Telling different stories, making new realities: The ontological politics of 'addiction' biographies

Kiran Pienaar, Ella Dilkes-Frayne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

41 Citations (Scopus)


Personal narratives of alcohol and other drug addiction circulate widely in popular culture and they also have currency in professional therapeutic settings. Despite this, relatively little research has explored the conventions operating in these narratives and how they shape people’s experiences and identities. While research in this area often proceeds on the premise that addiction biographies are straightforwardly ‘true’ accounts, in this paper we draw on the insights of critical alcohol and other drug scholarship, and the concept of ‘ontological politics’ to argue that biographies produce normative ideas about addiction and those said to be experiencing it. Our analysis compares traditional addiction narratives with the biographies we reconstructed from qualitative interviews with 60 people in Australia who describe themselves as having an ‘addiction’, ‘dependence’ or drug ‘habit’. We track how addiction is variously enacted in these accounts and comment on the effects of particular enactments. By attending to the ways in which people cope, even thrive, with the kind of consumption that would attract a diagnosis of addiction or dependence, the biographies we produced disrupt the classic narrative of increasing drug use, decline and eventual collapse. Doing so allows for consideration of the benefits of consumption, as well as the ways that people carefully regulate it to minimise harms. It also constitutes individuals as active in managing consumption – an important move that challenges dominant understandings of addiction as a disorder of compulsivity. We conclude by considering the implications of our attempt to provide an alternative range of narratives, which resonate with people’s diverse experiences.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)145-154
Number of pages10
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2017


  • addiction biographies
  • ontological politics
  • qualitative research
  • science and technology studies

Cite this