Josée Lapalme

1Centre de recherche en santé publique (CReSP), Université de Montréal, Montréal, Québec Canada

2Département de médecine sociale et préventive, École de santé publique de l’Université de Montréal, Montréal, Québec Canada

Nicole M. Glenn

3Centre for Healthy Communities, School of Public Health, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta Canada

Katherine L. Frohlich

1Centre de recherche en santé publique (CReSP), Université de Montréal, Montréal, Québec Canada

2Département de médecine sociale et préventive, École de santé publique de l’Université de Montréal, Montréal, Québec Canada

1Centre de recherche en santé publique (CReSP), Université de Montréal, Montréal, Québec Canada
2Département de médecine sociale et préventive, École de santé publique de l’Université de Montréal, Montréal, Québec Canada
3Centre for Healthy Communities, School of Public Health, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta Canada
Corresponding author.

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In this commentary, we illustrate how exploring the meanings & uses of everyday, seemingly mundane, public objects can advance our understanding of health-related practices & the social norms that shape them. We use the example of the public bench & smoking for this purpose. By observing the thiết kế of public benches, the places where they are found, the meanings people attribute khổng lồ them, & the way people use them, we can learn what health-related practices (e.g., smoking) & who (e.g., people who smoke or who do not smoke) are included và excluded as part of local community life. We thus consider the idea that public benches can be instructive in helping us understand how our health-related practices may be shaped by what can be seen enacted on or from public benches. We ultimately demonstrate how this type of object-based experiential exploration, largely absent from public health research, can provide a novel and insightful perspective to public health research.

Keywords: Urban health, Social norms, Smoking, Residence characteristics


Dans ce commentaire, nous illustrons comment l’exploration des utilisations et des significations attribuées aux objets publics quotidiens apparemment anodins peut avancer notre compréhension des pratiques liées à la santé et des normes sociales qui les façonnent. Nous utilisons, à cette fin, l’exemple du banc public en lien avec le tabagisme. Le design des bancs publics, les endroits où ils se trouvent, la façon dont ils sont utilisés et le sens qui leur est attribué peuvent nous renseigner sur les pratiques liées à la santé (p.ex. Fumer) et sur les personnes (p.ex. Les gens qui fument et ceux qui ne fument pas) qui phông partie intégrante ou, à l’inverse, sont exclues de la vie communautaire. Ainsi, nous considérons les apprentissages que les bancs publics nous permettent de faire pour mieux comprendre bình luận les pratiques liées à la santé sont influencées par ce qui peut être vu en y étant assis ou en observant ceux qui y sont assis. Enfin, nous démontrons phản hồi cette exploration expérientielle basée sur l’objet, largement absente en santé publique, peut offrir une perspective de recherche novatrice dans ce domaine.

Mots-clés: Santé en zone urbaine, normes sociales, fumer, caractéristiques de l’habitat

A woman is sitting on a bench near a bus stop. She scrolls through her phone as a man approaches và sits in the empty space next lớn her. He glances at her while her eyes stay fixed on the screen. As he reaches into his coat pocket khổng lồ take out a cigarette, he looks lớn the woman next to lớn him as if to check that it is okay with her that he lights up. Although she does not look up from her phone, he gets up & walks several feet away. There he smokes his cigarette & waits for the bus to lớn arrive.

On the other side of town, a young woman is standing in the busy plaza next to the subway station waiting for a friend. She is tired. Her legs ache & her back throbs. Most of the benches are occupied; there are two women smoking & chatting on one bench, while another hosts a small family. There is a third bench with a không tính tiền spot next khổng lồ an older woman. She appears lớn be watching the comings and goings of the busy station. The young woman lets out a sigh as she lowers herself onto this bench. She rummages through her purse and pulls out a cigarette, lights it, và leans back as she inhales.

These scenarios may seem familiar lớn us, but they are most likely so mundane that we have not taken particular notice or reflected on their meaning. However, if we explore these everyday experiences more carefully, we may see the very fabric of local social life, that is, who & what health-related practices belong in these places. For example, in both vignettes, there are no signs prohibiting smoking near the public benches. Yet, something compels the man to lớn move away to smoke, whereas across town, the young woman sits next to lớn someone và unabashedly smokes.

Disciplines such as anthropology, archeology, design, and urban planning have examined the meanings và uses of everyday objects to better understand the social world in which these objects are found. They demonstrate how these everyday objects, rarely considered in daily life, are not merely passive, but rather, interactive, formative, and transformative (Adams & Yin 2017). Often these objects are used in ways beyond how they were intended. We bởi vì not always sit on public benches; some people use them to lớn practice skateboarding tricks or to put down heavy bags while waiting for the bus. These objects therefore reflect our everyday social practices, & in doing so, they reflect the local social norms that shape these practices. As such, objects may be considered cultural or social artifacts (Glenn and Clark 2015). The lack of attention paid to lớn non-human entities within public health research represents a missed opportunity to better understand the complexity of our social world (Rock et al. 2014). Heeding this call & inspired by the traditions of studying objects, more specifically by Heidegger’s (1971) phenomenological writings on the “thing-ness” of things, in this commentary, we reflect on the public bench in relation lớn smoking. Experiential examples of public benches have been drawn from our own experiences along with some qualitative literature on place-based smoking (Bell 2013; Bell et al. 2010; Poland 2000; Thompson et al. 2007).

