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by Jennifer Murphy
Temple University Press, 2015
Review by Anna Westin on Dec 13th 2016

Illness or Deviance?

It is rare that addiction literature is able to present detailed personal narratives within an informative and critical perspective that leave the reader feeling they have gained clear insight into a particular situation.  Illness or Deviance? Drug Courts, Drug Treatment, and the Ambiguity of Addiction presents just such an account, engaging with the interaction between drug addiction and the American penal system.  Jennifer Murphy’s sociological account of addiction gives the reader an overview of American drug culture, while exploring key concepts such as stigma and the historical evolution of addiction. 

Murphy opens the book with an excerpt of a conversation between a therapist and group of clients.  The narrative sets up the problem that Murphy will spend the rest of the book engaging with. What does it mean to be addicted?  Through the use of narrative, the introduction points out that people’s use of the drug addict label can vary considerably.  This ambiguity, Murphy suggests, becomes even more complicated when tied to a legal process.  This is where we see the particular context of the text. Murphy bases her engagement on the American penal system, which is a very specific kind of way of dealing with drug use. 

I was particularly drawn to how Murphy highlighted how the labelling of addiction can lead to identity transformation as a process of self-understanding and self-limitation (2015, p. 16).  Using various narratives from addicted individuals, she problematizes the method labelling addiction as a disease, and then ‘treating it’ via the drug court system.  This text raises some interesting questions about the challenges in addiction treatment, the power of stigmatization and problematic interactions between justice and illness. 

While at times the narratives felt a bit long, there was always a clear indication of why they were being used, and though the book was localized to the American situation, it benefits anyone seriously interested in the wider addiction conversation.  The book provides a good overview of the nuances within the contemporary addiction discourse and the limits of the disease model.  It also engages with challenging questions about basic social interactions and how labels powerfully affect our understanding of identity.


© 2016 Anna Westin


Anna Westin, PhD candidate and visiting lecturer, Arts and Humanities, St. Mary's University, Twickenham, London