From responsible users to recalcitrant dope fiends: Mapping modes of engagement with harm reduction

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This article considers individuals' diverse modes of engagement with an increasingly medicalised strain of harm reduction that emphasises individual accountability for personal health and welfare. Drawing upon 1 year of ethnographic research at a New York City-based syringe exchange ("NYC Harm Reduction", a pseudonym), I describe how drug users themselves made sense of harm reduction, negotiated its discourses of risk and responsibility, and incorporated its behavioural directives into their own body projects - or did not. While suggesting some participants' apparent absorption of risk reduction into a dominant, and enabling identity, I focus mainly upon individuals' "on-stage" performances and apparent depth of service use and acceptance while at NYC Harm Reduction. Building upon recent critiques of contemporary harm reduction's de-contextualised neoliberal subject, I discuss the crucial roles of public housing assistance and peer worker employment in incentivising participants' uptake of pro-risk reduction attitudes, and (presumably) practices. Ultimately, participants' multiplicity of approaches to harm reduction hinged upon differences in not only personality or stage of drug use, but also current living circumstances; moreover, individuals' differential engagement with NYC Harm Reduction reflected the ways in which the organisation and its government funders prioritised the material investment of certain "risky" bodies - namely, HIV-positive drug users.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)490-498
Number of pages9
JournalAddiction Research and Theory
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 27 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)


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