A Taste for cigarettes: tobacco smoking as cultural capital in the working class symbolic economy




Farrance, Stephen Andrew

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Tobacco smoking in Canada has decreased over the last 20 years but remains persistent in lower socioeconomic status (SES) groups. The current study is an examination of tobacco smoking among lower SES Canadians that seeks to explore the social context of tobacco smoking from the perspective of those individuals who participate in it. This study utilized in-depth interviews with nine working class males from the Greater Vancouver and the Capital Regional Districts. It followed the phenomenological method in attempting to understand the experience of a working class smoker, reading that analysis through a Bourdieusian conceptual framework. This framework served to define the social context in terms of multiple symbolic economies bounded by symbolic boundaries, providing a coherent geography within which to locate the experiences. The study finds that within the working class symbolic economy, tobacco smoking is seen as legitimate and is enmeshed within conceptions of leisure, of self and intimately tied to other culturally-mediated commodities such as alcohol and other drugs. The findings further indicate that tobacco smoking in and of itself is not a cultural capital, but becomes culturally relevant when it is performed correctly. Correct performance requires adherence to certain rules, however, the best performance of smoking is done when it is presented as natural. Tobacco smoking, the findings indicate, is so “taken-for-granted” that unless one is a committed, ‘real’ smoker all others, social smokers included, are considered non-smokers. Through sharing and semi-ritualized consumption, tobacco smoking helps to reinforce reciprocal relationships that strengthen potentially insecure social bonds. Finally, working class males present themselves as self-reliant individuals that find cessation aids and therapies to be an embarrassment to their conception of self, thus to use cessation aids is to admit failure. The implication of these findings is that tobacco persistence exists within a classed symbolic economy that is simply not reached by current tobacco cessation programs and health research. To be effective then, such programs need to take into account the value and role tobacco smoking plays within this economy.



Tobacco Control, Social Context, Symbolic Economy, Cultural Capital, Working Class, Bourdieu, Phenomenology