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Comprehending Drug Use

Ethnographic Research at the Social Margins

J. Bryan Page and Merrill Singer

Publication Year: 2010

Comprehending Drug Use, the first full-length critical overview of the use of ethnographic methods in drug research, synthesizes more than one hundred years of study on the human encounter with psychotropic drugs. It provides an examination of the field of drug ethnography-methodology that involves access to the hidden world of drug users, the social spaces they frequent, and the larger structural forces that help construct their worlds; explores intersections of drug ethnography with globalization, criminalization, public health (including the HIV/AIDS epidemic, hepatitis, and other diseases), and gender; and provides a guide of the methods and career paths of ethnographers.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page/Copyright/Dedication

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pp. ix-x

We had been talking at breakfast (June 2007, while participating in a workshop for young scholars on the scientific study of drug use) about the literature’s lack of any books on the ethnography of drug use. There was a book by a nonresearcher that had gone out of print three years prior, but no bona fide drug researcher had ever attempted a book treatment of the field of...

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1. Through Ethnographic Eyes

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pp. 1-24

Fernando and Javier lead me through Barrio Cuba, past the Sodita Estrella del Sur and along streets filled with people walking around the neighborhood on a sunny Sunday morning. The people are variously dressed: some with immaculate dresses or shirt-and-slack ensembles (en route to Mass?), and others with jeans and T-shirts. We walk past the bakery...

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2. The Emergence of Drug Ethnography

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pp. 25-49

Bernardino de Sahagún is known to history as a man who passionately devoted himself to interviewing Aztecs—in the Nahuatl language—about their history and culture. A Spanish Franciscan friar assigned by his church to travel to the New World (just eight years after Hernando Cortés’s soldiers and Indian allies had conquered the Aztec Empire in 1521), Sahagún served as a teacher and...

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3. Systematic Modernist Ethnography and Ethnopharmacology

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pp. 50-69

In the late 1950s, an alternative to what had become the reigning view of drug users as social deviants began to appear. Its source was the qualitative, interactive study of drug users, and its focus came to be guided by what would come to be called the “drug use as subculture” paradigm. This transition marked the emergence of systematic drug ethnography and psychotropic...

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4. Drug Ethnography since the Emergence of AIDS

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pp. 70-85

Before the medical/scientific community understood the mechanisms that caused collapses of patients’ immune systems, interviews with people who had the mysterious syndrome initially called Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) and then, later, Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) indicated that some complexes of behavior might be related to its presence. The first two...

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5. Drugs and Globalization: From the Ground Up and the Sky Down

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pp. 86-112

This chapter examines drug ethnography from a global perspective. Its subject is the impact of globalization on drug use and the conduct of contemporary drug ethnography. Framing the dynamic interface between macro-structural and micro-observable processes, behaviors, and relationships is a critical challenge for contemporary ethnography. The chapter assesses how...

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6. The Conduct of Drug Ethnography: Risks, Rewards, and Ethical Quandaries in Drug Research Careers

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pp. 113-132

In this chapter, we are concerned with the process of doing drug ethnography as an approach to knowledge and as an intense personal experience that requires difficult moral decisions. Building on the brief discussion of key ethnographic methods presented in chapter 1, and the historically evolving approaches mentioned in chapters 2 and 3, this chapter both examines additional components...

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7. Career Paths in Drug-related Ethnography: From Falling to Calling

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pp. 133-148

Who becomes a drug use ethnographer? Why pursue this vocational path? What are the special appeals and distinctive burdens of this line of professional work? This chapter addresses these questions by reviewing findings from a study conducted by Singer, Page, and Melissa Houle of changing patterns in the development of anthropological careers in drug...

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8. Gender and Drug Use: Drug Ethnography by Women about Women

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pp. 149-161

Among anthropologists and sociologists, gender has become an increasingly important topic as gender roles in Western societies have undergone transformation. Androcentric interpretations of early twentieth-century anthropologists’ ethnographic data, in which women’s roles were either underreported or ignored altogether (e.g., Lamphere 2006) gave way in the 1970s and beyond...

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9. The Future of Drug Ethnography as Reflected in Recent Developments

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pp. 162-184

The use of drugs by human beings is a quintessentially anthropological topic of study because it directly connects diverse aspects of the human condition, from internal emotional states to the global political economy, and from intense religious experience to adventurist pleasure-seeking. Given its complexity, and its concurrent expression on multiple levels...

Appendix: Nuts and Bolts of Ethnographic Methods

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pp. 185-189


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pp. 191-192


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pp. 193-221


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pp. 223-225

About the Authors

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pp. 226-227

E-ISBN-13: 9780813549934
E-ISBN-10: 0813549930
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813548036
Print-ISBN-10: 0813548039

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2010