DRUG ABUSE AND IDENTITY: Linking Micro and Macro Factors

Tammy L. Anderson

Central Michigan University

The quest to link micro and macro phenomena in symbolic interactionism has gained considerable attention over the years. The present study builds on this endeavor by linking micro and macro phenomena in the transformation of identities accompanying the movement into drug addiction. A qualitative approach is employed, featuring in­ depth interviewing with a purposive sample (N=30) of currently abstinent drug addicts from the 12-Step programs of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) and Narcotics Anony­mous (N.A.) in the Washington. D.C. Metropolitan Area. Findings indicate that identity change is a product of both micro ("ego identity discomfort." "status pas­sages," "and a loss of control in defining one's identity") and macro phenomena ("social appraisal sources" and a "social climate conducive to drug use") and, thus, otters empirical support to symbolic interactionism's ability to deal with the macro as well as the micro. Findings also uncover insights into the etiology of drug addiction and pinpoint new directions tot combatting substance abuse.


Whether a matter of criticism or a topic of discussion. symbolic interactionists and their critics have, over the years. pre-occupied themselves with assessing how well symbolic interaction links micro to macro phenomena or individual behavior to the larger social structure (Denzin 1991). Recent work in this area Couch. Saxton and Katovich 1986: Weigert 1986: Perinbanayagam 1985: Stryker 1985: Burke and Reitzes 1991) has utilized the concept of identity to link micro and macro phenomena. The result has been the specification of many variations of the identity concept and the use of several theoreti­cal and methodological approaches to tackle the issue. Today. Chicago School interaction­ists (Weigert 1986), the New Iowa School interactionists (see Couch et al. 1986). post­modern theorists (e.g.. Lemert 1992: Denzin 1992b) and identity theorists (a more quan­titative version of the old Iowa School, e.,.. Strvker and colleagues) have been involved in linking micro and macro phenomena through the concept of identity, with the ultimate goal of creating a more comprehensive interactionism.

Elsewhere, there exists a growing body of research that has explored the etiology of drug addiction. Much of this work is located in disciplines (e.g.. medical, psychiatric, and

Direct all correspondence to: Tammv L. Anderson. Central \iichigan University. Department of Sociology. Anthropology and

Social Work. Mt.. Pleasant, \41 45559.

The Sociological Quarterly. Volume 35, Number I. pages 159-174, Copyright i0 1994 by JAI Press, Inc. All rights of reproduction in any form reserved. ISSN: IN13N-0253.

psychological) that take solely a micro approach to the issue, while less work exists in those disciplines, e.g. sociology, that take a more macro approach (Stephens 1991). However, sociologists have also offered a considerable number of micro-oriented explana­tions of drug addiction (Henderson and Boyd 1992; Stephens 1991), thus contributing to an ideology that the causes of addiction begin and end with the individual or small groups and have less to do with social structure.

Since recent work (Denzin 1991) has shown that symbolic interaction effectively ad­dresses social structure and that investigations which explore how macro phenomena interact with micro phenomena are essential to its advancement (Musolf 1992), this study utilizes the perspective to investigate how both micro and macro phenomena operate in transforming identities that accompany the movement into drug addiction (into deviance). The method has the following features: ( l) retrospective accounts from drug addicts recovering in 12-Step programs of Narcotics Anonymous (N.A.) and Alcoholics Anony­mous (A.A.) in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area: (2) both traditional Chicago School and New Iowa School definitions and propositions concerning the micro and macro foundations of identities; and (3) a "bottom-up" approach (Couch 1989) that begins with the micro-processes of social action and then explores how that is influenced by the social structure. In so doing, this investigation also promotes our etiological understand­ing of drug addiction by considering both micro and macro phenomena.




Interactionists have maintained that identities are situated action; they locate an individual within a given social context (Stone 1962). As such, identities may be role-pivotal (Stryker 1983) or trans-situational, i.e., they may carry over into other situations (Trav­isano 1970) as part of the self that forms through interaction with others in a symbolic social world (Goffman 1963). Identities designate the scripts of situationally specific behaviors; in other words, they tell people what to do and expect when interacting with others (Stone 1962; Travisano 1970). Identities are bound to a future that actors anticipate and intend; a future that simultaneously features a coming together with others similarly situated and a departure from those who are not (Goffman 1963; Stone 1962). Further­more, identities are given meaning through a discourse (vocabulary of motives) that actors use for both themselves and others (Perinbanayagam 1985). It is at this point, (during the process of situating oneself), where Katovich (1986) argues that micro and macro phe­nomena are linked. Being situated and announcing an identity connects the micro order (the location of the self) to the macro background (the web of social relationships).

