Dissertation Profile: Nataly Birbeck

Exploring Vegetarianism

What initially attracted me to Sociology was realizing that all of my interests -watching films, reading novels, or even discussions with friends in the pub- are all essentially opportunities to employ the ‘sociological imagination’. Indeed, a casual debate with friends during a dinner party (!) was the unlikely setting in which the idea for my dissertation was conceived.

My thesis explored the social implications of vegetarianism in the Western world. While some of my fellow students met my topic with scepticism, heralding it ‘trivial’, there was not a single occasion where discussing vegetarianism ever gave way to speechlessness or failed to elicit an opinion.

This is the beauty of Sociology: areas of everyday life which are often dismissed as being inconsequential can be restored to their rightful importance, once the emotions, the relationships, and the symbolism involved are unpacked.

Food is our connection to nature, we eat food to survive, so therefore its meaning is paramount. With the current health-consciousness engulfing the Western world, and an emphasis on what we consume as being linked to notions of identity, I thought the practice of vegetarianism would be particularly interesting. If the food we put into our bodies is of significance, then it follows that the food we consciously avoid is also of significance.

With this in mind, I decided to embark upon a journey which would take me from McDonalds to feta cheese dumplings on a Saturday night, from Bourdieu to Maggie Simpson, and from panic to pride. I wanted to explore people’s motivations to turn vegetarian, the different ways in which it impacted upon their relationships with meat-eaters, how it contributed to notions of identity, and whether males and females had differing perceptions of vegetarianism. The interview process was one (which after some initial unfounded anxiety) I thoroughly enjoyed, not to mention the fact that I employed skills which will be useful in the working world.

At the risk of sounding like a cliché, my dissertation is my biggest academic achievement to date. Not only did I gain inspiration and esteem from my academic advisors, I also made great friends with whom I bonded with over the course of the project. I am currently working towards my postgraduate dissertation at the University of Manchester. Building upon my undergraduate thesis, I am going to research the gender division in vegetarianism, and the masculine qualities attached to meat. This is something I am already raring to start again – testimony to how much I enjoyed doing it as an undergrad.

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