Beyond the Individual: The Role of Society and Culture of Addiction

Beyond the Individual: The Role of Society and Culture of Addiction


Research on addiction or problematic substance use has been dominated by a biomedical model focused on choices individuals make and problems that ensue, including damage to the brain and body, health, and well-being. However, it is also crucial to consider the contexts that may shape and constrain individual choices. Scientists in this sociocultural tradition attend to the reasons people use mood altering substances, the meanings and practices they and others around them attach to the substances, and the dynamics between individual agency and larger social and cultural contexts. Methodologically, anthropologists primarily use qualitative assessments, while other sociocultural scientists draw on combinations of qualitative and quantitative data. This presentation offers two instances in which this broader social and cultural perspective raises questions about assumptions underlying mainstream biomedical research on addiction. First, when we look at ways out of problematic substance use, we find that people with serious alcohol and drug abuse problems often cure themselves, without formal treatment. At the same time, developments and expansions within the treatment sector have not significantly changed the efficacy of organized treatment programs. Second, when we examine how societies regulate substances in order to decrease harm, we discover that some of these attempts at social control actually cause harm. Frank examines prohibition of alcohol and criminalization of drugs as two examples. Overall, focusing on individuals in context rather than in isolation points to interpersonal relations as crucial factors that help explain phenomena like addiction and problematic substance use, which have a very powerful social and cultural overlay.

  • Dialogue 27
    11 sessions
  • October 30, 2013
    Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India
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Vibeke Asmussen Frank

Vibeke Asmussen Frank, PhD, is an anthropologist, the director of the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research at Aarhus University in Denmark, and associate professor in social science alcohol and drug research. The focus of her research has been on the interplay between individuals and sociocultural contexts, with a special interest in substance user perspectives. More specifically, her research explores substance use behaviors and their meanings in subcultural, institutional, and political contexts. Her research includes a focus on consumption and problematic use of substances, and is mainly based on qualitative research. She has been involved in the management and conduction of a wide range of national and international research projects. Current projects focus on prison-based drug treatment, domestic cannabis cultivation, and implementation of policies in welfare institutions, including both control and welfare policies. She has written extensively within the field of social science alcohol and drug research, and has edited several books. Her articles have appeared in scholarly books and journals, including Addiction, Social Science and Medicine, and International Journal of Drug Policy.