Goffman (1963) and Katovich (1986) have conceptualized several important types of identity that feature both micro and macro elements. For instance, both Goffman's "ego identity" and Katovich's "functional identity" concepts are more micro-oriented while their "social identity" (Goffman 1963) or "categorical identity" concepts (Katovich 1986) resemble more macro issues. According to Goffman, an "ego identity" is an individual's felt sense of identity about his/her own situation and character. It is, for example, how an individual feels after being stigmatized. Katovich's (1986) "functional identities" are those that individuals, as creative agents. accomplish together in immediate face-to-face contexts, e.g., identities in a drug-using group. Both concepts characterize the individu­al's reaction to and creation of certain aspects of the social structure.

Goffman's (1963) "social identity" and Katovich's "categorical identity" ( 1986) con­cepts focus on structural or macro factors of identities and how they can become problematic -

Drug Abuse and Identity                                                                                                                 161

for the individual. For Goffman (1963) and Katovich (1986), these two identity types resemble society's expectations or norms regarding individual conduct and character. Goffman further argues that society's preoccupation with stigmatizing individuals (a defining factor of one's "social identity") who do not meet these expectations creates two classes of individuals, i.e., the "normals" or a "We" group and the "deviants" or a "Them" group. He stated:


an individual who might have been received easily in ordinary social intercourse possesses a trait that can obtrude itself upon attention and turn those of us whom he meets away from him, breaking the claim that his other attributes have on us. He possesses a stigma, an undesired difference from what we had anticipated. [Well and those who do not depart negatively from the particular expectations at issue I shall call the lnormalsl.2 (Goffman 1963, p. 5).


Goffman (1963) argues that individuals often respond to this normative departure by trying to correct their situation. Therefore, it likely follows that deviants or marginals will be urged toward identity transformation because of the negative and undesirable quality their stigmatized "social" or "categorical identities" have for their "ego identities".

Such identity transformations. according to Travisano (1970), come in two varieties, alternation and conversion. Alternations are transitions between logically contradictory meaning systems within the same discourse. Conversions, on the other hand, are more dramatic, i.e., they include new meaning systems and discourses, change in allegiance to authorities and a negation of former identities. Travisano (1970) did not discuss specific types of identities when defining these transformations. It is possible that all identity types are eligible for such transformations.


Studies of deviant and non-deviant groups have found that identity transformation pro­cesses include social, personal. and legal factors. Personal factors include negative feel­ings about the present identity, such as dissatisfaction, alienation, and depression (Ray 1968; Sadava and Forsyth 1977; Pearson 1987; Metzger 1988; Denzin 1987; Shover 1983; Biernacki 1986), personal motivations to change. lack of interest in the deviant lifestyle (Ray 1968; Adler and Adler 1983; Shover 1983: Meisenhelder 1977), and degree of self ­acceptance (Metzger 1988; Denzin 1987). Social factors include status changes, level of support from others, relationship changes with significant others, membership in non­deviant groups, and cultivation of non-deviant friendships (Ray 1968; Sadava and Forsyth 1977; Pearson 1987: Denzin 1987; Meisenhelder 1977; Adler and Adler 1983; Shover 1983; Biernacki 1986; Waldorf, Reinarman and Murphy 1991). Legal interventions, such as being arrested, are also factors in identity transformation processes (Ray 1968; Meisenhelder 1977; Pearson 1987; Metzger 1988).

