Dr. Peter G. Stromberg, along with colleagues Drs. Mark and Mimi Nichter, conducted an ethnographic and qualitative study of college freshmen a few years ago, in an attempt to understand why so many college students transition to regular smoking during their time at school. They orchestrated a 16-month longitudinal (a type of observational study that looks at the same variables over long periods of time) interview study of early-phase tobacco users on two college campuses. — He does not disclose which universities the study included, which I think is relevant information. Social attitudes vary wildly from university to university based on many factors, such as type of university (public, private, liberal arts, etc.) and location (UA’s values likely differ from UCLA). I would have liked more information concerning the students sampled. —
Stromberg begins by defining agency as “an understanding that the actions they (humans) initate and execute are linked to their projects, and that they understand other human beings in the same way.” He goes on to say, “agency is itself fundamentally a social strategy, a way to closely integrate individuals into cooperative projects.” He claims this sense of agency distinguishes humans from other primates. Psychologist Michael Tomasello says on the topic, “non-human primates are themselves intentional and causal beings, they just do not understand the world in intentional and causal terms.”
Lapses in agency, thus, are situations in which choices seem to be controlled by something beyond ourselves. This includes a range of things, from spiritual possession to drug-induced mania. He references dissociation as a similar and overlapping phenomenon in some cases.
Lapses in Agency in American Society
America’s relationship with lapses in agency is strained. Religious people often discredit these notions, as their faith is based on humans having free will. Stromberg writes that, “in American society, lapses in the sense of agency are typically the site of confusion, political conflict, and even illness. The point is not that lapses in the sense of agency are completely denied.” In American culture, there are, seemingly, no acceptable contexts for a lapse in agency.
Stromberg says of his study sample, “…as Americans – these young people are likely to have little awareness of the ways in which their actions are conditioned by social factors, and to consider most of what they do as a reflection of their own autonomous choices, they are likely to construe lapses of the sense of agency as being due to a mysterious power. Following culture-wide assumptions, they come to understand this power as the addictive potency of tobacco.”
Routines in Early Cigarette Use and the Social Character of Early-Phase Tobacco Use
Stromberg observes patterns in the routines of early-phase tobacco use among college students. The typical setting is at parties or other social gatherings. He states, “this conclusion is based on considerable evidence from interviews in which our subjects, who were only occasional smokers, repeatedly told us that they smoked mainly or exclusively at parties, while more established smokers spoke of smoking at parties or in informal gatherings of smokers.”
He lists three main categories of ideas and practices that are central to fostering this lapse of agency:
Imitation and Rhythmic Entrainment is the first among these. To put it simply, people have a desire to smoke when others do. One interview participant stated, “when you see someone else light a cigarette, you get this urge to do the same.” Others stated how difficult it was to refuse or quit while around people that are smoking. Stromberg asserts there are two reasons for this strong urge to imitate others. The first concerns the social history of smoking, In short, smoking used to be a symbol of status. Those who can handle a cigarette well were likely to be high class. Even when this notion dissipated, the attraction remained. He says of this, “the symbolic associations of cigarettes change more slowly than the structural situation of social mobility.” The rhythmic portion is a bit more difficult to understand, but essentially claims that humans wish to mimic rhythmic activity in groups. Stromberg says, “a rhythmic oral-manual activity such as cigarette smoking can to some extent provoke entrainment in the same way a musical rhythm does.”
Pretend Play is where the cigarette is “used as a prop in performances of pretending.” In this manner, smoking allows a person to role-play a new identity. It creates an alternative sense of environment and atmosphere. He claims it provides opportunities for creative improvisation, which can foster a lapse in agency. Overall, I found this section to be unclear and a seeming grasp at straws. I am not sure what he means, and from what I do gather, I don’t agree with its viability.
Emotional Arousal is the final category, in which people experience a heightened sense of excitement in social environments. Stromberg says this relates to a lapse in agency as, “this arousal is likely to be interpreted as coming from outside the individual, for in fact it is. And that interpretation, of course, lends further strength to the impression that forces are working to compromise one’s accustomed responsibility for one’s own mental states and actions.” In laymen’s terms, social gatherings provide an emotional intensity that creates a sort of “high”, that can in turn foster a lapse in agency.
Conclusively, Stromberg has argued that many college students transition to regular smoking due, in part, to lapses in agency, caused by hypersocial environments. In this way, he claims college students are not entirely responsible concerning their appetite for cigarettes. The wide range of effects they experience are not all chemical in origin, or related to tobacco itself, but can rather be attributed to the environments these activities take place in.