Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

A Subcultural Study of Recreational Ecstasy Use

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

A Subcultural Study of Recreational Ecstasy Use

Article excerpt

Early research on youth drug use suggested that it occurred predominantly in deviant subcultures. Subcultural theories of deviance have therefore been the dominant theoretical framework within which youth drug use has been examined and understood since the 1950s. Subcultural theories focus on the importance of deviant subcultures to the initiation and maintenance of deviant acts. They argue that deviance is the result of a learned acquisition of deviant values and norms within the context of a subculture (Clinard and Meier, 1992: 98).

Past research has shown that the social controls and learning processes that operate in drug subcultures are the framework within which people decide how a certain drug should be used and how it will be experienced (e.g. Becker, 1963, 1967; Zinberg, 1984). A pioneering work on subcultural drug use was Howard Becker's study of marijuana use published in his book Outsiders in 1963. Becker focused on the conditions necessary for becoming a marijuana user and emphasized the importance of learning within a subculture of drug users in the initiation and maintenance of marijuana use. He found that learning to perceive and enjoy the effects of marijuana is mediated by a subculture of experienced users. He argued that individuals were able to use a drug for pleasure only when they had learnt to conceive of it as a substance that could be used for pleasure. This was found to take place when three conditions were met: the user had learnt the correct technique, learnt to perceive the effects of the drug and learnt to enjoy the effects of the drug. For Becker, these three conditions take place through an individual's interaction with a group of other users who equip the beginner with the necessary concepts with which to organize the drug experience (1963: 30, 51).

Today the nature of drug use in society has changed somewhat from the time when subcultural theories of deviance were first developed and most widely applied. We are now seeing the emergence of widespread recreational drug use amongst relatively large numbers of ordinary youth. Recent drug research indicates that there has been a reduction in ethnic, gender and social class differences in drug use, which suggests that drug-related behaviour is becoming accommodated into a larger grouping of society (Leitner et al., 1995 cited in Measham et al., 1998: 14; Parker and Measham, 1994 cited in Measham et al., 1998). Many young people no longer think of recreational drug use as deviant but see it as rational and informed (Measham et al., 1998). The majority of young recreational drug users today are not cut off from conventional society nor are they associated with problems of addiction, delinquency or crime that are traditionally linked to drug use (Anleu, 1999: 94; Hammersley et al., 2002). Such recent trends in the use of illicit drugs have raised doubt as to whether recreational drug use still takes place within a subcultural context.

A position held by a number of postmodern writers is that the subcultural context of drug use has diminished and thus subcultural theories are outdated (e.g. Parker et al., 1998; Redhead, 1997). They argue that subcultural theories were developed when drug use was seen as atypical and the act of delinquents, and therefore they do not represent the widespread recreational drug scene of today (Parker et al., 1998: 20). They also argue that as a result of postmodernism, there are no longer any clearly differentiated subcultures or specific youth cultural styles due to the individualization and diversification of the music and fashion industries (Redhead, 1997: 103). From this perspective the concept of subculture is deemed unworkable as an analytical tool in the sociology of youth, music and style in postmodern society (Bennett, 1999: 614).

The relevance of subcultural theories to modern-day drug use has been challenged by a normalization perspective on youth drug use that has recently emerged in sociological literature. …

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