Researchers exploring drug addicts and alcoholics have identified similar factors. Some found that deviant identification as drug addict or alcoholic follows from both social and personal factors, including low self-esteem or self-worth, the knowledge that drugs can alleviate certain feelings of discomfort (i.e., tension, stress and insecurity) a quest for peer acceptance or social support (Covington 1984; Pearson 1987; Lindesmith 1947; 1968; Denzin 1987; Metzger 1988). Participation in a drug lifestyle has also been found to influence such identification (Becker 1963: Lindesmith 1947: 1968; Pearson 1987). Inter­estingly, research shows similar factors are important for the movement out of drug

addiction and the identity transformations that follow (Ray 1968; Pearson 1987; Metzger 1988; Denzin 1987)

This research points to salient factors at different levels (social, legal. and personal) that influence identity composition and change, but it has not developed a model that specifies a micro/macro link in the identity change process. Additionally, it has over-emphasized micro phenomena, while paying considerably less attention to macro phenomena in the identity transformation process, especially in matters of substance abuse.


In-depth, face-to-face interviews were conducted with respondents, using an interview schedule consisting of three parts: a drug history section, substantive questions related to identity3 (asked before, during, and after termination of drug use), and basic demograph­ics. Many have recommended this method for obtaining identity-related information with deviants because it gives respondents the opportunity to provide authentic and comprehen­sive accounts (Glaser and Strauss 1971; Denzin 1974; Klapp 1969; Lofland 1978: Weigert 1983) and to invoke their respective discourses. Thirty respondents were interviewed, each on one occasion, for approximately two hours each.

Miles and Huberman's (1984) 12 tactics of generating theory from data, a derivative of the classic grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967). were used to uncover existing patterns/concepts and to develop theoretical statements. The first five of these tactics (counting, noting patterns and themes, seeing plausibility. clustering, and marking meta­phors) are ways to uncover and integrate the relevant pieces of information emerging from the responses into theoretical concepts. The next four tactics (subsuming particulars into the general, factoring, noting relations between variables. and finding intervening vari­ables) focus on establishing and understanding the relationships that exist among the newly generated concepts. Finally, the last two tactics (building a logical chain of evi­dence and making conceptual or theoretical coherence) piece together the concepts and the relationships between them into a theoretical framework that reflects the responses (Miles & Huberman 1984).

The selection of respondents was purposive (Strauss and Corbin 1990) and based on characteristics, such as sex, age, and length of sobriety, that previous research deemed theoretically important (Lindesmith 1947; 1968; Gans 1962; Becker 1963; Ray 1968; Turner 1978; Sutker. Patsiokas. and Allian 1981; Marsh and Shevell 1983; Snow and Anderson 1987; Metzger 1988). This selection strategy not only ensured equal representa­tion in the pool of respondents along these dimensions, but it also promised a wide range of experience and diversity in social networks that Gans (1962) has argued is important for psychological and social experiences of the individual and which would more fully cap­ture the discourses of using and recovering addicts. The goal is to uncover a model from this diversity instead of exploring any possible differences between these groups.

The final pool of respondents featured an equal number of males and females (15); nearly equal numbers of respondents with less than a year (9), between one and five years (11), and more than five years of sobriety (10): and persons between 21-29 years of age (8), 30-39 years of age (9), 40-49 years of age (8), and over 50 years of age (5).4 Respondents were fitted to certain cells defined by these dimensions, which rounded out the diversity in the social networks.

The initial contact, a personal associate of the author, was a 28-year-old female with four months of sobriety at the time of the interview. She was a college-educated professional -

 living in Northwest Washington, D.C. As Gans (1962) would have predicted, she provided names of other recovering drug addicts who were similar to her and who made up her network in recovery (females in their late 20's with similar lengths of sobriety). They also resided in Northwest Washington, D.C., and were predominantly professionals.

The result is a pool of respondents high on traditional indicators of socio-economic status (income, education, and occupation). A demographic profile (shown in Table 1) indicated that the majority of respondents were white (77 percent) and from Irish back­grounds (27 percent). All 30 respondents were employed at the time of the interview, with incomes averaging $32,000 a year. As indicated, the respondents were fairly well­ educated; 60 percent (18) had high school diplomas or G.E.D.'s, three percent (1) had associate degrees or had been awarded certificates from business or carpentry schools, 27


Table I

A.                      Demographic Characteristics



Percent (it = 30)





















Sobriety Length

Up to I year



I to 5 years

I l


More than 5 years


























Scottish/ English












Employment Status













Annual Income










$40.000 -



Average Income =                                               $31.666

Table I (Continued)

B.                        Background Characteristics



Percent (n = 30)

Education Status

(Highest Degree)

HS Diploma/GED




Undergraduate Degree




Graduate Degree












Average # Years Completed =




Marital Status









Previous Marriages'?









