Ken Plummer

Notes for a talk given to the BSA Study Group on Alcohol: December 2nd 2011

Illness is an opportunity, though a dangerous one. To seize this opportunity I need to  remain with illness a little longer and share what I have learned through it.
Arthur W.Frank : At the Will of the Body (2002: p1)

As many seasoned researchers through the years have demonstrated, substance abuse and addiction are never independent of the complex web of social relations within which they are embedded. Addiction can never be reduced to a mere pharmacological determinism that reifies the power of chemistry over the human spirit.  Robert Granfield & William Cloud: Coming Clean: Overcoming Addiction Without Treatment 1999  NYU Press  p96


Introduction: Drink and illness. My life as symbolic interactionist and critical humanist. My illness: Auto/ethnography and a Transplanted Life. Many issues: today alcohol and drugs (stigmas, massive routine drugs which are not seen as a problem, and hallucinations).
Today’s Problem: Transformations of Heavy Drinking through Self Interaction: Seven potential strategies. Theoretical Bridges & Empirical research: past and future
Change and drinking: pragmatism: multiplicities and openeness; a model of self interaction transformation (SIT).

Core Problem: Transformations of Heavy Drinking through Self Interaction

How can I explain the major fact of my illness and life that I was able to give up drink overnight – after a forty years engagement with alcohol as a ‘heavy drinker’ – with no apparent problems; and then continue from that night to this day (now seven years) with no relapse, problems or recourse to any kind of official help or therapy or AA groupings of ideologies?

In the talk, I speculate on the key factors that may have contributed to this. I have no way of knowing at present whether they were necessary, sufficient or simply contingent factors in my own story but informal research beyond myself and wider reading suggests that although they do not all have to be present for this transformation to take place- they do nevertheless flag significant features. After flagging these, I discuss some of the theoretical literature that makes sense of my experience and conclude by suggesting that the study of a number of cases using and an analytic induction method may help to clarify this. I have discovered research doing this.

1. A momentous and fateful moment – in my case life threatening. I am not at all sure I would ever have stopped drinking if this had not happened. Links to theories of turning points, epiphanies, critical/fateful moments, contingencies.

2. A dramatic self-labelling event – in which I announce to my self that ‘I will never ever drink again’. For me this was not a public event, but a private self story said with drama and ritual. Links to Garfinkel’s degradation ceremonies, Goffman’s moral career & mortification, theories of self and self labelling,

3. The role of significant others – my partner (my co-dependent) also gives up drinking the night after I give up. And a circle of friends and support gradually emerges. Links to classic symbolic interactionism – and theories of self and significant/ generalised others.

4. The transformation of habits and routines – my illness necessitates a fundamental reworking of all my life habits. Illness shifts the everyday. Illness becomes a major disruption of all routines – and creation of the possibilities of new ones. Changes in friendships and social activities (e.g. I stop going to pubs routinely!).Links to theories of habit and habitus- from William James and John Dewey ( and maybe to Bourdieu).

5. Awareness of key neutralizing stories – like (a) ‘just one drink a day is OK, everything in moderation’; (b) ‘Doctors say a glass of red wine a day is OK ‘; (c) ‘we all have risks – and drink is just one of them’; (d) ‘giving up drink is too a high a place to pay.. live life to the full, man!’ (e) ‘Look at all the other who drink and are OK’ (f) and  ‘well you’ve got a new liver now – why not?. But I was aware of many who had died telling these kinds of stories. Links to C.W. Millis, Matza, Lyman and Scott – neutralization, normalization, accounts, vocabularies of motive, sad stories, and the pragmatics of story telling: careful the tale you tell – stories have consequences.

6. The rewards of giving up – sense of a major achievement or reward by stopping the drink: most notably, I could save my life along with the help both doctors & donor. Links to..???????

7. Refining a worldview: time to think: the philosophy of the present in an existential world of human insignificance. Illness becomes an opportunity – my story talks of the confronting the whole life. The importance of making sense of the past but living in the present. Links to philosophies of the meaning of life, time and narrative. The life review.

And the continuation after the surgery:

Life cycle changes – time for a different path

Kylie-  a life lived now with an other. I must think of her memory.

And I can indeed do many of the things I thought I could not do without having a drink – like being sociable and confident.

Conclusions: A simple, sensitising (and sensible?) interactionist view of alcohol and drug use

1. The meanings of alcohol and drug use are multiple, emergent and ambiguous: there is no clear one meaning, they change across lives, time and space – and I worry about arguments that suggest otherwise. I am particularly concerned about what I call monologic terrorism – the belief that one voice can get it all absolutely right!

2. Alcohol and drug relations are interactive and relational: they are always learnt through self and others and grounded into groups, networks and contexts which shape the everyday experience. As the groups change, so the experiences change. Changing drug and alcohol patterns must be in part a matter of changing groups and contexts. But there are many pathways into these relational webs – and likewise many pathways out of them.

