuals are “on their guard when giving a performance” (p. 80). There typically tends to be a back-and-forth inconsistency between on-stage actions and off-stage behavior (p. 108).
Humans tend to play roles to place a forefront and uniquely define themselves, thus information about the person aids in “defining the situation, enabling others to know in advance what [they] will expect of [him] and what [he] may expect of [them]” (p. 1). Impression management theory prepares individuals to obtain “information about him or to bring into play information about him already possessed” when anyindividual enters the “presence of others” (p. 1).
How Impression Management Theory Connects to Veganism
“Roth (2005) explains that family members of vegans often oppose veganism because it can be considered a threat to family identity. Kenyon and Barker (1998) have also suggested this and reason that veganism presents a distinct set of values that might not align with those of the family. Not surprisingly, many vegans report strained interactions (e.g., disagreements) with family members, despite their best efforts to avoid such situations (Hirschler, 2011; Larsson et al., 2003; McDonald, 2000)” — Paxman (2016, p. 23).
Hirschler (2011) explains that vegan eating habits are often part of a “larger identity and way of life” (p. 102). This dense connection between veganism and impression management has an ample amount of correlation between both identity and defining one’s self: “Research indicates that vegans often experience communication challenges in discussing their identity with non-vegans in their social network” (Paxman, 2016, p. 2). Food, in itself, communicates “values, social class, personal taste, history, and geographic location” (p. 6). Couple food with a non-mainstream lifestyle, and it helps further define one’s self at the core: “It helps us construct the type of person we strive to be (e.g., healthy, cultured, down-to-earth)” (p. 6).
However, the term ‘vegan’ was not coined until 1944 (Greenebaum, 2012). That being said, only a meager portion of research has fully examined vegans and their performance both on and off stage. Paxman (2016) even notes the lack of research: “Relatively less research has examined how people communicate about dietary restrictions that are largely self-imposed” (p. 1). With such limited investigation in the field, this paper will be answering pressing questions about veganism and how such stigmatized, yet ethical, humans perform and maintain their identity. The following research question has been proposed:
RQ: What kind of performances do vegans use (with various audiences) to manage their impressions?
This section will review the process of how information was conducted, gathered, and analyzed throughout the investigation of this study. Through the use of two in-depth observations in which field notes were collected coupled with three interviews with current, dedicated vegans, all supported by Goffman’s findings with impression management theory, it is evident that the information acquired throughout this project allowed for the research question to be fully answered.
There were two forms of field notes that were compiled throughout the research. The first was conducted in a 100% vegan, non-GMO cafe located in Venice Beach, California. Conversations, actions, menus, pamphlets, and social media outlets were all studied in this process. The second form of field notes were collected in the home of a vegan during meal preparation. Pantry analysis, vegan alternatives, snaking while cooking, portion size, communication with other non-vegan and vegan housemates were all observed and collected during this observation.
The second method of observation that was utilized throughout this investigation were conducted interviews by three vegan participants. These vegans were interviewed in-person about the vegan lifestyle with specific questions tailored to gain insight about veganism (see appendix for the specific questions). These interviews were then transcribed. Once the transcription was complete, the interview was coded using categories and terminology from Goffman’s (1959) Presentation of Everyday Selfvia the impression management theory.
These methods of analysis are evident and thoroughly used throughout the “Results” section of this essay and ultimately helped with the investigation of the performance of veganism.
OVERVIEW OF ANALYSIS
The two following sections of the essay will explore two kinds of performances that vegans use (with various audiences) to manage their impressions. The two forms of performances that take place occur on the frontstageand the backstage setting. Furthermore, the various audience members could range from mediators to critics to jokesters. In order to fully answer the research question, responses from Narrator I, II, and III, along with field notes taken will be deeply analyzed according to Goffman’s (1959) impression management theory. The analysis of the frontstage and backstage setting that vegans utilize will be further explored through subthemes discussed throughout the investigation. Through applying the concepts and theories examined in Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life(1959), this investigation will explore how vegans perform veganism in both the frontstage setting and backstage setting among a variety of spectators.
