Thinking about prevention through the lens of “everyday spaces”

At the beginning of her academic life, Angelina Brotherhood was an urban sociologist, and this perspective still informs her work as a prevention researcher. In this blog, she presents emerging findings from her doctoral research and a possible dilemma she might soon face. Intrigued? Read on.

My doctoral research focuses on how people think about spaces in their everyday life, and how those ways of thinking relate to their substance use in those spaces. To generate data, I conducted interviews with 24 female students aged 18-26 years at the University of Vienna who reported alcohol and/or cigarette use in the last 3 months, but no use of illicit substances in the last 12 months. In the interviews, they spoke about spaces from their everyday life in terms of what they liked or disliked about them. The mixed-methods approach also included questionnaires, a drawing/mapping task1 and repertory grids2,3. Theoretically, my work takes Löw’s Sociology of Space4 as a starting point, but it can also be related to approaches such as assemblage thinking5, non-representational theory6 or theories of social practice7. Briefly, “space” is seen as more than a place or room with people and objects; it includes the atmosphere, memories, smells, norms and rules, and much more, and is not limited to an enclosed space.

Before we get to the good stuff, here is a disclaimer. I have yet to formally start the analysis, so what I present below is preliminary and very much a work in progress. I have also decided to focus on just one interview, chosen because it helps to illustrate the dilemma I’d like to discuss. Thus, the data below are not representative of all the data I have generated. Also, I translated the quotes below from Austrian German and changed some details to help preserve the anonymity of the study participant.

“No smoking” signs at the entrance of a University of Vienna building, © Angelina Brotherhood

What determines whether people use substances or not, in a given situation?

Amongst my research interests is what determines whether people use substances or not, in a given situation. Take for example this young woman. She drinks rarely (less than once a month) but smokes daily. She is trying to reduce her cigarette use and has recently managed to cut down from a pack (of 20 cigarettes) a day to half a pack per day. Her main reasons for wanting to quit are the cost of cigarettes as well as experienced negative health outcomes related to use.

Using a content analysis technique suggested by Gläser and Laudel8, I went through the interview transcript and highlighted those quotes describing cause-and-effect chains that resulted in situational substance use or situational abstinence9. Two main themes emerged in this interview which I describe below.

Theme 1: Celebrating the pause, preferably near an educational setting

Contrary to the common idea that people smoke to take a break from a stressful situation, this young woman emphasises that she doesn’t smoke to de-stress but that she smokes only in situations in which she already feels happy and relaxed. For her, smoking a cigarette is about elevating a feeling of enjoyment, about emphasising the beauty of a pause. That is her frame of reference when she talks about rewarding herself with a cigarette after she has achieved something:

R: It’s only when everything is done, when I have had a wonderful hour of studying, or two hours of studying, that I think to myself “well, now I can treat myself to a cigarette”.

In this quote you can see an association between “studying” and “smoking”. Quotes from two other parts in the interview provide not only further examples of this link, but they also illustrate the socio-spatial dimension by highlighting a perceived association between smoking and educational settings:

R: When we were still in (secondary) school, in the long break we often went outside to this spot, it was right in front of the school, but you could sit down and hide from the teachers.

(…)

R: Every time I am with my friends (…) every time we are in front of the (secondary school we used to go to), we feel that we must go to our old place where we always used to smoke. It happens always when we walk past (the school).

Stringing together different parts of the interview, I made an interesting observation. At the beginning of the interview she describes a relapse event. She argues that in certain places she finds it impossible to resist smoking, even after a longer period of abstinence:

R: Last summer, I had stopped (smoking cigarettes) for two months and I thought “Praise the Lord, (I’ll) never (smoke) again”. But immediately when the term started (… I took it up again).

I: OK and what triggered that? What happened?

R: I guess it’s a habit. That’s it, I think. Because I didn’t really feel the need to smoke, but… I used to study (at another University) … and I always used to smoke in front of the building there. And that’s probably why it happened again here. (…) My hands didn’t shake, I just thought “I’m standing in front of a University building, well, I really fancy a cigarette now”, and yes, since then I have been smoking again.

I: I understand. So that’s a habit of yours, that you go to Uni and then you smoke one before you go inside?

R: Yes, or when the class is over.

Considering the earlier quotes, it appears that this habit of smoking near educational settings was actually formed much earlier (and not, as the participant believes, during her time at the previous Uni). Moreover, it could be argued that, over time, the feeling of “rewarding oneself” has faded away, to the point where she can’t even say anymore why she smokes other than that “it’s habit”, while the association between substance use and space has remained and even increased.

Theme 2: Fear of sanctions and the importance of bad memories

Another theme throughout the interview relates to perceived social norms and a fear of sanctions. An awareness of how other people view one’s substance use is evident already in one of the first statements that this young woman makes during the interview:

I: What would you say, why do you prefer cigarettes the most?

R: You can take them everywhere… and of course nobody looks at you funny. If you walk around the subway with a bottle of beer, it looks stupid, but with cigarettes, people are more forgiving.

I: With a cigarette in the subway?

R: Well, no, no, no, no, but… people are more likely to ignore it, it is more tolerated10.

Perhaps the strongest (situational) deterrent for this young woman is her family’s disapproval of cigarette use. She keeps referring to a particular incident where her mother had found out that she had smoked and had punished her for it by imposing a curfew. Knowing about her family’s strong views against smoking means that she won’t smoke at home or before seeing her mother, or smoke around any acquaintances of her mother (because they might tell on her).

