The Globalization of Addiction
with Dr. Bruce Alexander
Bruce Alexander is a psychologist and Professor Emeritus at Simon Fraser University, where he has worked since 1970. His primary research interest has been the psychology of addiction. He is best known in the UK for the "Rat Park" experiments, which helped to demonstrate the falsity of the outworn belief that simple exposure to narcotic drugs can cause addiction.
At its nub, Alexander’s argument can be presented in a few blunt brush strokes, which he does well. He defines addiction as “overwhelming involvement in any pursuit whatsoever … that is harmful to the addicted person and his or her society.” These pursuits, drugs or gambling or whatever, are not themselves the causes of addiction. For Alexander, addiction is an adaptive response to dislocation—the loss of (or failure to achieve) psychosocial integration. Dislocation includes but is more than the displacement that immigrants, refugees or the colonized experience, which he vividly illustrates using the history of his hometown of Vancouver.
Alexander views psychosocial integration as the goal of human development, both personal and societal. The more people, individually and collectively, are unable to establish and maintain an existential sense of wholeness and community, the increased the likelihood that they will recourse to addictive behaviour. Addiction is a way of adapting to the homelessness of the human spirit that dislocation produces.
Alexander shows that our age is particularly vulnerable to addiction and other pathologies because the prevailing economic order undermines psychosocial integration more than any other social structure to date. Because globalizing free-market forces produce mass dislocation as part of normal functioning, Alexander sees this as an age of “unprecedented, worldwide collapse of psychosocial integration.” Addiction is not just the problem of the disadvantaged and the destitute; it affects even more perversely those who have wealth and resources; dislocation is “the general condition.”
Addictions become the tiny baskets into which more and more people put all their eggs in search of compensation for lives without psychosocial integration. For Alexander, addiction occurs along a continuum, and is not the only manifestation of dislocation. He mentions other pathologies of modern life—depression, apathy, anxiety, self-harm and violence, for example. In building his case, Alexander acknowledges that while dislocation is a necessary condition, it alone is insufficient to “cause” addiction. This turns us back to the need to have a fully integrated bio-psycho-social-spiritual view of these problems. In contributing to that comprehensive model, Alexander points out what we’re up against and where we need to look for solutions. Not a bad testament to a lifetime of work.