Friday, October 8, 2010

Difficult questions Part III: Can identity economics help us to understand teenage drug use?

This post continues the discussion in some previous posts about understanding teenage drug use. In the first post Ruth, a nurse who has worked in psych wards and prisons, illustrated the nature of the problem by telling the sad story of a man who has been suffering from drug induced psychosis (DIP) over a long period following an incident just before his 18th birthday. In the second post we explored whether viewing drug taking as a rational choice helped us to understand the problem. I concluded that it tended to put the problem back into the too hard basket.

I think the best way to try to understand complex issues is to begin by asking naive questions that help to define the problem. (The down-side of this approach is that it reveals my ignorance.) What kind of problem is this? Is it primarily genetic/neurological, psychological, sociological or economic?

Some papers suggest that genetics and neurology may be important. DIP is linked to childhood experience of attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder and a family history of psychiatric illness. Ruth’s response on the basis of her experience in psych wards is that there is no family history of mental illness for the great majority of those with DIP.

I think there are also problems with both psychological and sociological explanations of why some teenagers are take the risks associated with drug use. It is reasonably clear that psychological issues e.g. self esteem are often involved. Yet, some kids who get involved seem to popular among their peers and achieve to a high level academically or on the sporting field.

Similarly, while incidence of drug abuse is higher among some socio-economic groups, some kids don’t adopt the culture of the socio-economic groups to which they belong. In any case, it isn’t very enlightening to answer questions about why individuals behave the way by saying, ‘Well, how would you expect someone with that cultural or environmental background to behave’. If we are attempting to explain individual behaviour we need to recognize that individuals make choices.

Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-BeingThat brings us back to economics. The field of economics that seems to me to be most relevant is identity economics, which has recently developed by George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton (who have recently written a book about it). The basic idea is that individuals gain satisfaction when their actions conform to the norms and ideals of their identity as well as from their consumption of goods and services. Identity can be considered as an objective social category (e.g. gender, race, social class, age group) but in this instance I think it makes more sense to view it as a subjective identification with a particular group (e.g. insiders or outsiders; conformists or non-conformists) or with a particular set of attitudes. (I have previously written about identity economics in different contexts, here and here.)

So, if you want to understand why people behave the way the do it may help to know how this behaviour relates to the way they think of themselves. Kids who engage in particularly risky thrill-seeking or escapist behaviour possibly obtain some satisfaction from thinking of themselves as the kinds of people who do that kind of thing.

Ruth has responded with some encouraging comments about the potential for identity economics to help in exploring the drug-using phenomenon. Her response is in the following post.

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