The Social Construction of Substance Use and Deviance

The Social Construction of Substance Use and Deviance

Social construction is a sociological view that meanings and attitudes are not ‘discovered’ but are constructed by people as they engage with the world around them and developed and transmitted primarily in a social context. Howard Becker, whose work includes the social construction of social problems and the labelling of deviant behaviour, attacked the premise that there is consensus across or between societies about what constitutes deviant behaviour, believing that in the same way that different people have likes and dislikes, they have differing views on what is good and bad for society.

He suggested that the identification of activities as deviant or damaging to society is a political process in which certain sections of society (usually those with the most power) identify some activities as normal and others as deviant and then make rules that reinforce this. As such deviance is not a quality of the act committed but a label applied as a consequence of breaching these rules.

Where do attitudes about substance use come from?

The attitudes that people have towards substances, substance use and substance users are not innate, but are formed as they interact with the world around them. Often these attitudes are influenced by a combination of first, second and third hand experiences. First-hand experiences include our own consumption of drugs, alcohol or other substances that cause changes in perception, thoughts and behaviours. Second-hand experiences may come from talking with or seeing other people who have consumed drugs or alcohol and the effects that this has upon them at the time, and afterwards. Third-hand information is obtained both consciously and unconsciously through the portrayal of substances and substance use in the media and books, through popular culture such as films and television, from religious sources and from government policy and legislation.  It may also come from exposure to the attitudes of significant others, such as friends and family, who may or may not themselves have first, or even second-hand experience of substance use, but none the less may hold very strong beliefs about them.

Peoples' views towards certain substances such as alcohol often reflect personal, first and second hand experience. However, their views about other substances with which they may be less familiar, are more commonly influenced by third-hand knowledge from legal and governmental sources, health promotion initiatives, the media and popular culture. In the present day, it is through these channels that cultural norms, values and beliefs are commonly transmitted and reinforced.

The next post will look at the role of the media.

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