This article advances a sociological perspective on how people use prototypes to understand social categories. Prototypes are mental representations of best-fitting cases within categories that conserve cognitive effort by efficiently representing phenomena. While simple prototypes are well understood, what remains unclear is how more complex aspects of social life are understood in prototypical terms as well as how prototypes relate to boundary work and multiple axes of inequality. To stimulate a sociological perspective on prototypes, we investigate conceptualizations of prototypical meat-eaters and vegetarians. A longstanding cultural schema relating meat-eating to masculinity and plant-focused diets to femininity has been shown to powerfully guide everyday thinking about meat; yet, multiple axes of identity are also implicated in meat consumption or abstention, raising the possibility that people will hold more complex ideas about these categories. Based on 131 semi-structured interviews, our analysis reveals a range of understandings about the social locations of meat eaters and vegetarians. We find this evidenced in the presence of four intersectional prototypes: 1) the multicultural meat-eating muscle man; 2) the meaty fat man; 3) the skinny rich vegetarian; and 4) the religious vegetarian. In interrogating these four prototypical figures, we show how prototype analysis can help explain how people think in ways that both perpetuate and deviate from gender schemas, advance the study of perceptions of intersectional identities, and illuminate the link between culture and action. In this case, prototypes reinforce but also complicate normative gendered performance and also suggest limits for adopting plant-based diets.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Cultural Studies
- Language and Linguistics
- Sociology and Political Science
- Literature and Literary Theory
- Linguistics and Language