The semantics of addiction: Moving beyond expert models to lay understandings

Gilbert Quintero, Mark Nichter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Five expert discourses on addiction purport to explain the phenomenon of the semantics of addiction. An assessment of the burgeoning use of this term by the lay public, however, reveals a plethora of socially contextualized and culturally mediated meanings related to addiction that are generally not considered by expert models. Addiction has meanings that index the loss of self-control and individual responsibility, as well as political and moral meanings and meanings that index social modes of consumption, the range and limits of normative behavior, and the constitution of deviance. The category of addiction interacts with other socially produced categories, including “drugs” and “desires,” and implies an unfolding history linked to specific cultural conventions of what is proper. This paper briefly reviews expert debates over the meanings of addiction and explores the semantics of how this term is used in both popular discourse and among those who use substances associated with physical addiction. In addition, some, of the more interesting theoretical issues this discussion brings to light are highlighted, with the intent to identify issues warranting future research that will broaden the study of addiction.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)219-228
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Psychoactive Drugs
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1996


  • Addiction
  • Expert models
  • Lay understandings
  • Semantics


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