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The public bench

In urban environments, we find public benches aplenty: at bus stops, in plazas, in parks, near hospitals and other public institutions, and along sidewalks. We sit on them to wait for the bus or a friend khổng lồ arrive, khổng lồ take a break from a long walk, lớn watch our children play in the park, or to lớn have a smoke. Sitting on a public bench may also provide us with the opportunity to lớn observe the world around us: trees, birds, architecture, people walking by, and cars driving past. Simultaneously, we are also observed by this same world. People walking by may glance at the bench to look at who is sitting on it and what they are doing. In this way, the public bench is instructive; by observing the world from the public bench or by observing what & who is displayed on it, we learn about socially acceptable practices & who is included & excluded from local social life in the place where the public bench is found. Consequently, our health-related practices may be influenced by what we see from or on the public bench.

A public bench’s design may also reveal local social norms. Some public benches are not just intended for sitting, but for preventing certain activities và excluding specific subgroups of the population (Bergamaschi et al. 2014). For instance, the armrests on a public bench, although functioning as places lớn rest one’s arms, can also send the message: “No lying or sleeping here” or, in other words, no homeless people allowed (Bergamaschi et al. 2014). Public benches then become “hostile architecture”, at least toward some (Bergamaschi et al. 2014), and thus, they may not be so public after all. Conversely, bright và colourful public benches invite passersby to lounge on them và enjoy their surroundings.

The public bench and smoking

Research has demonstrated that smoking prevalence varies by geographical contexts (Barnett et al. 2017). Local smoking-related norms may contribute to these differences; in places where anti-smoking sentiments reign, smoking prevalence tends khổng lồ be lower than in places where smoking is permissive (Barnett et al. 2017). Reflecting on how people experience public benches & what meanings they attribute to them may reveal local smoking norms & practices as well as the ways these norms and practices are negotiated & circumvented. In a place where smoking is socially unacceptable, health-related practices may shift depending on time of day. We may not see anyone smoking on public benches in the daytime because it can lead khổng lồ judgemental looks or comments (Bell et al. 2010; Poland 2000). Rather, people may sit quietly while getting some fresh air, stretch their legs after a jog, or catch up with their friends. After nightfall, however, these same public benches may transform from family-friendly places khổng lồ a site for young people lớn gather, socialize, drink beer, và smoke away from the judgemental gaze of others (Bell et al. 2010; Poland 2000; Thompson et al. 2007). In this sense, these public benches may represent both places of belonging và places of exclusion, only to lớn be used freely as “smoking places” in secret, after dark, và when no one else is around. The implicit message is that smoking is not socially acceptable, & by extension, neither is the smoker.

Public benches may be experienced differently in areas where smoking is socially acceptable. In these places, people are permitted to smoke openly on public benches either alone or while socializing with friends (Thompson et al. 2007). This public smoking can indicate some màn chơi of social acceptability of smoking và public benches may represent unofficial smoking places in these communities. People vày not need lớn avoid stigmatizing looks or comments by hiding their smoking. They can smoke freely, day or night, on public benches và they may even find belonging and community with others by initiating conversation over shared cigarettes. Yet, being exposed lớn visual & olfactory smoking cues from people smoking on public benches may make smoking prevention & cessation challenging (Thompson et al. 2007). In these same communities, there may also be benches where people bởi vì not smoke. These may be located near playgrounds, daycares, or other child-related places (Bell et al. 2010; Poland 2000). In places where there are many non-smokers, those who smoke may choose a bench farther away from non-smokers lớn spare them from their smoke (Bell 2013; Bell et al. 2010; Poland 2000). This demonstrates that local permissive smoking norms can also be negotiated, especially in children’s and non-smokers’ presence.


Everyday objects found in our public environments can further inform us on the complexity underlying health-related practices. Exploring how we interact with public benches can teach us about the local social acceptability of smoking, và consequently, who is included and excluded from local community life. Further, we learn about how health-related practices, such as smoking, are negotiated, adapted, and circumvented according lớn local social norms. These micro-examinations can also be used khổng lồ reflect on more distant factors influencing our local norms & to explicate these place-based differences. With regard lớn our exploration of smoking on public benches, we might consider how population-level tobacco control policies interact with local communities to lớn differentially affect smoking norms và practices, & consequently unequally affect people’s everyday lives. This type of object-based experiential exploration also allows for naturalistic observation, where one can observe how health-related practices unfold in everyday life without any interference from research, and thus poses minimal ethical risk (Canadian Institutes of Health Research et al. 2018). Public health should thus further engage with this type of research in order to lớn deepen our understanding of health-related practices và the environments that shape them.

We would lượt thích to thank the research team of the Interdisciplinary Study of Inequalities in Smoking project for their generous feedback.

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Funding information

This work was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (project MOP-137046).