CHIP Affiliate Merrill Singer is a medical anthropologist who has spent decades studying drug users in the United States and around the world.
In his latest book, The Social Value of Drug Addicts: Uses for the Useless, Singer and J. Bryan Page, a University of Miami colleague of Singer’s for more than 20 years, bring all of their field experience to bear on the controversial questions: “What is the social value of the stereotype of the drug user as demon and for whom does it have the most value?”
“This book is basically a recognition that, in so many ways both subtle and overt, the messages that are communicated to people about drug users and what they’re like lead to stereotypes that are contradicted by our direct experiences with them,” said Singer, a professor of anthropology in UConn’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
“There’s a difference between multiple communications channels that portray drug users as negative, as demons, and the very human stories we have found, of people with faults, who get caught up in the drug world and have trouble getting back out of it.”
Choice magazine, a publication of the American Library Association, earlier this year gave The Social Value of Drug Addicts recognition by naming the book to its list of 2014 “Essential Academic Titles.”
Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries is a leading source for reviews of academic books and digital resources of interest to higher education scholars and students. It is intended to guide college and university librarians in stocking the year’s best academic books on their shelves.
The magazine publishes more than 7,000 reviews of academic titles each year, assigning a recommendation to each one ranging from “essential” to “not recommended.” Less than 10 percent of publications reviewed are designated “essential.”
The Choice review of The Social Value of Drug Addicts notes:
“Overall, [the authors] question the subjectivity, exploitation, and the power and outcomes of ‘othering’ drug users. This reviewer became newly aware of the extensive degree of exaggerated bias (labeling) about drug users, and how this negativity clearly amounts to socially constructed prejudice. The perspectives and research findings are well presented, certainly illuminating, and intriguing when the findings raise the question of why all drug users are worthless and burdensome to society. … For anyone interested in a richly written social constructivist view about the social value of drug addicts.”
Singer and Page analyze portrayals of drug addicts across various institutions and communication channels – from the media and entertainment industries to law enforcement and public health campaigns – and they examine the impact of public drug policies.
“The central argument of the book is that the construction of an evil force and the throwing of billions and billions of dollars at it, supposedly fighting it, creates a huge distraction from true societal problems, such as poverty,” Singer said.
He offered a few examples from the book:
- Pervasive messages about “crack babies,” children born to mothers who were crack cocaine addicts, suggested that they would suffer permanent physical and mental damage and be a drain on society, because they would require public support forever. However, a number of studies tracked the “crack babies” and found the number one difficulty the children faced was nutritional deficiency tied to living in poverty, not impairments stemming from their mothers’ drug use.
- The war on drugs helped create a massive private prison industry. Prison owners remain committed to strengthening drug laws because more prisoners equal more income for them, Singer said, but prisons then become revolving doors for drug addicts, because once they do prison time, they have a permanent strike against them, have difficulty obtaining employment, and quickly return to their old ways of dealing with their problems: drugs.
The Social Value of Drug Addicts was Singer’s 29th book. He currently is working on his 30th.