Spitting and sociology / theory – a composite of possibilities

Ok so how to view spitting through a sociological lens? Well it depends on the type of spitting being looked at, the meaning being attached to it and the context in which it is taking place. To some extent it will also depend on the theoretical preference of those undertaking the analysis. Let me give you an example:

Marcel Mauss in his essay on Techniques of the Body illustrates how many – if not most – bodily actions (ways of swimming, walking, running, eating, smoking, digging and so on) differ in their style and affectation between and even across societies. Actions that we think of as simply natural are often affected by the context in which they appear. Culture thus affects the style of how we do things, like how we walk (and I have noticed that men and women often walk ‘differently’ here in Seoul – i.e. their respective gaits are not like those I would witness in the UK) so as Mauss puts it ‘there is an education in walking too’. Certainly it is the case that Seoul smokers have their own style (often fast and determined) and the spitters do too.

Habitual and casual public spitting however is different to spitting that has more obvious, visible, meaning attached to it like spitting in someone’s face or as an act of symbolic contempt. Habitual public spitting is often embedded in a culture, as paan is embedded in Indian culture. Elias, Mauss and Bourdieu – to name but a few have elaborated on how an embedded behaviour becomes ‘natural’ to a group or population and how this embeddedness then socialises the next generation and so on. Familiarity on this level breeds a behaviour into the nature of a group and can lead to sentiments declaring ‘Spitting [as] an inherent character of Indians’ (as expressed recently by the Bombay High Court in India, and reported by the Times of India). It’s not enough though to simply think of habit as sufficient a way of analysing and understanding how and why spitting takes the forms it does. Habitual spitting is also context bound. In South Korea it seems that spitting is but nominally shrouded in shame (if at all) and bounded by the most simple of rules. In India and China spitting is being contested by a host of anti-spitting campaigns setting a new discursive (Foucault) context in which people can ‘debate’ how spitting should now be understood and then either learn to self-govern their own behaviour, have it controlled (by e.g. law) or ‘resist’ it as their right or inherent character. In these countries an increasing number of people are being shamed away from spitting and/or are attempting to shame others away from it.

These new discourses however often fail to situate spitting in its broader historical context and how it relates to the development of manners over time. Elias, again, (in The Civilising Process) shows how manners are not related to an objective or natural evolutionary process towards superior forms of civility and civilisation but how they are related to the mores and ‘folkways’ of the elites and the power they wield to influence mass behaviours. Shaming, othering and stigmatising become methods to impose power downwards. Sometimes this is done through discourses of the ‘proper’ i.e. supposedly refined/civilised behaviour as it relates to etiquette and at other times these moralising discourses have been effectively wed to those of risk, medicine and the public health. In relation to our globalised world this process now also includes not just how elite preferences around etiquette percolate down to mass behaviour within societies but also how civilities/etiquette of so-called ‘advanced nations’ or indeed those that have been ‘advanced’ for longer, appear to be permeating ‘down’ to those elites in the newly developed/developing societies that are ‘looking out’ often from a position of privileged ‘international exposure’ (thanks to Madoka for the preciseness of that term).

Spitting is however sometimes almost Pavlovian as opposed to simply habitual, although this two things are complexly intertwined. Place a man over (I presume not all but many) a urinal or toilet and before he knows it he has spat in it. In Malaysia (and elsewhere) people will be hocking. This is stimulus response mixed with habit and what is allowable. Where it is not allowable the stimulus is muted by stigma unless the person is alone and then s/he is free to…

Understanding how shifts in perception take place from what is acceptable to what is unacceptable, to something abject, (Kristeva) is also an important part of this research. How does a culture make that break and how are people and their behaviours objectified and transformed into the revolting (Tyler). Relatedly, Douglas tells us the things that are often emphasised as problems/risks are so for political or moral reasons rather than representing the risks suggested leading to exaggerated fears that can operate as a driver for policy (Furedi; Altheide) – the public health bureau of Shanghai for example has claimed that spitting kills more people than an atomic bomb.

At the moment these are just some of the obvious theoretical positions, conceptual models and possible applications that are emerging from my reflections on spitting. As of this time however I am undecided as to which I will merge, prioritise or discard. I am also aware that spitting in some/most places is very ‘class’ based or affected, it is linked to notions of self and identity but also to social responsibility. In addition, the study of International Relations is an interdisciplinary backdrop as is that of cultural studies, anthropology and criminology. I am sure that I am missing some obvious conceptual links so if you want to suggest a profitable mode of interpretation – don’t be shy – drop me a line!

[International spitting survey. To help me compare spitting worldwide, please fill in this brief (approx. 6-7 minutes) survey on spitting experiences. https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/spitting ]


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