SFU Professor Identifies Society'S Ills

When U.S. reporter Dan Rather blew into town last week to investigate Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, he could have done worse than interview SFU professor of psychology Bruce Alexander. But the professor's position is probably too nuanced for another prime time yawner devoted to the War on Some Drugs. While Alexander endorses Vancouver's Four Pillars program, he feels such efforts don't dig deep enough to address the roots of addiction in society.

In 1997, Alexander stopped teaching courses on addiction and "went on a binge of reading," with the intent to write a history of psychology. He thought he had left his studies behind, but they came after him. "I kept finding addiction in my history books, when I didn't expect to find it. I found the answer which I could not find in doing psychological research," he told an audience last month at the Wosk Centre for Dialogue.

Alexander had already determined that studies on drug-addicted rats, used to prove what he calls the "demon drug" model of addiction, were incomplete at best, and dangerous pseudoscience at worst. After reading the history of the British "opium wars," and the deliberate displacement of people in the Scottish highlands, he understood better how addiction grips entire cultures.

He summed up his findings in a 2001 paper for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. "Addiction in the modern world can be best understood as a compulsive lifestyle that people adopt as a desperate substitute when they are dislocated from the myriad intimate ties between people and groups--from the family to the spiritual community--that are essential for every person in every type of society."

The prof's work doesn't shrink from identifying addiction's myriad forms, pushed by advertising, marketing and public policy decisions. Globalization itself creates the template, the petri dish, for addictive behaviour.

"In order for 'free markets' to be 'free,' the exchange of labour, land, currency, and consumer goods must not be encumbered by elements of psychosocial integration such as clan loyalties, village responsibilities, guild or union rights, charity, family obligations, social roles, or religious values. Cultural traditions 'distort' the free play of the laws of supply and demand, and thus must be suppressed. In free market economies, for example, people are expected to move to where jobs can be found, and to adjust their work lives and cultural tastes to the demands of a global market."

Our culture is notable for its fragmentation, mobility and endless high-tech distractions. Alexander argues that people who cannot achieve psychosocial integration in this milieu, for whatever reason, often develop substitute lifestyles. They cling to these "with a tenacity that is properly called addiction." Sometimes these substitute lifestyles are relatively harmless, but often it's quite the opposite.

Alexander's ideas on "the globalization of addiction" seem almost obvious in retrospect, but he's the first to apply academic rigour to the matter. Then again, he's had an open field. As he noted in his 2001 paper, "examining the side effects of 'free markets' and the 'new economy' is uncomfortable at a time when nearly every nation in the world seems bent on gaining admission to the free trade party to sample the goodies and enjoy the high-tech euphoria."

The prof notes addiction is "no longer the pathological state of a few but, to a greater or lesser degree, the general condition in western society." Addictions of all types grease the wheels of the global economy. Where would this culture be without the frenzied pursuit of a quick buck in our outsourced, downsized, go-get-em, casino economy, and its leisure-time doppelganger: the evening depressurization through alcohol, videogames, online porn or some other market-mediated narcotic? (Not to mention the entire judicial, policing, prison and security apparatus that expands with the prosecution of drug use.)

The War on Some Drugs has gone on for decades in the U.S. and Canada, with the same dreary non-results. Alexander's research supplies the necessary psychosocial context for understanding addiction. Without it, we'll just keep tilting at windmills. In his paper, which he has expanded into a forthcoming book from Oxford University Press, he notes cultures under external assault fall prey to addictive behaviours. Historically, it has happened over and over to indigenous people the world over--enough times for it to be causation rather than correlation. More on that, and some final thoughts on addiction, next

*CN BC: Addictions, Distractions Define Western World Date: Pubdate: Fri, 09 Nov 2007 Source: Vancouver Courier (CN BC) Copyright: 2007 Vancouver Courier. Author: Geoff Olson, _____Distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. --- MAP posted-by: Derek