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Alterity and Identity Refusal: The Construction of the Image

sep-dec. 2014, Vol. 24, No. 59, 389-396. doi: 10.1590/1982-43272459201413
Alterity and Identity Refusal: The Construction of the Image of the Crack User1
Manoel de Lima Acioli Neto2
Universidade Federal de Pernambuco,
Recife-PE, Brazil
Maria de Fátima de Souza Santos
Universidade Federal de Pernambuco,
Recife-PE, Brazil
Abstract: The discourse disseminated in the media shows the user of crack as dependent or criminal. This study’s aim was
to analyze the construction of otherness around the image of crack users. We interviewed 14 crack users in different places
and the data were analyzed using Thematic Content Analysis. The participants’ reports suggest that the image of crack users
is established based on alterity, in which the individual in this condition does not recognize him/herself. Thus, even though
users contend that their actions are not determined by the standards provided by their interactional networks, hegemonic
representations concerning their contexts of use attest that these activities concerning crack are just as they are perceived to
be. Therefore, even though they have other experiences with the drug, these participants believe that the use of crack provides
a destructive pleasure and impedes voluntary action.
Keywords: crack (drug), alterity, social representation
Alteridade e Recusa Identitária: A Construção da Imagem do Usuário de Crack
Resumo: O discurso veiculado tanto na imprensa quanto nas comunicações cotidianas tem situado o usuário de crack como
dependente ou criminoso. O objetivo desse estudo foi analisar a construção da alteridade em torno da imagem do usuário de
crack. Para isso, foram entrevistados 14 usuários de crack de diferentes localidades e realizada Análise Temática de Conteúdo
das informações obtidas. Diante desses discursos, pode-se afirmar que a figura do usuário de crack se institui numa alteridade,
em que o próprio indivíduo inserido nessa condição não se apropria. Desse modo, apesar dos usuários apresentarem que suas
ações não se determinam em relação às normas decorrentes de suas redes interacionais, as representações hegemônicas de
seus contextos de uso remetem essas atividades como verdades sobre o crack. Assim, mesmo vivenciando outras experiências
com a droga, acreditam que seu uso remete ao âmbito do prazer destrutivo e da impossibilidade de ação voluntária.
Palavras-chave: crack (droga), alteridade, representação social
Alteridad y Rechazo de Identidad: La Construcción de la Imagen del Usuario del Crack
Resumen: El discurso trasmitido tanto en la prensa como en las comunicaciones cotidianas han indicado el usuario de crack
como dependiente o criminal. El objetivo de este estudio fue analizar la construcción de la alteridad en torno a la imagen del
consumidor de crack. Para eso, fueron entrevistados 14 usuarios de crack de diferentes localidades y fue efectuado Análisis
Temático de Contenido de las informaciones obtenidas. Ante esos discursos, se puede afirmar que la figura del consumidor de
crack está estableciendo una alteridad, en la que el propio individuo insertado en esta condición no lo hace apropiado. De esa
manera, a pesar de que los usuarios muestren que sus acciones no se determinan a partir de los estándares debido a sus redes
de interacción, las representaciones hegemónicas de sus contextos de uso se refieren estas actividades como verdades acerca
del crack. Así que incluso si el usuario experimentar otras experiencias con la droga, ellos creen que su uso se refiere al ámbito
del placer destructivo y de la imposibilidad de acción voluntaria.
Palabras clave: cocaína crocante, alteridad, representación social
The dissemination of symbolic forms concerning
crack spreads representations that guide practices
even though this is not a linear process because
representations and practices reciprocally originate,
explain and legitimate themselves (Abric, 1994). Such
discourse claims that every crack user, in addition to
being a criminal (especially among the poor), becomes
dependent or addicted, while women end up prostituting
This papers is derived from the first author master’s thesis under the
supervision of the second author. The thesis was defended in the Graduate
Program in Psychology at the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, in 2014.
Correspondence address:
Manoel de Lima Acioli Neto. Rua Azeredo Coutinho, 120, bloco 8, apt.
