QMJC March 2020 - Tracing the ‘event’ of drug use: ‘Context’ and the coproduction of a night out on MDMA

First published: 03/04/2020 | Last updated: April 16th, 2020

Meeting: March 2020

Article: Dilkes-Frayne, E. (2014). Tracing the ‘event’ of drug use: ‘Context’ and the coproduction of a night out on MDMA. Contemporary Drug Problems, 41 (3), 445-479.

Link: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/009145091404100308

Access link: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271138937_Tracing_the_Event_of_Drug_Use_Context_and_the_Coproduction_of_a_Night_Out_on_MDMA

Team: Adrian Farrugia, Duane Duncan, Gemma Nourse and Emily Lenton (Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University)

Ella Dilkes-Frayne’s (2014) article ‘Tracing the “event” of drug use: “Context” and the coproduction of a night out on MDMA’ is a detailed case study of an event of MDMA consumption. The analysis centres on how relations between human and non-human forces coalesce to shape MDMA consumption and together produce possibilities for action. The article argues that what are usually understood as the ‘contexts’ of consumption are better approached as processual events constituted by successive mediations between a multitude of different forces.

Dilkes-Frayne analyses a case study of ‘Michael’s’ MDMA consumption at a one-day music festival in Melbourne, Australia. The account is based on data generated by analysing the reflections Michael recorded in a diary after the event and a diary-interview conducted by Dilkes-Frayne. Working with Actor Network Theory (ANT), she argues that an account of the contextual factors on this specific example of drug consumption are best approached using the notion of an ‘event’. While the notion of the ‘event’ has received some attention from key ANT figure Bruno Latour, Dilkes-Frayne further theorises it using the concept of ‘mediation’. For Dilkes-Frayne, events are occasions in which different forces (or actors in ANT terminology) come together to shape actions and generate transformations and possibilities or mediations. In contrast to notions of ‘context’, Dilkes-Frayne argues,

the concept of event more effectively captures ongoing processes of mediation between a multitude of actors undergoing constant formation, transformation and dissolution. ‘Event’ enables attendance to the temporal and fluid aspects of mediating relations rather than drawing analysis towards stasis and finality. (454)

Mobilising this concept, the article presents an in-depth and exceptionally close analysis of an event of consumption and how a range of forces come together to shape its character.

Carefully working through the diary and interview material, Dilkes-Frayne’s analysis does not so much pull the event apart but, rather, assembles it. She maps how a myriad of actors influence the event including: the format and sociality of the festival; the availability of MDMA; the festival’s entrance and security procedures; the act and format of consumption; the specific time and place of consumption; the artists performing and crowds watching them; and, the availability of public transport. The analysis emphasises that it is in their coming together that these actors mediate the character of Michael’s drug consumption and his actions therein.

Dilkes-Frayne’s focus on Michael’s deliberations about buying a festival ticket four months prior to his drug consumption is a particularly interesting aspect of the analysis. She suggests that,

the festival’s characteristics and other enabling factors came together four months before the festival day to generate both Michael’s desire and ability to attend the festival. The particular way in which these factors came together later provided an occasion for MDMA use, and mediated how this also unfolded. (457)

In analysing how a process that occurred four months prior to the festival can mediate how the consumption unfolds, Dilkes-Frayne expands the temporal and spatial boundaries of an event beyond a sole focus on the actual place and time that Michael took the MDMA. In this way, Dilkes-Frayne’s approach draws attention to the ways that actors that might usually be understood as ‘distant’ or ‘absent’ can produce mediations that transform the character of consumption (473). This approach enables examination of the influence of forces beyond the place and time of drug use and offers more avenues for harm reducing initiatives.

The article concludes with a discussion of the implications of event analyses for harm reduction. Before describing these, it is important to briefly mention how the notion of harm is understood here. For Dilkes-Frayne, and other researchers working with cognate approaches, harm does not inhere in a single drug, person or place. Rather, harm is an emergent possibility co-produced by the mediations characterising an event; harm is produced by the relations between actors rather than inhering in them. For Dilkes-Frayne, this approach presents an opportunity to analyse ‘how we might enable, foster, and reinforce relations that may produce less harmful drug-use events’ (474).

For Dilkes-Frayne then, festival-based harm reduction cannot focus solely on individual attendees, or even drugs, but must broaden scope to consider the many other agencies that shape the harm reducing or producing possibilities of these events. Approaching harm reduction in this way means we must,

examine the agencies that may produce the conditions in which, and thus enable the means through which, various actors are able and willing to generate events consistent with harm reduction. (476)

This article is an excellent example of mobilising Actor Network Theory for empirical analysis. It offers a strong resource for introducing students or interested researchers to what these theoretical resources can offer alcohol and other drug research and harm reduction practices.

Additional reading

Dilkes-Frayne, E., Fraser, S., Pienaar, K. and Kokanovic, R. (2017). Iterating ‘addiction’: Residential relocation and the spatio-temporal produce of alcohol and other drug consumption patterns. International Journal of Drug Policy, 44, 164-173

Duff, C. (2014). The place and time of drugs. International Journal of Drug Policy, 25 (3), 633-639.

Fitzgerald, J. (1998). An assemblage of desire, drugs and techno. Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 3 (2), 41-57

Malins, P. (2019). Drug dog affects: Accounting for the broad social, emotional and health impacts of general drug detection dog operations in Australia. International Journal of Drug Policy, 67, 63-71.