Individuated and embedded users in the heroin moral economy

Detailed ethnographic work (Bourgois 1998, Wakeman, 2015) has shown the rich, complex set of reciprocal obligations and responsibilities by which heroin users in marginal social and economic circumstances maintain a moral economy. The moral economy is instrumental and emotionally bound, locking users into norms of reciprocity and sharing, distributing resources and helping users limit withdrawal and also avoid some harms such as overdose. Punishment is also distributed, through excluding a norm violating individual from the community of care. These studies are in embedded communities, where people interact regularly. Micro payments and limited options mean people need to interact frequently, to maintain an income and to obtain heroin. A range of roles come into being such as the user-dealer and a range of practices such as instrumental social supply.

The moral economies described have qualities in common. Participants are known to each other and subject to some degree of mutual surveillance and influence. Interactions are recurrent and frequent, sometimes to the point of being ritualised. They take place in geographically well bounded and resource limited environments. There is a sense that this is why they exist: they are needed to combine different kinds of scarce resources into a working set of social and material relationships that rewards prosocial participants by protecting them against frequent periods of scarcity and withdrawal. Acute withdrawal can be used as an implied threat so as to push members into compliance. These characteristics are typical of a population of heroin users who are also likely to be frequently in contact with criminal justice, social and other services.

Shewan and Dalgarno (2005) highlight the existence of another group of non-treatment users who are more like the general population in terms of employment and education. Participants indicated that their drug use was typically controlled and did not dominate their day to day lives. Users did not centre their lives around heroin buying and consumption. They were peripheral to many aspects of the moral economy described above. It appears that this more individuated group of users do not need the moral economy to get by. Population data note a decline of face to face drug purchase during the pandemic and a further rise in the popularity of social media apps for obtaining drugs. It is likely that these changes further marginalise the moral economy and push users towards the cash nexus. I hypothesis that people who buy using cash, consume individually or with their own friendship group and not with the people they have bought from. Face to face buying might be a useful proxy for engagement in the moral economy. On the other hand, Masson and I noted that varying degrees of reciprocity were possible in darknet drug markets.

Bourgois, Philippe. 1998. ‘The Moral Economies of Homeless Heroin Addicts: Confronting Ethnography, HIV Risk, and Everyday Violence in San Francisco Shooting Encampments’. Substance Use & Misuse 33(11):2323–51. doi: 10.3109/10826089809056260.
Wakeman, Stephen. 2016. ‘The Moral Economy of Heroin in “Austerity Britain”’. Critical Criminology 24(3):363–77. doi: 10.1007/s10612-015-9312-5.

Shewan, D., P. Dalgarno, A. Marshall, E. Lowe, M. Campbell, S. Nicholson, G. Reith, V. Mclafferty, and K. Thomson. 1998. ‘Patterns of Heroin Use among a Non-Treatment Sample in Glasgow (Scotland)’. Addiction Research6(3):215–34. doi: 10.3109/16066359808993304.

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