Beyond "Subculture" in the Ethnography of Illicit Drug Use

By Moore, David | Contemporary Drug Problems, July 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Beyond "Subculture" in the Ethnography of Illicit Drug Use

Moore, David, Contemporary Drug Problems

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. The third problem was that many studies of subculture were synchronie and did not allow for fluidity and flux over time. They were predicated on the normative and reifying assumption that all the members of a subculture shared a common set of values, beliefs, practices, and, less often, common (usually "lower-class") socioeconomic origins. Furthermore, they assumed the subculture to be a homogeneous and closed social entity isolated from larger society. The depiction of the relationship between the subculture and the broader cultural entity suggested by the "sub" prefix was mechanistic. The implicit "mosaic" metaphor of cultural pluralism, then dominant in U.S. sociology, ensured that the units of study-whether by intention or by accident-were conceptualized as demarcated social worlds with fairly rigid boundaries. Finally, sociologists had tended to portray subcultures as having a central core of values organized into a system. These central values were somehow external to the subculture's members who were constrained by them.

More recent drug ethnographers (e.g., Bourgois 1995, Maher 1997, Sterk 1999, Williams 1990) or those analyzing the ethnographic data of others (e. …

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