This paper is concerned with addiction as a set of ideas that have a history and a cultural location. “Addiction” is used here as a general term to cover a territory for which a number of other terms have been used: notably “alcoholism”; before that, “inebriety,” in the long history of thinking about alcohol; and “dependence,” in current nosology. We are not concerned here with the truth value of addiction and cognate terms or with their empirical applicability. Thus we are not concerned, for instance, with whether there is really a single entity called “alcoholism” or whether alcoholism is really a disease.2 Instead, the concern is with what is meant when we talk about addiction and with the ways in which this conceptualization of behavior and events may be culturally framed.
Addiction as a Historically and Culturally Specific Concept In 1978, Harry Levine published his landmark paper on “The discovery of addiction.”3 Applying to alcohol an analysis parallel to the analyses by Foucault and Rothman for mental disorders, Levine argued that the idea of addiction emerged at a specific point in history and in a specific cultural context. The time was the early part of the nineteenth century, and the place was the Jacksonian United States. In colonial America, Levine argued, it was well recognized that certain people liked to drink and that their drinking was often habitual, but these characteristics were not accorded more significance than other personal preferences or habits; they were not seen as a disease or affliction that could take control of the drinker’s behavior or life. In Levine’s analysis, the new understanding of drinking was very much associated with the newly emerging temperance movement. In turn, the temperance movement emerged as a vehicle for society’s great concern about personal self-control, particularly for adult males. The concept of...
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