Beyond "Subculture" in the Ethnography of Illicit Drug Use

Article excerpt

"Subculture" has been an important conceptual and methodological tool in the ethnographic study of drug use and drug-related harm, particularly heavy drug use among marginalized populations. When researching those whose drug use is less all-consuming, however, this concept does not serve us so well. What term or terms might provide a better framework for the investigation of more intermittent drug use? I explore this question through attention to material gathered during three years of ethnographic research with drug users in Perth, Western Australia. I characterize my units of analysis as social "scenes" oriented around sets of practices. These scenes are located on urban "pathways." Drug ethnographers need to reorient themselves, no longer seeking to describe and analyze normative subcultural values, beliefs and behaviors but rather focusing on the diverse nature of some drug scenes and their constitutive practices. It may be time to retire "subculture" in the study of certain contexts of drug use.

KEY WORDS: Drug use, ethnography, theory, social process, cultural practice, Australia.

One issue that has long interested drug ethnographers is how to conceptualize the social relations and forms of cultural knowledge expressed through, and constructed by, drug use. In addressing this issue, they have typically resorted to the conceptual and methodological tool of "subculture" (or related terms such as "social world," "small world" or "social type"), making important contributions to the development of urban anthropology and sociology more generally. The argument of this article, however, is that the concept of subculture, with its emphasis on normative values, beliefs and practices, is inadequate for analyzing the heterogeneity of some drug-using groups and their constitutive practices, particularly those groups that draw together people from diverse backgrounds and for whom drug use is not characterized by "dependence."

Reviewing subculture

There are two main traditions of subculture studies.1 The first, originating in the U.S., is usually traced back to the Chicago School of the 1920s and 1930s. A group of sociologists employed qualitative methods (including ethnography) and social epidemiology to produce empirical studies of the various subcultures of inner-city urban life-tramps, alcoholics, prostitutes and youth gangs. Their methods were informed by an interest in the socially situated nature of human action and the necessity of comprehending the participants' "definition of the situation." Later sociologists continued the focus on subcultural ethnography and symbolic interactionism, producing a number of key drug studies (e.g., Agar 1973, Becker 1953, Finestone 1957, Johnson 1973, Preble and Casey 1969, Suiter 1966, Sutler 1972, Weppner 1973). Theoretically, there was a shift from seeing subcultures as "closed and relatively cohesive systems of social organization" (Gordon 1947, cited in Thornton 1997a:14) to a view of subcultures as "lifestyles, action systems and social worlds which are not fixed to any group" (Thornton 1997a:14). In much of this work, following Cohen (1955), subcultures were conceptualized as collective responses to commonly experienced sets of problems.

While this work countered popular and scholarly representations of drug use as deviant or passive with finegrained depictions emphasizing its complex cultural meanings and social organization, the sociological tradition to which it belonged has drawn extensive criticism (e.g., Fine and Kleinman 1979, Hannerz 1992, Waterston 1993). First, subculture researchers had tended to confuse structural and cultural definitions of membership; thus, because the members of subcultures were often drawn from the working class, it was assumed that their cultural beliefs automatically reflected wider working-class values. second, there was a lack of meaningful referents, with few studies defining what it was that they meant by subculture. …