Sociological Approaches to Drug-Related Deviance

Part 2. Micro-Normative Approach: Social Relationships and Drug Use

Social Learning and Marijuana Use

In one of the earliest and most important sociological studies of drug use, Howard Becker (1953) interviewed dozens of marijuana users about their initial experiences with the drug. He found that most new users were unable to get "high" on marijuana until they had gone through a three-stage process of social learning. That is, through social interaction with more experienced users, new users (1) learned the proper technique for smoking marijuana, (2) learned to perceive the effects associated with the "high," and (3) learned to enjoy these effects--to experience the "high" as pleasurable. Becker's work set the tone for subsequent sociological research by portraying marijuana use and other drug-related deviance as routine outcomes of "normal" social learning processes. Whereas researchers in other disciplines continued to view drug use and "abuse" as symptoms of individual pathology or maladjustment, micro-normative researchers in the sociology of deviance looked instead to the social environment--relationships with family and friends--for answers to the question, "why do people use illegal drugs?" Consequently, sociological research on drug-related deviance has provided strong support for theories of social learning, such as Sutherland's differential association theory (1947) or Akers' social structure/social learning theory (1998).

The following graph shows results from a study, "Marijuana Use and Social Relationships," that demonstrate the close relationship between an individual's association with marijuana users and his or her own use of marijuana. The data for this study were collected from two universities in the early 1970s, when marijuana use was on the increase in the U.S. Consistent with the predictions of Sutherland's differential association theory, the results show a strong relationship between students' own use of marijuana and the number of their four closest friends who use marijuana. When none of a student's closest friends use marijuana, the chances of that student using are nearly zero. On the other hand, when all four friends are users, approximately nine out of ten students are themselves users. What are the odds of marijuana use when two friends use and two friends do not use? Sutherland's theory of differential association would predict a 50/50 split under these circumstances, which is close to the results shown below for both universities. These and other findings from this and more recent research on drug-related deviance (Akers 1998) provide solid support for Sutherland's position that intimate, personal relationships are the primary source of learned techniques, definitions, and motives for deviant behavior.

This is one theory that you can easily apply to your everyday experience. Of your four closest friends, how many use marijuana at least once a month? Does this accurately predict your own use or non-use of marijuana? Think about how you and other people you know are influenced by friends' or family members' use or non-use of drugs and alcohol.

Source: James D. Orcutt, "Marijuana Use and Social Relationships" (click here)
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