PERFORMING VEGANISM FRONTSTAGE
Goffman (1959) communicates to readers one of the most vital parts of impression management is the presentation that takes place on the frontstage. This strict performance“acts as the vehicle of standardization, allowing for others to understand the individual on the basis of projected character traits that have normative meanings” (Barnhart, 2003, p. 1). Spectators witness a compelling front that “is forced to both fill the duties of the social role and communicate thee activities and characteristics of the role to other people in a consistent manner” (p. 1).
This section will be examining the performance of veganism in the frontstage location— where public performances are intended to “convey an impression to others” (Goffman, 1959, p. 2). Utilizing Goffman’s impression management theoryderived from The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life(1959) combined with conversations from devoted vegans as well as observational field notes, this section of the essay will investigate how vegans perform with various audiences in the frontstage to manage their impressions. This will be examined through three themes:the expectations prior to the performance, the concept of teams, and playing the role of a teacher/educator while on the frontstage.
Before the actual performance begins and the curtains are slowly raising to reveal the opening act, observers already have “assum[ptions] from past experience[s] that only individuals of a particular kind are likely to be found in a given social setting” (Goffman, 1959, p. 1). These assumptions lead to spectators expecting what the performer’s act and front to include. However, these pre-performance predictions do not always fulfill the spectator’s anticipations and they may be caught off guard by the frontstage performance that a vegan puts on.
In the following narrative, the Narrator III discusses the typical pre-conceived notions that people typically lump a vegan into:
A lot of people think that because I’m vegan I am this super healthy fitness junkie that has a six pack and is drinking green smoothies every single day for every single meal. In reality that’s not how it is at all. Just because I’m vegan doesn’t mean I’m always 100% healthy. For instance, last weekend I was at a party and I was drinking a vodka grapefruit juice mixed drink, and this guy came up to me and took it away for me and said ‘This is not vegan!’ I snagged my cup back and I said ‘Actually, it is vegan. It’s just not healthy.’ (Transcript III, Lines 28-33)
The interaction that Narrator III encountered, was an uneducated observer who used practical jokes as a form to identify with the performer. Goffman describes that social games “are played in which embarrassments which are to be taken un-seriously are purposely engineered” (p. 7). Stealing the drink was “used as a source of humor” in order to appear as “reasonable in their projected expectations” (p. 7). The drink-stealer was clearly misinformed amount veganism and used biased and warped interpretations of how vegans define themselves.
This practical joke was utilized to better understand who this vegan is at the center. In fact, Paxman (2016) describes that “While food helps us explain who we are ‘at the core’, it also helps us construct the type of person we strive to be (e.g., cultured, healthy, down-to-earth). Therefore, food both reflects and constitutes our identity” (p. 6).
The fronts that vegans utilize fluctuate from vegan to vegan. Once spectators stop using distorted views about veganism and get to know vegan friends on a personal level, they will find that the reason for their diet and lifestyle, will help “define the situation, enabling others to know in advance what he will expect of them” (Goffman, 1959, p. 1). The reasoning for such misrepresented images of veganism prior to their frontstage performance, derives from the fact that “Research indicates that vegans often experience communication challenges in discussing their identity with non-vegans in their social network” (Paxman, 2016, p. 2). Thus, vegans result to staging themselves around other vegans, or performance teams.
When actors encounter relatable and like-minded folks who “co-operate in staging a single routine, [they] may be referred to as a performance team or, in short, a team” (Goffman, 1959, p. 48). These teams share similar lifestyles, interests, and welfares and are thus more likely to form “an important relationship to one another” (p. 50).
Vegans can relate to other vegans because they understand and share the “difficulties of livingin an animal-based consumer-driven society” (Greenebaum, 2012, p. 129). Thus, they congregate together as a team.
