Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Smoke and Mirrors in Global Health


A few years ago, health experts began calling out tobacco as engendering a global health crisis, categorizing the cigarette as the world's greatest weapon of mass destruction. A "global health crisis"? What merits that title if not tobacco use? A hundred million people were killed by tobacco in the 20th century, and 10 times that number—a billion people—are predicted to die prematurely from exposure to cigarette smoke over the next 100 years. How has tobacco come to be labeled a global health crisis over the last decade, and what has been the political response? From what do both activism against tobacco and ongoing complacency about it arise? How are they created in different cultural contexts?

This seminar aims to provide you with the conceptual tools to tackle two specific thought projects: (1) to understand how institutional actors compete to define a situation in the world today as a problem of global health, and (2) to understand the sociocultural means by which something highly dangerous to health, such as the cigarette, is made both politically contentious and inert. On both fronts, we will give special attention to the ways global health activism and complacency unfold in the United States and China. 


Meet the Instructor(s)

Matthew Kohrman

Matthew Kohrman joined Stanford's faculty in 1999. His research and writing bring anthropological methods to bear on the ways health, culture, and politics are interrelated. Focusing on the People's Republic of China, he engages various intellectual terrains such as governmentality, gender theory, political economy, critical science studies, narrativity, and embodiment. His first monograph, Bodies of Difference: Experiences of Disability and Institutional Advocacy in the Making of Modern China, examines links between the emergence of a state-sponsored disability-advocacy organization and the lives of Chinese men who have trouble walking. Recently, he has been involved in research analyzing and intervening in the biopolitics of cigarette smoking among Chinese citizens. This work expands upon heuristic themes of his earlier disability research and engages in novel ways techniques of public health, political philosophy, and spatial history.