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© Borgis - New Medicine 4/2006, s. 112-121
*Vingender Istvan
The space and time dimensions of drug addicts´ world of living
Semmelweis University Faculty of Health Care
Department of Social Studies on Medicine, and Addictology
Drug users are set apart from society in many respects. The main field of their status is that drug user thinking is at the same time the cause and consequence of the drug user´s way of life. The drug user´s behaviour is a representation of an idiosyncratic worldview, which cannot find adequate forms of expression amid the options culturally endorsed by modern society. Drug consumer behaviour, despite its hidden and secretive (albeit increasingly more open) nature, materializes in a societal space and in a network of social relations. At the same time, it may be asked how, to what extent and in what forms drug users interact with society.
We have examined two areas of drug-user thinking: temporal dimensions of their world of living, and their drug consumption characteristics in the social space. The conclusion is that the structure and pattern of drug-user thinking according to its temporal and spatial dimensions is basically different from the normal population´s way of thinking, which makes work focused on prevention and rehabilitation difficult and challenging.
Drug users are set apart from society in many respects. On the one hand, they constitute an independent community or social configuration with a peculiar internal structure, specific interpersonal relations, unique channels of mobility and trends, as well as unusual factors of inequality. They also form a markedly autonomous subculture, given that they possess values, customs, needs, behavioural norms and moral imperatives different from those recognized by society. Furthermore, it may be assumed that drug consumers also deviate from society with their idiosyncratic structure of thinking and special cognitive schemata. Their interpretative models of the world, their environment and themselves, as well as the logical order of their everyday thinking – in terms of our hypothesis – are specially structured. (Values, opinions, worldviews, perceptions, memory and other components of knowledge, i.e. the invisible forms of behaviour which make human life predictable and calculable (Elias 1987) [1], are treated as part of everyday thinking.)
The alterity of their thinking and worldview may be explained by the fact that, on the one hand, it is an obvious condition of the way of life and life strategy drug users choose and undertake. On the other hand, drug use itself – stemming from its essence – destines one for an atypical way and culture of thinking. Thus, drug user thinking is at the same time the cause and consequence of the drug user way of life. A basic criterion of intervention targeting the complex problem of drug use is to understand the structure and process of drug users´ thinking and worldview. Below, we shall make an attempt at outlining the structure of the sociological aspects of the thinking characteristic of drug use, thereby describing and delineating the nature of the cognitive world of this social group. (Jenkins, C. 2006) [2].
The phenomenological approach to drug use
From a sociological point of view various approaches and interpretations are available to examine this question. Out of these we opt for the branch of the development of sociology which started with Edmund Husserl´s phenomenological philosophy, continued with Alfred Schütz´s and then Peter Berger´s and Thomas Luckmann´s epistemological sociology, and finally attained its synthesis in Jürgen Habermas´s concept of communication theory. The scientific concepts of these authors offer appropriate applicability in several aspects. Firstly, they formulated, described and even thoroughly analysed that phenomenon in which, in our view, drug users´ way of thinking may be most efficiently examined sociologically. This is called the world of living. Secondly, in their contribution they created those concepts and categories which appear to be indispensable for the successful completion of the present task. Thirdly, the mental effort exerted by each of them had a central motive, which we can also identify with and consider to be indispensable: how can a common denominator for social reality and the problems of personal existence be found?
Phenomenology, as represented chiefly by Husserl3, offers a unique research stance, which has been largely adopted by epistemological sociology. Its kernel is the creation of a unique type of consciousness and mental state, which Husserl christened ´parenthesization (suspension) of ourselves´ (epoché). According to Husserl, the process of learning needs to be liberated from the object of learning, primarily because the former is whereas the latter is not part of consciousness. Hence evolves phenomenological sociology, which is self-reflexive and, therefore, concentrates on the process of learning and not the elements of reality. Becoming acquainted with the world of drug users may be based only on this type of self-reflection, since all of his or her characteristics to be uncovered are meaningful from the point of view of and in relation to the person examining him or her, and not in themselves. An important component of phenomenology is that it ascribes a highlighted role to ”reports”, in Schütz´s wording [4], and ´narratives´, in which not the facts or information contained therein but the narration and reports (Mantza 1969) [5] are to be examined.