3. Alcohol and drug use are always changing and contingent- they are always on the move. Change is ubiquitous and over periods of time, the drifts of change become more noticeable. Drug users and people who use alcohol have ‘careers’; they drift into and out of their patterns  Drinking and drug use may be much less compulsive and driven than we are usually led to believe.

A Background note: I am usually a voracious reader but this talk has drawn from experience rather than reading. But as a sociologist for 40 years, I obviously bring to my study a whole set of theoretical understandings drawn from sociology and my wider thinking. Broadly, my own work falls under the heading of a pragmatic, symbolic interactionist who has journeyed into critical humanism. In my earliest formulations I highlighted the significance of symbolic life, meaning construction and story telling; the importance of self, dialogue and others; the inevitably of change – process, emergence, flow and contingency; as well as the practical and grounded nature of social life.  To this I have also added the presence of plurality and multiplicities in social life and the significance of emotional embodiment. My version of humanism – which I call critical humanism – draws from this continuing pragmatic tradition but adds to it a focused concern with humanity (the human, the humane, the humanities, the humanitarian) and makes explicit its value base lines of social justice, human flourishing, care, practical life and hope.

The academic fields of drug use, alcohol and addiction are more or less new to me as full scale fields of study, but I have obviously read a little over the years about them and used them as examples in my teaching. Three books have long been in my mind here – the interactionist classics of this field – and I believe that they have shaped not only the intellectual project to what I have said, but also have shaped the way I have lived my life. In a real sense, they have been reflexive – and played back into my life – albeit largely in a subconscious (a term I prefer to unconscious) and tacit way (I did not think much of them when I was engaged in my illness).

The three works are:

Alfred R. Lindesmith              Opiate Addiction (1947) and reprinted in 2008 as Addiction & Opiates (Transaction)
Howard S Becker                     Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (1963) New York: Free Press (and in print ever since in a number of editions)
Norman K Denzin                    The Alcoholic Society: Addiction and the Recovery of the Self  (2009) Transaction. This is a compilation of his earlier works. I must stress that I do find some of his assumptions truly peculiar – for a world leader in interactionist thinking & research, it is odd that he does not problematize the very term’ alcoholic’ and he bypasses his own very significant auto/ethnography. But his ‘six theses’ raises many key issues.
To this I might also add a fourth: Erving Goffman-
Erving Goffman                        Asylums (1961) New York: Doubleday – one of the most influential works in sociology of all time. His ‘moral career’ paper can be so widely and usefully applied.

See also: Robert Granfield & William Cloud  Coming Clean: Overcoming Addiction without Treatment.(1999) New York University Press

APPENDIX: Being Seriously Ill -The Everyday Body of Illness

1 Lethargy Sleeping and dozing all the time  – can’t do much or focus; slowness of movement and mind.  DROWSY, TIRED KEN
2 Jaundice Yellow look in skin and eyes JAUNDICED, YELLOW KEN
3 Ascites Huge abdomen; needs draining FAT, GROTESQUE,  KEN (and later to become SKIINY Ken, after draining)
4 Nausea and vomiting VOMITING KEN Sick feelings, violent and long, noisy sick attacks
5 Dehyrdration Need tablets and water DRY, THIRSTY, WATER KEN
6 Constipation Creates a problem with its opposite- and getting a balance. Too much of this and serious problems await as toxins get into brain…. TOILET KEN
7 Internal bleeding ( GI bleed) Identified especially when vomiting blood VOMITING KEN
8 Encephalopathy ‘losing your mind’ – from poor memory and general drowsiness through full scale confusion and hallucination to  borderline coma. My major serious symptom with growing frequency and seriousness, finally lasting three days. OUT OF MIND KEN. VERY SCARED AND VERY SCARY KEN
9 Portal Hypertension Did not identify this myself – but had it
10 Blood coagulation – Clotting problems: for example- trips to dentist could lead to heavy bleeding etc BLEEDING KEN
11 Temperature control Feeling cold all the time: fires on in the summer! Doubly wrapped.   FREEZING KEN
12 Muscle Loss Thin arms and legs: ugh! SKINNY SICK KEN
13 Sleep reversal Very poor sleeping and poor sense of day and night INSOMNIAC KEN
14 Oesophageal varices Links to bleeding BLOTCHY KEN
15 ‘Spidery blemishes’ Nasty little red spots all over the body BLOTCHY KEN
16 Loss of appetite And very odd eating habits start to develop- salt intake becomes a worry which disrupts most standard eating patterns anyway. Give up drink. FOOD FUSSY KEN
17 Itching Never scratch them! IRRITATED KEN
18 Cramps Often all night long at some periods – very painful AGONY, SCREAMING  KEN
19 Dark urine Always  TOILET KEN
21 Dark stool (indicates blood) This is the one symptom that I do not recall having- although I certainly had the fear of this and looked regularly
22 Diahorrea The balancing act with constipation! TOILET KEN
23 Pruritus Feet swelling (and looking very black!) BAD BODY KEN
2425 PerionitisInfection Pains and vomiting Increased vulnerability to infection VULNERABLE KEN