Smoking Gun Anthropology | Normification of Academic Cannabis Discourse (2014)


Participant observation is a method developed by anthropologists to attempt a deeper emic perspective for their discourse. This method puts the researcher in the position of their research subjects, and attempts to counter the subjective biases of their background. Participating in some experiences, however presents a challenge as legislation and hegemonic influences can differ greatly across and within cultural groups. This is especially evident in the discourses related to cannabis. Currently, cannabis culture in the United States resides in a liminal grey area of legislation control and social stigma, presenting a unique situation for anthropologists. When legality is concerned, admission if experience can affect future career opportunities, as several projects are federally funded. Whether the experience occurs illegally within the federal borders or away from legislative consequences, the social stigma related to cannabis influences the way it is perceived, and what language is used in its discourse. A normification of anthropological discourse has developed, where researchers must be mindful of the amount of personal participation they can relate without diminishing their reputation. Through their discourse language of normification, anthropologists have aided in the perpetuation and validation of stigma. The smoking gun of anthropology refers to the idea that some topics inherently lose reputation in their existence. In academic cannabis discourse, language has constructed a smoking gun of any use being inherently malicious or pathogenic. There is a need for anthropologists to acknowledge valid experiences as data, and pull away from the exclusivity of academic discourse.

Do not Deviate: The Necessary Control of the Norm

The history of the cultural status of cannabis reveals a history of explicit and tacit control on a deviant sector of society. The explicit control of cannabis has never been static, with policies changing as ideas of its status as medicinal, recreational, or illegal substance. Currently, the federal status of cannabis is a schedule I controlled substance, with no medicinal value and high possibility for abuse. This is countered by several state legislatures however, which attribute some medicinal value. This presents a grey area of legality for users and the researchers who study their experiences. Stigma created by language and society has long been use as a tacit method of control. Foucault claims that the process of normalization is the primary means of control in a modern society, where disciplinary power is internalized by people so as to make them subject to institutional constraints” (Hathaway, et al. 2011). Conformity is achieved through coercive mechanisms of control and moral standards which reinforce self-restraint and control. In Puritanism and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber describes the value of the Puritan ethic to modern capitalistic societies. Weber describes how the ascetism (severe self-discipline) of puritan work ethic, lead to capital success. This reasoning for success has immersed into multiple discourses, deeming superfluities and leisure as irrational and without purpose. The Puritan ethic stresses “sober utility” and the tendency toward a uniform of style of life (Moore and Sanders 2006, 361). In Patterns of Culture (1924), Ruth Benedict draws attention to the favoritism of institutions to those who act closest to behavior which characterizes their society and the lack of support for individuals who deviate from this behavior. She claims those individuals who may be esteemed in one society will be demonized in another (Moore and Sanders, 2006, 80). The institutionalized “war on drugs” is countered by those who believe regulation prohibits researchers from engaging in realistic discourse.

Perpetuating Stigma through Language

Stigma ensures smooth interactions of order by punishing people who do not conform to moral standards (Hathaway, et al. 2011, 455), and when internalized by some users it eventually manifests in their outlook and behavior (Hathaway, et al. 2011, 456). “Those who fail to exercise appropriate discretion may find themselves excluded, maligned or undervalued, and even persecuted for their devious behavior” (Hathaway, et al. 2011). Goffman suggests stigmatized individuals will take up normal attitudes and beliefs, and separate themselves from more conspicuous stigma groups. A normification develops, where users will alter the language used to describe use and experience to avoid any personal or professional connection to stigma. Goffman makes the distinction from true normalization, in which society and institutions are accepting of all perspectives (Hathaway, et al. 2011, 465).

The explicit control and regulation from legislature as well as tacit expressions of social stigma are perpetuated through the key metaphors of drugs as “malevolent agents” and “drugs as pathogens”. Tupper describes how polysemic words such as “drug” or “medicine” have a different meaning depending on the discourse; but that the inherent stigmas are ever present (Tupper 2012, 472). Tupper suggests these words have been socially constructed, and “what makes a substance a medicine seems to have as much to do with vested economic or political interests as it has with historically grounded or scientifically informed evidence of therapeutic value” (Tupper 2012, 474).

Discussion: Stigma Influence on Participation and Experience

Anthropological researchers who aim to accurately reflect cultural experiences may find themselves influenced to do otherwise, and in doing so are failing to accept facets which are integral to human experience. Grob, a physician and researcher on the medical use of psychoactive substances writes “If I have [tried drugs] the my perspective would be discounted due to my own personal bias, and if I haven’t, it would be discounted because I would not truly understand the full range of experience the drug can produce” (Chapkis and Webb, 2008).  Anthropology advocates an insider perspective, and allowing constraints of normification to dictate what aspects of personal research are shared will alter the accuracy of representing experience. Benedict suggests that in order to understand the individuals in a culture, researchers should go beyond measuring personal life-histories against arbitrary norms, and should aim as well to relate his response to the behaviors which are singled out in the institutions of his culture (Moore and Sanders 78). An anthropological discourse which allows for researcher experience to be shared freely and openly and maintains awareness of the subtle influences and expected conformities of our writing will allow for a more realistic portrayal of human experience.  The constraints of a normified academic discourse are not suitable for reflecting human experience, and anthropologists need be aware of this in their research.

Works Cited

Chapkis, Wendy and Richard Webb

2008    Dying to Get High: Marijuana as Medicine. New York University Press.

Hathaway, A. D., N. C. Comeau, and P. G. Erickson.

2011    Cannabis Normalization and Stigma: Contemporary Practices of Moral Regulation. Criminology and Criminal Justice 11(5): 451-69.

Moore, Henrietta, and Todd Sanders, ed.

2006    Anthropology in Theory: Issues in Epistemology. Malden, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Tupper, Kenneth

2012    Psychoactive Substances and the English Language: “Drugs,” Discourses, and Public Policy. Contemporary Drug Problems 39(3):461-493.

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Published by Nikki M

Applied Anthropologist and Digital Dance Specialist

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