201. CEP 50741-110. Recife-PE, Brazil. E-mail:
Available in
themselves to support their consumption, among other
beliefs. These symbolic productions are intrinsic linked
with an effect capable of establishing and/or keeping
moral standards for drug users who are seen as delinquent
or ill individuals (Santos, Acioli Neto, & Sousa, 2012).
Given this situation in Brazil, these representations
involve the symbolic construction of a social object, the crack
itself and a figure of otherness, the drug user: “druggie”,
“crack head”. The construction of this figure arises from
differentiation and exclusion processes, based upon which
subjective marks emerge. It is an epistemic-ontological
production in the sense of creating a subject with an identity
based on the practices that develop, but at the same time,
a field of knowledge composed amidst disgust with reality.
Paidéia, 24(59), 389-396
Otherness is the product of a dual process in which
construction and social exclusion relate to each other, maintaining
its unity through the system of representations (Jodelet, 1998).
It is the process of recognizing another person but, at the same
time, the Self emerges (Jovchelovitch, 1998). This delimitation
between the Self and another person enables greater control of
identity because the one being excluded clarifies which behaviors
individuals within a society should avoid, which performs an
important role in the cohesion and identity of dominant groups
(Arruda, Jamur, Melicio, & Barroso, 2010).
In this sphere, the image of a crack user is outlined by
his/her association with crime. A criminalizing and pathologizing
construction is disseminated by the media and science, evoking
tension and conflicts triggered by the manifestation of marginalized
socio-economic classes. These are socially devalued lifestyles,
segregated from what is common. It becomes an extirpation
of social problems, due to the “politically correct” objects of
expiation are required to be legitimated. Thus, the construction of
crack in society seems to place poverty within a mask that may
be rejected publicly. As stated by Arruda et al. (2010), otherness
projects much of what a society desires to eliminate from its
interior, justifying intensive repressive measures.
This aspect draws attention to the fact that crack
is more intensively used by populations characterized
with greater social vulnerability (Jorge, Quinderé, Yasui,
& Albuquerque, 2013). The profile of frequent users is
single men, approximately 30 years old, with a low level
of education and unemployed (Bastos & Bertoni, 2014;
Capistrano, Ferreira, Silva, Kalinke, & Maftum, 2013;
Nappo, Galduróz, & Noto, 1994). Even though this profile
shows mainly men, female users frequently present specific
vulnerabilities such as exchanging sex for drugs and being
exposed to AIDS, HIV, hepatitis C and syphilis, in addition
to being exposed to sexual violence. Recent data reported
by Fiocruz (Bastos & Bertoni, 2014) highlight that there is a
severe situation in which users lack assistance: 40% of those
intensively using crack are homeless and experience extreme
social deprivation. Even though this profile prevails, the
use-pattern does not seem to differ according to the user’s
socio-economic status; the same characteristics are observed
among users with greater purchasing power (Freire, Santos,
Bortolini, Moraes, & Oliveira, 2012).
In the media, however, the discussion is restricted to
specific phenomena, such as the use of crack within a portion
of the population excluded from the society, without access
to basic social goods. The issue is presented as a problem of
individual pathology arising from a wicked drug, diverting
attention from the most general conditions in which most
of the affected population lives (MacRae, 2013). This
population, living in poverty and in situation of vulnerability,
is regarded by society as intolerable and is laden with a
devalued and stigmatized social status (Paugam, 2001).
In order to deal with this problem, the Brazilian
government recently launched measures in which diverse
forms of health and social assistance were implemented to
meet the needs of these users (Ministério do Desenvolvimento
Social e Combate à Fome, 2009). These measures are part
of the Plano Integrado de Enfrentamento ao Crack e outras
Drogas (Integrated Plan to Cope with Crack and other Drugs),
developed by the Federal Government, including immediate
actions and actions of a nature to build the structure to face
this issue through inter-sector cooperation. These actions
are intended to promote an integrated set of interventions
focused on prevention, treatment, social reintegration, and
combating trafficking (Decree No. 7.179, 2010).
Nonetheless, among these strategies, compulsory
hospital admission for homeless drug users is included.
