Exploring the micro-politics of normalised drug use in the social lives of a group of young 'party drug' users in Melbourne, Australia - PhD Project

  • Research program: Ethnographic Research
  • Project status: Completed
  • Start date: July 2005
  • Expected end date: June 2012
  • Completion date: October 2012
  • Funded by: AERF
  • Lead organisation:

Young people today live in what some scholars and commentators have defined as a 'post-modern' era, characterised by globalisation, the internet, mass media, production and consumption. Post-modernity has seen a change in the way young people live. Along with career, finance and success, young people today place greater emphasis on leisure, identity, relationships and health. There is some evidence to suggest that other factors, such as family, community and location, have become less important for young people living in the new millennium (Giddens 1991; Beck 1992).; In post-modern times, there has been a significant increase in western countries in the use of 'party drugs', including ecstasy and methamphetamine, among 'ordinary' young people in social and leisure-oriented contexts. In the mid-1990s, in response to this rise in drug use, a team of UK researchers developed a theoretical framework in which they argued that the use of some illicit drugs had become 'normalised' (Parker, Aldridge et al. 1998). The proponents of the normalisation thesis suggested that drug use was no longer linked with deviant, pathological or subcultural behaviour, and had become a normal feature of the day-to-day worlds of many young people.; This thesis explores the concepts of post-modernity and normalisation as they relate to the culture and practices of a group of young people in Melbourne, Australia, who called themselves the 'A-Team'. The A-Team was a social network of around 25 people who were 'typical', „mainstream‟ and 'socially included' individuals (Hammersley, Khan et al. 2002; Harling 2007), who participated in work and study, and who did not engage in any illicit activity other than drug use.; I argue that theories of post-modernism and normalisation emphasise too strongly macro-level changes and do not adequately appreciate the complexity of social process and the cultural meanings negotiated within and through the practices of individuals and groups. For example, while theories of post-modernity have shed light on the way in which lives are structured at the macro level, they less adequately account for the way that young people continue to make and re-make meaning and identity from enduring social relationships and particular social contexts.; In response to an increasingly globalised and disconnected world, A-Team members found continuity and stability within the group. They remained 'modern' in their adherence to their social community; however, the form of community they sought took a very post-modern form. They experimented with self-expression and identity outside the confines of traditions such as marriage, family and career, but they did not drift between groups and social spaces in their search for self. They were selective with whom and where they performed their desired identities. The A-Team practiced a form of 'differentiated' post-modernism, which presents a more complex picture of how young people are responding to macro-level social, cultural and economic changes.; Throughout this thesis I describe the multiple ways in which A-Team members attempted to manage their use of alcohol and party drugs within their „normal‟ suburban lives. In particular, I highlight the ways in which they engaged with discourses of 'normal' and 'abnormal' drug use and 'acceptable' and 'unacceptable' drug use. I also describe the ways in which they engaged with discourses of moderation and excess, and the desire for both self-control and 'controlled loss of control' (Measham 2004a). These discourses arose as a consequence of a range of competing tensions that the A-Team consistently managed. These tensions included the search for bodily pleasure, identity and the desire for intimate social relationships, experiences of drug-related harm and significant critiques of specific forms of drug use from group members, and from non-drug using friends and family.; In highlighting these discourses and competing tensions, I argue that although the normalisation thesis has significantly advanced understandings of young people's drug use, it does not adequately appreciate the way that young people must negotiate the 'micro-politics' of normalised drug use, a concept recently outlined by Swedish sociologist Sharon Rodner Sznitman (2008). Rodner Sznitman argued that normalisation is an ongoing process shaped by unique social and cultural micro-politics. Rodner-Sznitman suggested that young drug users engage in practices of 'assimilative normalisation' – by attempting to manage their 'deviant' or stigmatised behaviour – and 'transformational normalisation' – by attempting to resist or redefine what is considered to be 'normal' with respect to illicit drug use and drug users.; I describe how A-Team members engaged in practices of assimilative normalisation by concealing their drug use from disapproving friends and family, severing ties with some non-drug using friends, repeatedly attempting to cease or reduce their drug use, drawing on notions of 'controlled' and 'moderate' use as the most acceptable form of drug use, and justifying their drug use as a temporary feature of young adulthood. I also show how some A-Team members engaged in transformational normalisation by rejecting the need for moderate or controlled forms of consumption, attempting to redefine the boundaries of socially acceptable drug-using behaviour and by offering an alternative reading of ecstasy as a drug that enables the performance of an intoxicated self.; This research shows that there are many competing social and cultural forces that shape the way that young people use drugs and understand their use. It is essential that we develop a greater understanding of young people's drug use and not interpret their drug using practices through frameworks that rely on macro-level cultural and/or attitudinal shifts. Young recreational drug users face a multitude of issues when attempting to manage their drug use amidst the competing demands of relationships, sport, work, finances and career. These issues and the responses adopted by young drug users are likely to vary between groups, between cultures and between types of drug use.

Professor David Moore
Tel: 61 (0)3 9479 8718
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Professor Simon Lenton
Tel: 61 (0)8 9266 1603
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Pennay, A. and Moore, D. (2010). Exploring the micro-politics of normalisation: Narratives of pleasure, self-control and desire in a sample of young Australian ‘party drug’ users. Addiction Research & Theory, 18, (5), pp. 557-571. DOI: 10.3109/16066350903308415 [RJ681] View web page