To be published in: Björn Lindgren & Michael Grossman, eds., Substance Use: Individual Behavior, Social Interactions, Markets and Politics. Advances in Health Economic and Health Services Research, vol. 16. Elsevier.
SYMBOLISM AND RATIONALITY
IN THE POLITICS OF PSYCHOACTIVE SUBSTANCES
Centre for Social Research on Alcohol and Drugs
present paper considers, particularly in a Nordic context, the place of
symbolism and symbolic action in the politics of psychoactive substances. In addition to the use-values derived from
their physical properties (Mäkelä, 1983), it is argued, psychoactive substances
take on many symbolic meanings in daily life.
Some of the properties of psychoactive substances which lie behind their
symbolic power at both the personal and the political level are considered. The paper then considers several analyses of
symbolism and rationality and their relationship in the politics of
psychoactive substances: Gusfield’s classic analysis of the
The symbolic power of psychoactive substance use
The use or non-use of psychoactive substances, and
the manner, amount and history of use, have carried strong symbolic meaning
throughout human history. Use often
carries positive associations and symbolism.
Mere mention of the word “champagne”, for instance, conjures up an image
of celebration and luxury, even in those who have never drunk the beverage. In
pre-industrial times, access to psychoactive substances was often limited to
the powerful or the wealthy, so that use of them, and particularly copious use,
became a mark of high status, as in the courts of the early modern Russian
czars (Smith & Christian, 1984). At
the opposite end of the scale, abstaining from a drug can also carry strong
symbolic meaning. Abstaining from
alcohol, for instance, is a mark of faithful adherence for Muslims and for some
Christian denominations. For a
working-class man to be an abstainer in 19th-century Britain,
Harrison (1971) noted, was a signal of ambition, that he wanted his children to
get ahead in the world, and similar themes can be found today, in such places
On the other hand, use or
heavy use of psychoactive substances often carries a negative and derogated
symbolic meaning. In the
Cultural attitudes towards different psychoactive substances have varied greatly from one place and time to another (Courtwright, 2001), and the nature, valence and strength of their symbolic import has varied at least as much.
Behind the symbolic power of substances
We may ask, what is it about the use of psychoactive substances which makes them often so symbolically powerful? First, psychoactive substances are valued physical goods. Their status as physical goods renders them subject to commodification, and indeed globalization in use and trade. Given their positive valuation, possession and use is often a symbol of power and domination (Morgan, 1983), or at least of access to resources beyond subsistence.
Second, using psychoactive substances is a
behaviour, and very often a social behaviour. Drinking or drug use thus is
often a performance in front of others, and what we use and how is infused with
symbolic meanings. Looking at a few
advertisements for legal substances reminds us of this, since advertisers seek to
attach positive symbolization to their product. “Blow some my way”, says the
woman to her date as he lights his cigarette
(http://tobaccodocuments.org/pollay_ads/Ches01.01.html#images) in a 1926
Third, psychoactive substance use is a peculiarly intimate behaviour, in that the substance is taken into the body. Use is thus potentially fateful; the substance has the potential to contaminate, whether the contamination is defined in terms of poison, infection, sin, or spirit possession. Like other substances taken into the body (foods, drinks, medicines, body fluids), there are thus many normative prescriptions and taboos about psychoactive substances, again creating a fertile field for symbolization. The symbolic meanings are complex and mixed.
Fourth, more patently than other substances taken into the body, psychoactive substances have the power to affect behaviour -- to change mood, to affect motor coordination and judgement, to intoxicate – and to take one out of oneself, even to the extent that the substance may be seen as possessing the user, submerging the true self (Room, 2001). This quality is both positively valued and feared, and even the terms used regarding the substances often have a double edge. Keane (2002:14-15), quoting Derrida, points out the ambiguity of the Greek word pharmakon, meaning both poison and cure. In the same vein, the words “drug” and “intoxication” also have both positive and negative connotations, depending on the context. “The distinctions between medicine and poison, good drug and bad, are unstable and complex”, Keane notes; “good nicotine in the form of patches and gums is used to treat addiction to bad nicotine found in cigarettes”. On the positive side, besides their use as medicines, psychoactive substances are often used in religious rituals and experiences, lending them another world of symbolic meaning. In many cultural circumstances, intoxication is positively valued as a recreational or social experience, and English and other languages are extraordinarily rich in symbolic language to describe intoxicated states (Levine, 1981).
