Largely understudied until the turn of the 21st century, an anthropology of smoking has erged in a context dominated by scientific evidence condemning tobacco’s devastating effects on health and government projects promoting cessation. In recent years, social and cultural explanations for smoking behaviors have become valuable currency (in terms of research grants, etc.)—an offer that anthropologists have been only too happy to take up. This status quo raises some questions: What are our roles as ethnographers? What moral imperatives do we face in the context of such research, if any?
In her bold account of the contemporary “atmosphere” of cigarette smoking, Dennis suggests we escape anti/pro-tobacco positionalities by “studying the war, rather than only taking up a place in the battle” (p. 172). Many anthropologists ask: “Why do people smoke?” Dennis inquires: “What is the contemporary social, moral and political atmosphere into which smoking, smokers, (and anthropologists) are enfolded?” Reflecting 10 years of careful research, Dennis’s book is much more than a simple manifesto for a disengaged anthropology of smoking.
The originality of Dennis’s analysis resides in her exploration of unquestioned understandings of public place and of the air itself, common-sense concepts employed to justify this moral atmosphere of condemnation. Rather than the usual theorization of the tobacco industry and public health as two opposing forces, Dennis focuses on the relations that unfold between smokers and the state through tobacco control measures—which intend to legislate the air.
The choice of Australia as a setting is far from arbitrary. With the ambition of 100% tobacco cessation for the entire population in 2030, the Australian government endorses some of the world’s tightest restrictions on smoking. Through a series of vivid descriptions, Dennis takes us on a journey to places where smokers can be shouted at for selfishly spreading cancer in the street, and where every-day televised anti-smoking advertisements feature the organs of dead smokers gruesomely leaking “brie-cheese gunk” (p. 153) onto laboratory trays. This is indeed a grim setting within which to light up.
Writing against the grain of approaches that seek to understand smokers’ practices to better regulate tobacco consumption, Dennis offers a phenomenological analysis of the lived experience of smoking itself. What is it like to smoke in the atmosphere of “smokefree”? While a majority of anthropological analyses to date have focused on the smoker as an identity paradigm, Dennis’s approach brings living bodies to the forefront by turning to look at cigarette smoke. Dennis’s selection of ethnographic vignettes illustrate smoke’s potential to do certain things in the hands of social actors—namely, to defy boundaries between bodies, things, place, and time. Ignoring legislated topographies, smoke simply wafts outward, over private walls and in through windows, disregarding any type of dichotomy.
Thinking about smoke means thinking about air. Is air infinite and ahistorical, or local and saturable? Dennis shows that the exclusion of smoke from certain spaces is embedded in a framework that conceptualizes air as a pure and collectively shared resource. Dennis exploits this airy lens in multiple directions, using cigarette smoke to shed light on whom air is seen to belong to, and how it might be pressed into the service of the state, tobacco companies, and every-day breathers.
The book is split into two sections. Part 1 (Chapters 1–3) introduces the author’s central concept—the atmosphere of smokefree. Here, Dennis paints a historic account of the “scare campaigns” and other tobacco control measures taken by the state, demonstrating how particular imaginaries of the smoker have emerged as a product of this unique legislative and affective atmosphere. Part 2 (Chapters 4–7) develops a more in-depth argument regarding relations between smokers and the state. It explores how forms of embodied knowledge are transformed as smokers and non-smokers breathe in tobacco control messages.
Chapters 3–6 provide the material of most interest for medical anthropologists and students. Chapter 3, in particular, questions the place of the rational actor in anthropological theory. Following Kapferer (2003), Dennis urges us to discard the idea that in-depth ethnography can unearth the underlying reason why people smoke and offers a translation of this peculiar practice to other publics. Dennis flatly accuses anthropologists of becoming cosy bedfellows with public health—which severely constricts the type of knowledge they can create and puts the quality of their analyses into jeopardy. Dennis instead advocates an approach that attends to the “inconsistent logics” (p. 59) characterizing interlocutors’ life-worlds.
Dennis’s analyses of second-hand (Chapter 5) and third-hand smoke (Chapter 6) make valuable contributions to ongoing disciplinary debates. Folding in older tropes of miasma—the notion that diseases are caught through contact with poisoned air—Dennis deftly weaves considerations of class and social inequalities into her sensory analysis of smoking. By polluting public air with the mere smell of tobacco, (working-class) smokers are understood to endanger (middle-class) citizens’ rights to a normative unscented (middle-class) air. This is fertile ground in which to ask who the public in public health actually is. Dennis alerts anthropologists to the fact that by aligning themselves unreflectively with tobacco cessation goals, they might find themselves actively participating in the socio–spatial marginalization of smokers—even when smokers are not smoking.
Dennis takes the idea of a new conflation between smokers and smoking further in Chapter 6. Here, she introduces readers to one of the first ethnography-based analyses of third-hand smoke—the residue that remains after cigarette combustion. Continuing to lurk in/on hair, clothes, sofas, and wallpaper for decades, this material residue becomes highly “dangerous” in a Douglasian sense (Douglas 1966), while scientific evidence remains scarce. Dennis’s ethnography reveals that smoke takes on multiple forms—leaking not only into other bodies uninvited, but also between past and present and across public and private space.
In Chapter 7, we find out what smokers themselves actually do with cigarettes. For Dennis, smokers are continuously invited to travel—to idyllic faraway places (by tobacco companies) and inside their own black and decaying lungs (by public health). But smokers have their own plans for using cigarettes as a biotechnology—as we discover through the portrait of flirtatious Megan. Megan relishes cigarettes’ capacity to make her fingers look longer and sexier and uses smoke to stroke men’s faces or dispatch “smelly slaps” (p. 166) in Adelaide’s bars. Dennis is clearly captivated by this ethnographic moment, which occupies a prominent place in her earlier work. Dennis promptly concludes that cigarettes might be seen as analogous to mobile phone technologies and argues that smoking might most usefully be explored through a paradigm of “travel outbound from the site of the body” (p. 167). Medical anthropologists might, however, be tempted to ask what makes Dennis so sure that bodies are “sited” in the first place—or that bodies do have confines waiting to be dissolved, extended, or stood outside of by cigarettes. Cigarette smoking clearly represents a fascinating setting for rethinking the bounded body.
Smokefree fulfills its bold promise to describe the atmosphere we are all breathing in, as smokers, non-smokers, and researchers. Casting aside the figure of the non-compliant smoker, Dennis depicts how this atmosphere—that turns people into everyday sources of pollution and disease—weighs down on smokers themselves. Further research might explore atmospheric versatility: Might smokefree be spread thinner in some places, while uncomfortably muggy in others? And are there places where this atmospheric tension breaks down? This book doubtless opens up new research opportunities for medical anthropologists, sociologists, geographers, and sensory scholars. Its light and often humorous prose will suit introductory courses on medical anthropology.
1966 Purity and Danger. New York: Praeger.
2003 Introduction: Outside All Reason—Magic, Sorcery and Epistemology in Anthropology. In Beyond Rationalism: Rethinking Magic, Witchcraft and Sorcery. B. Kapferer, ed. Pp. 1–30. New York: Berghahn Books.