People often think of addiction as a problem with a specific individual user. This makes sense since everyone experiences addiction differently and has their own unique relationship with addictive behavior and its causes. However, the individual is only part of a much larger picture. In response to more traditional theories of addiction, the dislocation theory of addiction advanced by psychologist, Bruce K. Alexander, looks beyond the individual. It identifies addiction as an adaptive response to broader societal problems that dislocate the individual from a sense of meaning, purpose, and value, driving them towards addictive behaviors.
Addiction as a Societal Issue
Traditional theories of addiction often attribute addiction’s cause to a moral failure or weakness within the individual. Dislocation theory challenges these assumptions, pushing back on the idea of blaming the addicted patient. This does not mean that dislocation theory ignores the idea of personal responsibility or the importance of the individual. Rather, dislocation theory identifies the fundamental causes of addiction as being rooted in our societal arrangement itself. Alexander contends that it’s not the individual we should focus on, but society. We should not ask “what kind of individual weakness, vulnerability, or addictive drug exposure” leads some to addiction, but instead “why our current society makes it so difficult” for so many to avoid so many addictions (17).
How Our Society Encourages Addictive Behavior
What is so wrong with society that it can cause such behaviors among so many? Alexander’s dislocation theory helps to explain this. Dislocation is identified psychologically as a “lack of attachment, belonging, identity, meaning, [and] purpose” (28). Social and economic forces beyond the control of the individual – among them free-market capitalism, ecological devastation, consumerism, gross inequality, third world “development,” corporate culture, high speed technical change, financial market crises and more – work to alienate and dislocate the individual from structures of meaning. Our modern social arrangement, Alexander argues, means that we have to sacrifice “family, friends, meaning, and values” in order to be more “efficient” and “competitive” in the rat race (29). In this framework, addictive behaviors are adaptive responses meant to fill that void of meaning and purpose. Using substances can provide a temporary sense of community (with other users), purpose (to acquire the substance), and meaning (feelings of euphoria or calm from using the substance). Substance abuse and addiction help to fill the gaps in meaning and purpose left by modern society.
How Can Addiction Be Beaten and Recovery Achieved?
With these societal conditions outside individual control, what can people struggling with addiction do to avoid such feelings of meaninglessness and dislocation? There are no easy answers, but a comprehensive program for treating addiction can offer numerous benefits that can be crucial for recovery. Such programs foster meaningful relationships in the form of support communities. Counseling and other treatment modalities focus on finding value, purpose, and meaning in an individual’s life that society can make so difficult to find.
Watch the following video: Leading industry experts discuss Bruce Alexander’s Dislocation Theory of Addiction: