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Diagnosing the Criminal Addict: Biochemistry in the Service of the State

Sociology of Diagnosis

ISBN: 978-0-85724-575-5, eISBN: 978-0-85724-576-2

Publication date: 3 August 2011


Purpose – Since the mid-20th century, drug addiction in America has increasingly been redefined as a disease and diagnosed as a widespread yet treatable disorder. The idiosyncrasies of addiction as a disease, however, have tended to block the journey of the addict from stigmatized moral failure to therapeutic reprieve. Centering in on the process of the “court-led diagnosis” of addiction, this qualitative case study uses ethnography and interviewing at a county drug court and one of its “partner” therapeutic communities to examine the process in detail, from the first negotiations between treatment and court personnel over the eligibility of the client, to the gradual inculcation of an addict identity by means of intensive cognitive education and behavioral modification.

Methodology/approach – Qualitative: ethnography and interviews.

Findings – We demonstrate that a shift from moral judgment to therapeutic sympathy is particularly unlikely for the fast-growing mass of criminal offenders whose diagnosis is spearheaded by the state in the form of the therapeutic jurisprudence of the drug court. For this group, the emphasis on the need for comprehensive resocialization and the close cooperation between the intimacies of therapeutic “rehab” and the strong arm of criminal justice “backup” not only maintains, but intensifies, moral tutelage, and stigmatization.

Social implications – The convergence of drug treatment and criminal justice tends to produce yet another stigmatizing biologization of poverty and race, lending scientific validity to new forms of criminalizing and medicalizing social hardship.



Whetstone, S. and Gowan, T. (2011), "Diagnosing the Criminal Addict: Biochemistry in the Service of the State", McGann, P. and Hutson, D.J. (Ed.) Sociology of Diagnosis (Advances in Medical Sociology, Vol. 12), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 309-330.



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