There is, however, an apparent contradiction in her narrative, if you consider this quote:

R: (…) but we used to make a mess there (by our secondary school where we always smoked), because we just threw our cigarette stubs there. Actually, the place where we smoked was in the courtyard of a residential building. And there were two neighbours who always complained, nearly every time. Well, no, not every time, but very very often, they came to us and shouted at us and told us to go away, so yes, I think it bothers them.

I: Ok, and what about now, when you are there, do you think it might still bother those people?

R: Yes.

Whilst she generally shows a concern for what other people think, it seems that she continues to smoke in this particular place despite bad memories and knowing that it bothers people. I can think of different explanations to resolve this apparent contradiction. For example, the positive meaning of the place might outweigh the bad memories, or perhaps – despite what she said about people on the subway – she cares more about the opinion of family members and friends than of strangers.

What can we learn by considering the role of “space”?

This is just one example I picked, but it is helpful to show how considering substance use through the lens of “everyday spaces” enables a deeper understanding about why people use substances and how. In this case, we saw the importance of memories linked to particular spaces and how a habit was formed and transferred from a specific school to educational settings in general. A more traditional approach might have emphasised the role of her group of friends but putting “space” first helps us to link up those places where she smokes with and without her friends, such as by the University. It could be argued that the friends played an important role in the initial stages of habit formation, but that through repetition and memory-making the setting has now taken on the role of “friends”, effectively exerting pressure on her to smoke. More generally speaking, it is interesting to note the roles that people and memories play in defining whether it is acceptable (from the individual’s point of view) to use substances in a particular situation. This helps develop our understanding of triggers not only for substance use but also of triggers for situational abstinence from use11.

Question – what conclusions might we draw for prevention?

The dilemma I am facing is how to translate this knowledge into something that could inform the development or improvement of prevention activities. It has been argued that traditional prevention interventions don’t give enough consideration to less tangible, situational aspects of substance use, and that prevention interventions relying on the “environment → behaviour” logic are too behaviouralist12. Furthermore, “environmental” approaches mainly utilise restrictions and sanctions (e.g., smoking ban), while strengths- and empowerment-based interventions of this type are rare (you are more likely to find them in the context of youth work, such as alcohol-free youth cafés). Inspired by Antonovsky’s concept of “salutogenesis”13, I was hoping to develop some fresh and more positive ideas about how to utilise “space” in prevention efforts. But looking at interviews such as the one presented above, I feel pessimistic. What conclusions could be drawn from this? Setting up clear rules at home leads to this young woman hiding her cigarette use from her family. Yet, based on what she told me, sanctions seem to be the only effective situational deterrent for her.

While my descriptions and interpretations so far are interesting, I would really like to go one step further and draw out implications for prevention. Although I hope to answer my own questions soon as I work through the data and literature more thoroughly over the coming months, I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on how data such as this could inform the development or improvement of prevention interventions and programmes.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Michael Brotherhood, Verena Kozmann and Larissa J. Maier for helpful comments on an earlier version of this text.

About the author:

Angelina Brotherhood is a doctoral student at the Institute of Sociology, University of Vienna, Austria, and a Visiting Research Fellow at the Public Health Institute, Liverpool John Moores University, UK. Her thesis is a mixed-methods study on how perceived characteristics of everyday spaces relate to substance use. She has worked on various policy- and practice-related activities, including evidence reviews and quality standards in drug prevention. From 2014 to 2017, she served on the EUSPR Board and led the Early Careers Forum. You can find her on Twitter as @pbm_AB.

references and notes

  1. Emmel, N. (2008). Participatory Mapping: An innovative sociological method. Retrieved from http://eprints.ncrm.ac.uk/540/2/2008-07-toolkit-participatory-map.pdf, last checked 7.12.2018. []
  2. Jankowicz, D. (2004). The easy guide to repertory grids. Chichester, West Sussex, England, Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley. []
  3. Kelly, G. A. (1963). A Theory of Personality: The Psychology of Personal Constructs. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company. []
  4. Löw, M. (2001). Raumsoziologie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. Löw, M. (2016). The Sociology of Space: Materiality, Social Structures, and Action. Cultural Sociology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US. []
  5. Duff, C. (2014). Assemblages of health: Deleuze’s empiricism and the ethology of life. New York: Springer. []
  6. Thrift, N. J. (2008). Non-representational theory: Space, politics, affect. London: Routledge. []
  7. Reckwitz, A. (2002). Toward a Theory of Social Practices. European Journal of Social Theory, 5(2), 243–263. []
  8. Gläser, J., & Laudel, G. (2010). Experteninterviews und qualitative Inhaltsanalyse als Instrumente rekonstruierender Untersuchungen (4. Auflage). Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften. []
  9. For example, Parder (2018) uses the term “situational abstinence” to highlight that people may not be abstinent in general but may choose to abstain only in some situations; see Parder, M.-L. (2018). What about just saying “no”? Situational abstinence from alcohol at parties among 13–15 year olds. Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy, 25(2), 189–197. []
  10. If you are surprised by this statement, you might find it useful to learn that Austria is known as “Europe’s dirty ashtray”; see Hefler, M. (2015). Austria: Europe’s Dirty Ashtray. Tobacco Control, 24(5), 426. []
  11. I would like to thank Professor Patricia Conrod for pointing out to me that through my research I am effectively identifying “triggers” of situational abstinence.. []
  12. Bell, K. (2017). Health and Other Unassailable Values: Reconfigurations of Health, Evidence and Ethics. Abingdon, Oxon, New York, NY: Routledge. []
  13. Antonovsky, A. (1987). Unraveling the Mystery of Health: How People Manage Stress and Stay Well. San Francisco: Jossey Bass. []

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