Drug use and social control: The negotiation of moral ambivalence

Michael Shiner*, Adam Winstock

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Illicit drugs occupy an ambivalent position in late modern society; one that revolves around the twin themes of pleasure and disapproval. Drawing on Freudian psychoanalysis and Eliasian sociology this article considers how people, particularly those who use drugs, negotiate such ambivalence. Patterns of drug use and associated attitudes are examined on the basis of the Crime Survey for England and Wales and a specialist survey of largely recreational drug users in the United Kingdom. Although illicit drugs have become increasingly familiar, their use is still widely thought to be harmful and morally dubious, creating a series of challenges for those who engage in such behaviour. Ambivalence among drug users is evident in an awareness of potential costs as well as benefits; a tendency to avoid more harmful substances; a general emphasis on moderation; and a desire to use less. Building on previous work, which highlights the role of neutralisations in sustaining drug using behaviour, particular attention is paid to users' judgements about how their levels of consumption compare with other users. The analysis identifies a tendency among users to downplay their relative levels of use, which, it is argued, serves to shield them from some of the imperatives that may lead to decisions to cut down. As such, normalisation is said to be an intra-personal as well inter-personal process. The article concludes by discussing the potential of web-based personalised feedback as a harm reduction approach.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)248-256
Number of pages9
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2015


  • Defence mechanisms
  • Drug use
  • Neutralisation techniques
  • Normalisation
  • UK


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