On the other hand, behaviour when intoxicated is seen as less predictable, and often as potentially dangerous. The effect of the substance is seen as making the intoxicated person less amenable to reason, to social norms and to laws. These expectations, and along with them the behaviour while under the influence of the substance, vary between cultures (MacAndrew & Edgerton, 1969). The stronger the perceptions of disinhibition, the more potentially fearsome power the intoxicated person is seen as being. Again, the perceptions become infused with symbolism. The desire to constrain intoxication accounts for much of the moral loading that surrounds psychoactive substance use in most societies (Room et al., 2001).
Fifth, psychoactive substances are seen as potentially causing addiction or, to use the current technical term, dependence. The core meaning of addiction is that the substance has enslaved the user, that s/he has lost the ability to control whether and how much of the substance is used. In the ordinary understanding of addiction, there is also a second, associated loss of control, over one’s life – that the user’s life has “become unmanageable”, in the words of the First Step of Alcoholics Anonymous. Again, the addiction concept is subject to cultural variation (Room et al., 1996; Schmidt & Room, 1999), and indeed has a history, becoming a common understanding of habitual heavy substance use only in the 19th century (Levine, 1978; Ferentzy, 2001). Addiction is, of course, surrounded by a heavy penumbra of symbolism, mostly negative.
There are, then, multiple properties of psychoactive substances underlying their symbolic power. This power is expressed in our everyday lives – in the symbolism of tobacco and alcohol advertisements, in how we behave while and after using, in what others expect from us and in how our actions while and after using are evaluated. The symbolic powers of psychoactive substances have also made them a prime arena for political action. Political movements for substance control have relied heavily on emotive symbolization, from the attack on “demon rum” in the temperance era to denunciations of drugs as a global “scourge” in the era of the modern “war on drugs” (Room, 1999).
Symbolism, rationality and pathology in political action
Forty years ago, the sociologist Joseph Gusfield (1963)
published an interpretation of the American temperance movement, entitled Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the
American Temperance Movement. In
terms of the history of alcohol and for that matter of other psychoactive
substances, the temperance movement may be seen as the most important political
movement of the last 200 years. Yet, at
the time Gusfield was writing, the temperance movement had been thoroughly
At the level of social movements and politics, Gusfield’s book may be seen in its way as a parallel effort to the current efforts of microeconomists in the tradition of Becker and Murphy’s (1988) theory of rational addiction; that is, he wanted to explicate a way in which the apparently irrational could be understood as a kind of rationality.
Gusfield sets up two foils for his interpretation. One is an interpretation of history in terms of economic and class determinants, which sees politics in terms of “the conflict between the material goals and aspirations of different social groups” (p. 17). This is the materialist model which is the common heritage of, say, Marxist analysis, welfare economics, and mainline political science. Since political science, as much as economics, has tended to operate in terms of the presumption of rationality, political scientists had generally not paid much attention to “the possible political consequences of drug use”, perhaps “out of a commitment to a rationalist view of politics”, as Stauffer (1971) remarked in 1971.
The second “major model of political motivation”, Gusfield proposes, “reflects a view of politics as an arena into which ‘irrational’ impulses are projected” – a view, as he notes, which is “drawn from clinical psychology” (p. 177), and which had been used by others to describe movements like the American temperance movement. This could be regarded as the equivalent at the political level of a psychopathological model, just as an addiction conceptualization is an expression of that model at the individual level. “Unlike instrumental action, which is about conflicts of interest”, Gusfield adds, “the substance of political struggles in expressive politics is not about anything because it is not a vehicle of conflict but a vehicle of catharsis – a purging of emotions through expression.”
Against these two models, Gusfield proposes a third model as a frame for understanding the temperance movement, in terms of “symbolic action”. Symbolic action, he argues, “is a major way in which conflicts in the social order are institutionalized as political issues. Groups form around such issues, symbols are given specific meaning, and opposing forces have some arena in which to test their power and bring about compromise and accommodation if possible” (p. 182). He adds,
we live in a human environment in which symbolic gestures have great relevance to our sense of pride, mortification and honor. Social conflicts and tensions are manifested in a disarray of the symbolic order as well as in other areas of action. Dismissing these reactions as “irrational” clouds analysis…. (p. 183)
Gusfield does not see the three models as mutually exclusive. In the context of the American temperance movement, he sees the model of symbolic action as particularly linked to status conflicts within American society, offering a way to “help us understand the implications of status conflicts for political actions and, vice versa, the ways in which political acts affect the distribution of prestige.” Most social movements, he adds, “contain a mixture of instrumental, expressive, and symbolic elements” (p. 180).
