Dissertation Abstracts

Drug Consumption during Adolescence: Between Voluntary Risk-Taking and the Desire to be Oneself

Author: Sahed, Imaine Im, imaine-s@hotmail.fr
Department: CADIS
University: EHESS/EHESP, France
Supervisor: Alain Jourdain; Philippe Bataille
Year of completion: In progress
Language of dissertation: French

Keywords: individualisation , risk taking , tobacco, cannabis, h , Mixed Methods
Areas of Research: Risk and Uncertainty , Health , Youth


My dissertation focuses on the consumption of tobacco, cannabis, and hard alcohol during adolescent years. My research analyzes the dynamics by which young people's consumption practices evolve over adolescence. The central question that motivates this research is: during their adolescence, why do some young people limit their behaviour to experimentation while others progressively develop consumption to a repeated or an occasional mode of use?

Many studies have found that adolescence is a period during which young people try to answer existential questions: “Who am I? What are my values?...” (Jeammet and Bochereau, 2007). Many studies consider drug consumption during this period as an effort to identify with peers. Drug use derives from specific desire to be incorporated into one’s peer group and asserting their preferences for peers’ norms (Bauman et Ennett, 1996; Coggans and Mckellar, 1994). However, do these results mean that young people have only to imitate others or build identity by conforming to norms, values of peers or parents? Should they necessarily comply with cultural norms, standards imposed on them by peers or to differentiate themselves from their parents to build their identity? In order to answer to these questions, I use a mixed method approach.

First, I conducted an ethnographic investigation. I did a non-participatory observation and I discussed with young people at schools. This ethnographic investigation permitted me to learn their language code and to see how they discussed tobacco, cannabis and hard alcohol. At the same time, I conducted a pilot investigation. I administered questionnaires with 90 school students. This investigation permitted me to identify five modes of consumption (experimentation, repeated, occasional, daily, and weekly). It seemed to me important to make a qualitative investigation to analyze the individual process of consumption and appreciate the change in behavior over time. For this reason, I adopted a biographical method. I carried out 42 biographical interviews with high school students who live in the regions around Paris, France. Theses qualitative results permitted me to set up a quantitative investigation. Finally, I administrated a survey to 510 hundred high school students in a school of the Paris region.

The research findings demonstrate that drug consumption is not explained by a peer identification mechanism. This behavior results from an individual decision. In the current individual emancipation and ‘invention of oneself’ context (Kaufmann, 2004; Herenberg, 1998), we consider drug use as a part of individualization process. If young people consume one of these substances, it is not because they wish to follow their friends. Teenagers, who are currently looking for an autonomous identity, develop consumption, not to oppose their parents or social and penal norms. Instead, if youth develop habits of regularly consuming cannabis, hard alcohol, and tobacco, it is to build a personal and individual identity—that is to say, to feel and to be oneself.

In conclusion, drug consumption cannot only be explained through peer identification. It is first a subjective experience that responds to an individual identity quest.