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Socio-Cultural Forces That Lead to Drug Addiction

A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP, Kaushik Misra, Ph.D., Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., and Galen Morgan Cooper, Ph.D. , edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Psychology is primarily concerned with understanding individual human behavior. In contrast, sociology is primarily concerned with understanding the behavior of larger groups (families, organizations, societies, cultures). Sociologists and psychologists study the influence of these groups on individual behavior. Social and cultural forces can cause entire groups of people to be more vulnerable to addiction. If you are a member of a vulnerable group, then you are more vulnerable to addiction.

For our purposes, the term culture describes a group's learned and shared pattern of values and beliefs. These values and beliefs guide group members' behavior and their social interactions. Unlike skin color, hair color, or one's physical stature, we cannot readily observe culture. Some cultures have observable physical characteristics that become associated with that culture. People of Swedish descent have blond hair. People of African descent have dark skin. People of Asian descent have almond-shaped eyes. Regardless of whether or not there are observable physical characteristics associated with a particular culture, everyone has a culture. There are specific cultures associated with families, gender, race, ethnicity, workplaces, etc.

Researchers have learned that certain groups of people have higher rates of addiction than do other groups of people. However, this observation does not explain why these differences exist. By studying the differences between groups of people with higher rates of drug addiction, as compared to groups with lower rates of alcoholism, we can begin to uncover the cultural forces that make some groups more vulnerable to addiction.

Sometimes people have difficulty understanding how devastating historical events can still affect a group of people today. The answer lies in the way we transmit culture from one generation to the next: families. Now imagine a family history that includes the systematic oppression of the group to which that family belongs. Oppression can lead to feelings of hopelessness, loss, fear, distrust, and despair. Parents who directly experienced this oppression communicate this sense of loss and despair to their children. Someday those children will become parents and communicate these same things to their children and so on. Many generations later, we can observe the transmission of hopelessness and despair. Therefore, it will continue to affect family members today.

Each generation of children learns the world is an unsafe place. This occurs even though in present times, this may no longer be true. They may have learned that opportunities for a good life belong to other people with the "right" skin, eyes, or hair. If someone learned these beliefs as a child, that child eventually grows up to be an adult believing these same things.

An understanding of social and cultural forces does help to answer, "How do people get addicted?" It is true that individuals affected by cultural influences cannot readily change these influences. Nevertheless, we can interpret these cultural forces in helpful or unhelpful ways. Sometimes re-interpretation is our only recourse. As Shakespeare's Hamlet notes, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Or as Marcus Aurelius, the 2nd century Roman emperor stated, "The universe is change, life is what our thoughts make it." Although individuals can do very little to directly change these influences, knowledge and awareness of these forces strengthens recovery efforts. We have developed a guide for becoming more aware of these cultural influences.

In addition to knowledge and awareness of cultural forces, two other socio-cultural influences are key factors in recovery. These are families and social support. You can learn more about these and other socio-cultural causes of addiction in our topic center on Addiction.