Chemical Youth: Chemical Mediations and Relations at Work

This essay is part of an online supplement to the Openings collection on “Chemo-Ethnography,” which was edited by Nicholas Shapiro and Eben Kirksey and featured in the November 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology. An installation featuring artwork in dialogue with the collection will also be featured at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association; see the Facebook event for details.

Chemicals can mediate “novel, altered, attenuated, or augmented relationships,” as Nicholas Shapiro and Eben Kirksey (2017, 484) point out in their introduction to the new Cultural Anthropology Openings collection on chemo-ethnography. We also found this to be the case in the field sites for our research, where young people—almost invariably in groups—turn to chemicals to feel happy, beautiful, confident, strong, alert, energetic, eloquent, modern, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and much else (Hardon and Hymans 2014). The Chemical Youth project, which is funded by a European Research Council Advanced Grant, examines how in the process of doing chemicals (including pharmaceuticals, recreational drugs, tonics for sexual enhancement, nutritional products, and cosmetics), youths shape their affective and bodily states. Chemicals allow young people to relate to each other in new ways and to imagine and articulate new destinies. In studying the way young people use chemicals, we move beyond dichotomies of licit and illicit drugs, as well as concerns about addiction and harm, focusing rather on the kinds of subjectivities and socialities that diverse chemicals enable and the techniques that young people use to render them efficacious.

We conducted collaborative and multisited fieldwork in urban centers in Indonesia, the Philippines, Ethiopia, France, the Netherlands, and the United States, where youth often inhabit “innovative, unchartered borderlands along which the global meets the local” (Comaroff and Comaroff 2000, 8). Our urban field sites are vibrant magnets for youths as they seek to work, study, and move on in life. They are gateways to a wider world of opportunities—spaces of interaction that gather people, ideas, material objects, and practices from around the world. Youths connect in these spaces through a wide range of social networks, music scenes, and new social media, facilitated by growing access to the Internet and mobile phones. Inevitably, they encounter a bewildering array of chemical products and a sea of media images that encourage the work of imagination (see Appadurai 1996).

Our collaborative ethnography involves the situated practice of seeing and listening from below to uncover the multiple, fluid functions and meanings of chemical use in everyday life. We take time to get to know our interlocutors, while observing and seeking answers to multiple questions: Which chemicals do youth use in their everyday lives? What role do chemicals play in calming their fears, or in achieving their dreams and aspirations? What (if any) social transformations ensue through their use? And how do practices of use, social formations, and conditions of precarity coproduce chemical efficacies?

Collectively, we attend to cross-cutting themes such as the implications of pharmaceutical prostheses for moral selves and collectivities, and the ways in which in an insecure late-industrial economy, what one consumes and how is highly dependent on who one is with and where one is going. In Paris (Amaro 2016) and Amsterdam (Van Schipstal et al. 2016), we found young adults turning to a veritable pharmacy of designer drugs to generate libido and feelings of empathy, often leading to bonds that lasted well beyond the events at which they were consumed. In Addis Ababa (Both 2016) and the eastern Indonesian city of Makassar (Hardon and Idrus 2014), we found youths consuming a vast range of chemicals from traditional herbs to off-label pharmaceuticals to generate their desired gendered subjectivities—to be sexy, alluring women or strong, virile men. These prosthetic practices are temporal, dependent on situated life projects and future orientations.

From Wall Street to the streets of the Philippines, we found youths and young adults consuming chemicals to facilitate their normal working lives. In order to get ahead within neoliberal job markets, ambitious young people need to develop their connections and skills and to brand their personalities (see Gershon 2017). This is apparent on Wall Street, where after the financial crisis of 2008, young bankers expected to uphold an image of sober responsibility look askance at popping Adderall on the job. Yet this logic of purity still allows for copious use of cocaine during time off work. This finding left us wondering: In an institutional culture that prizes working beyond human limits, how is the human defined if not by those limits? By what cultural logic does the pharmaceutical morality of these workers encourage prosthetic practices for maximizing leisure but not work, and what is the value and significance of leisure for personal distinction?

Around the world, many of our interlocutors work in expanding service sectors where affective labor—connecting with clients in ways that make them feel good and well cared for—is central to their work. Arlie Hochshild (1983, 55) has addressed the deep and surface acting required to sustain such emotional labor, which “makes one’s face and one’s feelings take on the properties of a resource.” Efenita Taqueban found that having a “pleasing personality”—code for a well-groomed face and body, preferably with light, smooth skin—is a requirement to be hired as a sales girl in shopping malls in the Philippines. Once on the job, supervisors ensure that this pleasing personality is maintained, requiring daily regimens of cosmetics including skin-whitening products. Transactions with clients are mediated by the appearance of (often) young female sales attendants, who help produce aspirations for youthful beauty in connection with the product being sold. In an essay to be published in the weeks ahead, Taqueban shows how lipstick remains important for young women working night shifts in call centers, where their faces are not visible to customers. By putting on makeup when they step out of the office in the early morning, they mask the precariousness of their work.

Confidence emerges as a key aspiration for youths eking out precarious livelihoods in the informal economies in urban sites in Indonesia and the Philippines, where many of our informants belong to what Mike Davis (2006, 11) has termed the outcast proletariat, or the urban poor who are structurally and biologically redundant to global accumulation. Unemployment rates are high, and many of our interlocutors depend on informal and often risky labor. In Makassar, we found freelance sex workers along the beach consuming high dosages of Somadril—a prescription painkiller and muscle relaxant procured at “naughty pharmacies”—to feel pede (confident) when approaching clients. The active ingredient in Somadril (carisoprodol) has addictive properties (Hardon and Ihsan 2014). An entry in the diary of one of our interlocutors, Mira, shows how she experiences Somadril, mixing it with other substances to generate desired effects and substituting still others when she lacks money to buy her preferred drug.

