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History of Science Workshop – Making Habits/Breaking Habits: Keywords in the History and Politics of Addiction

February 2 @ 9:00 am - February 3 @ 5:00 pm

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As OxyContin was hitting the market in the mid 1990s, its marketers seized on the recently coined concept pseudoaddiction to drive home a bold claim: that patients in legitimate pain who showed signs of addiction were only behaving that way because doctors were overly stingy with prescriptions. Pseudoaddiction was an iatrogenically-produced behavior, mimicking addiction – a behavioral byproduct of a callous “war on drugs” mentality in medicine. It was a term that emerged from medical, social, political, and economic agendas, championed by pain patient advocates and opioid manufacturers, and eventually criticized by reformers aghast at the marketing-driven opioid crisis that ensued. It was, in short, a keyword, powerful and contested, whose history must be unpacked to understand the opioid crisis.

Like pseudoaddiction, nearly all the terms we use to identify, understand, and grapple with addiction and other habits are freighted with multiple registers of meaning, deployed for medical, social, political, and economic purposes, and developed to perform important cultural and policy work. This workshop brings together scholars from history, anthropology, politics, medicine, health policy to examine the history and politics of such consequential keywords and phrases in the making and breaking of habits.  The gathering is a first step toward an edited volume – a critical analysis of consequential keywords and concepts in the vocabulary of addiction and habit.

The discussion will focus on a limited number of terms – with papers on “junkie,” “drunkard,” “teen users,” “habitue’,” “prohibition,” “recovery,” “dependence,” “rebirth,” “compulsion,” “stigma,” “harm reduction,” and “narco.” The short essays aim to draw attention (through historical as well as social and cultural analysis) to the significance of these terms in the experiences, representations, and governing of habits and their making and breaking. The intersections of race, gender, identity, and how these factors shape ideas about habit and policy responses to bad and good habits, will be one among several points of focus.

Themes in the making and breaking of habit include:

  • How the evolving historical lexicon sheds light on changing approaches to the origins, creation, and management of habits;
  • Analysis of the social, moral, economic, and political conditions that led keywords flourish in certain moments and contexts;
  • Discussion of the processes through which problem habits are designated and defined;
  • Which habits come to be categorized as harmful, beneficial, necessary, discouraged but allowed, etc., and why;
  • The significance of changes to the lexicon of liberating people from unwanted habits;
  • How practices, techniques, and approaches to “break habits” have been institutionalized and politicized, ranging from self-help regimens, religious interventions, or new regimens to replace old ones, such as methadone and psychedelic therapy.

While drug addictions – their making over time, their breaking – will be our central focus, we encourage discussion other habits such as gambling, food, social media, and other such behaviors. Finally, the workshop’s focus on twelve terms is merely a start toward building a more comprehensive volume of keywords in the history and politics of making and breaking habits.  While many essays focus on the North American lexicon, this national focus is placed in context by papers that examine important global sites where the lexicon on addiction has been forged and contested.


February 2 @ 9:00 am
February 3 @ 5:00 pm


History of Science