Analyses of the symbolic dimension in the Nordic politics of substance use
The symbolic dimension remains important in the politics of substance use today, in Nordic countries as elsewhere. This is illustrated in several analyses of Nordic discourse and policy about psychoactive substances. The analysis by Nils Christie and Kettil Bruun (1996; see also Bruun & Christie, 1985) of Nordic drug policies starts from the strong stands and actions Nordic countries have taken against illicit drugs -- out of all proportion to actual problems from the drugs, as compared to problems from alcohol, tobacco and psychoactive medicines, for instance. Illicit drugs, they argue, are a “suitable enemy” for the modern state. The campaign against drugs then becomes a unifying symbolic crusade. Christie and Bruun (1996:57-58) outline the qualities needed for a suitable enemy for the modern state. Among the qualities noted are that the enemy should not be associated with a powerful group in the society, and that the problem and those associated with it should be capable of being presented as dangerous and even diabolical. As Tham (1995) notes, Christie and Bruun argue that “drug abusers are ideal when out-groups as well as someone to blame social problems on are needed; they are young and sometimes oppositional; they represent no powerful interests; and controlling them leaves the majority of inhabitants unaffected”. Suitable enemies are those which can never be entirely beaten, Christie and Bruun add, and it should not be too clear whether things are getting better or worse. They also argue that the fight against drugs serves as a distraction from problems such as unemployment and poverty, on which it is much more difficult for the state to find consensus (p. 18). In contrast, alcohol, tobacco and coffee are unsuitable as enemies: the interests supporting them are strong; "they occupy central positions both nationally and internationally. They are met with sympathy in wide circles. And they are capable of carrying on an offensive fight against everyone that wants to get them under control". For the state, then, they would be "strong enemies, dangerous enemies, unsuitable enemies" (Bruun & Christie, 1985).
on the analyses both of Gusfield and of Christie and Bruun, Henrik Tham (1995)
argues that, in the case of
In contrast to the analyses of drug policy, analyses of the present-day Nordic discourse about alcohol policy have tended to identify the strongest symbolic elements in the discussion as coming from the opposite political tendency, from the arguments for less restrictive alcohol controls. Thus Olsson (1990) found that, while those arguing for stricter controls used a rationalistic discourse, all facts and figures, the other side’s arguments were more phenomenological, and often appealed to a “dream of a better order”, an alternative Swedish social order where
alcohol still has a central role, but the drama has been removed, with the negative consequences of alcohol believed to be minimized. The continental drinking culture is the theme of this dream, nourished by the shame felt about what is felt to be the dominating drinking culture in our society, which is characterized by heavy drinking, drunkenness, and violence. The dream picture goes along probably with a general unhappiness with “what is” and a longing for what “is not” but “could be”. (Olsson, 1990).
Symbolism and rationality
Implicit in these analyses of Nordic political discourse on alcohol and drugs is an idea very close to the central proposition in Gusfield’s analysis of the classic American temperance movement: that we are dealing with frames and arguments which have their own logic, but it is not the logic of instrumental rationality. The appeal to a symbolic dimension in the argument – to the goal of a drug-free society, or to an ideal of Apollonian drinking – might, in fact, be seen as a signal that we have broken out of the bounds of the world of instrumental rationality – out of the world of homo œconomicus and his brethren in political science and sociology, in other words.
Social scientists have returned in recent years to the question of how to bring into the analytical frame aspects of human behaviour that seem to fall outside the boundaries of instrumental rationality. One answer, exemplified by Becker and Murphy’s (1988) analysis of “rational addiction”, is to show that even the apparently quintessentially irrational can indeed be fitted into a frame of instrumental rationality. Another, exemplified by analyses in terms of “bounded rationality” (Jones, 1999), acknowledges the many departures from rational choice models in actual political behaviour, but interprets the departures primarily in terms of the actor’s limited information – “the limitations of humans to comprehend and act on inputs from the environment” -- or cognitive failure in the face of the “fundamental complexity of the environment” (Jones, 1999).
Discussing recent literature on the role of ideas as well as self-interest in politics and policy making, John Campbell (2002) pushes further beyond the limits of “rational choice theory” (RCT), as it is often called in sociology. He notes discussions of the influence on decisions of normative frameworks – “taken-for-granted assumptions about values, attitudes and other ‘collectively shared expectations’”; in this sense, he continues, “policy makers operate according to a logic of moral or social appropriateness, not a logic of consequentiality…. Normative beliefs may be so strong that they override the self-interests of policy makers”. Identities, that is, “historically constructed ideas that individuals and organizations have about who they are vis-à-vis others … may also affect policy making.” He notes the implications of some analyses that “under at least some conditions ideas may matter substantially more than interests”, but suggests that “a more fruitful approach would ask how ideas and interests interact”, avoiding “the pitfalls of the old idealist versus materialist debate about the nature of public policy making”.