In the following narrative, Narrator III describes her experience with other vegans and the routines they tend to assemble:
When I meet a vegan, we are typically best friends with in the next five minutes. I find that veganism has this bonding factor that we are all on the same side, fighting for the same cause. We know the struggles, we know that we are helping the planet, we know the best vegan restaurants around town, we know the best alternatives, we know the best vegan blogs and books, and we know amazing recipes. We normally exchange social media information; we’re pretty good friends all because we have the same diet. It’s definitely a comforting feeling knowing that there are other vegans out there. I worked at this boutique in Venice Beach and this girl came into the store and she was shopping for yoga pants. We started talking, and I noticed she was holding this ice cream cup from this vegan creamery down the street. Because it’s a vegan creamery, my first question was ‘Are you vegan?’ and she responded with ‘Yes! I am!’ and I was like ‘Oh my gosh, me too!’ We just started jumping and screaming and gave each other a huge hug. It was pretty hilarious because all my coworkers thought we were insane. We were instantly obsessed with each other because we are both vegan. It seems ridiculous, but at the same time, being able to bond with someone over something that I hold so near and dear to my heart, and that I’m so passionate about, is a great way to really connect with people on a deeper level— and when I say deeper level, I really think that being vegan you have this higher-awareness and this mindful compassion about wanting to give back to the world and wanting to teach others about veganism. It is a deeper connection than the regular conversation that I find on the daily basis.” (Transcript III, Lines 44-61)
Being able to form relationships and fuse together as a team, creates a “bond of reciprocal dependence” (Goffman, 1959, p. 50). This is due to what Goffman refers to as “familiarity” (p. 51). As Narrator III described, these fellow vegans are “fighting for the same cause.” This creation of a team is essential, and in fact, in Paxman’s (2016) study, participants emphasized that “having a vegan (friendly) partner is incredibly rewarding and allows them to connect on a deeper emotional level,” when compared to partners that do not “support or understand veganism” (p. vii).
Furthermore, in a field note collection, this concept of team, was very evident at an all-vegan café, located in Venice Beach, California. This restaurant offered an email registration so customers could receive newsletters and updates. On top of this form, the words “Join the Cult!” were typed out as a method to draw vegan customers in to the team-based atmosphere Café Gratitude wanted to radiate (Field Notes, 10/13/16).
The rhetoric behind the word “cult” alludes to the notion that the vegan community is an exclusive team. In fact, Goffman (1959) referred to teams a “secret society” (p. 65) as well as a “clique” (p. 52). Although the team performance is displayed on the frontstage, many spectators may simply view these teams’ “identit[ies], moral[s], and lifestyle[s]” as “norm[s] and value[s]” they simply do not share or fully understand (Greenebaum, 2012, p. 129).
Goffman (1959) notes that team members often are “dependent” upon other teammates (p. 57). As evident, Narrator III mentioned in the narration above that teams share similar “passions” and “mindful compassion.” They, however, do not withhold this information for themselves. They want to, in turn, “teach others about veganism” while on the frontstage as means to manage impressions.
The Vegan Teacher
While the frontstage performance is being acted out, performers use their plethora of knowledge about veganism as means to inform the spectators. This front put on by the actors helps for viewers to “define the situation” (Goffman, 1959, p. 13).
Through the information, facts, and statistics shared, audience members will interpret the performance given by vegans as one to inform and educate non-vegans. These teacher-roles that vegans adopt are not necessarily done to convert meat-eaters, but to simply “normalize the vegan lifestyle,” (p. iii) “promote veganism,” and “serve as resource and guides” (Bosworth, 2012,
- 60). Bosworth continues to describe that vegans do not have to be publicly active protestors and activists to educate others about the vegan normality and lifestyle.
As evident in the following narrative, Narrator II describes her role as an educator, based on being disciplined, informed, and overall mindful:
Being vegan does make me present myself in a certain way. It encourages me to present myself in a very disciplined and informed way. When people ask if I’m vegan or why, I have to be informed. I have to have answers for their questions and responses to their criticism. It seems that I try to come off as a committed and disciplined vegan. It’s something that matters to me. I will not blatantly say I’m vegan, just because people will always have some type of disapproval behind such a drastic diet. (Transcript II, Lines 98-106).
This educator role that Narrator II fulfilled is a rather common character to assume while maintaining one’s impressions on the frontstage. Bosworth (2012) agrees that a key role vegans typically play is that of “disseminating knowledge” that could prompt “others to explore the lifestyle” (p. 83). Bosworth further describes that this form of education can take many forms, such as: recommending food, offering food-related advice, directing non-vegans about sourcing and preparing foods, and lastly presenting others to a style of consumption that confronts western norms in relation to the food industry and culture (p. 86)
Two key words that Narrator II used in the above passage were: “criticism” and “disapproval.” This vegan regularly experiences judgment and flack because the vegan lifestyle challenges western standards. However, Goffman (1959) argues that this encounter is rather normal: “during the performance [actors] are often ridiculed, gossiped about, caricatured, cursed, and criticized” (p. 108). Vegans (and performers in general) can use their knowledge and understanding about veganism as a response to the ridicule they receive.
