Performance Enhancing Drugs – College Edition

Passing with Pills: Redefining Performance in the Pharmaceuticalized University”  is a very thoughtful and thought provoking ethnographic look in the mirror.  Tazin Karim of Michigan State University did an excellent job applying a critical, medical anthropological lens to academia and the pressures of the rite of passage in America referred to as college.  
When discussing the exportation/globalization of mental illness and Western pharmaceuticals, undergrads in both my Intro to Anthropology discussion sections admitted to knowing a ‘friends’ who used Academic Performance enhancing drugs …  I have to admit my own caffeine dependence could fall in the same category.  American culture in general gives preference to substances which promote productivity and the University is no exception.  A few of my students discussed being prescribed Ritalin and Adderall long before they entered a college campus.  One girl described for us how ease it had been for her best friend to get a prescription, which she used primarily to write papers and make it through finals week.  

I think this is a very serious issue which is largely ignored because it gets the desired results and is socially linked to productivity and achievement.  For my part, some might argue that I am part of the problem, as a graduate student and teaching assistant who was aware of these thinly veiled “confessions.”   But I am 25 years old which makes me only a few years older than most of my students and this time four years ago I was the undergrad who had close friends doing the same thing.  However, it also raises an important ethical issue.  This was information I gained from a semester of building rapport with my students and a safe environment for discussion in my classroom.  In that moment, I saw my responsibility in guiding my students to think critically about the social and structural pressures that make the need for academic performance drugs and in interrogating the problematic dichotomy between legal prescription drugs and illegal drugs.  I pushed them to critically think about any substance they put in their body and I urged them to be accountable for researching these medicines, their purpose and their side effects.  In that classroom, I felt that was the extent of my ability to influence the matter.

But as a medical anthropologist, I think this is definitely an issue which merits further investigation and careful attention to potential solutions that address this “inconvenient truth.”  Karim’s narratives demonstrate the hidden reality on our campuses.  I hope to see more work along these lines in the future.

 

Gunman Suicide – A Social Illness

The media storm follow the Newton school shooting has left our nation with heavy hearts and that unanswerable question “but why…?”  The shooting occurred the day left Dallas heading home for Arkansas to spend my Christmas break with my family.  These incidents which have become all too frequent always leave me initially dumbfounded, but as the social scientist in the family people expect me to have a more educated response than a look of horror on my face.  Within hours of the shooting Facebook and Twitter was aflame with arguments for gun control and explanations of mental illness.  I found myself driving home in the dark and trying to explain to my father on the cell phone that it was “more complicated than that”.

Do we blame guns?  Do we blame mental illness? Do we blame the media or video games?  Do we blame American culture itself?

Part of the reason it is “more complicated than that” for me to explain to my father or most of the people I grew up with for that matter, is that Living Anthropologically’s simple answer “measures to reduce and restrict the weaponry” would begin a debate met by deaf ears.  Saying the word “gun control” to a hunter is the equivalent of saying “Internet censorship” to a member of anonymous.  Certain topics trigger a panicked emotional response that jumps to the worst case scenario first.  I know that restrictions on semi-automatics and hand guns is not the equivalent of a universal gun ban, but both the audience and the bigger picture need to be kept in mind.  The weapon of choice is definitely one way to tackle the problem, especially if you see no use for the device,  but it doesn’t fix the “why” which can always find a new outlet.

In his Neuroanthropology blog Daniel Lende reminds us that “Mentally ill patients are not more violent than anyone else.” and “Guns don’t shoot themselves.”  in his response to the two easy answers which have been put forth by the media and the public following the Newton shootings.

Follow the Aurora shooting, David Dobbs argued that “Culture shapes the expression of behavioral traits. The traits don’t rise inherent as an urge to play basketball or a plan to shoot up a Batman movie. A long conversation between the trait and the surrounding culture shape those expressions. Culture gives the impulse form and direction.”

In talking to my father who is very anti-gun control, I realized that there is a very big difference between a hunter and a gunman.  Friend and follow Arkansan, Justin Snook makes a similar connection in his blog post Guns and Games, when he says “I learned to treat a gun sensitively and reverently whether it was in my own hand or someone else’s.”  Growing up in rural Arkansas my first experience with guns did not come from video games or even TV.  I remember being between 2 and 3 years old and my dad letting me pull the trigger on his .22 while he held the gun.  As I got older both of my parents always re-enforced strict rules and behaviors relating to guns.  Guns were always present in my household, but they were also always serious.  The first rule I remember my mother telling me was to never go near the place my dad kept his guns unless he was with me.  The first rule I remember my father telling me about guns was to never point one at anything or anyone I didn’t want to kill, whether I thought the gun was loaded or not.   Guns were to be respected and were only used to hunt.  My brother, sister, and I were taught that what we did with a gun was our responsibility.  But this is not part of how most Americans are raised.  While hunters-ed is required for hunting licenses it is not required to own a gun.  You have to take two exams to drive a car but all you need is a background check to own a gun.  This means that unlike me, many Americans are taught about guns by TV, movies, and video games.  These media are artistic expressions of our culture so it is hard to blame them in and of themselves.  Films no longer warn that “you’ll shoot your eye out” and instead depict firearm novices becoming epic heroes by picking up a gun.  People who have never witnessed anything larger than a spider die are allowed to own hand guns designed for shooting people and even semi-automatic weapons designed to shoot everything insight.