In a more fundamental departure from the RCT frame, Raymond Boudon (2003) proposes that RCT is a special case of a more general rationality “which is not exclusively instrumental”. The goals of human action, Boudon argues, extend beyond instrumental rationality to include “symbolic rewards, prestige, symbolic distinctions”, and the premises for action are often religious and ethical beliefs. This position, Boudon argues, picks up the thread of Max Weber’s analysis of two forms of rationality, instrumental (Zweckrationalität) and axiological (values-based, Wertrationalität); he notes that it is also compatible with some of Adam Smith’s analyses. As Boudon summarizes his argument,
social action generally depends on beliefs; … as far as possible, beliefs, actions and attitudes should be treated as rational, or more precisely, as the effect of reasons perceived by social actors as strong; … reasons dealing with costs and benefits should not be given more attention than they deserve….
People’s actions are understandable because they are moved by reasons. But these reasons can be of several types. Action can rest on beliefs or not; the beliefs can be commonplace or not; they can be descriptive or prescriptive.
In Boudon’s view, there are “no general criteria of the strength of a system of reasons”. Whether beliefs are “scientific” or “ordinary”, and whether they are “prescriptive” or “descriptive”, “a system of reasons can be stronger or weaker than another and we can explain why; … but the truth and rationality are comparative, not absolute notions”.
The examples of systems of beliefs Boudon chooses for illustration of processes of change, however, all have a consequential element in them, and this is the element which becomes falsified in the example. For instance, he argues, “the argument ‘capital punishment is good because it is an effective threat against crime’ became weaker” when it was shown that the abolition of capital punishment did not increase the crime rates. Boudon offers no general discussion of how axiological reasons become stronger or weaker, although examples elsewhere in the article suggest that general social and structural conditions can be determinative.
A crucial point for our purposes in Boudon’s argument is that “cognitive reasons ground prescriptive as well as descriptive beliefs in the mind of individuals”, so that there usually a greater or smaller cognitive element in a prescriptive belief system. Indeed, a “prescriptive or normative conclusion can be derived from a set of … statements that are all descriptive, except one”.
Boudon also notes in passing that “irrationality should be given its right place. Tradition and affective actions also exist.”
Symbolic politics and consequential knowledge
Boudon’s analysis thus ends up with much the same tripartite division as Gusfield’s in Symbolic Crusade concerning the grounds of political action. Besides the irrational, which neither Gusfield nor Boudon emphasize, there is social action which is materialist or instrumental, and social action which is symbolic or values-based.
But some nuances can be added to this analysis. While they can be analytically distinguished, symbolic or values-based action may also be instrumental in its purpose. Gusfield’s analysis of symbolic action in Symbolic Crusade is primarily organized around status politics: in his account, struggles over temperance in the late 19th-century U.S. were above all about the distribution of prestige or social honour between status groups in the population. Social status may not have a cash worth in itself, but in a wider sense it is certainly a sought-after good, so that the symbolic action Gusfield analyzes can be viewed as instrumental even if it is not materially oriented. Further, although Gusfield argues strongly, and with good sociological precedents, that social “class and status make up two analytically separate orders of social structure”, he acknowledges that in the long run there is mutual influence between the two dimensions. This implies that a symbolic fight for status in the long run may have material implications. On the other hand, to interpret the U.S. temperance movement’s symbolic fight only in terms of material and class interests (e.g., Rumbarger, 1989) is in my view too reductionist.
Boudon’s analysis offers a step forward in understanding the place and interplay of symbolism and rationality in the politics of psychoactive substances. His point about the place of cognitive arguments in prescriptive belief systems aptly characterizes a recurring phenomenon. The classic 19th century temperance movement may indeed have been a “symbolic crusade”, but science and scientific arguments were very important to the cause. Scientific research was often emphasized, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s efforts in the schools were on behalf of what was called “scientific temperance instruction” (Zimmerman, 1999). Science was put to use in buttressing what was fundamentally a value-based cause.
Another analysis by Gusfield (1984), this time of the
cultural politics of drinking-driving issues in the modern
As noted above, the symbolic powers of psychoactive substances make them a recurrent arena for value-based politics. But, picking up on Boudon’s point, even value-oriented arguments about psychoactive substances have many consequentialist assertions included in them, and in modern times these assertions often take on and wear the mantle of science. This does not in itself discredit the science; the creditability of the science is appropriately judged by a set of standards outside the political frame. But it does put in the foreground the issue of the relation between science and policy.
