Opening Up the Cul-De-Sac of Youth Drug Studies: A Contribution to the Construction of Some Alternative Truths

Article excerpt

In this article I attempt to set down some starting points for the construction of ways of understanding alcohol and other drug use among young people that differ from those already established in the drug research field. I open with a discussion of the developmental model of "adolescence" and "youth," arguably the dominant discourse in youth drug research; in particular, its focus on biology, the environment, and the acquisition of personal identity. I then focus on selected elements of the sociological, anthropological and historical literatures on young people that chart a very different set of empirical, analytical and theoretical concerns from those established by the "science" of development; namely, culture, social class, generational conflict, social organization, gender, race/ethnicity, sexuality, spatiality, subjectivity and Eurocentrism. I conclude by arguing that those from outside the dominant drug-research disciplines of epidemiology, medicine and psychology must continually press their case for the relevance of new ideas in order to contribute to a more open and theoretically dynamic field.

KEY WORDS: Youth, drug use, anthropology, developmental psychology, history, sociology.

In an article published in the Drug and Alcohol Review (Moore, 1990), I reviewed the Australian research literature on alcohol and other drug use among young people. I reached four conclusions about trends in this research, aspects of which also featured in the research literature from the United States and the United Kingdom. First, the authors of Australian research on alcohol and other drug use among young people had ignored major theoretical developments in the sociology of youth, no doubt reflecting their training in other disciplines such as psychology and epidemiology. This trend had also been noted by other commentators. Dom and South (1989) and Kandel (1980) documented it with respect to the British and North American literature on drug use, as did Blum (1984) for the sociology of alcohol problems in the United States. Second, Australian research emphasized epidemiology, with its aggregate-level analysis of "individuals," blurred boundaries between problematic use and any use of alcohol and other drugs, and ignorance of the social contexts in which alcohol and other drug use took place. Third, the myriad ways in which sociological factors such as ethnicity, social class, gender and age serve to shape the use of alcohol and other drugs were consistently ignored. Finally, there was a disproportionate emphasis on pathology in explanations of youth alcohol and other drug use. In other words, the use of these substances was perceived to be the result of a "deficit" in the personality and/or the environment. In this sense, studies of youth alcohol and other drug use reflected a broader emphasis on pathology in the addictions field, a characteristic labeled the "pathology paradigm" by Mugford (1988). While my review focused specifically on the Australian literature on youth drug use prior to 1990, it appears, rather depressingly, that little has changed in the decade since-at least in the Australian context.1

In this article I revisit and extend some of these criticisms by drawing on general (i.e., not drug-specific) sociological, anthropological and historical research on young people. I begin by examining the main features of the developmental model of "adolescence," arguably the dominant model in drug studies of youth. I then provide a brief history of sociological studies of Western youth. Finally, I explore some anthropological and historical work on youth-studies of young people in other places and other times. The article is intended to be a contribution to the construction of ways of thinking about young people and drug use that lie outside the developmental paradigm, and I offer it as a work in progress rather than as a finished product. In their sometimes haphazard pursuit of too many ideas, works in progress tend to leave many questions unaddressed, and this article is no different. …