This strategy is intended to remove crack users from the
streets and place them in institutions to receive compulsory
treatment, i.e., without their consent. It is an imposition of
mandatory treatment and is based on the conception that the
individual does not have a choice. Thus, the use of force,
if necessary, is a possibility. In this sense, this imposition
disregards the user’s decision-making process and seems
to be based on representations that indicate the individual
is in a process that nullifies them, that consumes him/her
(Romanini & Roso, 2012; Souto, 2013).
This primarily repressive official position involves Brazil’s
long history in which social determinations or effective care
delivery and in the context of which, assistance among drug
users has been neglected. This conduct, however, refers to a
still very current way to deal with this issue. Hospitalization in
“reforming” institutions was for decades a common practice in
Brazil and was primarily intended for the “insane” (Acioli Neto
& Amarante, 2013). Hospitalizing the “different” in madhouses
was (and still is) a socially legitimated activity, removing the
undesirable, the sick, and the crazy from the streets.
Since the 1980s, movements in favor of psychiatric
reform have emerged in response to this model, expecting
care to be promoted outside the context of asylums, through
the integration of diverse social sectors, especially the health
sector, social assistance, education and the legal system
(Ministério da Saúde, 2002). In this sense, the transformation
of psychiatric policies, a social situation that changed social
practices forged long ago, led to the implementation of new
services such as the Psychosocial Care Centers (CAPS),
which were regulated as entities specializing in the treatment
of dependency (CAPS-AD), through Law No. 10.216/2001.
In the scenario of Brazilian policies, however, drug
consumption has always been associated with criminal or
pathological issues. The official position, through diverse
public policies, reflects ordinations conducted in spheres of
power that pervade State institutions and society as a whole. In
this process, cultural factors are crucial because through them
representations and a differentiated process of acceptance,
rejection, and incorporation of social achievements on
the part of society are historically constructed (Hofling,
2001). Therefore, these policies are an important normative
component in the ordination of practices and behavior, and play
the main role in the signification of this social phenomenon.
Acioli Neto, M. L., & Santos, M. F. S. (2014). Alterity and Identity Refusal.
Hence, official discourses related to crack involve a
criminalizing/pathologizing logic, assigning to the user
a characterization based on a universal pattern in which
there is no space for individual or collective singularities.
Throughout history, public policies have addressed this issue
mainly from a repressive perspective, though it is remarkable
that this position coexists with other perspectives such as
prevention, reduction of harm, and treatment. On the one
hand, actions are based on the creation of CAPS, medical
offices on the streets, strategies to reduce harm, psychiatric
units in general hospitals. On the other hand, however, there
is repression and the compulsory hospitalization of users
who refuse treatment, disregarding the nuances of each
individual. Additionally, there is a lack of legal specificity
concerning the category of dealer, which causes individuals
who consume drugs to drift between health policies and
public security, which may either place him/her as a user or a
small dealer, based on non-standardized criteria.
Hart (2013) considers that the main factor leading people
to consume drugs intensively to be environmental. This
author states that between 80% and 90% of the individuals
consuming crack do not develop dependency on the drug.
These data indicate a symbolic nature of the object. The
emergence of drugs in a society is related to the meanings
assigned to drugs, which acquire signification and symbolic
efficiency. It is a process that occurs in a relationship that
is dependent on context, because the emergence of drugs
is linked to social, political and historical conditions that
configure it (Jovchelovitch, 2008).
Therefore, this institutionalized political discourse
requires further analysis because it constitutes a symbolic
order but it is embodied in institutional practices and,
consequently, acquires abilities to produce meanings and
define subjective senses. This order reciprocally mediates
relationships as it disseminates representations that end up
organizing modalities of subjectivities and behaviors, even
if only implicitly (Berger & Luckmann, 1996). Therefore,
we ask: are the meanings concerning crack produced in
different contexts related to the characterization of users?
What function does this constituted image assume in social
practices developed by these individuals?
