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Unveiling the complexity of addiction - a conversation with Jesse Proudfoot

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Jesse Proudfoot is an Assistant Professor in our Department of Sociology. His research focuses on drug use among marginalised and racialised people, the politics of drug policy and treatment, and the relationship between addiction and structural violence.

We caught up with Jesse to find out more about his research.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your research interests…

I’ve been interested in drug use and addiction since my PhD, which was an ethnographic study of homeless drug users in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. I charted their experiences as the neighbourhood underwent rapid changes due to progressive developments in drug policy, as well as gentrification.

My earlier work was more concerned with the politics of harm reduction drug policy, but over the years, I’ve become more interested in the broader question of addiction and the subjective experience of people with problematic relationships to substances. I’m most interested in thinking about symptoms - like addiction - as sites of connection between the social, the political, and the subjective.

What drew you to this project?

This research grew out of an 18-month period of fieldwork I conducted in Chicago in 2012-13. I was working in a halfway house for people being released from prison who were struggling with drug addictions. I was struck by the diversity of people’s experiences of addiction, which ranged from what we might call acute self-medication to deal with intolerable life circumstances, to much more complex, unconscious dynamics related to childhood trauma.

Having written about these different forms of addiction in an earlier paper (‘Traumatic Landscapes’, 2019), I became interested in understanding what else we can read in addictions and the broader question of how to understand the relationship between politics and symptoms.

What was one of the most interesting findings?

The hook of this paper is that understanding the causes of your illness is not the same as treating it. Critical medical anthropology places a lot of emphasis on the demystification of symptoms, implicitly arguing that by uncovering the social causes of illnesses, we can alleviate them. Even though it now sounds obvious, I was struck during this research by the gap between demystification and therapeutics. My interlocutor Leon had a very well-developed political analysis of his addiction, grounded in critical political economy and anti-racism, and we talked about this often. But these insights failed him where he needed them most, in changing his own relationship to drugs. Making sense of this gap was what prompted me to think more deeply about how we approach the question of demystification.

Who inspires you, personally and professionally?

David Mancuso was an inspiration of mine back when I used to DJ and throw parties. He’s famous for organising the first loft parties in New York City in the 70s that became a birthplace for Disco and laid the foundation for the underground dance music scenes that followed. I still admire the ethos of community, inclusivity, and joy that he created in those spaces. I rarely have the energy for truly all-night dancing these days but I still enjoy visiting the Mancuso-lineage parties All Our Friends and Beauty and the Beat when I’m in London.

Away from work, what’s your idea of a perfect day off?

I’ve gotten into playing pickleball this year, so a day on the courts with friends in Heaton Park is a favourite. I’d follow that up with dinner at Master Wang Noodle in Newcastle, and enjoying an evening at the Cumberland Arms.

What is your proudest achievement?

I’m proudest when I hear from my students that something has really resonated with them. I’ve put a lot of work into my Drugs & Society module over the last few years and I love it when students tell me that it’s helped them to think differently about drug policy and people who use drugs.

I’m also proud to be part of the Discovery Research Platform for Medical Humanities which has launched this year, alongside my colleagues at the Institute for Medical Humanities, who have worked so hard to bring this incredible grant to Durham. My part of the project, working with Dr Jonathan Coates of St Anthony’s Health Centre in Newcastle, embeds research in a GP surgery. We are working to develop new kinds of spaces for patients from socioeconomically deprived communities to share and reflect on their lived experiences of illness.

 

 

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