If the people using them and how they are used, not the guns themselves are at the center of the “but why …?” question, then we that we are to blame.  A cultural dialogue which allows people to assign the blame to others instead of accepting responsibility makes it possible for the gunman suicide phenomenon to become an accepted cultural script.

A young man (statistically most are males) has bad relationships with his family.  He becomes/feels disenfranchised.  He is alienated from his community and he begins to blame all the people in his life for how terrible his life is.  That blame turns to hate and when he cannot take it anymore and is ready to end it all by killing himself he turns to the pre-existing techniques his culture has provided.  Going out in a blaze of glory, maximizing his ability to hurt those who he blames for his state, and regaining control of his life in a hyper-masculine villainous act.   Gunman suicide becomes the last desperate attempt at significance.

Lende argues that “If we’re going to think of violence as a sickness, then it is its own type of sickness, different in kind and in expression from the mental and physical ailments that also possess us. Violence is red in tooth and claw, seemingly primordial, until we recognize how socially regulated it is.”

My best explanation is that the gunman suicide phenomenon is a social illness rather than a mental or physical one.  These gunmen which have become all too common are suffering from a lack of the social components necessary to be healthy in body and mind.  It is a social illness in that these gunmen are men who society has failed and in that the illness harms society itself.  It takes the lives of the incident’s victims, it wrecks havoc on the lives of the victims families and the community, but it also traumatized us as a nation, as a globally connected world.  The gunman is ground zone of the social illness, proving to us that in this hyper-connected and highly visible age a ticking time bomb can still remain in plain sight.

Politics and Wikipedia

Wikipedia is currently in fundraiser mode.  It reminds of the PBS phone-a-thons of my childhood.  But it also reminds me of an interesting component people frequently neglect when discussing social programs and taxes in relation to institutions seen as a “public good.”  In the debate over who does a better job of address the needs of the public, the arguments are frequently framed in Public vs Private….  what about the 3rd option of non-profit/charity?  Websites like Facebook, twitter, Gmail, etc are free because they’ve figured out how to profit from data mining and running ads, while other sites like Wikipedia rely on user donations.  Comparing Wikipedia and the Recovery.gov site which the government spent over $9.5 million to redesign, makes me wonder if discussions on government spending should be aimed at government vs non-profit rather than Public vs Private.

Most people I’ve talked to about this in person tend to point out that most people won’t give willingly unless the government makes them.  But I have to wonder is this true?  Am I being too much of an idealist?  I know I prefer to directly donate $15 to an institution than have an additional $20 added on to my taxes.  Of course, I’m somewhat assume that at least $5 is lost in the bureaucracy it would take to get my $15 to Wikipedia if Congress decided to financially support Wikipedia.  Something I know will never happen, but the thought experiment is still the same.

This brings up a few questions for me.  Is it feasible to run all Open Access on a Wikipedia model or fundraising and user donations?  Is the model somehow better suited for the Internet?  I’d love to know if anyone has come across studies comparing Private, Public (government), AND Non-Profit models for providing public goods and services.

Occupying the Future

A Vision of Students Today

This video is a little old, in internet terms at least.  It came out in 2007 while I was still in undergrad.  The video was made before college graduates of class of 2009 entered “the real world” to find by in large there was no place for them.  Here’s an old news report about it on ABC News.

The economic crisis hit home, when college graduates all across the nation realized there were no jobs waiting on them.  One of the outdated messages in this film says “when I graduate I will probably have a job that do not exist today,” it was a line we were told repeatedly growing up. In many ways, at the time at least, that statement seemed like the promise of tomorrow, the promise of a technological future.   However, we graduated and found those promised jobs we worked so hard for through high school and college, they still don’t exist.  I am not personally involved in any of the Occupy Movements, but as an anthropologist and a person that has lived through this moment in time, I’d like to point to this as the explanation and cause.  You can blame us I suppose if it makes you feel better, but anyone with a 21st century college degree isn’t lazy, dumb, or “whinny.”  College graduates of 2009, 2010, 2011, and those soon to graduate in 2012 worked hard fulfilling their obligation to Weber’s the “Protestant Work Ethic”.  Just to be admitted to college, young people of the 21st century were taught how to jump through many hoops our parents and grandparents never faced and arguably could not have passed even as adults.  We emerged from the “No Child Left Behind” Era labeled as “over achievers” in spite of ourselves.  If you don’t want to believe my biased insider view, the emic view for anthropologists, then that is fine: check out Alexandra Robbins’ book The Overachievers  or at least consider the New York Times book review of it.