Current Religious Affiliation






















percent (8) had undergraduate degrees. and three percent ( I) had graduate degrees. Most respondents were single (77 percent). but some (23 percent) were married or in long-term, committed relationships.

Although the pool of respondents represents some level of diversity in social networks. it is also grounded in an ideology ( 12-Step programs) that influences subsequent findings. Denzin (1987) and Brown (1991) remind us that 12-Step programs are mechanisms of socialization that feature retrospective interpretations of past selves. This ideology, ac­cording to Kierkegaard (1941 a, 1941b), is premised on the belief that pursuing a hedonis­tic life will lead to self-destruction and that ethical or religious change, which features the redefinition of the self, must occur in order to maintain life. Thus, these respondents are engaged in a process of redefining themselves according to 12-Step ideology, which comes with its own discourse. Findings reported here must be interpreted in this light.


Three micro factors emerged as important catalysts to the identity transformations that accompanied the movement into drug addiction for these respondents. These factors include "ego identity discomfort", "status passages" and a "felt loss of control in defining one's identity". Together. they provide initial support of interactionisms' ability to link the micro and macro because, as described below, they are attached to socially-constructed normative categories.

For instance, "ego identity discomfort" emerged as the first major concept when ques­tioning respondents about the period before drug use. Respondents reported the following:

Drug Abuse and Identity                                                                                                                  165

(1) being dissatisfied with themselves, (2) wanting to be someone else, (3) wanting to improve certain things about themselves that they did not like, e.g., to "fit in," to be taller, or to become "popular." before they began using drugs (which was before 15 years of age for most), (4) a description of themselves in terms of who they were not instead of who they were, and (5) not fitting certain socially defined categories (e.g., race, gender, ethnicity, sister/brother, son/daughter, student, and friend) considered important by others and themselves. Since the analytic approach demanded refinement of the concept with each case to represent the range of responses, I formulated the concept of "ego identity discomfort" because all respondents reported a sense of dissatisfaction, (which resembles Goffman's classic concept) during the period prior to drug use.

Upon closer examination, this discomfort was a product of the respondents' perceived possession of stigmatized "social identities" that primarily resulted from certain "status passages." which altered their social positions, marginalized them, and made them feel different from other people (i.e., children at this point). This experience was perceived by all interactants in the social circle (including the respondent) as negative and abnormal. "Status passages" included the death or divorce of a parent/s (child as orphaned), geo­graphic moves of family (child as new kid on block) and child sexual abuse or early caretaker responsibilities (child as an adult). In each case. respondents mentioned the relative "status passage" when describing their "ego identity discomfort," which estab­lished its importance to the emerging model. Past research has identified "status passages" as a necessary contingency in the identity transformation process (Strauss 1959; Glaser and Strauss 1971). Research by Denzin ( 1987) with alcoholics has also uncovered support for the relationship between "status passages" (such as child sexual abuse and geographic moves) and alcohol use.

Respondents reported a "felt loss of control in defining an identity" for themselves as a result of these "status passages" and from the influence of significant others (siblings, parents, and peers). Drugs. drug-related friends, and a drug lifestyle were the means by which respondents could alleviate their "ego identity discomfort." regain control over defining an identity for themselves, and deal with external factors that caused them to feel this way. These findings are supported by Sadava and Forsyth (1977) and Ray (1968), who also found that the status passage from non-drug use to drug use was influenced by negative feelings about oneself. The following statements illustrate the relationship be­tween these micro phenomena in the composition and transformation of identities.

A 25 year old female with six years of sobriety asserted:

Obviously I think that all the stuff that happened to me when I was a kid was like pretty crucial and the fact that we never talked about any of it was a big deal to me. And when I turned 16, l had massive flashbacks about being sexually abused. I started to relive it and I started drinking and getting high constantly to get rid of it. And when I went away to the school. I mean I kind of did that partially to get away from people that I was using with and hanging out with and partially to . . . 'cause I felt like if I left like I'd forget about it. I didn't think about like bad nasty things when I was high. I didn't think about people dying and I didn't care about things like that. I didn't care about anything really. But most importantly. I didn't care about the pain that I had which was a constant thing. It just didn't happen for a couple minutes every week. I was like constantly carrying around this emotional baggage of ... it just became a part of me that I was different because I didn't have a father. And like it started when I was young but by the time I got to be 16 1 was just different and it wasn't good that I was different.

