Congratulations to ADTSG’s 2023 Graduate Student Paper Prize Winner, Alex Rewegan!
Alex is being award for his paper “Cannabinoids in the (Reproductive) System: Historicizing the Sciences of Cannabis and Pregnancy.”
Alex is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS) program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He holds a B.A. in Anthropology from McMaster University, and an M.A. in Social Anthropology from York University.
His ethnographic research explores how cannabis legalization processes in the United States and Canada affect the lives of people who cultivated, sold, and used the plant under prohibition. Following the social life of cannabis from farm to user, he critically examines how science and technology are used by different actors in their efforts to transform the meanings and values associated with cannabis in the making of legal markets. His dissertation explores how the notions of “sustainability” and “social equity” are understood and applied in regulating the legal future of cannabis with broader implications for agricultural drug economies in the face of climate change and ongoing global transformations in drug policy.
Why did you choose to study anthropology?
I chose to study anthropology because of its explicit focus on how culture, politics, and economics affect the ways that science and medicine ask questions, frame problems, and construct their objects of intervention. I first fell in love with anthropology during my undergraduate degree when I was introduced to medical anthropology and its cross-cultural attention to the diverse and expansive ways that humans have understood health and illness across time and space. I was studying at a school dominated by “Health Science,” where anthropology was one of the only disciplines taking seriously the sociopolitical and environmental aspects of health, including a critical perspective on what “health” might mean in the first place.
Through the amazing mentorship of my professors and collaborations with colleagues and peers, I’ve learned how the qualitative methods of anthropology are not only useful for critique, but can be applied to complement and augment science and medicine. Anthropological perspectives and its qualitative methods can help unpack the sociocultural entanglements of biomedicine and its relationship to the sciences in helping build more equitable, reflexive, and holistic research paradigms in response.
Why are you interested in alcohol, drugs, and tobacco research?
My interests in medical anthropology and science, technology, and society (STS) have always been embedded in questions of “the body”: how biology and biomedicine in particular have constructed how human bodies work (e.g., cellular receptors, physiological “systems”), what they are made of, and how they are co-created by their social and environmental contexts. Drugs (and food!) are fascinating in this regard because the mainstream biosciences have come to understand how bodies work based on the relational processes of what people absorb, consume, and otherwise put inside of them. Drugs are a crucial nexus for understanding how the outside world comes inside, and in turn, how science, medicine, and the state understand and act on this relationship.
Drugs, therefore, have deep significance for how modern governments and their institutions label, control, and discipline certain kinds of people and their land, while reflecting deeply held cultural assumptions about the moral, the good, and the just. The historical fact that drugs have been at the root of the material processes of racialization and gender discrimination from the beginnings of European colonialism and global racial capitalism makes them potent objects for contemporary research about how to organize our societies differently and in more equitable ways.
What are your research plans for studying alcohol, drugs, and tobacco?
Following the recent completion of my doctoral fieldwork with both licit and illicit cannabis farmers in the U.S. and Canada, I am now deep in the writing phase of my dissertation with an expected graduation date of May 2024. My current writing focuses on how drugs are fundamentally ecological substances that have significance beyond the medicine-focused questions of their use and interactions with bodies and brains.
I hope my dissertation will contribute to the growing focus in anthropology and allied disciplines about the production and distribution of drugs beyond the more saturated, but still necessary, focus on their consumption. One of my research goals is to highlight the positive, healing, and enjoyable aspects of drugs on people and environments (like tending gardens), particularly in response to dominant narratives in anthropology and elsewhere that illicit drug use is often merely a response to trauma and structural violence.
What do you hope to do after you graduate?
Following graduation, I hope to continue my research on drugs and the environment in a postdoctoral program. My long-term goal is to work as a researcher, no matter the eventual form or venue. I have also developed a passion for teaching anthropology and the social sciences, especially to STEM students. I appreciate and find great personal satisfaction in teaching the critical insights of medical anthropology and STS to scientists and engineers while helping them think about how they might make science and biomedicine more socially informed and equitable research endeavours in their own careers. Beyond academia, I plan to maintain my long-term relationship with many of my cannabis farming interlocutors and return over and over again to their beautiful and laboriously cultivated gardens while sharing their deep appreciation for plants and the drugs they share with us.