Symbolic violence and street-based injecting drug use

Stephen Parkin- HERG
Symbolic violence and street-based injecting drug use: the control and contestation of public spaces in UK settings.
This paper focuses upon Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic violence (and associated concepts of ‘tacit control’ and ‘misrecognition’) in the context of street-based injecting drug use. More accurately, this paper provides an empirical demonstration of ‘the imposition of a cultural arbitrary by an arbitrary power’ (Bourdieu 1977, 19) in which subjective and randomised decisions by structural forces seek to control and constrain vulnerable people in spaces temporarily appropriated for injecting illicit substances. For example, symbolic violence is interpreted in the displacement of street-based injecting sites; the installation of blue lights in public toilets and within the views of people who manage public spaces affected by injecting drug use. In addition, these assorted responses are widely accepted by people who inject drugs (PWID) and become complicit in the tacit control of public space. However, symbolic violence also influences the emergence of ‘geographies of resistance’ in which PWID construct alternative injecting spaces in more marginal street-based locations.

This paper is based upon findings obtained from extensive ethnographic work conducted in 4 cities during 2006-2011. The theoretical model is demonstrated with visual data obtained from visits to street-based injecting sites. The contemporary relevance and applied value of Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic violence is presented from a perspective that prioritises ‘harm reduction’ intervention and the way in which such tacit control perpetuates drug-related harm and drug-related death. Accordingly, the paper concludes with the view that symbolic violence precedes ‘micro-spatial structural violence’.