The role as a teacher and an educator works as a dual-tool to both inform spectators as well as rebuttal the grief they are constantly receiving.
PERFORMING VEGANISM BACKSTAGE
Goffman (1959) furthered his notion that a presentation does not always occur on the frontstage. There is in fact this duel side to impression management theorywhich he refers to as the social coin: “We have, then, a basic social coin, with awe on one side and shame on the other. The audience senses secret mysteries and powers behind the performance…” (p. 46). These secrets and mysteries all exist in the backstageperformance. This backstage zone encompasses a much more “informal, familiar, [and] relaxed” method of impression management (p. 80).
This section will be discussing the performance of veganism in the backstage setting. Using Goffman’s impression management theory derived from The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life(1959) as well as his philosophies mentioned in Stigma (1963) coupled with interviews from dedicated vegans intertwined with observational field notes, this part of the essay will explore how vegans perform with various audiences in the backstage setting to manage their impressions. This will be investigated through three topics: the private setting, the notion of an imposter, and the result of a sense of guiltand remorse.
Being behind closed doors and in solitary situations frequently shifts the front that vegans typically utilize while backstage. This backstage settingencompasses a different realm that is not normally utilized when active in a team or busy context.
Because the vegan is not forced to impress others with their knowledge, facts, and responsibility (due to the solitary setting), it is rather common for vegans to “act out of character” (Goffman, 1959, p. 82). This solo and backstage setting could lead to cheating and/or breaking veganism.
Furthermore, this context is frequently “inconsistent with the face-to-face treatment that is given to the audience” (p. 108). This inconstancy is due to the lack of performance the members feel the need to uphold. When no one is present and FTF (facet-to-face) communication is absent, there is no need to perform, impress, or uphold a social front. In fact, the social coin has officially been flipped, and the vegans may act however they please.
In the following narrative, the Narrator III discusses her experience in the backstage realm. She is more likely to break the vegan diet when free from human contact and social obligations. However, in a further interview she reveals her true feelings for her actions that are committed behind the social curtain:
I find that my occasional cheating with veganism really only occurs when I’m at home. I would never order something not vegan out in public. I feel like I have a social responsibility to set for others…It’s interesting because the rare cheating definitely happens behind closed doors and when I’m not around bunch of people. (Transcript III, Lines 77-83)
In a later interview with narrator III, she reflects that:
I actually prefer to make meals around people—even if they are not vegan. I feel this sense of obligation to them. I know that nobody actually cares about what I am eating, but I feel like I cannot let them down. They may not know it, but they hold me accountable. When I am alone and I find my roommates cookies that contain eggs, I tell myself that one meager nibble will not do anything. However, that nibble leads into a couple of bites, and before I know it, the whole cookie is gone. I wish I could hold myself accountable, but I am just not at that stage yet. Yes, I am committed vegan and a strong advocator for veganism, but sometimes being alone is not all that encouraging. The other day I was really craving poke. I haven’t had fish in over a year, but it just seemed right. Then I thought to myself, I would have to run into the grocery store, purchase it as fast as possible, make sure that I got a bag to hide the poke in so no one knew I was actually purchasing fish, and run into my car. And at that point, it was not even worth it. Oh, and God forbid someone I actually knew was in the store! (Transcript IV, Lines 6-19)
This above narrative reveals a vegan’s truth behind the backstage. It is evident that the once typically fixed front is removed and there is no longer a need to perfectly perform veganism because there are no observers and the curtains have closed for the performance.
Although Narrator III may seem like an un-loyal member and an imposter to the vegan community, it is quite common for vegans to create a personalized version of the vegan diet. Greenebaum (2012) reveals that this modification allows “for more transgression, such as eating honey or dairy, which prov[es] that practices [do] not always follow philosophy” (p. 157).
