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2018 Update

New publications that result either from the rapid ethnography that this blog is now a historical archive of will be linked to below as they are produced. A number of outputs are planned in addition to the chapter referenced immediately below. There will be country case studies, results from the international spitting survey as well as a book. Follow this blog and be alerted when these appear (intermittently as the writing for this interest, unfortunately, often has to take a back seat behind my other research).

Coomber, R., Moyle, L. and Pavlidis, A. (2018) ‘Public spitting in ‘developing ’ nations of the global south: harmless embedded practice or disgusting, harmful and deviant?’, in Kerry Carrington, Russell Hogg, John Scott and Maximo Sozzo (eds.) Palgrave Handbook on Criminology and the Global South, Palgrave Macmillan.

[Go to chapter 25]



Some media observations from China and Chinese academics

The research has attracted some further media attention and some Chinese academics, whilst not directly contradicting my notions of the ‘unheard’ and the ‘unseen’, relate what might be another important aspect of Chinese ‘character’ – the sensibility of not wanting to confront others’ anti-social behaviour.

I do find this both interesting and important but cannot help feeling that for many Chinese (and the survey seems to be backing this up) spitting is not a problem for them, anti-spitting campaigns are not widely known about and even if you (in essence) would prefer spitting not to be prevalent you can still, if e.g. Chinese/Inidian/South Korean, not see/hear it. An example of this was evidenced by each of my guides in Kuala Lumpur, Seoul and Shanghai who all ‘learned’ to see/hear spitting (as much as me) only once they were more sensitised to it. What I mean by this is that Liew, Eunice and Isabelle each noticed less spitting than I did at first but then noticed more and more as our observations went on. In Shanghai in particular it wasn’t uncommon for me to ask Isabelle ‘did you see/hear that’ and for her (she is a non-spitter from a non-spitting family) to reply simply that she had not.

Day 20 – Shanghai / China day 2 – Casual observations continued

With Isabelle my guide not booked into assist me with my observations until Day 2 (and then Day 4 also), on Day 2 of Shanghai I decided to undertake some minimal observations alone. With Shanghai Railway Station, the largest rail/bus hub in Shanghai also accommodating a busy subway, just a five minute walk away from my hotel I felt that this was an ideal space to observe busy transient crowds of people of all ages as well as give me easy access to the subway for exploring slightly further afield.

On the way to the station two men (separate occasions) produced a casual hock and a spit. Once outside the station on the concourse/square which bounds the front of its entrance (see video) spitting occurred regularly but not incessantly.

Spitting was ever present without being so continuously. My field notes perhaps relate this more clearly:
‘2 mins, just in front of station itself looking at those walking into the building; man – hock and spit straight to the floor and not one person looked; although facing towards station could hear regular hocks from crowd behind me; 5 mins in front another man – hock and spit.’

`Went inside ticket office building – loud hock after 5 mins – man spits onto ‘abandoned’ cleaners cart and mop (that he purposely walked to) not on floor’ (see image).


Around the station square outside there are occasional large globules of phlegm/spit here and there. In case you don’t know what I mean…


‘A women, late 30s strides across the square. Hocks firmly, turns to the side and a very purposeful spitting action that is clearly very practised and nonchalant at the same time’

After Shanghai Railway Station I decided to go (via the subway) to one of the parks in the city – Zhongshan Park. Again my field notes are illustrative:

‘Going in, loud and purposeful hock and spit; then older man walking in front, casual hock and spit into the path of two oncoming young women neither of whom noticed and/or didn’t care and there was no malice involved; then park keeper or police/security (difficult to tell) spit on park walkway. Women, around 45 leans forward and dribbles out a spit;’

On my return to Shanghai Railway Station and to my hotel I passed a nearby electronics mall. This is a building (4 floors) housing stall after stall of people selling mostly mobile phone related consumables (phones; accessories; repairs offered and so on). Despite their being many people sweeping and clearing up the floor is dirty and the mall is scruffy/unclean generally. Less like a mall than an old fashioned ‘indoor market’ with floors. On entering I immediately heard a hock and a spit, then another and another after two more minutes; I saw one globule of spit on the floor separate to a spitter.
5.18pm woman spits into a tissue, another woman 5.52pm stacking boxes on the street – loud hock and spit.

Seoul / South Korea: Days 15-18 (entry 2) – A cigarette associated spitting culture bounded by unofficial rules but little shame

On day two of field work in Seoul Eunice and I visited the Hye Hwa area which is an arty/cultural area with lots of small theatres; Dongsung High school – a specialised Catholic high school populated by ‘middle/upper class’ students; Hanyang Technical School populated essentially by ‘working class’ students, and the Dongdaemoon Market area which combines a large area of poor, relatively run down retail shop fronts and and stalls frequented by poorer South Koreans, next door to a large shopping mall frequented by wealthier citizens.

