How Do You Define Addiction?

By ACSH Staff — Aug 24, 2016
Defining addiction isn't as easy as it seems.
Credit: Shutterstock Credit: Shutterstock

Everyone talks about addiction, some people even invoke the term about lots of things that aren't known to be addictive, like using a smartphone or watching television, which muddies the issue for defining actual addicts. Alcohol can be addictive, as are cigarettes and drugs. How is that crossover determined?

A team writing in Health Sociology Review identify five key processes by which the tools used to screen or diagnose addiction which help to establish, standardize and normalize - reduction, expression, quantification, normalization and populationization.

Sometimes the questions are so Reduced, it is one or two questions. Expression deals with the type of verbiage used. Quantification refers to how a score is created and what the threshold would be for inclusion. Normalization is asking insiders to define what is normal and abnormal behavior. And finally populationization is producing problem substance user and addict populations.

They write, "Through these processes, diverse feelings and experiences are collapsed, rendered commensurable and conflated into a single unidimensional disease phenomenon. Culturally and historically specific social norms are rendered as objective indicators of pathology, inviting self-regulation and locating addiction problems in specific geographical and social contexts based on how these contexts compare with these social norms."

The downside to such breezy methodology is obvious. Using these processes, more and more individuals can be considered ‘addicted’, thereby inflating assumed rates of addiction, or that tools can be applied without discrimination to individuals, reinforcing assumptions about the scale and character of addiction and shaping individual experiences of addiction.

By identifying limitations and characteristics of the tools used to define an addiction, the researchers do not intend to suggest that a perfect catch-all tool could be developed allowing a perfect window into the reality of an individual’s addiction. However, they hope to do more than question how knowledge of addiction is gained, but to create better or different ways of understanding it.

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