Social Smoking: An Untenable Position

By Whitesel, Jason; Shuman, Amy | Sociological Focus, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Social Smoking: An Untenable Position


Whitesel, Jason, Shuman, Amy, Sociological Focus


Social smokers manage the conflicting aspects of their liminal identities by negotiating complex roles of performance and exchange. Using a combination of methods, including both participant observation of cultural performances and informal interviews, to elicit lay theories and accounts of self-conscious practices, this project examines social actors, self-defined as nonsmokers (or reformed smokers), who engage in recreational tobacco use. Through in-depth interviews and observations of self-identified female social smokers, we document general characteristics of this subpopulation, sampled from a large Midwest capital and its surrounding areas. Social smokers occupy an untenable social space; as neither smokers nor nonsmokers, they use both practices and discourses about those practices to stake their claim to an untenable social position. We conclude with a theoretical discussion that compares our findings with other discourses on smoking, especially the discourse of addiction narratives. In an age of increasing awareness of the health consequences, smoking has become a culturally unavailable category producing "disconfirming realities" in which social smokers constantly renegotiate their status.

With increasing attention to health consequences, smoking in the United States has decreased in everyday practice, while, at the same time, continuing to be a means for claiming or denying a socially performed identity. Even in a climate of awareness regarding its health risks, social smoking helps negotiate complex roles of performance and exchange. In this paper, we discuss the availability and sustainability of the category of the "social smoker" in a world that requires a sharp distinction between the habitual and the nonsmoker (both of which require identity work). The paradox for social smokers is that they believe that they are nonsmokers, but they tend to find their allies among habitual smokers, those who share a similar stigmatized and regulatory discourse. In the current climate of smoking bans in public places, the alienation of smokers is exacerbated. Social smokers move in and out of passing as either habitual smokers or as nonsmokers, even as passing in one category inevitably delegitimizes their claims to membership in the other. Social smokers do not belong to a coherent or fixed category; rather, social smoking destabilizes the rigidity of the habitual smoker/nonsmoker binary.

Social smokers eventually experience a disconfirming reality. Richard Hilbert refers to this as an estrangement problem in which people lack social alliances in a society that does not recognize their experiences. Such individuals prefer "neither concealment nor disclosure" and thus remain invisible (1984:370). Social smokers, who also experience this estrangement and lack of category recognition, can suffer from a kind of hypervisibility in which olfactory and visible evidence forces them to question which version of reality is correct, or if they can sustain the reality they prefer. Hilbert argues that the alternative is not only for stigmatized individuals to pass as normal, but - more importantly - to find a means to sustain the ambiguity of a contradictory position (1984:373).

Conscious of the possibility that smoking produces real consequences for physical health and that smoking is stigmatized as a filthy habit, social smokers try to differentiate themselves from habitual smokers, and they convince themselves that they are effectively nonsmokers. Survey results representing the primary motivation for social smoking as "a dismissive attitude to the dangers of smoking" cannot account for its social dimension (Herlitz and Westholm 1996:209). Our research documents social smoking as a self-conscious performance involving elaborate, practiced, ongoing behavioral management. We argue that social smokers formulate intricate strategies that depend on reciprocity and mutual recognition to create a barely sustainable social identity associated with a stigmatized practice. …

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