QMJC February 2023: A genealogy of ‘addictive consumption’
Colleagues from Deakin University (Australia) chose a classic article for their first discussion as hosts of the Qualitative Methods Journal Club, on the construction of addiction and the birth of the ‘addict’ identity. Here they talk about challenging dominant assumptions of addiction as an individual disorder, and the usefulness of poststructuralist analyses.
Gerda Reith’s (2004) “Consumption and its discontents: Addiction, identity and the problems of freedom” is a foundational article for poststructuralist research into alcohol and other drug consumption and the field of critical drugs studies. Given our group includes researchers with varying levels of expertise in studying addiction, we chose this article for our first discussion as it provides a strong introduction to the social analysis of addiction.
Socio-economic and political changes in the late 19th century (e.g. industrialisation, class upheaval, changes in gender relations, immigration) intersected with the growing legitimacy of the medical professional to give birth to the figure of the ‘addict’.
Drawing on Foucault, Reith offers a genealogy of addictive consumption. Against common accounts of addiction as a mental disorder located in the individual, Reith tracks how changes in late modernity gave rise to the concept of addiction. In advanced liberal societies, consumption has become a key site through which individuals express values of freedom, choice, and autonomy.
Reith argues that in this context where “the freedom to choose” is valorised, addiction has emerged as a consumer pathology and a disorder of individual compulsion – “transforming freedom into determinism”. In its contemporary incarnation as a disorder that threatens the sovereign consumer, addiction articulates neoliberal societies’ deep-seated fear of dependence.
Reith’s genealogy charts how socio-economic and political changes in the late 19th century (e.g. industrialisation, class upheaval, changes in gender relations, immigration) intersected with the growing legitimacy of the medical professional to give birth to the figure of the ‘addict’. At this juncture, the concerns of the state and medicine coalesced around the moral–religious notion of the diseased ‘will’. This medical–moral discourse on addiction introduced new ways of conceiving of consumption and behaviour by ‘making up’ a new type of person – the ‘addict’.
Importantly, far from a self-evident, stable category, the ‘addict’ operates as a convenient label or a “politically expedient discourse” for classifying and disciplining marginalised groups and those considered socially ‘deviant’ (such as the working class, women and immigrants). Alongside the ‘addict’ emerges a range of disciplinary regimes designed to treat and cure this new category of disordered subjects (e.g. the temperance movement, inebriate homes, asylums, and prisons).
Moving to more recent history, Reith notes the proliferation of addictions and ‘disordered identities’ (e.g. the gambler, anorexic, bulimic, kleptomaniac) towards the end of the 20th century through the rise of ‘psy’ sciences, with an increasing focus on medical and psychiatric explanations and pathology rooted in biology (rather than will) and disease states. She argues that these disordered identities are not limited to academic research or medicine but are now actively taken up and transformed by consumers to make sense of subjective experiences. This is an example of contemporary neoliberal modes of governance where control is “individualised and internalised” and individuals self-survey their conduct and subjectivity in line with dominant cultural values and social institutions.
Despite our varying backgrounds and empirical interests, all members of our group saw the value of genealogy as an analytic lens. Heavily influenced by Foucault, genealogies aim to historicise particular problematisations, phenomena, and subject positions by considering their production through various social, political, and contextual relations.
A qualitative analysis of this kind is able to denaturalise and disrupt assumptions about addiction as an individual disorder.
In relation to addiction, a qualitative analysis of this kind is able to denaturalise and disrupt assumptions about addiction as an individual disorder. Such assumptions underpin alcohol and other drug policy and treatment and have vast implications for individual lives and self-understanding.
Reith’s analysis is a useful reminder of the changing nature of addiction, its historical contingency, and its connection to forces and relations that far exceed the individual. We discussed the value of such a qualitative approach for the analysis of a range of other contemporary social ‘problems’, such as moral panic about immigration and ‘obesity’.
While some members expressed scepticism about the usefulness of poststructuralist analysis for directly improving people’s lives, we agreed that such approaches are necessary to understand the broader forces shaping the conditions of possibility through which particular social problems and subjects are understood and governed.
by Dr Renae Fomiatti, Dr Kiran Pienaar, Dr Kyja Noack-Lundberg, and Dr Ashleigh Haw
Original article: Consumption and its discontents: Addiction, identity and the problems of freedom. By Gerda Reith. Published in The British Journal of Sociology (2004).
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