“This substance is not an easy substance”
: the politics and morality of khat use and control in a London Somali community

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


In June 2014, the UK government prohibited khat (Catha edulis), a psychoactive substance widely used by Somalis. Based on ethnographic fieldwork with Somali khat users and prohibition supporters between 2012 – 2015, this thesis explores the processes and consequences of khat prohibition in a London Somali community. Social science research on psychoactive substances has considered how moral, cultural and political factors shape addiction, licit and illicit drug use, trade and control. In this literature, prohibition has generally been interpreted as a sign of ‘moral panic’ and as integral to the shaping of powerful discourses of addiction. Much less attention has been given to how substance use and control entwine to create a contingent set of openings in which users and other actors negotiate a wide range of social, political, and moral concerns and aspirations. Through an in-depth exploration of the London Somali community, this ethnography reveals a complex picture of the moral and political significance of khat. I show how khat use becomes a focal point – a total social fact as Marcel Mauss would have it – in which seemingly distinct domestic, commercial, political and cultural spheres collide in the lives of Somalis in London. I locate my research within recent debates in moral anthropology, the study of addiction and psychoactive substance use, and ethnographies of refugees. In so doing, I seek to study, paraphrasing Neil Carrier, the social and moral life of a stimulant. Stories recounted by London Somalis demonstrate how khat prohibition opened large-scale questions relating to: the moral histories of khat control in colonial and independent Somalia; the poetics of remembering and imagination of Somali nationhood in the context of civil war; relationships of care among immigrants; and the ambiguity of interventions and evidence relating to the harms of khat. This ethnography tells the story of the moral and political complexity that characterises psychoactive substance use and control against the backdrop of the moral lives London Somalis are seeking to lead in the face of their often violent pasts, turbulent presents and uncertain futures.
Date of Award1 Feb 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorDominique Behague (Supervisor) & Scott Vrecko (Supervisor)

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