Hooked on Heroin: Drugs and Drifters in a Globalized World , 2003 , Oxford : Berg xi + 201pp . £50 ISBN 1 85973 762 5 (hbk) £15.99 ISBN 1 85973 767 6 (pbk)
As I write this review I am still unclear about what I think of this book. This is because it is an ad-mixture of parts that sit informatively but awkwardly within the drug-field literature but also within contemporary ethnography and sociology – none of which is necessarily a bad thing. The text itself is a translation from a different version originally published in Swedish and it may be that some of my concerns have been either lost or confused in translation. The book is highly ambitious in scope, attempting to describe, analyse and theorise the defining aspects of urban heroin use in a mid-size town within a globalised world. The attempt is laudable and will provide (for some) a conceptual base for further understanding. Such ambition in a project, however, is always likely to prove problematic in one way or another and this one proved no exception.
The research upon which it is based is concerned with the growth of heroin use among young people in a Swedish town in the 1990s. A central focus is on the ways that broad cultural, and narrower subcultural, ‘forces’ support, shape and maintain such use within a context whereby heroin use is greatly demonised. The broader economic context is: relative de-industrialisation; periods of high unemployment and some modest urban regeneration.
Observations and interviews with heroin users during a three-year period allowed Lalander to explore why young people became heroin users; what form their lifestyles took; the means through which a heroin-using lifestyle was developed, nurtured and maintained and the subcultural artefacts that explain them. He developed a range of conceptual notions through which to understand how people moved away from conventional and sanctioned behaviours into drug use (separation), why they progressed to heroin, the energised, racy and often chaotic lifestyles they preferred and ‘needed’. We are provided with insight into how Lalander sees the subcultural practices of ‘doing drugs with honour and style’ providing the rules through which the heroin-using group learns to live by, and we are given an interpretation of the gendered nature of this subculture. Along with interesting/helpful/informative descriptions of heroin preparation; of the rituals of use; of ‘flat-sitting’ and getting ‘cosy’– the content aftermath of use – and how drug deals and drug dealers operated a picture of drug use in the location emerges. These are delivered bit by bit and helpfully merged with reference to other ethnographic drug-field (or other) research and/or theory. Lastly, an attempt is made to show how broader cultural influences such as Hollywood portrayals of drug use, youth, gender and ‘outsiders’ are being subsumed within drug using subcultures as far away (geographically and culturally) as Sweden. The outcome is a picture of heroin use that is both descriptive and explanatory. It does however have real weaknesses both theoretically and in terms of how the description is ‘located’ in heroin use in an urban context in a globalised world. It is a book to be recommended – but to whom? This for me is the core problem. Although the book is about a small town in Sweden where attitudes to drug use are harsh, it is not representative of other places – particularly outside Sweden – yet the text implies that it is ‘how it is elsewhere’. This may be a translation issue but I doubt this. Either way it is problematic. Lalander's interpretations of how people become involved in heroin use, the way the subculture re-enforces the use and the ways in which it shapes you suggests the universal. Reference is made to other ethnographic work on heroin use from North America and elsewhere but the areas he refers to, and the cultures of drug use, have changed. They no longer resemble the case studies he uses to marry with Norrköping. The author has a tendency (I suspect unintentionally) to see the emergent subculture as relatively fixed vis-à-vis heroin. The substance creates (both via its standing in society and its pharmacology) the subculture. Theoretically he does something similar. Lalander is to be lauded for demonstrating the continued usefulness of theorists such Goffman, Becker, Cohen, Durkheim, Kuhn and Simmel but he does so with little awareness of their limitations. Lalander's concept of subculture is over-cumbersome and often over-determining in his interpretations, and does little to recognise that such groups are often far more differentiated than he gives them credit for. The concept of culture and subculture has moved on in recent years and Lalander would perhaps have benefited from acknowledging this. Only lip service is paid to the sample being predominately from moderately (or seriously) deviant backgrounds and yet much of what he has to say about culture and subculture – including gender codes and globalised influences – is as easily explained by reference to cultural influences derived prior to involvement in drug use. This is not an insignificant point but one Lalander has chosen not to consider with any seriousness. The book is interesting, but the reader, I would argue, needs a good background in the drug-field literature and that of criminology. Its strength is in its description of heroin use at a particular moment in time and place and renders some interesting ideas on how and why those lifestyles are the way they are.