Beyond Disorder, Danger, Incompetence and Ignorance: Rethinking the Youthful Subject of Alcohol and Other Drug Policy

By Moore, David | Contemporary Drug Problems, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview
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Beyond Disorder, Danger, Incompetence and Ignorance: Rethinking the Youthful Subject of Alcohol and Other Drug Policy


Moore, David, Contemporary Drug Problems


In Australia, as in other parts of the Western world, "binge drinking" and the use of amphetamine-type stimulants among young adults have become high-profile issues in media, policy and research discourses. In these discourses, young adults are frequently characterized as being disordered, dangerous, incompetent, or ignorant, and as either victims of their own "risky" alcohol and other drug consumption or as threats to society as a result of this consumption. In this article, I compare such representations of young alcohol and other drug users with the findings of three qualitative research projects conducted in the Australian cities of Perth and Melbourne. In contrast to media, policy and research discourses, these projects suggest that in their drinking and other drug use practices, young adults are far from disordered, dangerous, incompetent, or ignorant. These findings, which are consistent with previous qualitative research from Australia, the United Kingdom and Europe, suggest the need to rethink the youthful subject of alcohol and other drug policy.

KEY WORDS: "Binge drinking," amphetamine-type stimulants, young adults, qualitative research, policy, Australia.

In Australia, as in other parts of the Western world, "binge drinking" and the use of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), such as methamphetamine and ecstasy, among young adults have become high-profile issues in media, policy and research discourses. Adopting a poststructuralist perspective, such discourses can be understood as "regimes of truth" (Foucault, 1980). These are institutionalized modes of writing, thinking and speaking that produce particular kinds of "subjects" defined by specific capacities, attributes and practices (or by their absence). A key aspect of discourses is that they render possible particular forms of subject and disallow others (Fraser, Hop wood, Treloar, & Brener, 2004).

In this article, I draw on the findings of three recent ethnographic research projects on alcohol and ATS use among young Australians to interrogate existing media, policy and research discourses. My intention is not to deny that alcohol and ATS use among young adults is associated with various forms and degrees of harm but to question contemporary understandings of young adults - to consider whether existing discourses and the youthful subjects they inscribe are useful. How well do the existing images of drinking and ATS use correspond with the findings of ethnographic research on the drinking and drug practices of young adults? How do young adults understand their alcohol and ATS use? What kinds of drinking and drugusing subjects, understandings of alcohol and ATS use, and associated policy responses might be rendered unthinkable, might be disallowed, by existing discourses?

My analysis can be read as an extension of that offered by Keane (2009) in relation to Australian representations of alcohol intoxication. She argues that popular discourses construct intoxication as a "positive and enhanced state: a form of bodily pleasure." By contrast, public health discourses construct intoxication as a "harm produced by risky alcohol consumption" and highlight "its many negative consequences for individual and social well-being." For Keane (2009, pp. 140-41), public health frames alcohol-related pleasure as either "carnal" (i.e., as "disordered" and "dangerous") or "disciplined" (i.e., as "rationalized" and "moderate") and aims to "transform carnal pleasure into disciplined pleasure." However, she (Keane, 2009, p. 141) argues that:

Categorising pleasure as either carnal or disciplined places body against reason and does not capture the controlled loss of control observed in young people's leisure pursuits. The pleasures of intoxication are carnal and bodily pleasures, but they are not therefore outside the realm of discipline and management.

Whereas Keane focuses on representations of alcohol intoxication, I focus on representations of the young intoxicated subject, extend the analysis to include drugs other than alcohol, and consider some of the potential implications of my analysis for harm reduction.

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