This study analyzes the construction of otherness around
the image of the crack user and its relationship with the context
in which these individuals use the drug. Based on the media
coverage of drugs that we observe, this analysis is necessary.
This study was conducted with 14 crack users, originating
from various locations in the Metropolitan Region of Recife,
PE, Brazil. The inclusion criteria were being a crack user
and consenting to participate in the study. These users’ ages
ranged from 18 to 35 years old. Most reported the use of
crack for up to three years, had dropped out of education
at the primary school level and the average family income
was one times the minimum wage. Minimum wage current
at the time of data collection (2013) was R$ 678.00/mo.,
approximately U$ 305.47.
The participants were contacted with the help of
professionals working in the program Atitude nas Ruas
e do Consultório de Rua (Attitude on the Streets and
in Street Medical Offices). These programs provide
resources for basic care provided to users in situations
of high social vulnerability. The main function of these
services is to mediate the access of the population in poor
social conditions to the Brazilian Unified Health System
(SUS) and the Unified Social Assistance System (SUAS).
These are composed of multidisciplinary teams including
psychologists, social workers, nurses and damage-reduction
agents. The individuals were addressed in areas where they
use drugs and invited to participate in the interview.
A semi-structured interview was the technique used
because it enables adding questions to deepen coverage of
certain subjects and to address complex and sensitive aspects.
In addition to personal information, the individuals were asked
about the use of crack (when it began, how it was used, where
it was used and when), what activities they performed daily,
and the relationship of these activities to their use of crack.
Data collection. Data collection took approximately six
months (between April and September 2013). The interviews
were conducted by the primary author on different days and
at different times. The participants were initially contacted
by the health and social assistance teams in areas where they
consumed crack. They were clarified regarding the study’s
objectives and invited to participate in an interview designed
to delineate the routine of crack users and patterns of use.
The teams were instructed by the researcher to make this
first contact. Afterwards, place and time of future contacts
were scheduled according to the individuals’ convenience to
take part in the interview. All the interviews were digitally
recorded after the participants’ consent and then transcribed
verbatim. The interviews lasted 20 minutes on average.
Data analysis. Content Thematic Analysis was used
to interpret data. Content Analysis is defined as a set of
techniques intended to describe the content of communication
and infer knowledge concerning the conditions in which
such knowledge is produced and transmitted through
the classification of reports in categories, which are then
regrouped by analogy (Bardin, 1977).
The interviews were categorized and composed
families of meanings that emerged from the users’ reports,
situated in hermeneutic units. In this sense, these categories
were organized using the discursive content present in
the interviews according to the frequency with which
Paidéia, 24(59), 389-396
they appeared. Then, these categories were identified as
belonging to a family of meanings and grouped according to
their similarity and relationship with the theme under study.
These procedures were performed using Atlas.ti. This
software was chosen because it enables systematizing
analytical categories. Additionally, Atlas.ti has some
advantages in regard to the techniques used in Content
Analysis, such as resources that enable taking notes and
comments, developing reports, memos, arranging tables
and matrices, etc.
It is important to note that the analyses were all
manually performed in the software, meaning there were no
automatized categorization or interpretation. Atlas.ti only
served as an instrument of analysis to facilitate the process.
Ethical Considerations
This study complies with guidelines provided by the
Brazilian Council of Health through its Resolution 466, 2012,
which establishes regulated standards for studies involving
human subjects. This study was conducted after approval
was obtained from the Institutional Review Board at the
Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, SE, Brazil (CEP-UFPE /
CAAE: 13781313.9.0000.5208) and from the Attitude Program.