Another significant characteristic of the phenomenological approach is that social reality is understood not as a world extraneous to and independent of us (although the raison d´ętre of such an interpretation is not questioned), but as the successive performance of subjects instead. The aim of phenomenological inquiry is to reveal the idealisations and symbols through which one creates one´s own world in everyday life, for this is the main point: everyday thinking not only reflects on the world but also constructs it.
In our case the main point may not be related to anything else either: drug user society, on the one hand, lives in social reality (this may be proved by a number of factors; at best, the underlying evidence is that drug user behaviour itself may be seen as a reflection on a particular social world); on the other hand, it also moulds it, and in quite a versatile way. Through its presence, behaviour and existence it poses challenges that constantly compel the rest of society to respond. At the same time, it is hardly questionable that the world lived through, felt and subjectively experienced by the drug user is not identical with those of others, as it concerns a dimension of reality organized by, for, as a result of, etc. drugs.
It must be treated as a methodologically important thesis that the meanings concealed in the background of various social activities should never be invested with objective or metaphysical content reflecting the truth or a sense of correctness. In a phenomenological sense, a way of thinking is never true or false, correct or incorrect but linked to one or another kind of socio-existential circumstance or stemming from it (Schütz 1984 [6], Mannheim 1995) [7].
The phenomenological approach, in the analysis presented below too, promises to enable us to unveil the everyday life-related individualistic interpretations (Jack Douglas 1984) [8] peculiar to drug users instead of empirical based social indices, objective social facts, conceptualized researcher qualities, previously devised scientific categories and social circumstances.
Drug use as a socio-existential condition
Drug user behaviour is a representation of an idiosyncratic worldview, which cannot find adequate forms of expression amid the options culturally endorsed by modern society. Thus, drug use is in effect a consequence of a unique interpretation of the world. At the same time, it should not be overlooked that this arbitrary understanding of the world is also a consequence of the physiological but, more importantly, of the psychological and social effects of drugs, in so far as these chemical substances alter the basic parameters of physical, spiritual and social perception. They create a special filter between the environment and the drug user´s perception, resulting in an image of reality that might never be experienced under different circumstances (Clinard, M. B., Meier, R.F. 2004) [9].
The drug user´s lifestyle may be divided into two basic phases: the state while under the influence of drugs and the intermediate stages. (Ratios between the two may be extremely differential, and they are not always separated.) Our hypothesis is that the above-mentioned dual relation between drug use and an idiosyncratic understanding of the world works for both states – even if not in the same way. The explanation lies in the fact that drug use is not simply a condition which, analogously to some technical equipment, may be switched on and off by the input of the drug and upon the termination of the effects of the drug. On the contrary, drug use is a way of life, or even a lifestyle, which in a complex manner determines every minute and the entire living space of its subject (including those life motions in which the drug is not directly present, albeit differentially). Beyond direct spiritual experiences, the drug defines the consumer´s social context, social embedding and orientation regarding emotions, attention, cognition and perception to an equal extent. Drug use is a complex sociocultural status (Adler, A. – Adler P. 2003) [10].
Two essential structural elements of their world are the orientation of ”here” and ”now”. Their world is in the present tense, although it is open to the past as well. The world of drug users is particularly marked by this kind of present-orientation. Drug use itself presupposes and even necessitates thinking in the present: living one´s life in the present tense. This may be corroborated by two reasons. On the one hand, the direct effect of drugs and the effort aimed at acquiring them are restricted to a well-defined time interval. On the other hand, viewing drug use in broader dimensions of time might raise some dysfunctional arguments and aspects too. The construction of antecedents and consequences would obviously eclipse the experience of euphoria, happiness, comfort and legitimacy which could definitely be enjoyed by means of thinking and interpretation in a narrow time cross-section. Against such dysfunctionality drug addicts protect themselves with their present-orientation (Montanari, L. 2006) [11].
