Anthropology of Drug

By the late 19th century, some academic travelers, calling themselves anthropologists, were beginning to write highly detailed ethnographic monographs. Because of their attention to detail, these works included accounts of whatever drug-using patterns were found in the groups being described. In terms of the anthropological view in its purest sense, this approach, the inclusion of drug use in the context of full ethnographic monographs that richly contextualize the described cultural patterns, may still represent the ideal in reporting on drug use. A focus on patterns of drug use without full attention to the cultural contexts in which it occurs can lead to overly facile representations of how people use drugs.

The cultural contexts in which drug use occurs, however, may not lend themselves to the production of a definitive monograph. In most parts of the contemporary world, whether people are using tobacco, ayahuasca, or heroin, societies have multicultural components in highly interdependent systems of symbols and exchange. For this reason, the specialized study of drug use had to arise, and it began to do so by the middle of the 20th century. One of the earliest examples of this kind of specialized study was Lowie's (1919) monograph on the Crow Tobacco Society. It related tobacco use with many other aspects of Crow life, including religion, social structure, linguistics, and ethnobotany, demonstrating the aptness of the anthropological view in studying patterns of drug use. Lowie also exemplifies anthropologists who did not necessarily focus on drug use, but in the course of their investigations, characterized drug use in specific cultural contexts (cf. Honigmann & Honigmann, 1945; Mangin, 1957).

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