I've been thinking quite a lot recently about the nature of addiction. This is prompted by an exchange on Twitter that mentioned 'functional alcoholism', and a presentation given by Mark Gilman at a recent conference hosted by the treatment provider CRI.
I'm certainly not the person to develop a new or more nuanced understanding of addiction, and this wouldn't be the place for me to do it. But there is something I want to do here that I hope will be useful. It's more of a general point about definitions and how we use concepts. I wrote last week about how pleasure and happiness probably aren't very useful analytic concepts, even if they mean something useful to us in everyday conversation.
You could take an academic, intellectual perspective and suggest that concepts need clarity to ensure we have perfect, Habermasian communication. I struggled to read and understand Habermas, but there's definitely a point something like this that should be made.
I've seen Mark Gilman talk a number of times now, and the central assumptions and conclusions of his presentations have been the same for the past two years at the very least. One of his key contentions is that there are alcoholics or addicts as defined in the 'big book' of the fellowships. And not simply that people who fit that characterisation exist, but they are the only people who are really addicted to substances; there might be others who drink too much for their health, but they're not addicts. This particular group of people who are addicted are best treated using that 'big book'.
This seems perfectly reasonable, if it works. That is, if AA or NA work for that category of people, we should absolutely be encouraging them to access these services.
I'm not going to question that evidence base here. There's plenty of lively (and often uninformed) debate on that issue already.
But here's the rub. When we talk about 'addiction', what do we mean? Some people would argue that the term is so disputed and inexact that we should cease using it entirely.
But Mark Gilman would argue that he's doing the opposite of this: he's using it precisely, with a very narrow but clear definition - taken from the 'big book'. And for these people, the idea of 'controlled drinking' could be hugely destructive. This is certainly a different perspective from the New Directions conference I attended this summer where there was something of a retrospective on 'controlled drinking', and researchers like Marc Lewis expressed their admiration for this stream of work.
And here's where my sociological, methodological objection comes in. I don't subscribe to some Platonic model whereby concepts pre-exist human thought and signify some kind of absolute reality (that we may or may not grasp) and we're on a process of working out what addiction 'really' is.
Instead, I'd argue that any such concept isn't god-given, but only exists as a human construct, and is only useful insofar as it helps us to understand the world around us.
And so the authors of the study I link to above are right: if 'heavy use' gets us further to understanding what's going on and how to address it, then let's stop using the term addiction as a technical, clinical term. I happen to disagree, but at least the debate is taking place on the right terms.
By this understanding, there's no problem with the Mark Gilman approach or the 'big book' definition of addiction, but equally it's important to note that if this is 'addiction', then there's also lots of people who have something more problematic than simply drinking at a level that is harmful to their physical health who don't then 'recover' from their issues in the way suggested.
There's a further problem too: the reflexivity or self-awareness of human beings. Concepts about human behaviour don't simply exist in a vacuum; they also reflect back and shape that behaviour.
Think of economics. Lots of critical theories of neo-liberalism note that economics and its metaphors haven't simply described the world of human interaction; they have also shaped that behaviour by making people think not only that they do behave like 'economic man', but that they should. We internalise the tenets of neoliberalism.
This argument is closely linked to certain claims regarding the influence of psychology - as well as trying to describe and explain our behaviour, these theories or worldviews change it.
You might not agree with the arguments in these particular examples, but there's no doubt that if you get a diagnosis of your behaviour - which is inevitably determined by a mix of structure and agency, individual choice and wider determinants - this diagnosis (knowing what you are 'like') will affect those conscious elements of behaviour. In fact, that's one of the reasons the AA model of addiction is opposed by people like Stanton Peele: it deprives people of their agency at precisely the time when they need to be toldthey can change long-term patterns of behaviour.
I'd suggest that both those suggesting 'heavy use' as an alternative to 'addiction', and those sticking resolutely to either a DSM or 'big book' definition are playing a strange game of trying to pin down the myriad of complex ways people can experience problems in relation to a range of substances (or behaviours) into one unifying theory. Perhaps such a debate clarifies what is actually problematic about certain forms of substance use, and how we might address this, but it also risks obscuring 'different' issues or patterns of behaviour.
And these definitions aren't simply academic. Mark Gilman is proposing service design on the basis of segmenting the potential users of services by these categories, and DSM definitions will affect what sort of treatment people receive - or even if they receive any at all. That means the 'accuracy' - or perhaps inclusivity - of these definitions is crucial tothe chances of recovering that individuals might have.
So by all means let's have a debate about what 'addiction' or 'dependence' or 'problem substance use' might be, but let's do this with an awareness that you can't capture such issues perfectly. And such concepts, even if they're continually developing, aren't moving towards a more and more refined and correct definition. Moreover, they need to be continually developed, as they're linked into a feedback loop as they impact on the very behaviour they're trying to describe.