Skip to main content

Unit information: Stimulating Anthropology: Drugs and Society in 2018/19

Please note: It is possible that the information shown for future academic years may change due to developments in the relevant academic field. Optional unit availability varies depending on both staffing and student choice.

Unit name Stimulating Anthropology: Drugs and Society
Unit code ARCH30040
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. Carrier
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of Archaeology and Anthropology
Faculty Faculty of Arts


The use of stimulants and intoxicants – ‘drugs’ – permeate all human societies, and a vast range of substances from coffee to cocaine are used in a wide variety of social contexts. This unit explores drug use across different cultures and societies. It shows how anthropological approaches to drugs deepen understandings of these substances and their pharmacology through drawing out the socio-cultural and political economic contexts in which they are enmeshed. Emphasis is placed on anthropological approaches to drug use, and students are introduced to a number of key texts and films in the discipline that focus on drugs, including alcohol and other ‘licit’ drugs. A key question asked in the unit is what anthropology can learn from the study of these substances, exploring how they give purchase on a range of anthropological themes.

The unit's aims are:

  • To develop an understanding of the role of stimulants and intoxicants in human society
  • To introduce students to anthropological approaches to the study of these substances
  • To understand how such approaches contrast with approaches in other disciplines, and the importance of interdisciplinary ‘biocultural’ approaches
  • To engage critically with key texts in anthropology
  • To understand the strengths and weaknesses of an ethnographic approach in studying the illicit
  • To convey how case-studies of stimulants and intoxicants speak to much broader themes in anthropology, from consumption to development

Intended learning outcomes

By the end of the unit, successful students will be able to:

1) Demonstrate a nuanced understanding of the importance of drugs in contemporary society and the policy and discourse that surrounds them

2) Discuss critically the historical development of anthropological approaches to the study of drugs

3) Explain and evaluate how social scientists study drugs, and, in particular, assess the advantages and limitations of an ethnographic approach

4) Critically evaluate the potential for the study of drugs to offer broader anthropological insight

5) Demonstrate a critical understanding of how social, cultural and political processes shape the trade and use of such substances

Teaching details

2 hour lecture per week

Assessment Details

Two 2500 word essays (50% each). Assesses ILOs 1-5. One essay will be an individual report based on a group research project.

Reading and References

Allen, C. 2003 (2nd edition), The Hold Life Has: Coca and cultural identity in an Andean community, Smithsonian Books.

Bourgois, P. 1995, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, Cambridge: University Press.

Douglas, M. (ed.) 1987, Constructive Drinking: Perspectives on drink from anthropology, London: Routledge.

Goodman, J., Lovejoy, P.E. and Sherratt, A. (eds.) 2007 (2nd edition), Consuming Habits: Drugs in history and anthropology, London: Routledge.

Heath, D. 2000, Drinking Occasions: Comparative perspectives on alcohol and culture, London: Routledge.

Page, J.B. and M. Singer 2010, Comprehending Drug Use: Ethnographic research at the Social Margins, Rutgers: University Press.

Rudgley, R. 1993. The Alchemy of Culture: Intoxicants in society, British Museum Press.