At the schools, one at break-time and one at end of day leaving time we saw only a little spitting (none of which was smoking related). Eunice’s cousin however, a school teacher, reported that in one outdoor alley/corridor at her (High) school there was so much spitting that you literally had to navigate around the spittle on the floor. At the schools we observed, in one instance a spit only occurred once a teacher that had been present had gone and at the other a few boys spat outside the school gates but not too many. We visited Hye Hwa in mid-afternoon and the streets were not busy. We saw one or two male smokers/spitters as we might have expected (although spitting is not exclusively related to smoking – just mostly). These were hocks and spits. At the outdoor market area we saw a lot of spitting but much of it was into the available tin ashtrays/cans attached to the metal fences all-round the area and if not available – onto the ground.

The half-spit – confirmed and (perhaps) understood

First encountered in Tokyo, Eunice and I regularly came across the half-spit which Eunice declared to be, in her opinion, a common act (and one since also seen/heard with regularity in Shanghai / China too). At first we could not quite fathom the purpose of the half-spit, the noisy hocking of phlegm into the mouth, in readiness normally for a spit, only for that spit never to come (and to be followed we have to presume by a swallow). The answer (perhaps) however lays more in cross-cultural difference than in something we might label as a distinct phenomenon. An epiphany came to me a few days later however after some spicy food in Shanghai whereby I found myself a little congested. I made the normal throat-clearing act that many westerners do in this situation (mouth either closed or slightly open) whereby we do a kind of throat clearing ‘cough’. I suspect that the half-spit may well be the same act but performed with a different style. Not everyone in Seoul or Shanghai are spitters and perhaps this is how those individuals clear their throats before swallowing. The difference is in style not substance perhaps?

There are a whole host of cross cultural differences that will be related in a later post – particularly that related to personal space.

Seoul /South Korea – smoking and spitting, rules and regulations

As inferred perhaps by the post title, there appears to be little shame around public spitting Seoul. There are no anti-spitting campaigns that we are aware of and in this sense spitting is not high on the public consciousness. Eunice became a seasoned spit observer/hearer in the two days we spent in the field (she is probably scarred for life in this respect as most people hearing about my research remark that they now cannot help but notice it more) but at first she saw and heard far less than I did. Spitting is in many sense then not on the public agenda and is not a problem it seems. Smoking however is different. Campaigns to reduce and control smoking behaviour are prominent – spitting goes ‘with’ smoking and yet even with this clear association spitting hasn’t been (to date) dragged into the discursive framework that seeks to control smoking behaviours.

Risk factors leading to more or less spitting

There are a whole host of factors emerging from each of the countries that suggest spitting is more or less curtailed by certain conditions – Seoul is no different. When observing the smoking zone inside the grounds of the Samsung Headquarters Eunice remarked (not dissimilar to some actions in India) that ‘respect’ will mean that when smoking and/or conversing in the presence of a company employee who is either higher or lower in the company hierarchy then spitting would be unlikely. Spitting will also be somewhat curtailed for many men in front of women and especially wives and girlfriends. Spitting may also be being constrained (or was previously when enforced more) by the construction of smoking only zones creating less opportunities for smoking. Observations of smoking zones on day 3 also seemed to indicate that mobile phones play a part in reducing spitting. Observations of people smoking and talking on a mobile phone tended to reveal far less spitting (at all, or frequency) than those focussed solely on getting through that cigarette!

Socially responsible and (dis)inhibited spitting

A great deal of spitting (though not all) is of the quitter, muted half spit/half dribble kind. Often into smoking cans or bushes or drains. As stated above ‘who’ is around will affect whether spitting might take place and some government controls may be via an unintended consequence of controlling smoking also be controlling some spitting. Spitting is not, in many cases done without some consideration. Spitting is thus not free of inhibition or controls, it just isn’t, perhaps, really ‘there’ much beyond these unconscious/informal and unintended controls.

Future research

Eunice and I have drawn up a plan for further research and writing not-too-dissimilar to that drawn up for Tokyo / Japan with Madoka. This will involve more historical background data collection from Korean language sources, the translation of the survey into Korean and further observations and/or follow-up online interviews where needed.

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. ]


A quick post on something that caught my eye. After travelling to those cities of the skyscraper – Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Tokyo and now Seoul – I have been more than treated to seeing some of the world’s tallest buildings and landscapes full of huge tower blocks. In most cases these buildings are either tall rectangles or occasionally something more imaginative but, to me at least, not particularly pleasing on the aesthetic front. I was rather pleased then when my fieldwork brought me face to face with the newly built (2011) albeit uninspiringly named GT Tower in the Gangnam area of central Seoul. I love it.

I wonder if someone spits from the top whether it does serious damage?


Jakarta / Indonesia Day 10: A different type of data gathering exercise and a new ‘hidden’ nuance

Day 10 was spent in the field and appraising my research approach for countries where I may have landed in the wrong spot and/or am especially time-limited. My schedule gave me just one day for Indonesia and that meant travel to rural locations from my entry point was difficult/limited in the time-space allocated. Much betel chewing (whilst once ubiquitous across Indonesia) is now located in specific rural regions of the country. Spitting however doesn’t just disappear in an area (Jakarta) even if one the main reasons for doing it does and as late as 2007 the City of Jakarta (a huge, modernising skyscraper city) felt the need to ban public spitting on public transport probably indicating that a specific and significant problem was present (and it is perhaps safe to assume that if people were spitting on public transport that spitting in the street was common and relatively accepted as the ban did not extend to this).

