Living The Experience: Exploring the Drug Subculture Using Social Constructionist Theory
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SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONISM is a theory that was composed by sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann in 1966. Essentially, the theory sought to explain how people construct the idea of what reality is in order to regulate their understanding and behavior. THOUGH THE CONCEPT of social constructionism dictates that there may be many different ideas of reality, there is often a dominant idea, or “authority structure”, that many people ascribe to. This authority structure then provides a model of comparison and contention for various subcultures and opposing realities. In my study, I identified the authority structure as the populace movement against drugs, which is privately manifested in opinion and personal abstinence, and publicly manifested in laws and prevention organizations such as DARE. The drug subculture, composed of users, smugglers, and dealers, acts as the opposing reality. THE IDEA OF REALITY is not always permanently cemented in a person’s psyche. An event that strongly challenges someone’s view of reality, called a “reality shock,” may disturb a person to the point where s/he re-examines what reality truly is. This can lead to a process called alternation, in which the belief in what reality is changes. Some of the participants in my study underwent alternation to move from a life of drug abuse to a sober lifestyle. DURING THE COURSE OF MY RESEARCH, I found that most users defined and legitimated their idea of reality through the drug “experience.” These experiences were most often related to the drug itself (i.e. ingesting a hallucinogen) or the actions occurring while on or dealing drugs (i.e. going to a club on ecstasy). By gaining this experience, users felt they had a fuller view of what reality was. They postulated that people who have foregone the drug experience have not fully appreciated all the different sides of reality, and therefore don’t possess true understanding of the real world. HOWEVER, THERE WERE THOSE who were not satisfied with the life in the drug culture. This became particularly apparent when they were faced with reality shocks such as arrests, or the deaths of friends in drug-related accidents. As these participants re-evaluated their reality, they went through the process of alternation, slowly removing themselves from their friends and old-hangouts, and finding new legitimization tactics and new belief structures in which to ground a fresh idea of reality. ULTIMATELY, in doing this research I sought to further explore the theory of social constructionism, and then to use this theory to understand how the controversial and often deplored drug subculture is maintained. Despite warnings from parents, DARE drug prevention programs, and television commercials, many of the participants grasped onto the idea that drug use was fun and provided new perspectives. As they experimented with drugs, they came to believe that this newfound knowledge gave them insight as to what drugs “really were,” and that those who opposed use were without this knowledge. Their legitimization tactics proved to be effective enough so as to maintain the drug subculture in the face of criminalization, demoralization, and the general anathema of the dominant culture.