top of page

Addiction, History and Historians: Daniel Bradburd’s Response

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: Our symposium on addiction, history and historians continues today, with a response to David Courtwright from Prof. Daniel Bradburd.  If you’re just catching up with our series, start with David’s essay first.  Readers may also wish to review the previous responses to the essay in this series, from Nancy Campbell and Alex Mold.  We are pleased to post Daniel Bradburd’s reflections today–he’s Professor of Anthropology at Clarkson University and, among other scholarly endeavors, he has published (with William Jankowiak) Drugs, Labor, and Colonial Expansion (University of Arizona Press, 2003). 

David Courtwright ‘s essay is short and has an elegant narrative;  it is a pleasure  to read, and on its surface provides a straight forward narrative of both the developing field of drug and alcohol history and of the relationship of historians working in that field to laboratory based drug and alcohol research.

As Courtwright notes, historians have compiled a considerable, and growing, body of work on addiction and drugs which seek to provide an ‘understanding of how historical actors saw evolving situations.’   Speaking as an anthropologist, much of the work that Courtwright cites is outstanding;  the body of historical scholarship emerging on drugs, alcohol, and addiction is an impressive one.  Put slightly differently, in my view drug and alcohol history as a field of study  is both making significant contributions in its own field and provides a base of very useful knowledge for those examining the use of drugs and/or of addiction in other disciplines.

Courtwright’s essay is not just a paean to historians. Courtwright notes tensions in the relationship between historians (and other social scientists) studying alcohol and drugs and those doing  laboratory based work, and he worries about the consequences of those tensions.   Courtwright is far better placed than I to judge the discomfort of lab scientists with historians, but I would like to expand a bit on the roots of the tensions he perceives, setting out what are for me, personally, some of the concatenated issues that generate skepticism with and concern over the ‘NIDA paradigm’ and its accompanying or underlying ‘brain disease paradigm.’

First, there is the question of a paradigm that, as Courtwright notes, can appear reductive, and intellectually and politically reactionary to historians and other social scientists.  Courtwright may be too polite to say it, but the problem with this problem is an  old one.  The tools and techniques and the analysis involved in the science may be new, but recourse to reductionist explanations of complex human activities is not. Social Darwinism, a reductive view of evolutionary biology, was adduced to explain social class; nominally scientific theories proferred as good scientific practice justified discrimination based on race and gender.  So some historians and anthropologists may be concerned, as Courtwright notes, that ‘reductive’ explanation ‘sheds no light on culturally specific phenomena.”  Others may be concerned about the political ends to which that reductive work may be put, ultimately fearing its likely use as a means for simultaneously naturalizing and problematizing difference.   (Charles Murray’s recent work, and the small media frenzy surrounding it, provides a contemporary example of why this is a concern.)

Separating these concerns is not easy. At the least, it involves teasing apart the feelings of intellectual trespass that arise from reductionist explanations of complex social phenomena  from worries about bad social policy, in a context in which both science and social policy have become deeply politicized.  While it is important to note and stress that there is no direct link between the ‘brain disease paradigm’ and policies like the ‘War on Drugs,’ high rates of incarceration, particularly  of minorities in the US and death and destruction in Colombia, Peru, or Mexico, they are nonetheless parts of the same overall project. What Courtwright calls the ‘oppositional camp’ of scholars does not arise from nothing.

Another irritant, perhaps trivial but none-the-less real, is that reductionism seems to be in fashion, as evidenced by the re-emergence of socio-biology and evolutionary psychology.  Those, who like me, are not sympathetic to arguments of this kind see their hydra-headed appearance as evidence of a problem not a solution and are thus more likely to be skeptical about any work that has that cast.

Finally, there is what Courtwright calls the “NIDA paradigm,” which may be the elephant in the room. It is certainly a scientific model  which appears to subsume many forms of addiction, but it is also attached to and supportive of an understanding of the nature of addiction and drug use which if not a policy per se, is an integral part of a policy which simultaneously is—or aims to be—a hegemonic  discourse that frames and shapes attitudes toward and questions asked about drugs and drug use.  This paradigm/policy ramifies in numerous ways.  It shapes research funding and provides for the stream of press releases, announcements and articles which move forward its agenda.  It is, or aims to be, a hegemonic discourse in that it at the least does not stress and at the worst mutes a key reality of drug use in America, that it is and has been pervasive in America and is in some ways central to American life, which is also true for many other societies past and present.

Courtwright, and historians like him, have shown that attitudes toward and understandings of drug and alcohol use have often been contested.  They were contested in Colonial America, and have been contested ever since.   Any careful reading of the work of drug and alcohol historians demonstrates how fierce that contest was and is. It is absolutely clear that many contemporary Americans do not share the dominant, formal view of drugs and appropriate drug use exemplified by NIDA’s web pages. If they did, there would be no need for a ‘War on Drugs.’ It is also clear that contemporary Americans use drugs—licit, illicit, legal and illegal—in many different ways and for many different reasons.   In this context, frankly, understanding how drugs work and better understanding the nature of addiction seems to provide answers to only a limited, and perhaps limiting, set of questions.

It is the self chosen task of historians and at least some other social scientists studying drugs and drug use to describe the patterns of use both past and present, and to understand, as best as possible, what lies behind them. Part of what they seek to understand—because it shapes what the actors do and think—is the social framework within which drug use takes place. This includes peer groups, pushers, police and parents, but it also includes addiction researchers and the institutions which support that research and put it to use in various ways.   The end result of this is, as Courtwright suggests,  numerous camps of scholars, addiction scientists, and ‘oppositional,’ ‘accomodationist’ and ‘conservative’ historians and social scientists, each with somewhat different takes on the history of drugs and drug policy.  This is hardly surprising.   American thinking about drugs and drug use has always been contested, often fiercely.  As an anthropologist, I derive some comfort from the thought that years down the road, historians will look at our tempests and put them into context.  It is what they do.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page