Unfortunately for the research however, the day allocated for field-work was also May Day / Labour Day and this meant that a normally bustling city was depleted considerably, and with it the opportunities for observing every-day casual public spitting which may have been challenging in the ever modernising cityscape anyway. Undeterred, I set off with my three guides, Jody, Taris and Bram (all 20 year old undergraduates of International Relations at President University here in Jakarta) for various locations they had suggested around Jakarta: Tebet, a market area in the suburbs of Jakarta, Bukit Duri – a relatively poor area where we were advised to inform the local administrators (each area has an office) of what we were doing (but they were out); Sedia Budi an area with food vendors opposite a low open fenced grassy area where lots of working people were lunching; Blok M square, a mall with an outside area with pedestrian traffic and nearby the Blok M Bus Terminal. The latter in particular was sparsely populated whereas normally it would have been humming.


From a research point of view however the time spent with Jody, Taris and Bram on the streets was far from wasted. The hours that we spent together, with them enthusiastically trying to help me locate spitting in Jakarta, meant that (similar to my time spent with Liew in KL) we built up a good rapport and as the day went on they understood better the ways in which I was looking at the issue.

Hidden spitting into the ‘moat’ of public swimming pools

An indication of how our rapport developed and how they felt comfortable in relaying personal information to me about spitting became evident whilst chatting to Jody about the fact that some spitting in the otherwise (relatively) spit clean Hong Kong occurred at public swimming pools where it was apparently common for people to spit into the water channel that normally goes around the outside of the pool. This chat took place whilst undertaking observations outside of the Mall area (where I did see a hock and a spit but that was it). Jody took a moment and said ‘I have done that’ and slowly went on to reveal more details about when he has spat in public without previously realising that he had. In fact it later emerged that each of them did this, that it was (as far as they could relate, from where they had grown up in their respectively different regions) ‘normal’ in Indonesia, and most importantly, that they had never seen it as spitting and yet they acknowledged that that is exactly what it is. This was a nice little breakthrough so we decided to hold a mini-focus group to work out what they knew from their respective regions and backgrounds.

Jody came from Celebes Island in the province of Java; Taris is from Sumatra and Bram is from Borneo. Despite the differences in region they concurred on all aspects of the following discussion about spitting:

Rurality and towns

It was generally agreed that spitting was very common and ‘every-day’ out of the city and in rural areas and farmlands and especially at markets and wet markets. This was for woman as well as men and for young and old, wealthy and poor. As Taris remarked ‘everybody is spitting’. It seems that spitting in the city has been moderated but elsewhere remains normal (and as mentioned above, in certain areas this is combined with betel chewing and spitting too).


They each agreed that the boys they grew up with in their towns, from middle-school, all spat – along with smoking – as symbolic of growing up. For Taris (relatively poor area) and Jody this was just typical behaviour. The boys they knew all still spit as men but they now do so with less bravado and in more socially responsible ways (their words but conceptualised that way from having spoken with me during the day about more/less managed spitting practices). Each said it is relatively common (even in the city) for people to spit into the open sewer (at the side of the road in the city, rather than there being a drain cover, the sewer is visible and accessible through a hole without a cover). One of them even reported having twice spat into the corner of the classroom (when caught short with a cold and without a handkerchief to spit into), once in high-school and once at university.

Spitting out of cars/from motorcycles

It was agreed that this was a common sight but not something you saw all of the time in both Jakarta and beyond. A little haggling with their guestimate of prevalence honed it down to an agreed ‘sometimes but not rare’. Bus drivers and car drivers were mentioned specifically.


Bram pointed out (as a Muslim) that during fasting periods Muslims have to spit out water they have rinsed their mouths with. This will happen numerous times a day. Vivek back in Mumbai also raised this as one reason why some people continue to spit as it aids in the practice becoming habit ‘you get used to spitting’.


They all agreed that smoking was ubiquitous in Indonesia and that it was common and almost normal for 10-12 year olds to be smoking and that tobacco stalls were commonly present outside of schools. They remarked that seeing 5-7 year olds smoking was not unusual.


As far as I know there are no other reports on spitting looked at as a practice in Indonesia (beyond blog references of personal observations relaying disgust, cultural difference etc.) that try to assess the prevalence and practices more closely. Having been somewhat limited in my time for appraisal I have none-the-less been able to garner some meaningful indicative data that hopefully will be bolstered further by data from the survey. Public spitting, is common in Indonesia but is moderated in Jakarta and perhaps some of the others major cities. Even here however, public spitting in (around the edge of) swimming pools is common but to some extent ‘hidden’ because it is considered to be almost not spitting at all and may be ubiquitous in this context. This, like hocking and spitting in public toilets in Malaysia (KL at least), appears to be an accepted way of life in the unnoticed sense. It is done but not noticed. Outside of Jakarta, particularly in rural areas spitting, it appears,is ‘every-day’, co mmon and practiced by most.