In conjunction with drug use, the condition of being tied to a particular place possesses a similar validity. For drug users – naturally with varying intensity – locations relevant from the point of view of the acquisition and consumption of drugs represent the most important living space. They live their lives in this space and attribute significance to it primarily when they become interested in certain situations of decision and choice making. Being tied to a particular place – although it may obviously involve several factors (the environments of procurement, consumption and socio-subculture) – means considerable confinement for drug addicts, provided it is sufficiently homogeneously structured (i.e. drug-specific). At the same time, it is also exclusive as it segregates one from other social spaces. Drug users are not interested in appearing in locations irrelevant from the point of view of drugs, and, because of the registered social label (´deviant´), their non-conformist conduct and behaviour, as well as some of their possible external gestures betraying their drug use, mostly they are not in a position to do so (Levinthal, C.F. 2005) [12].
Therefore, drug users´ living space, as well as their cognitive world, are firmly attached to the present time and to a place. This circumstance produces their natural attitude, which is the basis of the drug addict´s world. If that world is object constructional, i.e. it designates the elements of reality deemed to be desirable (perceived as real) by itself, the question how actively the natural attitude characteristic of drug users is constructed and to what extent it is a world marked by suffering may arise. To put it differently: is the world closed in terms of time and space created by the people concerned or by society? Is exodus or ostracism the typical social position of drug users? From the above it may be concluded that it is both. The abstinent part of society segregates the society of drug addicts. Simultaneously, the population of drug users typically also strives for separation and an autonomous world.
The spatial and temporal medium of drug user behaviour
According to Berger and Luckmann [13], in the most immediate space surrounding the individual there are the objects associated with bodily activities. The usage of drugs is a prominent form of bodily activities, since the input of the drug, the manner of drug usage, as well as the aim of the usage are markedly body-centred. At the same time, primarily through dreams and transcendentalisation, the drug is an important instrument, form and engine of mental activities. Not to mention the fact that drug usage in nearly all of its components is connected to the world of desires, aspirations, yearnings and ideals, and hence to dreams experienced while one is awake. In this sense, for drug users drug consumption may be a self-explanatory everyday activity, because the drug defines the scope of influence, decision- and choice-related competence, interests and dependence which provides the backbone of the consumer´s everyday life.
Besides the spatial structure of the world of living, a similarly important question is its time dimension. Natural time is not necessarily the terrain of this world. Reality that has been lived through is situated and takes place more in intra-subjective time than in physical time. At the same time, no-one can completely detach him- or herself from natural time. The everyday world of living is characterized by the fact that natural time dominates one´s way of living, since life events take place in objective time frameworks, irrespective of the experiences of the time that has been lived through. This is, however, not so in drug addicts´ world of living, where intra-subjective time has a considerably greater power over physical time than in ”civilian” life. This is a result of two causes. On the one hand, drug user lifestyle is closely linked to the rhythms and timetables dictated by drug usage, and, thus, parallel to that, lifestyle components pertaining to other time dimensions are engulfed outright. On the other hand, the effect of drugs can permit a unique perception of time, which often eliminates the validity of physical time.
The time frameworks of the world of living are also peculiar in the community of drug users in the sense that in them time is compartmentalized differently from the outside world. In the world of living intra-subjective time usually has no section boundaries but it develops as an infinite and permanent current, which may not be divided into segments. To employ Henri Bergson´s (1925) [14] concept, time is duration (”durée”). Duration may only be perceived and lived through subjectively, but it is not measurable and lacks any units of measurement. The historical sequence of drug consumption is primarily encompassed by the time that has been lived through and felt, which exclusively belongs to the drug user, and no-one else can perceive it, or not in the same way as he or she can. Furthermore, in the course of drug use a few life situations emerge that designate a sharp division line in the drug addict´s life path. These pregnantly segregate earlier and later events (the first instance of drug use, becoming addicted, the first attempt to quit, the last attempt to quit, the first intravenous application, the revelation of the consequences of drug usage, etc.). Such situations carrying challenges of decision making are the borderline situations of a drug career (Jaspers 1989) [15].
