Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for Medical Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Students
Primary Theme: Health
Secondary Theme: Science
Drugs occupy a unique position within both anthropological literature and lived experience, allowing scholars to examine everything from accumulation and political-economic structures to the physiological components that shape personal biology. Drugs represent both a means of living better and the danger of death, and point to a social space where performance is measured, individual function often emphasized, and recovery elusive. This panel will examine how we can reimagine our shared future with the substances that increasingly infiltrate and shape our lives, even as people adapt to using powerful substances to modify themselves and manage the many problems that come with the dramatic social changes happening today.
Traditionally, anthropologists have focused on alcohol, drugs, and tobacco, but over the past two decades, work on pharmaceuticals, the development of new biocultural approaches, and the impact of critical approaches on industry and psychiatry have greatly expanded how anthropologists approach research on the broad category of drugs. This panel will engage a range of drugs – alcohol, marijuana, antidepressants, performance-enhancing drugs, and cocaine – and create a conversation that broadens our understanding of people engage with, conceive of, and regulate substances. The panel also brings together a range of anthropologists at different career positions, from undergraduate to tenured professor, as a way to augment the diverse perspectives needed to innovate our research on the anthropology of drugs.
In particular, the panel will combine critical approaches coming from medical anthropology and science and technology studies (STS) and holistic approaches that come from neuroanthropology. STS themes include how political economy and biomedicine combine to create and manage affect, how confusion over pharmaceutical augments public discourses of danger, and how communities and individuals navigate conflicting policies, areas of knowledge, and potential uses of drugs. Central to the panel is the process of reimagining of boundaries at varying levels of social organization; this reimagining of what counts (legally, athletically, medically, socially) shapes how particular communities and individuals adapt drugs to their own local uses in ways that are often at odds with larger social and political forces.
Neuroanthropology offers a space to examine drugs, drug use, and recovery in ways that better capture how cultural and social phenomena “get under the skin.” Neuroanthropology themes include reimagining how people learn to use, understanding variation in drug use through complex patterns of social and material differentiation, debates over nature/culture and human/machine boundaries, how human experience and emotion are embedded within troubling patterns of accumulation and accompanying inequality, intentional engagement with pharmaceutical effects to examine how materiality and meaning come together, and how particular communities mobilize social practices and community resources to avoid the risks that come with increasingly pervasive access to powerful drugs.
The combination of STS and neuroanthropology offers novel ways for reimagining the anthropology of drugs. This dual approach can help researchers understand how drugs are imbued with both embodied meanings and larger social and political-economic forces, and how users, medical systems, and states participate in creating and impacting conceptions of drugs and patterns of drug use.