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From "Sexy" to "Risky" : : The Variegated Life of Tobacco in the United States of America


The thesis is an attempt or exercise in viewing the changes in the material nature of a substance through history. The thesis traces the history of tobacco, as cash crop, consumer product and addictive drug through institutional and discursive spaces, to demonstrate how material changes in tobacco, as result of sustained human intervention, has changed its chemical, physical and social nature. Simultaneously, I also show the effect of tobacco on some of the institutional and discursive spaces over time. In the thesis, I look at five spaces through which tobacco weaves in and out, agriculture, science, public health and law, tobacco industry and popular imagination. I also show how historical contingency, manipulation and accidents conspired to co-constitute the spaces and the substance through time, ultimately leading to the "risky" substance and consumer. I question the objectivity and universal rationalism of the scientific practices by demonstrating its "situatedness" within national-global power dynamics and the effects of scientific beliefs on advertising and the tobacco industry that led to the physical-chemical manipulation of the natural substance tobacco and vice versa. Central to the project is then a critical understanding of scientific practices as well as of the "object" of scientific study. The project shows that neither scientific practices nor object of scientific study can be viewed as stable concepts. However, the project is not a rejection of ontological realism rather it aims at a pragmatic understanding of the "constructed" nature of substances and practices. The ethnographic context I explore is mostly confined to the boundaries of the United States of America; however, it simultaneous shows how such categories bleed into others in the global movements of tobacco

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