Society For The Study Of Addiction

QMJC April 2019 – Migrating identities: The relational constitution of drug use and addiction

Meeting: #2, April 2019

Article: Hughes, K. (2007). Migrating identities: The relational constitution of drug use and addiction. Sociology of Health & Illness, 29(5), 673-691.

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Team: Center for Alcohol and Drug Research, Aarhus University (@CRF_Aarhus): Maria Dich Herold (lead), Vibeke Asmussen Frank, Maj Nygaard-Christensen, Cecilia Rand


In this article, Kahryn Hughes offers a sophisticated theoretical contribution to the study of addiction and ways out of extensive drug use (recovery). This springs from her critique of the “ontological individualism” that dominates existing approaches to these topics, including the discursive notion of ‘identity as narrative’.

Through in-depth empirical analysis of various types of interview data with current and former heroin users, Hughes argues that causal explanations and individual identity reconfiguration do not adequately grasp what addiction is or entails. Instead, Hughes contends that a thorough analysis of addiction and recovery must address issues such as embodiment, habitual practices and inter-relational dynamics and (im)possibilities.

Hughes shows that addiction is not something that “can be talked away” (p.677) and that narrative reconfiguration, in itself, does not radically change the “ontological conditions of daily life” (Ibid.) for people with heroin addiction. In 2007, when this article was published, Hughes advanced novel understandings of what it entails for drug users to ‘practice’ addiction and recovery and, along with other qualitative researchers who have engaged critically with these issues, she has contributed to the emergence of new insights and approaches to the study of addiction and recovery.

A key idea in the article is that when studying addiction and related phenomena, researchers should go beyond the individual and “engage at a relational level of individuals in the plurality and, importantly, individuals in terms of the networks they constitute and the relationships they configure” (p.677). Hughes convincingly presents the analytical value of this idea in her own in-depth empirical analysis of how heroin use is maintained and how “bridges out of addiction” (p.685) may emerge. In doing so, she focuses on practices such as ‘grafting’ and engaging in recovery or treatment as always being embedded in, and constituted by, various forms of relationships with other users, as well as non-users and societal institutions.

Hughes recognizes that processes of (non/addict) identity formation, performance, and maintenance are important to consider in analyzing addiction and recovery. Yet, by applying a theoretically informed user-perspective on heroin use, addiction and recovery, which accentuates these phenomena as constituted in and through everyday life practices, she shows the importance of also analyzing the bodily, relational and time/placed aspects of how heroin use, addiction and recovery are practiced, or ‘done’, by drug users in their everyday lives. In doing so, Hughes convincingly displays the value of engaging actively with research participants and her article provides a good example of how theoretically informed and well-conducted qualitative research adds value to the study of addiction.

Finally, we wish to mention that this article is not an easy read – and it should not be. Its level of complexity matches Kahryn Hughes’ ambition, which is to refine and strengthen how we as (qualitative) researchers conceptualize and analytically approach (processes out of) addiction.