New Chapter in 'Visual and Multimodal Sociology' reviewed
Luc Pauwels describes “Burned out: A Visual and Lyrical Sociology of Smoking in the City,” by Professor Stephen Coleman and Dr Jim Brogden
This is a new Chapter in prestigious 2-Volume book Visual and Multimodal Sociology by Professor Stephen Coleman and Dr Jim Brogden from the School of Media and Communication, published in August 2023.
‘Chapter 4, “Burned out: A Visual and Lyrical Sociology of Smoking in the City,” by Stephen Coleman and Jim Brogden, presents a microbehavioral ethnographic study of a noteworthy but largely taken-for-granted practice and social phenomenon, using two complementary methods: in-depth interviewing, and researcher-produced photographs.
The researchers embarked on this study, by walking in the city centre of Leeds to investigate the social practice of taking a break to smoke. They started conversations with smokers and vapers outside of corporate buildings and these interviews quickly moved beyond talking about the physical need for nicotine.
More than the very act of smoking, these moments of going outside meant a needed break from the hectic rhythm of work life.
During the many excursions in the city, photographs were made which provided evidence of individual smokers as “unique urban protagonists” and they also documented the place where these individuals chose to position themselves, possibly offering indications as to ‘why’, for to seek a safe secluded spot, or a vantage point from which to observe, or to make contact with others.
Coleman and Brogden discovered that besides the obvious act of smoking, these breaks were ascribed by the workers as moments for reflection, meditation, and for reconnecting to the city and the world.
The main rationale of this “street-level” study was to explore: “how one such seemingly empty act of passing time reflects urban aspirations that are broader and deeper than are visible at first sight,” but then also to raise “questions about how else urban cultures could make room for these vital human activities.
”This team of scholars […] produced with this chapter another stellar example of a lyrical multimodal ethnography, integrating brilliantly phrased observations and reflections with equally important expressive photography.’
Pauwels, L. 2023. Visual and Multimodal Sociology, Part B: Exploring the Urban Everyday, Edited by Luc Pauwels, Emerald Publishing.
‘Exposed in strong light from the right of frame, the young man in the grey suit
in Feel Good (2014) checks his mobile phone whilst observing the photographer
pointing the digital camera at him. The multi-tasking on display is impressive,
but not uncommon.
The ‘Feel Good’ slogan across his Boots’ branded bag
provides an ironic referent when we notice the relaxed grip of the right hand
holding the cigarette.
We might infer from this duel of gazes between photographer
and subject that it could easily be reinterpreted as subject encountering
subject. The confident posture of the young man dressed in a smart business suit
suggests he is used to being observed.
We infer perhaps from his enquiring gaze that he understands why the photographer has chosen him.
One further explanation for his apparent ease at being photographed is the notion that comfort
with being photographed is generationally related. For digital natives there is
nothing new in such observation of their activity as observers.
Many photographs feature smoking as an accessory to mobile phone use. And
in some sense the two activities (addictions? pleasures?) could be seen to alternate,
to relieve or preclude feelings of anxiety. In this context, the photograph shows
that the intervals between inhaling the smoke and exhaling the smoke cannot be
wasted, as there are messages to check and people to connect with.’
Coleman, S and Brogden, J.W. (2023) Chapter 4, “Burned out: A Visual and Lyrical Sociology of Smoking in the City,” Visual and Multimodal Sociology, Part B: Exploring the Urban Everyday, Edited by Luc Pauwels, Emerald Publishing. p,118.