Results and Discussion
The Image of Crack Users: Constructing and Rejecting
According to the interviewees’ reports, the
characterization of crack users is based on social practices
developed in specific contexts of use, in which the prevailing
ethics is to do anything, to do any activity or take any action, to
obtain the drug. From this perspective, users were described
as lacking control over their actions; the drug dominated and
made them act according to their needs (jonesing) caused by
the drug. As reported by João
the druggie is someone who cannot live without
crack. He’d do anything, even kill you if he has to,
to smoke… So, he’s part of violence because you
don’t want to give it to him so he can use it. So,
when the person is jonesing, needing a fix, he’ll be
even able to kill you. (João, 28 years old)
Additionally, crack users define themselves as victims
due to the negative effects caused by the drug, in the sense
there is a stigma that removes them from society:
A crack user is a poor thing, because crack’s
something that is not worth it, it just destroys. I say
it for myself. Sometimes … I was just thinking to
myself this morning “man, what is this life? I get all
my money and spend it on drugs, next day I have
nothing, no benefit, no joy, no joy to live. It just
makes me a zombie, all the money I get is for drugs,
it’s for drugs”. So I was like, considering myself
garbage. (Leonardo, 29 years old)
Users are identified as sick persons, with a contagious
condition, with no means to work because of the fragility
caused by heavy consumption. This condition situates the
user as an undesirable individual, a striking alterity figure,
recognized and abhorred due to the risks of contagion or
threat to citizens.
I think that most people smoking crack, who use crack,
I guess that part of it is due to discrimination. Because
you walk by and people say “look at this one, crack
head”. People get scared, hold their purse tightly. It
may cause… prejudice. (Aline, 21 years old)
Therefore, the crack user is acknowledged as someone
whom is not guided by moral values or ethical principles. S/
he acts according to the body’s need for a drug, not concerned
with others or social life. This is how users presented their
representations regarding people who consume crack, but it is not
how they generally describe their own experiences with the drug.
The process of the victimization of crack users
implies the impossibility for these individuals to overcome
the problem. Their drug use leads society to reject these
individuals and the distress they experience is intensified
by exclusion. Consumption is merely recognized as
“mandatory”, an organic demand, from which no pleasure,
no delight is obtained; it is rather a relief from pain, the
elimination of a need.
The individual feels overpowered by the drug, directing
his/her actions according to the drug’s impositions. “Crack
domination” refers to illness caused by consumption. The
individual forgets others and lives in isolation, lacking
confidence, and feeling like the carrier of a contagious
disease. The following excerpts illustrate this condition:
“I think it’s like an animal. You fight for a piece of stone, you
fight for anything, you do anything to have the drug. You
spend days and nights. A really poor situation” (Rafael, 22
years old). “People see users as if they were lepers, as if the
guy is in debt, as if they had AIDS, as if the guy is infectious”
(Daniel, 18 years old).
It is, however, important to note that these characteristics
highlighted by the users do not conform to how delimitations
of their ways of being would function. Even though, many fit
this description, assigning this relationship to causality is not
the only norm for the experience of use, because many users
indicate these standard descriptions are something distant
from their experience with the drug. For this reason, the
image of crack user, the “druggie”, acquires a signification
because it is associated with crime, even if the experience of
a given individual diverges from this construction.
Acioli Neto, M. L., & Santos, M. F. S. (2014). Alterity and Identity Refusal.
I wonder about the day after. You know? I always
thought “wow, and when it’s over?” You know? I’d
have 50 bucks and I wouldn’t spend all the 50 bucks. I’d
look at it, buy a pack of cigarettes and start analyzing
“If I buy two, how much will be left? I’ll still have 25.”
And then, I’d buy cigarettes, 5 bucks, and still have
25. So before I used it, I’d go home and give 15 bucks
to the wife and keep 10, because you know what was
I thinking? I was thinking to smoke those two stones,
drink a beer and enjoy. (Bruno, 35 years old)
As stated by Malheiro (2013), it is typical not to
acknowledge users’ informal social control, control strategies
users develop in their routine. What is most frequently seen
in the experience of use are expectations and representations
and not single experiences of what happened.
These representations have a determinant function in the
construction of practices and the orientation of experiences
of use. These experiences are manifested through norms that
originate in the contexts of signification (but which also produce
norms) and, consequently, originate from interactional networks
in which individuals exist. Thus, an inherent ethics emerges in
their daily lives, contingent on the contexts of production.
Therefore, crack users are confused with thieves given
the image that is built, but not as an identity they assume.
