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Anthropology in Practice

Anthropology in Practice

Exploring the human condition.

Speakeasy Smoking? The Making of a Stigma

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Photo by Ferran Jorda. | CC, Click on image for license and information.

Do you have a light?

It's 10:00 am, and all over New York City, office workers are headed outside. They've checked their email, drank their morning cup(s) of coffee, and had their morning meetings. Now they'll ride the elevators down to the lobbies of their buildings, push the doors open and step outside. And in a corner off-to-the side, either in small groups or (more typically) by themselves with their smart phones to occupy their attention, they'll light up.

Fifty years ago, smoking was a matter of preference. (Didn't all the cool kids do it?) Today it's a vice. Smoking has been moralized; and it has gained a heavy social value that we use to judge smokers and leverage to try alter their behavior. On a daily basis, they're confronted with advertising and public service announcements that tell them they'll live longer, reduce the chances of developing certain types of cancer, and increase the quality of life of the people around them if they stop smoking. And while these things may be true, these messages are accompanied with a degree of admonishment. Smokers are chastised through the mechanism of disgust: Wrinkled noses, irritated coughs, and outright dirty looks are signs meant to tell smokers their actions are unacceptable. These social markers form the basis for a shift in public acceptance; they're a foundation of social stigma, which is the most effective means of social control.

That's disgusting!

Disgust is an interesting sensation. It may have evolved to help our species determine what to eat. By linking feelings of nausea to certain foodstuffs, we learned what we should avoid and passed that knowledge onto others. But there's more that goes along with disgust than the sensation of nausea: disgust may begin in the gut, but it's conveyed through facial expressions and physical distancing.These signals have been appropriated for more than just avoiding unpalatable, inedible, or dangerous foodstuffs: disgust responses have come to be a marker for social rejection. Objects, people, and behaviors can incite feelings of disgust which in turn can effect judgment and behavior.

We learn disgust on two levels. First as members of a larger social order we learn that there are certain universals that are disgusting within our cultural groups and they should be avoided. Then as individuals we determine that there are degrees of tolerance for disgust that relate to personal preference. In both cases, disgust works as a deterrent because its associated signals imply contamination. Disgusting items, people, and behaviors are pollutants in that they can alter the things that they come in contact with and make them disgusting too, changing their status to one of socially acceptable. Disgust provides protection. As a preference, disgust protects the individual's right to choose. However, once a preference begins to impede on others' abilities to choose, it can no longer be regarded as a preference. It presents a larger threat to the social order that must be managed.

Revisiting peer pressure.

It used to be that peer pressure had a negative connotation to it—"just because everyone else is doing it doesn't mean you have to." Today it's almost the opposite: precisely because everyone else is doing it (or not doing it), you should too. The often discussed Framingham data is a shining example of this:

In the early '70s, 65 percent of Framingham residents ages 40 to 49 smoked regularly. By 2001, only 22 percent consumed one or more cigarettes daily. But the smoke didn't clear at random: Friends and family had a decisive influence. "People quit together," Fowler says, "or they didn't quit at all."

The scientists working with this dataset found that people quit smoking in groups. It was a ripple effect: friends of smokers were 36% more likely to quit if the smoker quit. Smokers went from being fairly equally distributed throughout the Framingham network to existing in isolated pockets. As isolated pockets, smokers are more visible as an anomaly.

In this case, the power of peer pressure is been magnified by the involvement of social agencies that promote smoking cessation. The rising body of data that reveals second-hand cigarette smoke can be harmful for non-smokers clearly casts smoking as a contaminant. Once it had been established that smoking was harmful to more than just the smoker, it became a social imperative to chastise the smoker. A growing body of medical literature and governmental policies are encouraging non-smokers to speak up. That wrinkled nose, that irritated cough, and that dirty look have all been sanctioned as a means of identifying an action that is detrimental to the group. Smoking has been marked as a universally disgusting action.

"Don't you know that's bad for you?

How do you know whether something is right or wrong? Do you feel it? Possibly. When you like something, you feel good about it—acquiring it causes you no sense of discomfort. It actually makes you feel satisfied or happy. Similarly, when you dislike something, it tends to make you feel badly. You may feel anxious or nauseas or uneasy. In this same vein, when you "do the right thing," it generates positive affect in yourself and is confirmed by the positive response of anyone who may have witnessed the act. When you're doing something largely unacceptable, you likely tend to try to hide it, which increases feelings of anxiety and negative affect—and if you don't know you're doing something wrong, the general responses of people around you are a good clue that something is amiss.

The same is true of disgust. Marked strongly by the sensation of nausea, disgust is one of those gut reactions that help make us decisions about right and wrong. Seeing signs of disgust on the faces of those around us tells us something about the acceptability of our actions. Is it no wonder then that smoking is become more of a solitary action?

Smokers are tolerated only if they are in their restricted areas (e.g., outside of the building, around the corner, away from the general flow of traffic), and even then just barely. Many smoke in a way to avoid contact with others (e.g., staring off into space, reading on smart phones, making phone calls). They make their smoke breaks into a busy period when it's supposed to be a break in part to minimize the responses from others around them because those responses have gained a preference in the social order. At some point in the future, it may be illegal to smoke cigarettes at all. In which case, would we see the rise of Prohibition-type methods of acquiring, distributing, and smoking cigarettes?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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