December 03, 2014

The Social Nature of Personal Choices

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

Did you know that you could do more to reverse climate change by becoming a vegetarian than by driving a hybrid car such as a Prius? Apparently, it’s true. According to researchers at the University of Chicago, the amount of fossil fuels it takes to produce a meat-based diet is so great that if you want to reduce your carbon footprint you are better off cutting livestock out of your diet than by driving a fuel-efficient automobile. Other researchers have come to similar conclusions, finding that “plant-based diets in comparison to diets rich in animal products are more sustainable because they use many fewer natural resources and are less taxing on the environment.”

I imagine that this news may be hard for many of us to swallow—especially during this stretch of meaty holiday meals full of turkey, ham, pork, sausage, and steak. Let’s face it: eating meat (and driving gas guzzling cars, for that matter) is a favorite pastime in the United States. And as much as we love consuming meat, we hate having people tell us that we shouldn’t be eating it.

But what does eating tofu instead of turkey have to do with sociology? Many of us think that our lifestyle behaviors such as being a vegetarian or a carnivore are personal choices. In reality, all of our behaviors and habits are socially conditioned. Whether it’s the car you drive (a Hummer or a Prius), the type of exercise you do (walking to the mailbox or running a marathon), the foods you eat (meat based or plant based) or the habits you engage in (smoking, drinking, doing drugs, etc.), the things we “choose to do” are largely products of the social environments in which we find ourselves.

In one of my favorite academic articles, William Cockerham outlines a health lifestyle theory using the theoretical concepts of agency and structure. According to Cockerham, our health lifestyle decisions are not a product of our own making; we do not voluntarily choose what we want or desire. Such an individualistic model is too narrow and is analytically incomplete. In choosing a course of action (what sociologists call agency) each one of us is influenced by the social structural positions we occupy such as class, race, gender, nationality, age, and religion. These structural positions dictate to us the rules we are supposed to follow (some of which are formal rules while others are more informal), as well as the resources that may allow or obstruct our behavior. In Cockerham’s theoretical framework, our so-called personal choices are really a manifestation of our life circumstances.

The choice to be a vegetarian is a good example of this. In the United States, only 3.2% of the population consider themselves vegetarian. This number is not too surprising given that meat consumption in the United States ranks second in the entire world. On the other end of the spectrum is India, where more than 30% of the population is vegetarian and the meat consumption per person is the lowest among 177 countries. Part of the reason for the high rate of vegetarians in India is Hinduism, a religion that discourages the eating of meat. The structural position of being Hindu, or being from India, certainly increases the likelihood that one would “choose” vegetarianism as a way of life. On a very basic level, one’s capability to be a vegetarian in India is greatly enabled by the many societal resources (such as the vegetarian mark on foods) that encourage and facilitate that lifestyle.

Even in the United States, rates of vegetarianism vary widely by location. Those in bigger, more cosmopolitan cities—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin, and Portland—are more likely to choose a vegetarian lifestyle than individuals in smaller Midwestern and southern locales. It is certainly easier to be a vegetarian in Portland, Oregon than in Lubbock, Texas. In Portland, one’s choice to be a vegetarian is greatly aided by the resources of vegetarian-friendly food in supermarkets and restaurants, as well as the informal social rules that accept and promote a vegetarian lifestyle.

A similar sociological analysis can be done for smoking. If we look at cigarette consumption per capita, we see drastic differences between countries. For example, in Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia, and Ukraine, nearly half of the adult population smokes whereas in various African countries such as Ethiopia, Ghana, and Uganda, smoking is relatively rare. Significant differences in who smokes are also found in the United States. Who chooses to smoke in the U.S. varies widely by education (as Karen Sternheimer detailed in a recent blog), location, age, social class, and even sexual orientation. Considering these statistics, we should ask ourselves what it means to say, for example, that many people in Bulgaria choose to smoke whereas very few people in Ghana choose to not smoke.

The decision to be a vegetarian, just like the decision to smoke, needs to be understood in a larger structural context. If we want to make sense of these behaviors sociologically, we must recognize how one’s course of action is influenced, or sometimes even determined, by forces external to the individual. In the examples discussed above, we should consider the resources available (vegetarian food, meat, and cigarettes) as well as the rules (religious, social, or even legal) that enable or constrain one’s behavior. For those growing up in places like India or Bulgaria, it might be more appropriate for one to say that vegetarianism or smoking chose me rather than I chose to be a vegetarian or a smoker.   

One of the key sociological insights from the interplay between agency and structure is the fact that our actions are not only influenced by larger structural forces but that these same actions then often reinforce the social structure. When Indians choose to be vegetarians or Bulgarians choose to smoke they are clearly influenced by the social structure in which they live. At the same time, their actions to partake in these lifestyle choices serve to reinforce the structural forces that brought them to make those behavioral decisions in the first place.

This process, known as the duality of structure, is not wholly deterministic. As theorists of agency are quick to point out, people can always act otherwise; they can choose another course of action and potentially alter the social structure. Choosing an alternative behavior is by no means easy, especially when the social structure is working against you, but the possibility is there. Not everyone in India is a vegetarian and not everyone in Bulgaria smokes.

This point brings us back to choosing to drive a Prius or choosing to eat a plant-based diet. Although most of us to choose not to buy a Prius or become a vegetarian, the possibility exists to act otherwise. And in the not-too-distant future, these alternative choices may actually become much easier to make. As the threat of climate change becomes more real—as if it’s not real enough already—we will likely see more structural resources that enable people to choose these options. Fuel-efficient cars will become cheaper and more readily available just as vegetarianism may become more widely accepted and supported. When those things occur, it will be no surprise to find that our personal choices will change accordingly.


Very informative. Thanks for posting

Good information

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