Archive for the ‘Drugs transmitting social and cultural information’ Category

Despite prehistoric drugs being my topic,  here I stretch the envelope a bit.  No prehistoric accounts describe any one individual deliberately using drugs to express, communicate  and reflect his/her cultural values and structures.That does not mean it did not happen. Many examples of this practice exist in historical and modern records as I have, and will further, describe. These  take place seemingly irrespective of race, class, geography, and  subsistence technology. So it seems possible, even probable, that use of drugs to signal social values, position and structure  also occurred in the prehistoric.

Dame Mary Douglas (1978:93‑112) was a prolific British social anthropologist known for her writings on human culture and symbolism. She argued that social information is transmitted by a range of media, one of which is the physical body. The body’s actions, its expressions, and its appearances, Douglas argues, is  everywhere culturally organized  to one degree or another, in order to express and reflect the structure and values of the  social world.

For example individuals eat special foods to celebrate weddings and religious festivals like Christmas. Withdrawing nourishment sends alternate signals: penitence  or obedience as in Ramadan and Lent; or perhaps the desire to project a more youthful appearance. Hair is equally versatile for communication. Is it rigidly coiffured, or does it flow freely below the shoulder line? Is it curly? Or tonsured?  Or tousled and sun streaked? And is the cut ‘short back and sides?’ or a no 1 cut ? or shaved in patches and  stubble-like elsewhere?

Besides adapting the visible  body and its paraphernalia to role –playing and information transmitting, individuals also  change their minds–literally. People chemically re‑orient their Central Nervous System,  altering their moods,  feelings, perceptions and orientations between themselves and  the external world. Why does this happen? Assuming that the need for harmony in symbols is as psychologically essential and universal as Douglas (1978)  suggests, perhaps drug use in these circumstances appears as the appropriate thing to do.

But note: use of  drugs which expresses social values and goals lies somewhere along a continuum stretching from the instrumental to the symbolic.  When use is instrumental, the value or goal  is objectively furthered by the physiological consequences of  drug consumption.  For example,  in many parts of the world drug use associates itself with the role of warrior. When the drug is a stimulant, like the amphetamines said to be given to British flyers in WWII, drug use is instrumental; it reduces fatigue, provides a surge of  energy etc, and thus contributes to success in battle.  By contrast in its declining and unsuccessful years, the north Indian Mughal army leaders used extra large amounts of opium before battles (Eraly1997) This was not instrumental since opium is a strong depressant.

Some references:

Among the Quechua [Inca] people of Peru and Bolivia, coca chewing is a powerful means of differentiating themselves from other ethnic groups. Handling, sharing, and consumption are closely governed by rules of etiquette. Adherence to these rules implies the presentation of one’s self as a participant in this [Quechua] tradition.

To Be Quechua: the Symbolism of Cocoa Chewing in Highland Peru  C. Allen  (1981:157).

Ah, devil ether ‑ a total body drug.  The mind recoils in horror, unable to communicate with the spinal column.  The hands flap crazily, unable to get  money out of the pocket… garbled laughter and hissing from the mouth… always smiling [author’s ellipses].  Ether is the perfect drug for Las Vegas.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Hunter S. Thompson 980:47).


St Patrick’s Day—that’s white peoples’ day. They get scary when they drink—all in a big crowd pretendin’ they’re Irish and looking for trouble.

Drinking Politics  (An African American comment)Marcus  (my files).


And below, a  contrary example: an Aboriginal Elder argues that tying alcohol consumption to a significant cultural value in isolated Aboriginal desert camps has disastrous consequences.

Indigenous generosity and reciprocity are admirable, and indeed beautiful features of our [Aboriginal] culture. But when you add addiction to foreign substances and habits to this culture, things that are admirable and beautiful become deformed and destructive. Demand sharing and alcohol just don’t mix. Cultural obligation makes it near impossible for Aborigines to ‘normalise’ their drinking.[1]

‘Shared descent into the maelstrom of addiction.’  Noel Pearson.  Director of the Cape York Institute for Public Policy  in The Week End Australian. October 13-14, 2012.


Liquor  advertising, which is designed to efficiently persuade people to consume particular brands of alcohol, pursues this task by associating alcohol with admired social values and goals, not by stressing the pleasures of drinking (my emphasis).  McConville  (1983) made a study of all advertisements appearing in the print media in Great Britain during the first quarter of 1982.  She found that when men were the target of sales campaigns, liquor consumption was tied to ‘challenge, dominance, competition, and remaining unmarried’(1983:59).   When potential women buyers were considered, again the pleasure of  drinking went unmentioned.The ‘bait’ of advertisements aimed at women was pairing off with a man; there are no advertisements which appeal to women on any other basis (McConville 1983:59).

In a more recent publication (2006), AC Nielsen refers to an international study investigating the role of taste as the determining factor in the choice of beer brands among dedicated users.  However, ‘blind’ tests soon revealed that difference in taste was not the critical issue as had been pre-supposed. In most countries, the most successful beer brands were those that symbolize group cohesion, equality and male bonding.

The use of drugs to relieve the consumer of responsibility for subsequent negative or destructive acts belongs in this category.  The sociologist  Pattison (1981) argued that many individuals in Western cultures use alcohol in this way, consuming it in quantity so that there is a reasonable expectation that such use may well result in arguments, accidents, sexual misconduct and  other inappropriate behavior.  Alcohol use is then claimed as social exoneration for the deviant conduct which follows. This became a feminist issue in the 1980s, when Jocelynne Scutt, a noted Australian feminist and barrister, writer, and columnist, argued  that accepting excessive alcohol use as an excuse for rape and domestic violence was a sexist rationalization.

Institutionalized ‘escape’ or ‘time out’ mechanisms occur in other cultures as well. There is  ‘wild‑man’ behavior in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, and the ‘beserker’ role in Scandinavia. In both latter cases drug use renders the perpetrator unable to carry out onerous economic responsibilities.

With regard to alcohol, it has been claimed that the  greater the number of positive, social reasons for use, the  higher will be the level of individual consumption. If true, this aspect of the use of legal drugs in Western  society may provide one  reason why drugs like heroin have had  negative connotations. Because heroin use is not an articulation of socially accepted  values, its consumption (and those of other  drugs)  becomes the  private, purposeful, creation of pleasure in one’s own body  without the help of another.  Trebach (1982:272) argues that  this is the reason that heroin use is viewed by “straight”  society as an activity in the same class as masturbation.


My next couple of blogs examine the power and political influence possessed by people who control access to psychoactive substances.


Douglas, M. 1978 Natural Symbols.  Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Eraly, A.1997.  The Mughal World : India’s Tainted Paradise. India: Weindenfeld & Nicolson

McConville, B. 1983 Women under the influence: alcohol and its impact.  London: Virago Press.

Neilsen       reference missing

Pattison, E.M. 1981  A bio‑psycho‑social analysis of alcohol and drug abuse: implications for social policy.  In L.R.H. Drew, Pierre Stolz and W.A. Barclay (eds.) Man, drugs and society: current perspectives.  Proceedings of the First Pan‑Pacific Conference on Drugs and Alcohol, Canberra, Australia, 1980.  Canberra: The Australian Foundation on  Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

Scutt.  J .1981 The alcoholic imperative: a sexist rationalization of rape and domestic violence.  In L.R.H. Drew, Pierre Stolz and W.A. Barclay (eds, .)  Man, drugs and society: current perspectives.  Proceedings of the First Pan‑Pacific Conference on Drugs and Alcohol, Canberra, Australia 1980.  Canberra: The Australian Foundation on  Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

Trebach  A.1982 The heroin solution.  New Haven: Yale University Press.


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