While an action is legitimated in the context of use, theft
refers to the image of users, making him/her a criminal, a
thief. The reports of these users show: “Crack head, as far as
I know, crack head is the person who uses crack. Someone
who wanders around dirty, who steals to get drugs, you
know?” (Carlos, 18 years old).
Even if considering a user to be someone who is only
capable of stealing to access drugs, when the individuals report
their histories, they distance themselves from this image.
He thought that all crack users were capable of
stealing at any time. Someone you couldn’t trust,
who would do anything to get the drug, you know?
That’s what he thought. And it was true. Though I
never needed to steal from anyone, nobody from my
family. (Bruno, 35 years old)
Otherness and Identity Refusal
The figure of a crack user is established in otherness,
in which the individual him/herself exists in a condition in
which s/he does not recognize him/herself. The process of
identity construction seems to be situated in a refusal in which
the individual, on the one hand, disregards hegemonic social
values, and on the other hand, does not recognize him/herself
as being in such a situation. As noted by Jodelet (2001),
the construction of otherness, grounded on representations
disseminated and shared by society and media, plays an
excluding role, through specific organizations of various
interactional networks influenced by such knowledge. Hence,
“crack head” refers to images of marginalized groups, signified
as a threat to society: those criminalized are the individuals
who belong to peripheral areas, in low socioeconomic
conditions. The use of crack is just another activity in the
repertoire of practices of these groups, but one that has various
associations, and is a scapegoat for many social problems.
I, myself... I didn’t considered myself a crack head
because I’ve always worked, you know? I’ve always
worked for… the system. So, not everyone is a
crack head, because there are people who use the
drug but who work hard. Works and supports their
vice. That’s exactly it. Not everyone is a druggie,
but 100%, 70%, most of those are crack heads.
What someone works not to be a crack head, that’s
it. Because they are able to buy their drug, but then
they can, you know? (João, 28 years old)
It is important to note that even though there are
many users who are thieves or murderers, we need to pay
attention to the process of the mediation of norms, practices,
and circumstances in which the effects of a drug take place
(Morgan & Zimmer, 1997). The effects of substance use is
directly linked to the social context of use, not only arising
from its pharmacological properties but also from local
practices developed by the groups (Becker, 2008).
In this context, having a job plays a central role in this
organization, because it shows autonomy and responsibility
with projects of life and with other people. It is, therefore, a
landmark, delimiting the symbolic boundaries that embody
this figure. Nonetheless, one should keep in mind the fact
that even working to support consumption, users regard it
as a “wrong” activity. This way of dealing with the situation
brings out questions concerning the role social norms play
in the development of representations and practices. The
moral norm that is constituted in a given interactional
context seems to play an important influence. In this sense,
crack users are not only defined by their consumption but
also based on whether they adapt to the social norms that
arise from the sharing of knowledge. Therefore, users are
regarded as thieves with no social or financial responsibility.
Long before, I was an obedient man, I’d respect
seniors, elderly people, everything. When I started
using crack, I stopped respecting anyone. If I were
working and doing the right thing, it’s ok. But no, I
was working and using it for the drug. It doesn’t help;
all your money goes for the drug. Especially because I
have a family I have kids. I have two kids, a wife. So,
I saw myself in a poor situation. I worked and would
give nothing. All my expenses were for drugs, drugs,
drugs. I wouldn’t take anything from people, but I
was there, doing the wrong thing, using drugs. Using
drugs is wrong in any case. It doesn’t matter if you’re
working or not, it is wrong (Marcos, 19 years old).
Paidéia, 24(59), 389-396
Having a professional responsibility, the users report they
are able to identify the limits to obtaining pleasure from the drug,
and control consumption. There is no interest in abstaining from
this pleasure, but there is a need to regulate it, to acknowledge
the right time and give priority to other aspects of life.
Those who smoke with control think: this money is
for me to enjoy, so later, I’ll go home, sleep, and it’s
going to be another day for me to work. They smoke
but are aware of the objective not to put the thing
they have at risk, you know? (Aline, 21 years old)
Therefore, consumption was reported as a leisure
activity, more frequent during the weekends. The work
routine is an obstacle to the use of crack. They would
consume during the week, but there was a regulation of
quantity, while weekends were reserved for a higher level of
consumption. This use is sometimes referred to as the use of
drug in its pure version in the pipe, or mixed.