166                                         THE SOCIOLOGICAL QUARTERLY Vol. 35/No. 1/1994

It was weird that I was different and it all kind of ... that's what I mean by this pain that I had. It [drugs) was a relief from all that.


A 28-year-old female with three months of sobriety provided another example.


Q: Can you describe for me how you moved from being a person who didn't use drugs to being a person who used drugs?

A: When I was 12, we moved to a neighborhood that I didn't want to move to. We left my friends. We went to a neighborhood with gangs. and the type of people who would steal things. And I was pretty privileged. I just felt awkward with these people and I got high to fit in. Also, my father got high, so it was kind of inevitable that I would get high. I didn't want to move there, but nobody listened to me.


And a 26-year-old male with close to three years of sobriety explained how an early "status passage" (divorce of parents), rigid parental style (a domineering and overbearing mother), and a "social appraisal source" (see below) resulted in his first experience with drugs. He said:


What was going on in my life was troubling me. You gotta picture a I2-year-old going through this kinda stuff with his mother and his parents just split up. And his mother is just mean. It's the worst thing. It is utter horror. It's the worst thing that ever happened. It's like not too much else is going on in his life. because he is a I2-year-old. It's horrifying. He can't take it. Everyday coming, home from school and didn't know what was going to happen. Coming home in a pretty good mood and she'd go off about this, take care of this, go oft about something else. It was fucking ridiculous. And so this friend offered me pot and I said no way. that's bad and he said don't knock it until you've tried it. And so I tried it and it was beautiful, euphoric. It was great. It was the way out. It was an answer.


To sum up, the marginalization from normative "categorical identities" because of the reported "status passages" resulted in "ego identity discomfort" and a "felt loss of control in defining an identity." Thus, if identities are situated activity and linked to a future that individuals intend, then these respondents offer a micro explanation of identity transfor­mation that includes motivation to change ("ego identity discomfort" and "regaining control in defining an identity"), a mechanism for change (drugs. drug-related friends, and a drug lifestyle), and a goal that appears desirable and attainable (a newly created, positively regarded, and socially approved identity, i.e.. a "functional identity"). These micro factors are tied to a certain level of the macro background (Katovich 1986), because they initiated and resulted in the respondents' departure from normative categorical identi­ties during the period before drug use. However, these factors are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the identity transformations experienced by these respondents. Macro factors also played a necessary role in the transformation.




Respondents identified macro phenomena. in terms of "social appraisal sources" and the "existing social climate conducive to drug use" when discussing their movement into drug use and the subsequent transformations of their identities. Conversions. rather than mere

Drug Abuse and Identity                                                                                                                167

alternations, occurred because respondents reported changes in an allegiance to existing authorities (non-drug users to drug users), negations of previous identities, and new discourses as a result of this passage into deviance.

"Social appraisal sources" refer to others in the respondents' social worlds (family members, intimate others, and friends) that represented some alternative meaning system that departed from existing normative categories. Respondents reported that these signifi­cant others accepted the respondents into their group and validated and helped define their new "functional identities" or those situated to this "alternative" social (drug-using) con­text. Although the "social appraisal sources concept" might resemble micro phenomena, or Mead's (1934) Me part of the self, it is considered a macro concept here because it primarily represents a different social construction that is created and embraced by a group of individuals (i.e., drug users) and provides them with a format to be identified with others in the future (Katovich 1986). The "social appraisal sources" concept expands on past research that has consistently pinpointed the influence of peer groups on individual drug use (Covington 1984; Pearson 1987; Lindesmith 1947; 1968; Denzin 1987; Metzger 1988). The concept, therefore, could not be narrowly defined as peer groups because its meaning and members were much broader in scope.

The second macro concept to emerge was a "social climate conducive to drug use." This social climate featured the popularity (social value) and availability of certain drugs that were historically relevant for each respondent. When talking about their drug use or their initiation into it. respondents reported receiving the message from others, in both their immediate social worlds and a larger social unit (e.g., a counter-culture or a sub­culture) that there was something special, intriguing, and rewarding about certain drugs, which could be readily available to them if they so desired through the various "social appraisal sources" listed above. Respondents' friends, coworkers, family members, or "street" dealers sold them to the respondents.

