Disseration Defense Announcement


Wenner-Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Abstract

For many Americans, the college years signify a transitional period between adolescence and adulthood, where competing values systems shape individual identities and experiences. In this context, pharmaceutical treatments for Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have become objects of ongoing experimentation for students to increase cognitive function, manage time, and enhance overall college life. This research traces the social lives of these medications as they are prescribed, exchanged, and consumed on a large U.S. campus. It employs interviews and participant observation methods to explore the various networks and resources that are mobilized by drug seekers and the shifting discourses of health, performance, agency, and risk which surround these transactions. Specifically, I ask: how does the repurposing of mental health medications as ‘study drugs’ reproduce or complicate legacies of pharmaceutical normalization and enhancement in post-industrial American culture? In what ways do these experiments intersect local and institutional worlds and present new possibilities for constructing medical, social, and academic difference? How do their circulations through various networks produce agency or result in dependency on these drugs to improve health and/or performance? I argue that by identifying the contexts, actors, exchanges and value systems that facilitate the multiple uses of ADHD medications, this project provides a necessary anthropological understanding of this drug behavior. As a result, it also sheds light on the strategic ways U.S. college students are operating in shifting paradigms of medicalization, biomedicalization and pharmaceuticalization in order to achieve a successful college experience.

Research Contributions

My research traces the social life of prescription stimulants as they are repurposed by American college students for neuroenhancement. Its primary objective is to move past the reductive view of these drugs as pragmatic “tools” students use to improve grades, and shed light on their ethical influence on expectations, measurements, and improvements of performance in the U.S. Drawing on 24 months of interviews and participant observation with students, educators, advertisers, and medical professionals, my research provides ethnographic data to contextualize the social and symbolic mechanisms of pharmaceuticalization in postindustrial American culture. I conceptualize the contributions of this research as part of three overlapping threads that stem from my interest in pharmaceutical anthropology:

Mental Health Studies: My research contributes to a nuanced understanding of how mental health pharmaceuticals can shape the illness experience and offer new possibilities for exploring medical and social potentials. Anthropologists have already established how advancements in neuroscience have encouraged individuals to reframe their social shortcomings as mental disorders that require medical interventions to resolve. At the same time, the increasing flexibility and inconsistency of mental health diagnoses have lead to a widespread skepticism of modern psychiatry. My research agenda offers ethnographic evidence to illustrate the effects of this tension on doctor-patient interactions and the ethical identity construction of mental health patients.

Addiction Studies: My research with middle-upper class white American college students fills a significant demographic gap in the Anthropology of Substance Use. It challenges the traditional view of “drug dealers” and offers a new theoretical framework for understanding the pressure individuals feel to illegally divert their medications. My research shows that patients develop ethical criteria to morally distance themselves from images of the corrupt, self-interested, drug dealer. These criteria are guided by four main concerns: (1) a desire to maintain agency over the drug exchange; (2) a sense of social and medical responsibility for their peers; (3) a fear of social and legal implications and, (4) a desire to preserve one’s ethical self-understanding. As a result, this research sheds light on how Americans must actively avoid dependency on pharmaceuticals during their pursuits of mental health and/or increased performance.

Science and Technology Studies: My research agenda situates the experiments with pharmaceuticals within the emergent imaginary of neuroenhancement. It provides evidence to examine questions of medical risks, controlled access and social coercion surrounding these controversial practices. As a result, it highlights the tension between authoritative discourses produced by scientists and the phenomenological experiences of individuals who actually use these drugs. By tracing the social life of prescription stimulants, my research also contributes to a controversial body of work on the Material Semiotic Method and the agency of objects. It unveils transformative powers of enhancement technologies to mediate social exchanges and give rise to new biomedical and social subjectivities. This line of research has becomes especially relevant as more and more Americans seek out medical enhancements to improve their social circumstances.