I smoked more on Saturdays and Sundays, you
know? Weekends, parties. I’d smoke less during
the week. It wouldn’t be much. I’d stay at home or
in front of my house, chatting with the boys. Then,
they would say “let’s go take one, play ball” I’d
drink one, play ball and then... I’d have cravings.
(Valéria, 23 years old)
Paugam (2001) states that labor has a central role
in urban societies because it is associated with social life,
becoming a way to access consumption. This is a wagedriven society guided by the capitalist model of consumption
that constructs social affiliation based on professional
belonging. For this reason, such ties are lost when there is a
loss of a job or a situation of job instability.
Therefore, a job provides a sense of identification with
citizenship and belonging to a community and is considered a
factor of social cohesion. Deregulation of labor relationships
may weaken social ties and put individuals in a situation of
social marginality (Oliveira, 2009). This relationship with
labor is involved with contexts of signification, which act in
order to establish ethical criteria for action.
From this perspective, labor assumes the locus of
the production of goods and services, but also becomes a
matrix of symbolic production, constructing significations
that condition possibilities of social organization
(Guimarães, 2005). Labor ethics, in this socio-economic
model, are no longer centered on satisfaction with social
commitment but are centered on the possibility of accessing
consumption (Bauman, 1999). The logic of crack use is
consolidated as another consumer good in a capitalist
society. This ethics is constructed according to the context
of the individual and is, therefore, contingent on members of
interactional networks in which this concept is legitimated.
The understanding concerning contingency of values
refers to the variability of positions of users in regard to
the acquisition of crack. While for some, only work is a
legitimate possibility; for others the practice of theft and
robbery is legitimate. In this sense, those users who take
labor ethics as a guidance to consumption do not adapt to
the norm of robbery and do not identify themselves with the
figure who consumes crack, the thief, as previously shown.
These individuals prefer to ask their families for money so
they can consume the drug, as is the case of Renato: “I never
had the guts to steal. People have the guts to do anything.
But I never had the courage for this, no. I’d prefer to get on
my mom’s nerves and insist until she gives me some money”
(Renato, 34 years old).
Roberto, in turn, differentiates himself from thieves,
emphasizing his job as an activity that distinguishes him
from the other users:
When the guy is really shameless he only thinks
of doing bad stuff to others, stealing, killing,
destroying. These guys… I prefer to work hard, go
after my goals rather than… I don’t want anything
from anyone. I don’t want anyone getting what’s
mine, either. (Roberto, 29 years old)
This relationship with otherness puts the individual who
consumes drugs in a situation of conflict, around an instituted
norm, in a representational system of “crack head” and its
ethics, but there is also an ambivalence of values, which often
diverge form the normative model, as previously discussed.
Hence, one of the aspects strongly highlighted by the users is
shame of assuming this place in society, in their families.
I feel embarrassed because we, chemically
dependent people, either we like it or not, people
look at us with an evil eye, wondering whether
we’ll do something, steal to get drugs. So, I guess
that society… We feel embarrassed, we… I’ve
been addicted, I’m dependent, but thank God I’ve
always got my money from my work, you know?
(Leonardo, 29 years old)
The choice of isolation, of getting away from family and
work, was justified by their refusal to acknowledge themselves
as crack users. A defensive attitude against reverberations
of this otherness figure, in turn, amplifies the risks of drug
consumption because important roles are played by belonging
to an interactional reference network such as the family and the
social responsibility that accrues from having an occupation,
in terms of mediating the use of drugs.
They knew I used drugs and I pretended they
didn’t. You know? Sometimes, I tried not to chat,
because then, I guess I was ashamed they’d find out
I used marijuana, crack and whatever. I was really
Acioli Neto, M. L., & Santos, M. F. S. (2014). Alterity and Identity Refusal.
ashamed, so I wouldn’t talk to them for this reason.
