Race, inequality and the medicalization of drug addiction: An analysis of documentary films

Tammy L. Anderson, Brittany Lynn Scott, Philip R. Kavanaugh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


The increased medicalization of traits and behaviors signifies a society eager for more humane approaches to social problems such as drug addiction. Yet, scholars have only begun to understand how medicalization processes might perpetuate inequality. One type of disparity could be symbolic if media campaigns represent people differently. For example, to what extent does the neuroscience approach define all addicts as patients suffering a brain disease? Our paper begins to address this question by analyzing documentary films between 1991 and 2008. We found evidence of symbolic inequality by race in both the representation of addicts and explanations of their addictions. White addicts were portrayed as patients suffering disease and in need of treatment despite their heavy criminal involvement. Overall, minorities were under-represented in medicalized narratives. When depicted, minority addicts were discussed with criminal narratives, highlighting personal choice, deviance and state control. We end by linking our work to debates on the medicalization of drug addiction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)319-332
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Substance Use
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 3 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Health(social science)
  • Medicine (miscellaneous)


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