For instance, cocaine re-emerged as a popular drug of choice for many in the late 1970's and 1980's and became a national epidemic (Gold 1984). Previous work (see Anderson 1991) indicated that the overwhelming majority of respondents who used drugs during the late 1970's and 1980's, used cocaine or cocaine derivatives (crack and free­base). Respondents' drug use prior to this time also mirrored what was popular socially (Anderson 1991). For example, in the late 1960's and early 1970's respondents reported extensive opiate and psychedelic use (Sloman 1979). Not a single respondent reported being coerced into using drugs or having a hard time finding whatever they wanted. The "social climate conducive to drug use", therefore, emerges as an important concept because it not only provided the opportunity for the transformation of identities, but it also provided the socially constructed meaning that those identities would have and where they would be located, i.e., "social appraisal sources" in drug using contexts. The following statements illustrate the interaction of these micro and macro factors.

When asked to describe how he moved from being someone who did not use drugs to being someone who did, a 21-year-old male with a year and a half of sobriety provides an example of how a "social appraisal source" operated to alleviate his "ego identity discom­fort" and permitted him to redefine an identity that was situated within a specific context (the D.C. punk music scene in the early 1980's). He stated:


A: The role that I played. I guess it was the people involved. I first started out with nicotine. I guess. The people involved in that seemed really like appealing to me and it was about at that time I started moving into the fringes of the music scene,

the D.C. music scene. And like being a punk rocker and hanging around. It was like I saw these people that I wanted to be like and they were doing drugs. And drinking was part of the scene, so it was like to get to know these people and look right in their eyes, I wanted to do what they were doing.

Q: Why was it so important to be a part of their crowd?

A: Because I wasn't a part of like "the popular crowd" and I just didn't want to be on the fringe of the popular crowd, you know, always wanting to be in the middle of it, but never achieving it, so I went to the other end. It was something I wanted. I mean it was a conscious choice in some ways to become involved in that, not to the point where I couldn't control it, but to become socially involved in drugs was a conscious choice. Drugs were a real social thing at first. I mean once we were high it was like it didn't matter, you know, you could hide who you really were, because it was like you're putting up a bunch of fakes anyway and you were high. You were thinking funny, everything seemed great, you know, people were so nice. It was just . . . it was like this great social bridge for me. I wasn't shy, I wasn't all these things that I was normally.


Consider the following conversation with a 26-year-old female with seven years of sobriety. Again, the respondent mentions the interaction between micro ("ego identity discomfort") and macro factors (a "social appraisal source" and a "social climate condu­cive to drug use") that influenced the transformation of her identity.


A: I guess the move was to fit in. I was fitting in with other outcasts. Actually, they didn't know it at the time, and neither did I, but at the time, I felt like I was moving into a group and we had an equalizer. There was a substance in all of us that kinda equalized us and suddenly I wasn't the retarded kid, and the damaged little girl, and the little girl full of trauma. I was with a group of people that could laugh and talk and enjoy each other's company.

Q: Do you think that the move from being someone who didn't use drugs to being someone who did was inevitable, preventable, or desirable'?

A: It could go either way. My parents were working, so they were out of the house quite a bit and there was a tendency for me to stray off the path quite a bit like my brothers and sisters. And there was, drugs were accessible because they [parents] weren't around a lot. There is a part of me that wonders if they were less accessi­ble, but then again I don't blame... Who knows, maybe with the right environment it might have been preventable. But then again, I'm not one to say that.

A 4I-year-old male with two and a half years of sobriety, ties in the Vietnam War (a particular social climate), "social appraisal sources", and "ego identity discomfort" as factors that led to his becoming a drug user:

Q: I want to ask you how you moved from being a non-drug user to being someone who used drugs. What role did you play in that'?