The only subject I had to talk about was about drugs.
For this reason I avoided talking, avoided being
around them, you know. (Rafael, 22 years old)
When consumption is initiated, the user faces a number
of rules and conditions of use, in addition to the possibilities
of effects. These conventions constitute norms, modalities
of social control, which involve the user in a repertoire
of actions. The contexts of crack consumption regulate
relationships, putting the user in the role of managing these
possibilities. Many times, however, this normative nature
limits interpretative margins and is regarded as the only
means of access, the only way.
Defined in terms of direction established between
representations that are produced and practices that are developed,
the dialogical process may be seen in this sphere, in the associations
of crack with crime and with the personal experiences of users.
In the face of a context of the criminalization of drugs and intense
prejudice around this subject, the circumstances of use are
characterized by conflicts in embodying the figure of the crack
user and facing social stigmas.
Final Considerations
The reports show that the image of the crack user
conforms to otherness, in which the individual in such a
condition does not recognize him/herself. Additionally, the
knowledge constructed by users in a given interactional
network plays a normative role, prescribing actions
developed around right/wrong, normal/abnormal, accepted/
excluded; therefore, knowledge acquires symbolic efficacy
through systems of signification and practices shared by the
individuals. The act of stealing, for instance, was accepted
and considered a commonplace practice among some users,
while others abhorred this possibility. We understand that an
object made present in daily life through communication is
legitimated based on its use in specific circumstances.
Nonetheless, amidst this normative tension, users
experience other ways of being and acting. Even though, in
the process of identification and differentiation, users commit
theft, this characterization is attributed to somebody else. This
relationship with experience and its related representations put
the user in a place of identity conflicts. In a defensive move,
the negative dimensions of others intensify, transferring all the
undesirable load outside the group of belonging. Therefore,
some users, even though inserted in networks that legitimate
criminal practices, made decisions that diverged from the
informal norm of stealing to smoke.
Therefore, even though users state that their actions are
not determined by these norms, hegemonic representations
of their user contexts imply these activities are truths about
crack. That is, even having other experiences with the drug,
they believe that this use refers to destructive pleasure,
the impossibility of a voluntary action, the incarnation of
a repulsive figure. Social norms that prevail informally in
these fields summon users to become dependents, criminals,
incapable of constructing life plans.
It is however, important to note that, among this
study’s limitations, there is the fact that the participants live
in the metropolitan region of Recife, PE, Brazil and were
contacted by Health or Social Assistance teams, which may
have influenced the results. The participants already received
assistance from these teams and their prior relationship
with these professionals may have influenced how they
responded to the interviews. Additionally, the fact the study
is restricted to a metropolitan region does not permit an
analysis of other socio-cultural contexts from which other
identity forms may emerge, or patterns of consumption
with distinct characteristics. Hence, the results presented
here do not represent any single user of crack, though they
show possibilities that required further investigation in other
contexts and places, such as users from other cities, rural
areas, or distinct socio-economic classes. Gender issues,
which may imply different attitudes in regard to the use of
crack, were not investigated.
This study’s results show the problematization
concerning the implication of individuals in a normative
system that orients the consolidation of actions diverging
from one’s code of conduct or ethics. This conflictive
condition in the face of an ethos raises questions in regard to
the processes of signification that construct and legitimate a
person’s ethical ability to make choices in the face of these
systems. In other words, these results indicate an aspect
seldom discussed in the theory of social representations and
that requires further investigation: the ethical dimension of
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Manoel de Lima Acioli Neto is a Ph.D. candidate of the
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Maria de Fátima de Souza Santos is a Full Professor of the
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Received: Apr. 22, 2014
1st Revision: Aug. 27, 2014
2nd Revision: Oct. 1, 2014
Approved: Oct. 7, 2014
How to cite this article:
Acioli Neto, M. L., & Santos, M. F. S. (2014). Alterity and
identity refusal: The construction of the image of the
crack user. Paidéia (Ribeirão Preto), 24(59), 389-396.
doi: 10.1590/1982-43272459201413
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