This is the final of three blog posts by PhD candidates in youth sociology who were selected to present their research to a panel as part of a Postgraduate Workshop on the 29th November 2014, following the TASA Annual Conference. This workshop was supported by funding from TASA.
PhD candidate, National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University, Melbourne
Young men’s drug consumption causes great societal concern. Drug education is one current strategy used in Australia for reducing harm, traditionally conceptualised as drug related, among young people (National Drug Strategy 2010–2015, 2011). Like harm reduction drug policy generally, harm reduction drug education is premised on the goal of reducing ‘risks’ and harms associated with illicit drug use rather than an elimination of use per se (Lenton & Single 1998). However, recent research suggests that contemporary Australian drug education and health promotion enacts young drug users and their consumption according to rigid assertions of proper and improper health practices and relies on singular representations of young drug consumers as irrational failed subjects (Farrugia, 2014). In presenting such limited accounts of youth drug consumption, drug education and health promotion has been criticised for potentially producing, rather than reducing, drug-related harm (Farrugia, 2014). Through my PhD research I seek to analyse in-depth these potential problems of Australian drug education, examining key themes articulated in it alongside interviews gathered with young men who consume ecstasy/MDMA. I ask, how are young men imagined and produced within these documents, and how closely do their assumptions and messages match the experiences of their target audiences?
Social science research on drug education messages identifies several weaknesses in their assumptions and practice. First, a tension exists between some of the core objectives of drug education and the notion of education itself. As Blackman (2004) argues, drug education pedagogy often consists solely of information against drugs rather than about drugs. Second, drug education constructs young people who do use illicit drugs despite the information they have received as irrational individual failures. This irrationality is understood to stem from the failure to adhere to the one ‘rational choice’ provided in drug education; saying ‘no’ to drugs (Blackman, 2004; Farrugia, 2014). Drug education has also been criticised for moralising certain health practices (Tupper, 2008). Health promotion strategies in general have been similarly criticised for working through a pedagogy of disgust to morally judge those that do not adhere to rigid health practices (Lupton, 2015). Such judgments are intimately gendered in that it is often young women who are called upon to regret certain consumption practices rather than young men (Brown & Gregg, 2012). Instead of engaging with young people’s potential desire for pleasure or enjoyment, drug education is premised on the idea that armed with the right health knowledge young people will ‘just say know’ (Beck, 1998; Tupper, 2008).
My PhD research addresses these concerns by building on an established body of qualitative work on young people’s drug consumption. Rather than reviewing this body of work in detail it is enough to say that research in this area suggests the need for more nuanced understandings of drug consumption practices. Understandings of youth and gender (Measham, 2002), issues of temporality and spatiality (Duff, 2008), and corporeal pleasure (MacLean, 2008), all appear to be integral elements of young people’s drug consumption. Although young men are a major focus of societal concern about risk and responsibility (Moore, 2010) research on gender and drug consumption has tended to focus on femininity, with masculinity very rarely actively examined or problematised. This research aims build on the aforementioned concerns and address certain openings in the literature.
I build on a recent move towards performative or emergent ontologies in alcohol and other drug research. Specifically, I work with Deleuzian ontology which offers a valuable framework within which to better understand the complexity of drug consumption events. Working with Deleuzian theory I conceptualise all the phenomena in this research as assemblages. Deleuze explains the concept in this way:
What is an assemblage? It is a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns- different natures. Thus, the assemblages’s only unity is that of co-functioning: it is a symbiosis, a ‘sympathy’. It is never filiations which are important, but alliances, alloys” (Deleuze and Parnet, 1987 p. 69)
Assemblages then, are multiple, temporary groupings of relations. When assortments of different phenomena come together assemblages are formed. It is from these relations that phenomena emerge or come to exist. This is a conceptual shift away from understanding bodies and drugs as discrete stabile entities to instead focus on emergent assemblages of human and non-human phenomena which together enact bodies, drugs and contexts.
By conceptualising all phenomena as assemblages my analysis requires close engagement with the ways different entities relate to, and affect each other. That is, I am concerned with the different ways phenomena come together and shape the way each other emerge, this includes a young person’s agential capacity and what people do “on” or with drugs. Such an account of drugs and young people has important implications for research in this area. One implication of particular importance is that drug harms are viewed as a property of the assemblage rather than any one entity, including the drug itself, therein (Duff, 2014).
I have used two main research methods in this research. First, I have analysed an extensive corpus of drug education texts including school based teaching resources and social marketing materials (57 individual resources in total) to establish the ways in which they constitute youth drug consumption.
I have also performed 22 in-depth qualitative interviews to collect the MDMA experiences of 25 young men (aged 16-19). The interviews have collected a broad range of data on young men’s experiences of MDMA consumption but also pursue a range of themes identified in the education resources.
Some of my key concerns are notions of youth, gender (primarily masculinity) and responsibility, and temporality and spatiality as well as risk and responsibility. Through my analysis I identify points of convergence and divergence between drug education and the experiences of my participants.
The following discussion will explore one theme from the presentation I presented at the youth research thematic group, that of decision making. I will frame the discussion with a brief analysis of how drug education understands decision making before moving on to one account of these young men.
