The Smoking Interest Group was established at Durham in October 2010 after a FUSE (Centre for Translational Research in Public Health) seminar in Newcastle revealed that there was a group emerging at Durham with the potential to develop a distinctive research focus in relation to smoking. Most smoking research is carried out in the context of public health and with a focus on getting people to stop. This approach, whether qualitative or quantitative in method, may tend to confine researchers’ vision about how to understand the experience of smoking and of the lives of smokers in the contexts of their lives. For example, it may be difficult to break through a characteristic respondent response to enquiries about their smoking which is one of guilt, defensiveness and an litany of reasons why they have not stopped. The interest of SIG is characterised as ‘critical public health’ and focuses on:
- The phenomenology of smoking – understanding the experience, how it is embodied and felt and understood physically (the body being ‘caressed’ by smoke, how cigarettes ‘keeps people company’ and what this means), taking seriously and understanding the aesthetic pleasure smokers experience;
- Cigarettes as ‘friends’ (in the words of many confirmed smokers). What does this mean to have a relationship with an object – this can be explored via Bruno Latour’s actor network theory and through other approaches to the idea of objects as having agency;
- The relationship of smoking and personhood – how smokers, long term and even recent can feel themselves constituted in some way by their smoking;
- Cultural, historical, social aspects of smoking – e.g. the importance of time in smoker’s lives in relation to decisions about stopping and starting, times in the day when smoking is important, smoking and not-smoking over the life course;
- The fact that this social scientific and humanities-derived understanding would not stop at theoretical conclusions but we would aim to use conclusions to inform policy and therapeutic interventions. The needs of policy and therapy would, however, not drive the direction or content of the research.
There does not seem to be a group in the UK with a focus that takes research in this field outside public health but which nevertheless seeks to inform policy and practice within it. SIG’s mixture of disciplinary strengths in medical anthropology and medical humanities with access to other disciplines, such as English studies, philosophy, geography, theology, and links in clinical medicine through the Affiliates structure in CMH, has the potential to enable us to do distinctive work in this area where there may be an emerging challenge relating to smokers who find giving up difficult or who feel that this is not a desirable option for them. Being situated in the North East, which has a high smoking prevalence and is noteworthy in having a smoking prevalence in women which is now higher than men, makes such research in this region even more important.
SIG is a collaborative venture led by Jane Macnaughton and CMH Affiliate from Anthropology, Andrew Russell and involving Affiliates Sue Lewis (SMH), Susana Caro-Ripalda (Anthropology), PhD students Frances Thirlway and Peter Stelfox and anyone else who has an interest in this field. As a group we meet every 6-8 weeks to discuss relevant literature, develop research proposals and stimulate new written contributions to smoking research. We plan a launch event in September 2011 (watch this space!) and are currently working on a research proposal to explore the growing epidemic of smoking amongst women in four international sites across three continents. Marlene’s, and more recently, Kate Moss’s, style seems to be one that has resonance in many women’s lives.