Narrator III reflects that she wishes that she could hold herself responsible but she is “not at that stage yet.” The mental process of adopting the vegan diet takes time, because it is more than just a diet, but rather “it is a philosophy and ethic” (p. 129). Fully encompassing all aspects of the philosophy behind the vegan lifestyle is more of a process than an instant transition.
In fact, Paxman (2016) brings into view that “the identity negotiations vegans engage in are rich, creative, and diverse efforts that vegans described as both rewarding and frustrating” (p. 119). This frustrating lens is more likely to happen while backstage as to not disrupt the social front that is presented in FTF communication.
Moreover, the veganism transition is clearly not an easy diet modification. Christopher (2013) exposes that “the majority of those in the West who subscribe to [veganism] were not raised as such. Rather, they are considered ‘converts’ to this lifestyle” (p. 6). Conversions are a process; as Narrator III discloses, she is “just not at that stage yet.”
On the whole, through support of Goffman (1959), Greenebaum (2012), Paxman (2016), Christopher (2013), and the lived experience of Narrator III, it is evident that the lack of an audience leaves vegans feeling the need to no longer perform or utilize a social front.
Imposter on the Loose
This notion of acting out of character and no longer performing the social front that once appeared vital to the creation of the vegan’s impression, allows for folks to question the authenticity of the performer. This is the concept what Goffman (1959) refers to as the imposter. Through this realization, “we are discovering that he did not have the right to play the part he played, that he was not an accredited incumbent of the relevant status” (p. 38).
The previous section discusses veganism behind closed doors, however, the backstage realm could also exist when vegans believe that no one is watching. However, sometime people are observing unbeknownst to them. When this instance occurs and “individuals witness a show that was not meant for them, they may, then, become disillusioned about this show as well as about the show that was meant for them” (p. 83). This leads to doubt about the veganism movement and the realization that this person could actually be an imposter.
In the following narrative, Narrator III discusses her encounter with being entangled in a situation where she was caught as an imposturous vegan
I was at the farmers market the other weekend and there was a honey booth. All my friends wanted to test the free samples and I said ‘Absolutely not! That’s an animal byproduct.’ My roommates kind of laughed and said ‘we see you eat honey at home all the time.’ (Transcript III, Lines 83-86)
In an observation session with Narrator II, I observed Narrator II make dinner. When the dinner concluded, I went through the products she used to cook her vegan dish and discovered that the almond cheese alternative she used in her dish was actually 99% dairy free and in fact contained a minuscule amount of dairy (Field Notes, 11/30/16, Lines 50-55).
In an interview with Narrator III she discloses that:
The other day I bought a lactose free Greek yogurt from the Farmer’s Market. It still has some dairy in it, but for me, I know it’s a really good probiotic. (Transcript II, Lines 45-46)
This information disclosed may seem as though both Narrator II and III may appear to be an imposer, but they are in fact what Goffman refers to as the “all too human sel[f]”(p. 38). These vegans demonstrate moral characterwith their dedication to the vegan lifestyle (as evident while performing on the front stageas seen in the sections above), however they too are imperfect humans that may not fall on the rightest side of Christopher’s (2013) vegetarian spectrum (as evident in Figure A below):
This scale above “is comprised of six diets that range from least strict (flex or semi-vegetarian), which consumes some meat to most strict (vegan, in which no animal products are consumed)” (Christopher, 2013, p. 10). Although most spectatorswould refer to Narrator II and III as an imposter, these viewers could be unaware that some vegans fall somewhere between the lacto diet and vegan diet. Because majority of society is unaware of Christopher’s spectrum, these vegans feel forced to playthe vegan role while on the frontstage but consume the diet they much prefer while the curtain is closed. This tends to create a stark inconstancy for observers between “one’s beliefs and [one’s] behaviors” (p. 10). Although this may be presenting themselves as an imposter, they are simply taking precautions to “prevent disruption of projected definitions” (Goffman, 1959, p. 7).
The performers that declare themselves vegan, but lean more left on the scale, may come off as an imposter to spectators, but in actuality are all too humanto remain strictly dedicated 100% of the time.
A Lingering Sense of Guilt
Through the combination of cheating on veganism in a solitary situation coupled with prospectors viewing the vegan performance of one as imposturous, these vegans are typically left with a lingering sense of guilt from the cheating that occurred backstage. Goffman (1959) notes that performers typically tend to “be cynical about [their actions]” (p. 11). Furthermore, this flipside of the social coin (discussed in the beginning of this analysis) is the side that consist of “shame” (p. 46).
