Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Addiction Trajectories: Book Review
Striving for that elusive middle ground.
For a journalist who covers neuroscience, the political and psychoanalytic focus of anthropology sometimes feels like a baffling trip to a foreign land. References to Foucault and Derrida abound, and Freud hovers in the middle distance. The investigative landscape is comprised of socially constructed experiences and environmental processes. Trained to seek out cultural and economic experiences as first causes, many cultural anthropologists have been fighting a rear-guard action against the advances of neuroscience for years now. Which is a shame, because anthropology, importantly, can serve to remind medical scientists of the multi-dimensional nature of addiction. “For psychoactive substances to transform themselves into catalysts for and objects of pleasure and desire,” writes anthropologist Anne M. Lovell, “they must circulate not only through blood, brain, and other body sites but also through social settings.”
It is anthropologists, for example, who have documented that “three-fourths of all state-licensed drug treatment programs in Puerto Rico were faith-based.” This study of faith-based healing in the addiction recovery community forms one chapter of a new volume, Addiction Trajectories, edited by Eugene Raikhel of the University of Chicago and William Garriott of James Madison University.
What anthropologists can do for addiction science is document these sociocultural attributes of addiction. In a chapter on buprenorphine and methadone users in New York City and the five boroughs, Helena Hansen, assistant professor of anthropology and psychiatry at New York University, finds that buprenorphine users live in predominantly white, high-income neighborhoods, tended to have college educations, and get their bupe from a private doctor. However, “others are directed to methadone maintenance programs with requirements for daily attendance, urine drug screens, surveillance, and control,” and there is little overlap between the two recovering populations.
There is a chapter devoted to a punitive form of addiction treatment known in Russia as “narcology,” and another that dwells on the semiotics of meth addiction. There are chapters taking drug counselors to task for their inadequate training and lack of nuanced background. And there is a chapter that views the advent of buprenorphine for heroin addiction as a step backwards, or, at best, a typical step sideways—addictive drugs for addiction, just like the old days when heroin addicts were offered alcohol as a cure.
A chapter by E. Summerson Carr is devoted to the treatment known as motivational interviewing, a technique with which she claims “drug users can talk themselves into sobriety regardless of whether or not they originally believe what they say to be true.” Irrespective of your view on M.I., Carr makes a useful point when she notes that sometimes a client’s refusal to admit drug use, even after a positive drug test, is not because of denial, but because of a logical understanding that their status as credible plaintiffs in legal proceedings could be on the line.
And there is simply no arguing Carr’s central point—while addiction science has been increasingly incorporated within the broad outlines of neuroscientific models, “the project of using talk to treat denial and demonstrate insight remains remarkably consistent” in the treatment practices used by the more than 13,000 outpatient addiction treatment programs across the U.S.
What else can anthropologists bring to the table? An understanding of “the loaded institutional and cultural conditions of clinical assessments, which inevitably and profoundly shape what drug users do and do not say.” Chief among these, Carr writes, is “the distinctly clinical terms of addicted denial, the chief organizing heuristic of mainstream American addiction treatment.”
The gap remains wide between addiction viewed as the neuroscientist’s disease entity, and addiction viewed as the anthropologist’s contingent outcome emerging from specific social settings. It’s easy to see why the attempt at an alliance between anthropologists and neurobiologists is an uphill struggle. Reading Addiction Trajectories, it becomes apparent how frequently the two disciplines are talking past one another. But I like to think there are enough bright and motivated anthropologists and neuroscientists around to forge some manner of middle ground; the elusive third way of viewing addiction, holistically, as a living blend of genetic and environmental influences, sensitive to both, and registering that dual sensitivity in the form of compulsive drug taking. (See, for example, anthropologist Daniel Lende’s recent post.)
The more invigorating contributions in this volume help us to zero in on “the popular representation of drugs as inherently criminogenic,” writes William Garriott, as well as the concomitant “lack of faith in the ability of the criminal justice system—and the state more generally—to address drug problems through the punitive management of the addicted offender population.” It is anthropologists, not neuroscientists, who dwell on the ramifications of this paradox: “The majority of Americans appear committed to fighting a war they feel cannot be won, using a strategy in which they no longer believe.”
The present volume is sometimes inclined to view biology with suspicion, and many of its contributors are quick to point out the hazards of attempting to meld social science and neuroscience. A similar but somewhat less skeptical collection—one that seeks to connect the socioenvironmental influences helping to shape how the biological disorder known as addiction will play out in the real world—was published last year by co-editors Daniel H. Lende and Greg Downey. In The Encultured Brain, Lende and Downey look ahead to a time when field-ready equipment will measure nutritional intake, cortisol levels, prenatal conditions, and brain development in the field. Predicting the future is a fool’s game, but it seems clear that the field of anthropology is aware of, and awake to, the controversial research avenues opened up by advances in contemporary neuroscience.
Graphics credit: http://www.culturalneuroscience.org/