Science and the Nordic politics of substance use
In relative terms internationally, the Nordic countries
are paragons of pragmatism in politics and of a societal commitment to
knowledge-based social policies. Far
In relative terms, there may have been something to our theory, but closer experience has taught me that symbolism and value-based political action play an important role at least in Swedish policy making on psychoactive substances. However, the priority on values as a base for policy is tempered by another strong societal value: a commitment to evidence-based policy making. Research findings do matter in the Swedish policy debate, for instance, to an extent that can often be surprising for a native English speaker.
There can, however, be ironic corollaries of this in value-laden policy areas like psychoactive substances policies. Researchers may find that there is a strong expectation that they will stay within the fences. For instance, a recent debate article by researchers who had questioned the premises of a campaign for no drinking at all by pregnant women drew a response that was incredulous that such an argument could come from publicly-funded researchers: “… to attempt to belittle the problem and criticize that someone tries to do something about it is extremely noteworthy. When [the critique] comes from representatives of a state-financed alcohol research center it is naturally yet more remarkable” (Heilig & Rågsjö, 2004). Another strategy to avoid unwelcome research findings can be to avoid commissioning studies which it is suspected might produce them. To a considerable extent, this was the situation with Swedish social research on illicit drugs until a couple of years ago. As Lenke and Olsson (2002) summarized the situation then, “researchers and other drug policy experts were in many ways placed in intellectual quarantine”. Given the strong moral-political loading, “the incentives for experts to try to introduce relevant facts into the debate are rather limited. One consequence is that public awareness slowly withers away, and anything can be presented as a fact in the debate without the risk of scrutiny”. The first thaw of the Swedish ice-jam on drug policy issues was signalled when the drugs coordinator, Björn Fries, came into office and set about commissioning research, remarking that the politicians had been making decisions on drug issues on the basis of too little data.
Commissioning research may also be a way to postpone the debate or decision between two conflicting paths; the extraordinary Swedish controlled social experiment on the effects of Saturday opening of liquor stores (Norström & Skog, 2003) can be seen in this light. As Kettil Bruun (1973) once put it, “research could be seen as a modern instrument of debate on policy, primarily on the alternative means derived from the same basic values, rather than on alternative goals.” In his view, Bruun continued, “social research produces arguments rather than logical conclusions regarding policy and action…. The big decisions will always be taken primarily on the basis of values – the small, but still important ones might, however be improved by social research”.
In the longer run, though, science often plays a subversive role, undermining the current governing image of a psychoactive substance and its problems. The strongest influence of science is thus often outside the immediate political moment, in changing the gestalt, the fundamental frame of understanding. The rise of what is called in Sweden the “total consumption model” for understanding the dynamics of rates of alcohol problems is one such example of a research-led change in gestalt, which undercut the governing image of alcohol problems in terms of alcoholism, for instance in the U.S. (Room, 1984). Another such is the ongoing neuroscience-driven change in our understanding of psychoactive substances. Recognition that “the neural pathways that psychoactive substances affect are also those which are affected by many other human behaviours, including eating a meal, having sex, and gambling for money”, that “in this sense, the use of psychoactive substances … is one part of the spectrum of human behaviours which potentially bring pleasure or avoid pain” (WHO, 2004:241), must tend in the long run to bring a normalization in our view of the substances.
To do research in the psychoactive substance field, I have argued, is to work in an arena laden with symbolism. If public funds support our research, the motivation for funding us is almost always to find solutions, at least in the long run, to what are seen as serious social and health problems. Our science is thus necessarily value-laden, if only in the choices of research issues on which to focus. But our duty as scientists, as I would see it, is to try in our research to see and write beyond these circumstances of our funding. It is not only a matter of producing better research, but also of being more useful in the long run to our societies.
Our research findings when published become public property. But there are “multiple realities through which Science may be construed”, as Gusfield (1981:107) puts it. Boudon’s analysis reminds us that our research findings, apart from any immediate consequentialist usefulness, also often become elements in value-based arguments. And, he argues, these rationalist findings can become the means for strengthening or weakening arguments for value-based policies.
To understand the politics of psychoactive substances, it is certainly relevant to consider the empirical research and to study its role in the arguments for and against particular policies. But my main conclusion is that this is not enough. To restrict our field of attention to rational action and argument is to miss crucial parts of the reality of the politics of psychoactive substances. In a heavily symbolic arena, where deep personal and societal values are at stake, we must develop paradigms of research which bring the taken-for-granted assumptions and the values into the object-field of the research.
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