- Culture, Context, and Community in Contemporary Psychedelic Research
Psychedelics require cross-cultural, interdisciplinary study, and we were happy to see a contribution from the field of medical anthropology. Such a study holds the promise of characterizing the ways in which psychedelics are situated in contemporary societies, both within and beyond research and clinical contexts. Here, we offer some friendly criticism of the target article by Noorani (2021) while also highlighting various points of agreement and looking ahead to future research in this field.
Noorani’s article is structured around an organizing theme of “containment.” The term is not formally defined, but functions more as a poetic metaphor, allowing the author to explore various ways in which psychedelics challenge conventional boundary-drawing: treatment versus enhancement (Earp, 2018; Earp & Savulescu, 2020b), medical versus recreational, scientific versus “spiritual” (Cole-Turner, 2015; Smith, 1964), and so forth. Noorani is right to call attention to, among other things, the therapeutic setting—understood here as a kind of ‘container’ for psychedelic experiences—while also casting a critical eye over the background conditions within which those experiences take place.
One relevant set of background conditions concerns the psychedelic research community itself: that is, the clinical scientists, therapists, and (other) academics who are often seen as driving the so-called Psychedelic Renaissance (Puente, 2020; Sessa, 2013). Amidst calls for vigilance in maintaining rigorous standards in research and caution in clinical applications (Yaden, Yaden, & Griffiths, 2020), analysis of the wider social context of this research is imperative. Science, including psychedelic science, is not conducted in a cultural vacuum, but is rather shaped and informed by the often-implicit values and assumptions of the scientists themselves, as well as the institutions within which they conduct their research (Douglas, 2009). Just as importantly, it is shaped by omission: the voices, perspectives, experiences, and contributions that are ignored or suppressed or left out (often those of women and people color) (George et al., 2020; Williams, Bartlett, et al., 2020). Noorani tackles both issues, at least in part: he tries to tell an untold story by giving a “behind the scenes” look at the contemporary psychedelic research community, albeit one that is focused primarily on some of that community’s more prominent members. [End Page 217]
To make sense of this research community, Noorani draws on his experience as a trainee in Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, the institution where most of the recent wave of experiment-based psychedelic studies has been conducted. The author supplements this experience with an ethnography involving interviews with, and personal observations of, members of what he terms “the psychedelic community.” But the community invoked here is broader than the “research community” of scientists and clinicians we have just described. For Noorani, it seems to refer to really anyone with an interest in psychedelics or MDMA, whether privately or professionally, who may or may not know each other personally, and whose values and priorities may not be, and often are not, aligned. So, for example, in characterizing the “the psychedelic community,” Noorani lumps together research scientists, academics, and therapists with, among others, those whom he describes as “neo-shamanic healers,” “hippies,” “Yippies,” “New Agers,” “amateur botanists,” and “party-goers.” The extent to which members of these different groups can be said to form a coherent “community” (as opposed to, say, sometimes attending similar workshops or conferences) is tenuous.
In fact, there are two senses of community that seem to be invoked in the target article. The first refers to a group of people who have a shared set of characteristic values or social norms: their history, formative experiences, self-understandings, or socio-political positioning typically tie them together in an organic fashion, often resulting in a collective identity or sense of purpose. The latter sense is conceptually weaker: it refers to a theoretical assemblage of individuals, possibly clustered into different factions, who may, in practice, have little in common apart from a selected high-level property (e.g., having an interest in psychedelics). The author, at times, seems to slip between these two different senses to imply that the “psychedelic research community”—as we have understood that...