A: I didn't. I didn't play any role in it. Vietnam played the role. Vietnam to me is this experience that I'm having a hard time dealing with today in recovery, but I am

Drug Abuse and Identity                                                                                                                169

trying to deal with it. I used to go out into the field totally blitzed out of my mind. Drinking ... the first week in Vietnam, I saw a guy running across the field with no head. This is a person who is going to church three or four times a week to a fucking country where the first thing you see is a guy running across the field with no head. That's how I started drinking you know and because of my having gotten hurt in Vietnam and being disabled, and not liking who I was already, I mean I carried that into Vietnam. I carried that from my childhood into my adult years. And then I got hurt and now I'm handicapped. I felt like I had to prove myself to everybody to be accepted. I went from doing uppers and downers and you know, smoking a little grass, doing some PCP. All that bull shit. I did some ty-stick and all that shit, before I started coke.


A 33-year-old male with six and a half years of sobriety also mentioned various macro and micro factors that influenced his transition into drug use and the subsequent identity transformation that occurred.


A: We were into being cool. We wore these Levi jackets and were trying to be top gun. There was just something in the air that was like a real hoodlum element. It was its own society. We lived outside Chicago. We were exposed to a lot of role models. And we would say, "We grew up in Chicaga." Things like that. There is just this toughness that pervades the Chicago area. And I got caught up in that. We were into leather jackets and fast cars. That's where I gravitated when I started using drugs. That's what I thought that I wanted to be. They commanded some sort of respect and people just left us alone. They didn't bother us.

Q: What role did drugs play in your life at this point'? What did they do for you'?

A: They made me cool. At that point, it was more to be cool. It gave me an identity. One that I didn't feel that I had otherwise.


According to a 41-year-old female with seven years of sobriety:


... I remember in high school, this was before the big heroin thing hit, I think in high school that I was into the drugs and still got very good dope and was able to show up for things and be somewhat present for my family. But then I kinda moved away from home and my peers and toward the heroin. And the problem started then. It was like we would just go two blocks down the street to where the smack was. And I started chipping away slowing, tipping back. Something also happened in this time. I under­went a real identity crisis. Most kids were in high school. Mine was a little later. Looking back in retrospect. and I've had some help dealing with this, I had all of these choices and didn't know what to do. And during that period is when I got to start to use heroin. I kinda tippy-toed away from my life, myself. I desired to do all that stuff. I don't know what it would have taken to prevent it. Family counseling at that early age'? Talking about these feelings that I thought that only I had in the whole world'? It would have had to been before alcohol and drugs became attractive, you know, because after they became attractive, there was no stopping me. Let's put it that way.


In conclusion, the scripts for identity transformation, i.e., conversion (Travisano 1970), into drug addiction were defined by both the "social appraisal sources" and "a social

climate conducive to drug use" and were what these respondents hoped for (because of the micro factors listed above), pursued and welcomed as change in what appeared to be a positive direction. This, therefore, supports the interactionist assertions that identities are scripts for certain behaviors (Travisano 1970), relevant to certain social circles (Perin­banayagam 1985), and bound to a future that actors anticipate and intend (Goffman 1963; Stone 1962). In addition, it is consistent with interactionists' claims that being situated and announcing an identity connects the micro order to the macro background (Katovich 1986) and that symbolic interactionism effectively deals with social structure (Denzin 1991; Maines 1988).


The theoretical model to emerge from this study is depicted in Figure 1. This model of identity transformation (conversion) highlights how micro and macro factors operate to transform identities. Because of the research design (one-shot, in-depth interviews featur­ing retrospective account data) and respondent selection (non-probability sample) in this investigation, it is not possible. at this time, to conclude that this model would explain identity changes of other socially defined deviant or non-deviant individuals, including other drug abusers, addicts or alcoholics. As it stands, the current model explains identity change within I2-Step programs and, therefore, must be constrained accordingly (Denzin 1987; 1992a).

This study, therefore, calls for future investigation of the proposed model in related undertakings. Immediate research should be qualitative and exploratory. This exploratory research should utilize multiple methods, such as in-depth interviewing, content analysis of personal biographies or journals. and direct observation of "identities in progress" (see Snow and Anderson 1987: Denzin 1992x) and should include all possible dimensions of diversity. Such a research agenda can produce an understanding of which vast and diverse phenomena operate in the production and transformation of identities and will thereby aid the development of symbolic interactionism. Then, quantitative techniques can be devel­oped to measure the relevant phenomena. This second research agenda should feature improved techniques to measure these factors as well as appropriate designs to study the phenomena, e.g.. longitudinal studies.