Examination of the social dimensions of space and time
Drug consumer behaviour, despite its hidden and secretive (albeit increasingly more open) nature, materializes in a societal space and in a network of social relations. At the same time, it may be asked how, to what extent and in what forms drug users interact with society. Therefore, an important question concerning the condition of being embedded into societal existence is whether the interaction between the drug user and the abstinent society works – in so far as this dichotomy does exist in reality. The two main dimensions of societal existence are the cross-sections of time and space. The question, therefore, is whether drug consumers are situated in the same time and space dimension as the abstinent society or if there are temporal and spatial forms extraneous to the majority of society, which constitute the frameworks of their lives. To formulate the problem differently, it may be asked what the time and space structure of the autonomous reality forms that drug addicts construct for themselves in cognitive, emotional and active ways is like. We tried to give an answer to this question in the context of a qualitative research project which was conducted among 200 people who regularly consumed illegal substances. The method of the investigation was the structured deep-analyzing interview.
Temporal dimensions of the drug user´s world of living
The features of temporal dimensions are worth examining in two aspects:
1. The intra-subjective temporal dimensions of the drug addict´s way of life
2. The integrity of temporal dimensions of the drug addict´s way of life
In our research, during the analysis of interviews recorded with drug users, these questions were divided into the following factors and constituents, and the following was observed (Vingender, 2003) [16]: (In the course of the analysis qualitative and quantitative methods were used as well. As the qualitative investigation step simply reading, searching for meanings, and text understanding were applied, and as the quantitative method a context analysis was adopted with an earlier elaborated vocabulary of categories. In that case the analyzing program "Atlas” was used to count words, terms, idioms, and their special context.)
What does the narrative of the drug-user way of life originate in (pre-world)?
It is not usual that the period preceding their birth would appear in drug users´ thinking. In their world of living there is no prior life, no ready-made world of living, no objective situation. They do not think of the parents´ and grandparents´ world and lives without them; they are not important or are not known by them. This means that they do not consider their own lives to be organic parts of societal life (including micro-social life story); their existence and presence, in their thinking, are without any antecedents, accidental and unique. They characteristically represent themselves and do not presume any sources or determination in their lives, because the period prior to their lives does not receive any interpretation.
The earliest life experience
The first significant events of their lives appear considerably later compared even to the commencement of the narration of their life stories (childhood, adolescence). This implies that ”things from the beginning were done by them and they were not something that happened to them”. The typically passive (childhood) age-related cycle and situation do not play a role in their thinking. As they could know about these primarily from the accounts of parents and others of the older generations, it is plausible to assume that these accounts failed to reach them or they are not relevant for them. The life story emerges ”out of nothing”. From this point of view, it is also an interesting question how the commencement of drug usage is interpreted by them: not as fateful but as an accident-like, inadvertent, ”slip-up-like” event, which is devoid of any reasons, causes and antecedents.
Where does the life story narrative begin?
Compared to the childhood beginning of reconstructed life story, drug users usually preface their own drug-related mythology with a considerably later period. The period preceding the drug user life cycle is divided into moments and specific points in time, whereas the drug addict´s life cycle assumes a process-like character. The switch is acute and unambiguous: it is not occasioned by differences in the ability to recall but by relevance attribution.