Seven years down the road, I’d say we’ve fallen from grace because no matter what degree of concern adults expressed over the negative repercussions of this “overachieverness,” they were proud.  Sure it was a sign of neurosis on the national level but, hey, we were excelling at the hard-work end of the American Dream, surely it would pay off.  Yet seven years later, we are being depicted as throwing a nation-wide temper-tantrum.  Foxnews labels it a “passing outburst” in this online report and it is only one among many.  Even those who try to take the middle road seem to either find the movement unreasonable or totally missing the point.  In a Forbes article written to explain the movement to its readers, Peter Cohan proves he missed the point in this statement arguing for OWS activist to meet corporations in the middle, where he writes, “Corporations provide many benefits to society — they use people, capital, and technology to create value for consumers, employees, shareholders, and communities.”  He openly, perhaps without realizing it wrote “they use people.”   But, I’m getting off point.

My point is that the 2005 overachievers did everything asked and expected of them and more.  They graduated in 2009, if you follow the 4 year collegiate model,  then faced great difficulty getting jobs, particularly in getting jobs in their chosen field.  The United States was in no way unique in this: my first graduate school paper was on a very similar crisis in the Republic of Ireland which pushed many young people to emigrate for work.  However, I was one of the lucky ones.  I did not get a job in my field but I did find a graduate program, which I began in the fall of 2010.  This was not the case for many of my fellow graduates.  For those who might think this failure to find work is the result of laziness or a lack of earnest effort, please consider the rate of unemployment from 2009 to 2012 and the fact that most of those who have graduated during the recession are not drawing unemployment because they were students and never were employed at a full time job.  There is a gap in time between the lack of employment of college grads in May 2009 and the OWS movement which began in the summer 2011.  Despite the global economic crisis, college grads continued to look for work or apply to graduate school/law school/med school or volunteer for non-profit organizations and NGOs.  But like everyone else looking for a job, those who found an opening were lucky.  When the OWS idea was first proposed it found incredibly fertile ground and the movement spread like wildfire, to mix metaphors.  It is my hope and prayer that from the ashes, a new and better America can grow and blossom.

While this movement can in many ways be described most affectionately as organized chaos, the motivation and meaning behind it sends a message of hope for the future of America. In many ways, I think it is time to realize we’ve entered adulthood and had the weight of the world put on our shoulders, but  let’s get over the shock, disappointment, frustration, and anger…  Collectively, our generation has resources, assets, and skills beyond the wildest imaginations of our parents and grandparents, I want to see us do something. The protests and boycotts across this nation and aboard are evidence of our determination and powerful sense of right and wrong.  I am not asking for the protest to end, but I have to think this is only the beginning.  I am calling for further collaboration.  Corporations and political/governmental organizations utilize think-tanks all the time with dramatic innovative results.  We are connected in a way generations before us could not have dreamed of.  We’ve occupied the streets, now what?  There are plenty of social, political, financial, and environmental issues to go around.  Let’s put together an online think-tanks to address them.  Why let our intelligence, our education, and the energy of our youth go to waste?  Collaboration, especially online collaboration, can take place anywhere and anytime (as long as you have power and signal).  Why should we wait for anyone else to organize us?  Those jobs that we were promised, the ones that don’t exist yet?  The only solution is that we have to create them ourselves.  Our parents, our teachers, and our government, they can’t really help us with this.  So many problems have been put off by those who came before us, and put on to our shoulders.  It’s time to face those problems head on.  We’ve all got unique and invaluable skill sets and the technology and social networks to make this happen.  So pick a topic: social inequality (pick a type), the energy crisis, government encroachment on civil liberties and human rights globally and at home, chronic illness, cancer, HIV, the US health care system, global hunger/malnutrition, debt and balancing the budget (on the personal, household, institutional, and governmental levels), social change toward social accountability and respect of human dignity, citizenship and national boarders, improving US international relations, environmental repercussions of pollution and resource exploitation…  the list is endless.  Create online discussions of these issues, everyone knows you can occupy and post to blogs and facebook at the same time.  Make us of Google Plus’s “hangouts” and really get the conversations going.  Make blog post about your ideas, possible solutions, and give each other feedback.  After all, everything on the internet is peer-reviewed, so show the world that means something.  For the young people who are currently unemployeed, unemployment doesn’t mean you can’t be occupied.  Young people still in college, in graduate school, or starting your first job: we have to stay connected, no matter how busy things get.  We each have a unique and valuable skill set and set of resources to offer.  We have to build for the future, come up with practical solutions and get interdisciplinary with it.  A chemist, a political scientist, and a writer could come together and create a whole new way of seeing the world.  History shows us the great leaps forward which can be made by a person looking at a problem from more than one angle: Renee Descartes, Johnannes Kepler, Issac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Franz Boas, Albert Schweitzer,  Edward Said, Theodore Roosevelt, and Leonardo De Vinci to name a few.  We are facing a very important moment in time and a great deal of potential energy has been built up hover now is the time to direct that energy toward creating the type of future we want for ourselves and those who come after us.