Accepted Paper:

The anthropology of drugs: a modest European proposal  


Axel Klein (University of Swansea)

Paper short abstract:

Outline for new Anthropology of Drugs. This paper argues that the conceptual approaches rooted in the study of the social, the research methodology with emphasis on inter-subjectivity, small groups analysed within a wider context, and the construction of meaning equip anthropologists for a dispassionate analysis of contested social issues.

Paper long abstract:

An anthropology of drugs takes the consumption aspect as a starting point, how consumers construct their identity, derive meaning from the act of consumption, and express their relationship with society in the process of consuming drugs.

Drug use has spread widely through the different strata of the so-called subcultures of young people, is embedded in the behaviour of deviant groups, both predictor and consequence of offending and anti-social behaviour, a ritual of rebellion, a rite of passage and an increasingly mainstreamed part of ordinary pleasures seeking behaviour.

Drug taking remains highly controversial, is imbued with moral uncertainty, is highly politicised, but at the same time poorly defined. Popular definitions tend to derive from the legal status of psychoactive substances, which has in effect left the definition to lawmakers.

The weak empirical foundations for drug policy are in part a product of the multifaceted character of the issue. Anthropology has an essential role to play as critical friend of ongoing activities due to methodological advantages

(i) the relative method -

(ii) concerns with the construction meaning by informants

(iii) locating behaviour within wider contexts and analysing relationships

(iv) detailed studies of small communities with ethnographic observations on actual patterns of use

(v) anthropology can humanise marginalised groups and despised practices

European anthropology has to outline an area for systematic exploration including

• field studies of cultures of drug use across Europe

• the impact of drug control on citizens and the state - what are the successes and failures of drug control

Panel W020
The anthropology of drug policy: a way to diversify the field of drug studies?