An understanding of the findings presented here and the implications they offer both symbolic interactionism and the study of the etiology of drug addiction centers on the societal division of normative and deviant groups. or the existence of a "We"/"Them" syndrome, which is a more modern version of what Becker (1963) called the "insider"/"outsider" ­







1. Status


2. Ego Identity




4. Social Climate

Conducive to Drugs





3. Lost Control

in Defining



5. Social Appraisal








Figure 1. Identity Transformation Model

Drug Abuse and Identity                                                                                                                  171

dichotomy. Specifically, the "We" group ("insiders") subscribe to norma­tive categories, while the "Them" group ("outsiders") fall into the other non-normative categories. This "We"/"Them" syndrome that so characterizes socially-constructed cate­gories in dualistic societies was problematic for this group of addict respondents and has been found important elsewhere (Henderson and Boyd 1992).

Katovich (1986) argues that categories are macro-structural, because they imply a shared awareness of the symbolic backdrop we call the rational social structure. While interacting a social world, individuals learn to embrace previously defined categories and their attached identities so the prediction and stability of social life can persist. However, they (i.e., the new generation) often discover or believe that they have little leeway in redefining them.

In a "We"/"Them" world, where these respondents either were not perceived or per­ceived themselves as part of the "We" group, their choice was obvious: to identify with the "Them" element, the marginalized group. or to create "functional identities" (Katovich 1986), which ultimately re-situates them. These "functional identities" brought with them a new script for action: the pursuit of drugs, drug using friendships, and a drug lifestyle that not only alleviated respondents "ego identity discomfort" and made them feel better about themselves, but also connected them into a different group of people and a different social category (drug users) that was valued within their respective social worlds at a specific historical moment. The resultant identity conversions (Travisano 1970) were, therefore, realized.

Today, these respondents remain marginalized members of society: they do not meet normative categories of casual drug use and drinking. Although most got sober during the "Just Say No" decade. which made recovery from substance abuse more acceptable or fashionable, they are still viewed by others, and perhaps view themselves, as having deviated too far from the norm concerning the consumption of mood-altering substances. They are addicts and alcoholics. part of the "Them" group that cannot drink or do drugs socially, which also makes them susceptible to all the other negative characteristics (auxiliary traits) that result from not fitting normative categories (Becker 1963).

Where, then, do the solutions to a social problem like this begin'? Should there be solutions pertaining solely to the individual? Is it a''Them" problem only, one of human agency'? Or should the solutions be directed at altering society's structure, climate, values, and ideology that wreak such havoc on individuals'? Does it call for a "We"-oriented approach'? Here again we see evidence of the micro/macro link which symbolic interac­tion is so well-equipped to handle.

For years our society has over-emphasized the individual in the study of the etiology of drug addiction (Henderson and Boyd 1992). Since the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914, society has primarily focused on human agency as the main source for addiction. But one need not be a symbolic interactionist to understand that this is only half the picture. This study has found that society helps produce drug addiction and perhaps it is time for researchers and policy-makers to give it equal attention.

Symbolic interactionists remind us that behavior, meaning, and all of social life, includ­ing drug addiction. are not only products of an individual's interaction with others in a social world. they are also a product of the macro background or social structure in which that interaction takes place. Thus, effective solutions to the problem must be equally constructed from phenomena pertaining to both human agency and the social structure, such as de-stigmatizing certain experiences and character traits that are considered deviant, -

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redefining normative categories to represent diverse individuals and their experi­ences, and lessening the social control that existing institutions (e.g., schools and commu­nity and government agencies) exert on individuals to define themselves in some socially prescribed fashion. When we accept that addiction exists and fluctuates because of both micro and macro factors, human agency and social structure, and individuals and social institutions, we might begin to successfully combat the disease of drug addiction. Until then, our current micro-dominated strategies of dealing with the problem promise results similar to those the naive gardener gets when pulling a dandelion out of the ground instead of digging into the soil to get at its roots; the "nuisance" plant will grow back.


The author thanks the 30 individuals who participated in this study and Bernard Meltzer, Norman Denzin and three anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments during the preparation of this manuscript.


I. Emphasis added.

2. Emphasis in original.

3. Four questions requesting respondents to describe themselves. their feelings, how they moved from one career to the next, and the role drugs played in their lives. 4. The pool of respondents fell short of individuals over 50 years of age.


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