My perspective on addictive behavior is at odds with that of many experts (and many popular writers) who seek to understand this behavior entirely on the basis of the interaction of certain chemicals with the human nervous system. Although I do not deny that biological factors are an important part of the picture, I also think it’s important to understand the role of environmental and cultural factors in addictive behavior.
Many experts have effectively criticized the disease model of addiction, and have sought instead to put addiction in a social, cultural, and historical context. For a quick overview of the history of the idea of addiction (especially alcohol addiction) in the United States, see Robin Room’s article The Cultural Framing of Addiction. For more extensive developments of the social and historical view of addiction, see: Bruce K.Alexander, The Globalization of Addiction (2008, Oxford University Press); David T. Courtwright, Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World, ( 2001, Harvard University Press.); Stanton Peele, The Meaning of Addiction (1998, second edition, Jossey Bass Publishers).
Information on the internet tends to be heavily slanted toward the disease model of addiction (and if this information can help those who suffer from the terrible problems of addiction, I am all for it). Alternative views are out there but harder to locate. Places to start:
• I cannot vouch for all of what the often-controversial Stanton Peele says, simply because I am not an addiction expert. But he backs up his claims with evidence, and there are plenty of experts in the field who agree with his rejection of the disease model of addiction. Visit and draw your own conclusions.
• Lots of provocative thinking here, with a special emphasis on the attempt to integrate biological and cultural understandings of addiction (an attempt I endorse). For an example of such an approach, see Daniel H. Lende and E. O. Smith, “Evolution meets biopsychosociality: an analysis of addictive behavior,” Addiction 97 (2002): 447-458.
In my own work I have tried (together with my colleagues Mark Nichter and Mimi Nichter) to contribute to the debate on addiction by examining how the early stages of learning to use a drug may encourage users to begin to think of the drug as something that has power to control them. See Peter Stromberg, Mark Nichter and Mimi Nichter, “Taking Play Seriously: Low-level smoking among college students,” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 31 (2007): 1-24 and Peter Stromberg, “Symbolic Valorization in the Culture of Entertainment: The example of legal drug use,” Anthropological Theory 8 (2008): 430-448.
One of the key points in my approach to addiction is the observation that becoming caught up in a book or a game is in some ways similar to a mild addiction, in that one can have a strong sensation of not wanting to disengage from an entertainment activity. And indeed we often speak of people as being addicted to certain games, or television programs, or genres of popular literature. This is a topic that can be explored in group discussion; some possible questions include:
- Do you know anyone (including perhaps yourself) who has an “almost addictive” relationship with some enjoyable activity? What is it? Describe the person’s pattern of activity. Can we see similar patterns across several of these examples?
- Why should so many things that are essentially forms of play have this quality of taking over our will?
- Are “almost addictions” mostly harmless, or can they be a problem? What is the dividing line?
- Are these “almost addictions” the same sort of thing as serious addictions, or is the similarity merely superficial?
- Is there something about our society that encourages addictive relationships with substances and activities?