Alcoholics Anonymous Discourse and Members' Resistance in a Virtual Community: Exploring Tensions between Theory and Practice

By Kitchin, Heather A. | Contemporary Drug Problems, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Alcoholics Anonymous Discourse and Members' Resistance in a Virtual Community: Exploring Tensions between Theory and Practice


Kitchin, Heather A., Contemporary Drug Problems


Alcoholics Anonymous has greatly informed the individual, social, and political landscape of the contemporary self-help or mutual-aid movement. There has emerged, in turn, a vast, though largely uncritical, body of research examining AA and its 12-step recovery model. A close look inside a virtual AA community, however, reveals that not all AA members embrace formal AA discourse. Through an examination of dialogue and discourse on a public Usenet newsgroup, this study demonstrates that in contrast to research that depicts AA program practices as necessarily harmonious, members' experiences of program wisdom are frequently negotiated and reassessed outside larger AA dicta. The data examined show that what becomes constituted as members' practice can be fraught with questions, tensions, and separations from conventional or ideal AA.

KEY WORDS: Newsgroups, Alcoholics Anonymous, discourse, resistance.

Where there is power, there is resistance.

Foucault, 1979:95

Alcoholics Anonymous has greatly informed the individual, social, and political landscape of the contemporary "selfhelp" (Riordan and Beggs, 1988; Kaskutas, 1994), or "mutual-aid" (Kropotkin, 1955; Makela, 1996) movement. Indeed, the discursive reach of AA has now found its way into everyday understandings of such issues as eating, sex, gambling, shopping, and dependency. Jensen and Davidson (1997:102) go so far as to offer a "12-Step Recovery Program" for those professors who may be suffering from "excessive, out-of-control" lecturing. Departing from a strictly abstinent model, these authors propose that a "lectureholic" need not give up lecturing altogether, but rather must learn to control the problem in a healthy fashion (Jensen and Davidson, 1997:103). While it is difficult to believe that Jensen and Davidson seriously consider excessive lecturing a disease, the influence of AA is apparent. In much the same way that the "Ship of Fools" became a hospital in 16th-century Europe (Foucault, 1965:35), the West's regulation of drunkards became effected in large part through the AA meeting in the 20th century.

When looking at AA practices more closely, however, the Alcoholics Anonymous philosophy and program ethics are sometimes questioned and reversed by members themselves. Thus while the 12 steps have a large following, dissenters can be found within the AA ranks and from former members who continue to stay sober without meeting attendance. In this paper I examine a variety of conventional AA program tenets as they are embraced or subverted by discussants on a public Usenet Newsgroup (NG) through "computer-mediated communication" (CMC). My discussion follows the disjunctures between conventional AA and virtual AA, and between theoretical, or ideal, AA and real AA-that is, as the Alcoholics Anonymous program is actually practiced and negotiated within a CMC environment.

Some writers suggest that the "hyperpersonal" nature of CMC may be liberating (Walther and Boyd, 2002), beneficial (King, 1994:50), relatively anonymous (McKenna, 1998:681), or, in some cases, disempowering (Burrows et al., 2000). In all cases, however, NGs operate and serve as virtual "communities" in which participants interact and develop attachments to others (Baym, 1996; Parks and Floyd, 1996; Patterson, 1997; Smith et al., 1997; McKenna, 1999; Blanchard, 2000; Muncer et al., 2000). The NG examined here, Alt.Recovery.AA,' is just one of thousands that offer an interactive community that is at one time or another experienced as liberating and beneficial for some while, conversely, disempowering for others.

This study and others (Patterson, 1997; Smith et al., 1997; Kayany, 1998) evidence that current information and communication technologies (ICTs) provide researchers with a dynamic venue from which to analyze elements of norm violation not easily captured within traditional sites of interaction. Indeed, as this study demonstrates, central tenets of AA's 12-step recovery program, or conventional philosophical guides to members' practice, are sometimes transgressed and may manifest themselves in tension with theoretical/ideal Alcoholics Anonymous.

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