As a professor, I'm sometimes caught in the bind of what I *want* to say and what I *should* say. In general, I'm very, very careful. I don't reveal my political opinions (though most people could probably guess them pretty easily); I make sure my lectures stick to facts published in peer-reviewed articles or books. When discussing something that could be construed as controversial, I make sure I present both sides, even when I think the "other side" is basically out to lunch. I make sure my students always understand that most social issues have two sides, and (gasp!) even academics cannot always settle the debates.
So, when I decided, for my Sociology of Health and Medicine class, that I would present scientific evidence of the benefits of a plant-based diet, I did so nervously. Would the students be able to take the information and assimilate it into our typical sociological discussions of economic class, justice, socialization or help-seeking? Would they see it as relevant to a medical sociology class, or would I risk being seen as someone using class time to promote a personal interest?
I've assigned, for this week (the theme of which is the sociological study of lifestyles), to have students read research on vegetarianism, as well as excerpts from The China Study, a book about the largest epidemiological study ever undertaken. I did this in conjunction with the chapter in their textbook on healthy lifestyles; the chapter emphasized the (duh!) obvious needs for people to exercise, drink in moderation and refrain from drugs and cigarettes, as well as the age, education level, class, gender and race differences in those practices.
I didn't know when I assigned these readings if I'd look like a radical or not. Sure, this is Eugene and there are plenty of vegetarians and vegans here, but we're still very much a minority, and in general even sociologists (known for their radicalism among all academic departments) don't discuss diet. Sure, organics is big here, as is the trend to "know your farmer" and buy locally. In fact, it's probably easier here in this part of Oregon to meet the following criteria -- vegan or vegetarian, organic AND local -- than in practically any other part of the country.
But this is a sociology class and not an open pulpit for advocacy; I refrained from lecturing myself because I simply wanted to present the EVIDENCE and see if they would connect the issues we've been discussing all term (access to health and health care, disparities in health outcomes and help-seeking behaviors, economic class and health) to the medical research on vegetarian/vegan diets and health.
They did. Very well, in fact. A 65-page powerpoint presentation. They presented much more evidence that I would have, had I lectured myself. Their presentation was so long, however, that the class never got the chance to discuss the social, cultural, economic and political implications of vegetarianism or veganism, something I had hoped they would get to do.
So, today, before I lectured about Parson's conception of the sick role, I asked them if they wanted to talk about the students' presentation. They did. I asked if there were criticisms they had of the material. I got some interesting responses, ranging from, "Gosh, I tried to go vegan once but it's so hard and I couldn't get enough protein and craved meat all the time," to "Well, some meat is better than other meat; my Dad used to raise our meat or hunt it; I wasn't brought up eating meat from the grocery store."
Other criticisms were veganism can get to be expensive (yes, indeed, it can) and that it takes a long time to retrain yourself to shop, cook, and eat differently (I also agree). Still another critique was that cheap food like meat and dairy is subsidized by the government, which explains both why information about their poor products is not widely disseminated, as well as why people continue to buy it.
Another thoughtful student said that in many parts of the country, it might be stigmatizing NOT to eat meat and dairy; that in places like Eugene, it's almost cool, but it's unlikely to be perceived that way everywhere. Stigma. A key sociological concept. Love it.
Still another comment was that cattle in particular are almost symbolic of the pioneer spirit and the West. You'd almost think that last argument was for the point of NOT eating beef, but the point the student was trying to make was that giving up beef might feel, for some people, like giving up their heritage. I hadn't thought of it in exactly those terms, but as the great-great-granddaughter of a pioneer who got here from Iowa via a couple of oxen, I have to say I agree. Cattle are symbolic of the West and as long as factory farmers portray a bunch of "happy cows," most of us aren't going to question whether or not we should be eating them. Heritage, imagined communities, clever marketing -- all sociological topics. Love that too.
Vegans would of course have a FIELD DAY with these responses and would in particular jump all over the guy who said it's hard to get enough protein and the girl who said eating meat you hunt is better for you than eating meat you buy in the store.
I, however, find these responses very honest and, for the most part, true. As a class we ended up talking about the theoretical range of "good" (factory farming = very bad; grass-fed, free-range = better but more expensive; vegetarian/vegan = arguably even better, based on knowledge of Dr. Campbell's studies). We also discussed who is likely to know this information and who is likely to be able to act on it. (Same answer for virtually all health-related issues discussed this term: those with more money.)
Finally, we also discussed the social problems inherent in dealing with information that severely challenges long-held assumptions. EVEN ARMED WITH EVIDENCE FROM WELL-DONE STUDIES, people resist changing their diets. The cultural pulls of what you think you already know and affordability -- sociologists call these "socialization" and "economics" -- are strong deterrents against change.
Does milk "do a body good"? Is beef "what's for dinner"? Did you, your parents, your grandparents and pretty much everybody you've ever known drink milk and eat beef (or chicken or pork or fish or lamb)? If the answer is "yes," well, then, it's gonna be pretty hard to convince you that maybe you should not. Socialization is a powerful tool.
The students seemed to enjoy the discussion of diet, cultural norms, socialization, poverty, government subsidization, and health. Because this is a sociology class, we completely stayed away from the vegan philosophical arguments that it's never OK to eat or wear ANY animal products. I also did not bring up issues of environmental sustainability or a critique of factory farming or an animal rights' perspective. I kept the focus on health and health information and on how such information can be resisted for social, economic and cultural reasons.
Was I doing advocacy? Kinda. Activism? Not really. Teaching. You bet.
- My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.