Drug education enacts a notion of decision making as a purely rational and deliberative practice. It is often imagined that upon entering a drug consumption situation young people will follow a ‘D-E-C-I-D-E’ model of action. Briefly, this model assumes that young people will first define any problems, examine possible actions, consider the consequences of each action, make a decision, and then evaluate or learn from the experience. These highly individualised models of decision making and rationality fail to consider the local or contextual factors that may shape an individual’s drug consumption. These models assume further inherently agential bodies that can rationally list, analyse and decide in any and every situation. They also do not account for space, emotion, affect, desire or peer relations.
The limits of this model are made clear by seventeen year old Jake’s account of the most disappointing time he ever had consuming MDMA:
Yeah, one time I remember in the city, just getting in there had 2 points of MD on me. I just got in there and just like pumping already decided to eat one and then I was just like, I just got over excited and I was like “bugger it I’ll have two at once” and within probably like 15 minutes, I just started getting this overwhelming feeling “like shit I might have too much” and then just like ruined the whole night
In this account Jake tells us two things: that he had already decided to consume a point of MDMA upon entry to the club and that both the club and he were already “pumping”. He got over excited which resulted in what turned out to be a regrettable decision to consume a second point of MDMA in quick succession.
This is a complex assemblage from which Jake emerges and shapes his decision to consume MDMA. The music, space, lights, other people and all the other bodies assembled together result in an affective atmosphere or vibe that Jake describes as pumping acts here.
This is a young person intimately becoming with the bodies and world around them. Jake is in no way so disconnected from his surrounds that he is able to rationally, list, analyse and decide to consume MD or not. Further, it seems to me that if he were to take that advice he would have almost certainly arrived at the same decision.
Thinking through decision situations and processes as assemblages results in a less exclusive focus on the young person and cognitive deliberation. Instead of taking for granted, as the education model does, an unchanging and inherently agential body, we can rethink agency as a becoming (Race, 2011). Thus, the agentic capacities of drug consumers and the effects of drugs themselves are immanent to the assemblage of which they form a part. It is therefore unreasonable to assume that all drug consumption assemblages will enact these same capacities and processes.
To think in this way suggests drug consumption cannot be understood purely as a deliberative practice or “choice” but a far more complex assemblage of bodies, desires, affects and pleasures.
I have provided these brief discussion to highlight some of the contrasts between the realities enacted in drug education and the accounts of the young men in my study. I have also attempted to provide a short introduction to some of the implications of understanding young people’s drug consumption through the figure of the assemblage. To wrap up this post I will describe some of the benefits of participating in the sociology of youth postgraduate workshop.
The postgraduate workshop
This extremely worthwhile event provided all three participants an opportunity to present a more detailed paper than a conference would usually allow for (45min compared with 15min) to a panel of established youth scholars.
This is great experience especially considering a PhD can often be a somewhat closed off process in that only the author, their supervisors and perhaps a couple of their fellow PhD researchers will ever engage with the research in its entirety. Therefore, PhD students receive feedback and guidance from a very limited pool of people. The workshop gave me an opportunity to receive feedback from a range of youth scholars from outside the specialised alcohol and other drug research field.
The panel, who were generous with their time, asked me questions and provided me with advice on a range of topics from practical concerns about the amount of data I had, the way I was approaching gender through my theoretical lens, and potential publications. All these questions have given me food for thought, especially considering I am now entering my third year of the process.
Overall, I recommend that all sociology of youth PhD researchers strongly consider participating in any future workshops run by the sociology of youth thematic group. These are great opportunities to further inform our research practice as well as develop a broader understanding of the field in general.
Beck, J. (1998). ‘100 years of “just say no” versus “just say know”: Re-evaluating drug education goals for the coming century’. Evaluation Review, 22(1), 15-45.
Blackman, S. (2004). ‘Chilling out’: The cultural politics of substance consumption, youth and drug policy. Open University Press: New York.
Brown, R., & Gregg, M. (2012). The pedagogy of regret: Facebook, binge drinking and young women. Continuum, 26, 357–369.
Deleuze, G., and Parnet, C. (1987). Dialogues. New York: New York Columbia University Press
Duff, C. (2014). The place and time of drugs. International Journal of Drug Policy, 25(3), 633-639.
Duff, C. (2008). ‘The pleasure in context’. International Journal of Drug Policy, 19(5), 384-392.
Farrugia, A. (2014). Assembling the dominant accounts of youth drug use in Australian harm reduction drug education. International Journal of Drug Policy, 24, (4), pp. 663-672.
Lenton, S., & Single, E. (1998). The definition of harm reduction. Drug and Alcohol Review, 17(2), 213–220.
Lupton, D. (2015). The pedagogy of disgust: The ethical, moral and political implications of using disgust in public health campaigns. Critical Public Health, 25(1), 4-14.
MacLean, S. (2008). ‘Volatile bodies: stories of corporeal pleasure and damage in marginalised young people’s drug use’. International Journal of Drug Policy, 19(5), 375-383.
Measham, F. (2002). “Doing gender”-“doing drugs”: conceptualising the gendering of drug cultures’. Contemporary Drug Problems, 29(Summer), 335-373.
Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy. (2011). National drug strategy 2010–2015. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
Moore, D. (2010). Beyond disorder, danger, incompetence and ignorance: Rethinking the youthful subject of alcohol and other drug policy. Contemporary Drug Problems, 37(Fall), 475-498.
Tupper, K. W. (2008). Teaching teachers to just say “know”: Reflections on drug education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24(2), 356-367.