May 13: Last night I took only three pills of Somadril. For me, only taking three pills gives me a bad headache; it feels like my head will break into pieces.

May 15: We didn’t have a supply of Somad, because we have a debt with the seller. I took fifteen pills of Dextro and three pills of Double L, and I felt like I had nothing . . . no worries, no debt, no sins. . . . But I am worried that if I take too much, it won’t work. It will kill me.

May 18: I have taken nine pills of Somad and I also drank two bottles of beer, so it feels really good. It’s balanced with beer. It makes me sleepy, but I enjoy it because it makes me feel confident.

Although taking Somadril facilitates their otherwise unpalatable work, it soon becomes apparent that the sex workers have to keep working to score their next hit of Somad. The precarity of their lives is aggravated by headaches when they don’t have enough pills to feed their drug cravings. They tell us that the cheaper substitutes such as Dextro(metorphan) pills and Double L make them feel drowsy, and more vulnerable to sexual violence if they do go out to work.

In a port city on Luzon Island in the Philippines, young men working as tambays (standbys) in similar conditions of precarity perform a range of odd jobs at the port, which may involve providing sexual services, petty theft, and participation in carjacking. They cannot access strong painkillers and other psychoactive prescriptions drugs, because the sale and prescription of such drugs are highly regulated in the Philippines. Instead, methamphetamine (in its crystalline form, known locally as shabu) plays a crucial role in their lives on the street, providing strength and stamina for strenuous physical labor as well as confidence to approach potential customers and to take risks. “We are not educated and we have nothing,” one tambay told Gideon Lasco (2014). “Where will we get the confidence to talk to others, if not from shabu?”

In the Philippines and Indonesia young people collectively tinker with chemicals to produce desirable effects, sharing these experiences with peers by word of mouth and thus accumulating understandings of what chemicals do. In the United States and Europe, we found similar tinkering with drug effects, but with more emphasis on techniques to reduce harm (Mandler 2016; Hardon and Hymans 2016). Illustrative of this is a notebook used at an after-party, where one of the attendants, Mama G, stays clean and keeps track of who took what dose of Gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB) and at what time. Preventing harm in this milieu involves using a pipette to carefully dose the drug (Van Schipstal et al. 2016).

Gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB) logbook kept by Mama G at a 2014 after-party. Photo by Inge van Schipstal.
Dosing gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB) with a pipette at a 2013 after-party. Photo by Romy Kaa.

Chemical ethnography invites us to analyze the many ways in which substances mediate social relations, as well as how social relations and techniques shape the multiplicity and fluidity of chemical effects in varied contexts of everyday life. Approaches to caring (with) and sharing chemicals are taking place in diverse conditions of precarity. Less visible to the ethnographer and his or her interlocutors, though, are the long-term workings of chemicals once consumed. We know from toxicology, for example, that lipstick can contain harmful heavy metals such as mercury. As anthropologists, we need to reflect on the way we directly observe practices at visible scales, while simultaneously attending to less visible mediations when chemicals enter young people’s bodies orally and through their skins. We need to engage with chemicals processually, relationally, without granting them fixed attributes as they move across settings (Hardon and Sanabria 2017)—an apt reminder in light of the various wars on drugs in which chemicals are taken to have fixed, stable attributes that must be controlled at any cost.


Amaro, Romain. 2016. “Taking Chances for Love? Reflections on Love, Risk, and Harm Reduction in a Gay Slamming Subculture.” Contemporary Drug Problems 43, no. 3: 216–27.

Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Both, Rosalijn. 2016. “A Matter of Sexual Confidence: Young Men’s Nonprescription Use of Viagra in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.” Culture, Health and Sexuality 18, no. 5: 495–508.

Comaroff, Jean and John L. Comaroff. 2000. “Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming.” Public Culture 12, no. 2: 291–343.

Gershon, Ilana. 2017. Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don't Find) Work Today. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hardon, Anita, and Takeo David Hymans. 2014. “Ethnographies of Youth Drug Use in Asia.” International Journal of Drug Policy 25, no. 4: 749–54.

_____, and Takeo David Hymans. 2016. “Guest Editors’ Introduction: Harm Reduction From Below.” Contemporary Drug Problems 43, no. 3:191–98.

_____, and Nurul Ilmi Idrus. 2014. “On Coba and Cocok: Youth-led Drug Experimentation in Eastern Indonesia.” Anthropology and Medicine 21, no. 2: 217–29.

_____, and Amelia Ihsan. 2014. “Somadril and Edgework in South Sulawesi.” International Journal of Drug Policy 25, no. 4: 755–61.

_____, and Emilia Sanabria. 2017. “Fluid Drugs: Revisiting the Anthropology of Pharmaceuticals.” Annual Review of Anthropology 46: 117–32.

Hochschild, Arlie. 1983. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lasco, Gideon. 2014. “Pampagilas: Methamphetamine in the Everyday Lives of Underclass Male Youth in a Philippine Port.” International Journal of Drug Policy 25, no. 4: 783–88.

Mandler. Tait. 2016. “Producing Pleasure, Minimizing Harm: Chemical Use and Harm Reduction by Queer Nightlife Workers in Brooklyn, New York.” Contemporary Drug Problems 43, no. 3: 258–76.

Shapiro, Nicholas, and Eben Kirksey. 2017. “Chemo-Ethnography: An Introduction.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 4: 481–93.

Van Schipstal, Inge, Swasti Mishra, Moritz Berning, and Hayley Murray. 2016. “Harm Reduction From Below: On Sharing and Caring in Drug Use.” Contemporary Drug Problems 43, no. 3: 199–215.