Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry

By Marshall, Mac | Anthropological Quarterly, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry


Marshall, Mac, Anthropological Quarterly


Peter Benson, Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. 336 pp.

Compared with alcoholic beverages and most other drug substances, tobacco is remarkably understudied by medical anthropologists. And yet, tobacco exacts more morbidity and mortality on human beings than any other pharmacologically active substance, a harmfulness that increased markedly with the spread of industrially manufactured cigarettes beginning in the late 19th century. Given the widespread interest and frequent formal training of medical anthropologists in public health this tendency to ignore the study of tobacco is all the more strange. For reasons such as these, Peter Benson's investigation of tobacco growing and the tobacco industry in North Carolina provides a welcome addition to the literature. It is especially welcome because he connects the specifics of his US-based ethnographic research to larger issues in global public health.

This book is a contribution to what Benson calls "the anthropology of capitalism" (58). He concentrates on the establishment, history, transformation, and decline of tobacco farming in North Carolina, although he is also concerned with the broader political economy of tobacco growing in the US. At multiple points in his text the author recounts his goals in writing this book, and reminds his readers what it is about. Arguing that most tobacco research has been on consumption via smoking and chewing, he maintains that "production and supply issues, as much as health behavior, are important public health matters" (10-11). In this vein he states that "My goal is to open up the crucial role of corporations in modern public health to more rigorous analysis and to develop critical reflection about the inadequacies of contemporary public health approaches that do not attend to the harm caused by industry and the role of corporations in the social management of harm" (41). But Benson has other goals as well: "At a more general level, this book is about racial power and racial projects, and the meaning and politics of innocence and responsibility in the United States" (5). He goes on to state that "This book is about the active construction of morality in a historical context influenced by industry..." (14), and that "One of the central arguments of this book is that white farmers call black people sorry to reroute blame onto them, and justify illegal but economical dependence on undocumented migrant labor" (31).

Critical medical anthropology provides a general framework that Benson uses to address structural violence, neoliberal economics, structural adjustment programs, and public health approaches to smoking. He writes that his "book expands tobacco's public health picture beyond a focus on smoking to include critical perspectives on the global tobacco industry and the social and health issues and forms of structural violence that are related to industrial agriculture and labor migration" (11). His book is an effort to combine a study of Big Tobacco and globalization with local issues and perspectives in the ethnographic context of North Carolina. In so doing, he introduces several key concepts to construct his argument. These include "plighted citizenship," "faciality," and "sorriness."

Plighted citizenship refers to hardworking people who are seen to be inherently worthy and unfairly damaged by the federal government or other circumstances beyond their control. It is "a vernacular form of the politics of imperiled privilege and backlash," and "The plighted citizen is an innocent citizen and others are to blame" (21). In short, a plighted citizen is an innocent victim. Using his mentor, Arthur Kleinman's, notion of an explanatory model, Benson describes plight as "an explanatory model and cultural model of citizenship that became dominant in the vocabulary of tobacco farm politics in the last several decades," and goes on to observe that "plight refers to a situation of misfortune and disadvantage where these conditions absolutely do not index personal or familial blameworthiness" (21).

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