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Addiction and Sociological Influences: Culture and Ethnicity

A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP, Kaushik Misra, Ph.D., Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., and Galen Morgan Cooper, Ph.D. , edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Many different factors influence addiction and recovery. So far we have discussed the biological and psychological influences. However, there are also sociological forces. These forces cause entire groups of people to be more vulnerable to addiction. If you are a member of a vulnerable group, then you are more vulnerable.

different hands togetherLet's consider the Native American people. Unfortunately, this group has significant alcohol problems. This high rate of alcoholism could be due to their marginalized social status as citizens of the United States. We would expect higher rates of addiction problems within a group whose native land was invaded and stolen by conquerors. This devastating experience radically altered the stabilizing forces of community and family. People of African and Afro-Caribbean descent can trace similar destructive forces in their cultural history.

For our purposes, the term culture describes a group's learned and shared pattern of values and beliefs. These values and beliefs guide group members' behavior and their social interactions. Unlike skin color, hair color, or one's physical stature, we cannot readily observe culture. Some cultures have observable physical characteristics that become associated with that culture. Swedes have blond hair. Africans have dark skin. Asians have almond-shaped eyes. Regardless of whether or not there are observable physical characteristics associated with a particular culture, everyone has a culture. There are specific cultures associated with families, gender, race, ethnicity, workplaces, etc.

Sometimes people have difficulty understanding how a devastating historical event can still affect people today. The answer lies in the way we transmit culture from one generation to the next: families. Now imagine a family history that includes the systematic oppression of the group to which that family belongs. Oppression can lead to feelings of hopelessness, loss, fear, distrust, and despair. Parents who directly experienced oppression communicate this sense of loss and despair to their children. Someday those children will become parents and communicate these same things to their children and so on. Each generation of children learns the world is an unsafe place. This occurs even though in present times, this may no longer be true. They may have learned that opportunities for a good life belong to other people with the "right" skin, eyes, or hair. If someone learned these beliefs as a child, that child eventually grows up to be an adult believing these same things. Next, these adult-parents communicate these same these beliefs to the next generation of children and so on. Many generations later, we can observe the transmission of hopelessness and despair. Therefore, it will continue to affect family members today.

An understanding of social and cultural forces does help to answer, "How do people get addicted?" It is true that individuals affected by cultural influences cannot readily change these influences. Nevertheless, we can interpret these cultural forces in helpful or unhelpful ways. Sometimes re-interpretation is our only recourse. As Shakespeare's Hamlet notes, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Or as Marcus Aurelius, the 2nd century CE Roman emperor stated, "The universe is change, life is what our thoughts make it."

Three primary socio-cultural influences are important to our discussion of "How do people get addicted?" These are culture, families, and social support. Because individuals can do very little to directly change these influences, our focus is how knowledge and awareness of these forces can strengthen recovery efforts.