What the “War on Drugs” Never Told Us: Ethnographic Perspectives on the Illicit Drug Economy

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This course is under review for 2021. Course registration will open to accepted students once courses are confirmed.

Course Description

The “War on Drugs” introduced unprecedented levels of policing over drug users of color in the United States. Inaugurated under Nixon, and expanded under Reagan, the War on Drugs depicted illicit narcotics users as threats to American society. The drug user was to be contained rather than cured, a philosophy that has led to the surveillance and mass incarceration of an entire generation of black and brown Americans. For the past decade, the opioid epidemic--a predominantly white problem--has seemingly started to transform national perceptions of the addict. Yet, as we will explore in the class, it is still unclear whether all drug users regardless of their race are seen as deserving of compassion from the criminal justice system. This course examines the legacy of the War on Drugs and the epistemologies of the addict that it has encouraged. In an effort to move beyond “law and order” approaches, we will also explore how ethnography as a mode of study and bearing witness can generate alternative framings of illicit drug usage, addiction, and dealing. Ultimately, this course will provide students with the tools to analyze and critique popular discourses and policies related to narcotics.

How has the state justified the “War on Drugs”? What does this approach obfuscate? And what do alternative approaches reveal and/or leave opaque about the illicit drug economy? To explore these questions, we will venture through multiple forms of evidence and storytelling, from ethnography to film to government documents. Using anthropological theory and analysis practices, we will study texts that span across time periods and disciplines to understand why and how the illicit drug economy has been apprehended through different lenses. To this end, we will take “social deviance,” “political economy,” “social suffering,” and “expertise” as launching points to understand lived experiences in the illicit drug economy.

To introduce the class, we will dive into the culture of the “War on Drugs,” taking a look at historical and contemporary texts alongside critical scholarly discussions. In this portion of the course, we will also evaluate the emerging literature on the opioid epidemic, with the purpose of parsing for whom and how the “War on Drugs” approach no longer applies. The second portion of the course deals exclusively with alternative means of knowing the illicit drug economy. We will work chronologically through the significant theoretical turns in anthropological theory, all the while assessing their strengths and shortcomings. For example, we will ask: how do these approaches account for race and racism, gender and sexuality, governance and politics? This section of the course will combine influential theoretical texts with ethnographies that apply and extend the theoretical concepts at stake. The last portion of the class will be composed of applying these lenses to new primary materials. Each student will draft a project proposal that employs one theoretical lens discussed in class to research the opioid epidemic.

The course combines lectures, discussions, and student presentations to maximize learning. The instructor will introduce subjects by drawing on texts and his own experience conducting relevant research. By the time of the course, the instructor will have conducted over two years of ethnographic research on drug use and responses to it. His research in the USA involves an in-depth study of police-work in the American Rust Belt. The primary aim of his research is to understand why and how the police are transforming into a public-health agency in response to the opioid epidemic. In the course, students will be expected to draw on their own experiences and perspectives to interpret course materials.

First, this course will teach students to critically read primary texts, which will include government issued reports on the crack epidemic, newspaper articles, and blockbuster films. Second, the course will train students to dissect, analyze, and evaluate argumentation from diverse disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, and history. Third, this course will introduce students to the process of project conceptualization and design, with the primary intention of teaching how theory can be translated into people-centered research. Throughout the course, students will learn to think more critically about the illicit drug economy in ways that exceed popular discourse.

Prerequisites: There are no prerequisites for this course.

Course Information

  • Course Code: CEAN0938
  • Length: 2 weeks

Program Information

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Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences, offering over 200 non-credit courses, one- to four-weeks long, taught on Brown’s campus. For students completing grades 9-12 by June 2021.

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