Fragmentation of the recounted time
The life path of drug addicts is thus composed of the following time cycles: lack of antecedents – irrelevant early childhood – relevant abstinent cycle divided into moments – relevant and process-like drug user lifestyle. This way, the life story is markedly interrupted, expressly fragmented, but, at the same time, the edges of individual periods are obscure in the sense that the aspects and structure of fragmentation are palpable.
The time units of life path narration
The time segments of the drug user´s world of living are small. Drug users typically view their lives in short periods. The process-like nature of periods that are temporally closer becomes more evident in the fact that events become more frequent and sometimes even contiguous. However, even in that case, they are still isolated movements and not events that are connected. The drug addict´s career story is saturated by experiences embracing, at most, days or hours, rather than complex, comprehensive or lengthy stories. As a result, a situation-based world of living is definitely characteristic of drug users.
The durational (durée) and metaphysical facets of intra-subjective time
In drug consumers´ thinking intra-subjective time is strongly over-represented. Metaphysical time has become obscure, uncertain and, above all, controversial. They can reconstruct events and phenomena unequivocally lasting several days in minutes and, possibly, hours and, vice versa, they sense short cycles as long-lasting intervals. This contradiction is not resolved or it does not present them with any problems. It seems more likely that the latter is the case. Intra-subjective time is granted priority, because real time does not represent any compulsive force from their point of view. Regarding its significance, the role of drug usage as a form of behaviour and habit, as well as of the temporal segmentation of the effects as determined by the symptoms, is a salient feature. Both appear as unmistakably internal times.
Jumps in time
One of the characteristics of drug user career stories is time travel. They do not contain any coherent or logical time map. Accounts and the epoch that has been lived through are split into sections by detours, forward and backward jumps, ”lost time dimensions” and blurred time units. There is typically no trace of the patterns of crystallized time dimensions either. The perspective ”past – present – future” often collapses, prior time contexts are not interpreted, and thinking about the past typically lapses into the present or even the future unnoticed and in a logically unjustified manner.
Time orientations
There are no attestable definite time preferences. The relevance domain of drug-user life path narratives is overall. There are no important, interesting or meaningful periods for them. Time is one-dimensional from the perspective of their lives, thus appearing to be totally independent of them. They are not only unable to shape it (except for their peculiar and personal experience in this respect) but they do no want to/cannot evaluate or assess it differentially or ascribe some degree of importance to it. Each period is equally important to them, i.e. time is, practically, an irrelevant dimension of their lives.
The time parameter of borderline situations
Borderline situations are numerous in the lives of drug addicts. Therefore, they are protracted in one´s life story and, in a sense, are permanent. Hence, they are not particularly situation-related. Because of their large number, their significance and relevance are also moderate. Conversely, these borderline situations are recurrent: the same fateful events occur several times in the course of one´s life story in a repetitive pattern. All this unequivocally points to the fact that borderline situations in the context under investigation form a cause-and-effect relationship: turning points in one´s life story powerfully generate further turning points.
The temporal concordance of life events
The time of the most important ”reconstructed” events appears only obscurely and is surrounded by uncertainty. Whereas the events themselves are clear and acute, and their structures, characteristics and even messages are precisely articulated, their temporal dimensions are lost: neither the drug consumer narrator nor the outsider ”audience” can identify the temporal embedding of the events. In the world of drug addiction the temporal sequencing of the most important life events as well as the boundaries between time barriers become blurred.
The time volume of prominent life experiences
An ambivalent picture is formed of these characteristics of the drug addict´s life story: the duration of the ”reconstructed” events is defined only in approximate values: years, age cohorts, e.g. ”while I was living with my grandparents”. They also provide an exaggerated but self-confident idea of the beginnings and ends of important events, and of their possible interruptions.
The ”phenomenon – process – event” structure of the narrative

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Adres do korespondencji:
*Vingender Istvan
Semmelweis University College of Health Care
1088 Budapest vas u. 17
phone: +36-1-4 86-58-10, fax: +36-1-486-58-12

New Medicine 4/2006
Strona internetowa czasopisma New Medicine