Johns Hopkins University

Fall 2008
Vol. 6, No.1

INSIGHTS

Student Research from the Field

Worth A Surf

Bookshelf

Expert Opinion

Research Briefs

>Classroom Encounters

Techno Roots of Urban Edens

Student Playwright Finds Success in Failure

Music from the Material World

Research Rewarded

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Classroom Encounters

Clarity in Confusion

On a bright July morning, instructor Roger Begrich opens with a provocative question: "Are you comfortable with your state of confusion?"

The 12 students enrolled in Drugs, Culture, Politics: Anthropological Inquiries nod their heads. Begrich grins. "When the aim of this class is confusion," he jests, "I can't go wrong, right?"

As the students explore the interplay between civilization and substances both legal and illicit, they roam across centuries, countries, and philosophies, probing the countless ways that the production, trade, and use of drugs are intertwined with power, prestige, and repression. The far-ranging intellectual journey, says Begrich, is aimed at revealing the rudiments of anthropological investigation. "Just as we are 'unpacking' the concept of alcoholism and addiction, we are 'unpacking' the concept of culture and developing another approach to the world," he says.

A doctoral candidate in anthropology at Hopkins, Begrich recently spent 16 months living among several of the Indian tribal groups known as Adivasis that occupy the Indian state of Jhakhand. His mission: "to explore the relationship between Adivasis and the state and how it's manifested through alcohol."

Through observation and participation in Adivasis' way of life, Begrich found that alcohol played an integral role in tribal religious traditions. Prone to alcoholism, though, the indigenous people were also stigmatized as irresponsible drunkards.

Today's class will explore some of the same thorny issues. With its ironic take on the question of addiction, a film clip sets the tone. It's a scene from Coffee & Cigarettes in which musicians Tom Waits and Iggy Pop, as themselves, will only light up after establishing that both of them have quit smoking.

Then it's on to Friedrich Engels, whose reflections on England's working class in the 19th century are compared to Philippe I. Bourgois' study of Puerto Rican crack dealers in 20th-century New York City.

The students discuss Marxist social analysis, New World colonization, Michel Foucault's thoughts on power, the tension between social structure and free will.

After class, Begrich takes a moment to explain his goals for the course. "The students came to the class assuming that concepts such as 'alcoholism' or 'addiction' map clearly definable aspects of human life," he says. "They left (hopefully) having understood that such concepts, and their use, are always already morally and politically charged."

The course "exposed me to a new perspective on the world," says Julie Rapoport. "What I've understood in the past about drugs is based on their biological impact on the body. And now, we're talking about their impact on society as a whole. It's a more holistic analysis of addiction."