This shameful side can be further analyzed with the help of Goffman’s book Stigma(1963). Goffman refers to a stigma as “the situation of the individual who is disqualified from full social acceptance” (p. 11). Furthermore, Goffman notes that “a human being, like anyone else, therefore, deserves a fair chance and a fair break” (p. 16).
In the following narrative, Narrator III further discloses information about her experience at the Farmer’s Market:
My roommates publicly declaring that statement made me feel a sense of shame and a sense of regret for eating honey (Transcript III, Lines 83-87).
Narrator III disclosed in follow-up interview that:
I always saw my roommates as girls that would support me and not reveal personal information about me to complete strangers. They knew how much I care about veganism, and for them to just shout out my inconstancy in a public manner, left me feeling shameful. I walked around the rest of the time at the Farmer’s Market with my head down (Transcript IV, Lines 23-27).
Although breaking veganism in the backstage territory is intended “to provide relaxation,” (Goffman, 1959, p. 82) it in turn has the opposite effect. It leaves a sense of guilt, remorse, and anxiety. This, however, is a common result; Paxman (2016) divulges that “The identity negotiations vegans engage in are rich, creative, and diverse efforts that vegans described as both rewarding and frustrating” (p. 119).
This lingering sense of guilt that vegans carry is due to their failed performance:“When an individual plays a part, he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them” (Goffman, 1959, p. 10). When observers (or in this case, Narrator III’s roommates) do not take the front sincerely and disclose information that occurred in the backstage, vegans will lose trust in their go-between or mediator. “The go-between learns the secrets of each side and gives each side the true impression that he will keep its secrets; but he tends to give each side the false impression that he is more loyal to it than to the other side” (p. 93).
These vegans clearly to not want to spoil their social identity, so it seems evident that the best and only way to manage impressions in the backstage is with no mediators at all.
This study contributes to what we know and what we can expect from the performanceof vegans. Although these performers are dedicated and committed to not eating or using animal and animal byproducts, the way in which vegans act and eat may vary between the frontstage and the backstage setting and additionally may differ amongst audiences. The comprehensive investigation of veganism proves that there is indeed a direct correlation between the vegan performance and impression management theory.
There were, however, some limitations of the study. Due to the time constraint, only four interviews were conducted with three narrators. Additionally, only two sources of field notes were collected. This minimal amount of data gathering was due to the time constraints of this study. This investigation was conducted in a two-and-a-half-month time span (October-December 2016).
As stated in the beginning of this essay, Paxman (2016) describes that “Relatively less research has examined how people communicate about dietary restrictions that are largely self-imposed” (p. 1). Veganism is a rare-researched topic and the field needs to be expanded. Thus, further research could analyze the frontstage and backstage settings of vegan teams. Research questions could include: Does the backstage setting differ much from the frontstage setting with vegan teams? Or: Do vegan teams put on a different frontwhile in the backstage area?
With much more research needed, the world of veganism can be better understood and spectators can set aside stigmas, better understand vegan character, and know what to expect from these non-meat-eating performers.
As mentioned in the beginning of this essay, Fresco (2009) notes that food is tied to one’s traditions and culture, and ultimately food truly is all about one’s personal and intimate “identity.” This indeed proves true, as the formation of identity within the vegan culture is vital to defining one’s self and impressing others with their wealth of knowledge.
Below are the questions that were asked to Narrator I, III, and III during the personal interviews between the months of October, November, and December 2016:
- Why did you choose to become vegan?
- How do people typically react when you say you are vegan?
- Can you describe to me what it’s like when you meet other vegans? (& can you recount some of the conversations?)
- How would you talk to non-vegans about your choice to be vegan?
- Do you ever cheat on veganism? And if so, when does this happen?
- Have you ever had a dispute with someone about your reasoning with being vegan? And if so, can you please describe it.
- Does being vegan ever force you to present yourself in a certain way?
- Has veganism impacted your overall outlook on life? And if so, can you please describe it.
- Can you describe to me about a time you tried to impress someone with your knowledge on being vegan?
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