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«Social capital and normalisation of adolescent drug use in Hong Kong Nicole W.T. Cheung, Ph.D. Instructor, Dept. of Sociology, The Chinese University ...»

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Part 2: Changing drug abuse patterns and law enforcement strategies

Social capital and normalisation of

adolescent drug use in Hong Kong

Nicole W.T. Cheung, Ph.D.

Instructor, Dept. of Sociology,

The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Cheung Yuet-wah, Ph.D.

Professor, Dept. of Sociology,

The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Prepared for Consideration for Publication in the Conference Proceedings of the International Conference

on Tackling Drug Abuse, Hong Kong, 2005.

Correspondence should be sent to Dr. Nicole W.T. Cheung. Email address: nwtcheung@cuhk.edu.hk Acknowledgements: Data for this paper were mainly drawn from the research project of “Northbound Pleasures: Pattern of Cross-Border Deviance of Hong Kong Marginal Youths and Its Implications for Adolescent Deviance in Hong Kong”, which was funded by the Research Grants Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (Project number CUHK4331/01H).

Abstract The upsurge in consumption of party drugs among adolescents in recent years in Hong Kong has been part of the global trend of adolescent recreational use of drugs at rave parties, discos and similar party settings.

Scholars in Western societies have recently proposed the thesis of “normalisation of adolescent drug use” to describe such a trend. This paper applies the normalisation thesis to analyse the situation of adolescent drug use in Hong Kong. Our data suggest that the normalisation of drug use among young people has occurred in Hong Kong, but the extent of normalisation in Hong Kong is smaller than those in Western societies. We also apply the social capital framework to an analysis of how family social capital, school social capital, and developmental disadvantages might affect drug use among young people in Hong Kong. Family social capital and school social capital are conducive to the generation of informal social control towards conformity, increase of legitimate opportunities, the learning of conventional values, and the raising of self-image. These 105 resources can augment adolescents’ capacities for action oriented to the achievement of conformity. However, the deprivation of family social capital and school social capital increases adolescents’ likelihood of turning to drugs. Developmental disadvantageous experiences further impede the social capital acquisition of adolescents, thereby increasing their likelihood of drug use.


Perhaps the most salient change in the pattern of drug use among young people around the world since the1990s has been the rapid ascent in popularity of “party drugs” (notably ecstasy and ketamine), which is reinforced by the emergence of a new dance club culture in the West (e.g., Parker et al., 1998, 2002; Weber, 1999; Wijngaart, 1999; Duff, 2003). The Western dance club culture and party drug use have quickly become a globalised phenomenon, spreading to Asian societies such as Hong Kong, Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur (Time, 2000). Scholars in Western societies have recently proposed the thesis of “normalisation of adolescent drug use” to describe such a trend (Parker et al., 1998, 2002). This paper applies the normalisation thesis to analyse the situation of adolescent drug use in Hong Kong. In this article, we aim to find out the extent to which normalisation of drug use among young people may be observable in Hong Kong. We also attempt to show how the social capital framework can be applied to the understanding of the increase of drug use among Hong Kong adolescents. Data are drawn from official statistics and a recent study of drug use of Hong Kong marginal youths conducted by the authors.


According to Rock (1973), the meanings of deviant activities can be redefined so that “certain kinds of deviancy may, indeed, become normalised that they are no longer managed as deviant” (p.84).

The application of the concept of normalisation to the understanding of the current unprecedented increase in drug involvement of adolescents was popularised by British scholars, Howard Parker and his colleagues (1998, 2002).

There are various foci within the thesis of normalisation of adolescent drug use. The first focus is the increasing prevalence of illicit drug use in young people. Drawing on data from a nine-year North West England longitudinal study of British high school students, Parker et al. (1998; 2002) find that drug use has become more widespread among conventional English youths of a variety of social

106 Part 2: Changing drug abuse patterns and law enforcement strategies

backgrounds. The lifetime trying rates of drugs among young Britons was 37% at 14 years. Entering the late teens, by the age of 18, over six in ten of them had ever tried an illicit drug, and at 22, the rate was 76%. The past-month prevalence of drug-taking was reported by 20% at 14 years, and then escalated to 35% at 18 years and 31% at 22 years.

Second, the notions of pleasure and recreation characterise contemporary youth drug use.

Dependent and frequent drug use is not very acceptable by many young drug users. “Sensible” recreational drug use is gradually accommodated into the lives of many young people (Parker et al., 1998, 2002). While some young people may use drugs in problematic ways, the normalisation trend pinpointed by Parker et al. pertains to the increasing prevalence of recreational drug use in young people, rather than referring to the normalisation of addictive drug use.

Third, the receptive attitude of accepting drug use as a normal part of leisure is increasingly prevalent in young people. Contrary to the traditional image of drug use as a subterranean activity, recreational drug use is perceived as normal, rather than deviant, among young people. Young people “fit their leisure into busy lives and then in turn fit their drug use into their leisure and ‘time out’ to compete alongside sport, holidays, romance, shopping, nights out, drinking and, most important of all, having a laugh with friends” (Parker et al., 1998, pp.156-157). Young recreational drug users even do not think of themselves as drug users. For them, drug use is a peripheral but normal aspect of leisure time consumption and lifestyle.


What motivates adolescents to pursue a recreational style of drug use? To facilitate our analysis of factors of adolescent drug use, we apply the social capital perspective to the study of the relationships between social capital and drug use. The social capital framework is undoubtedly one of the most popular concepts in the social science literature in the last decade. Social capital refers to those resources embodied in the structure of social relations, including interpersonal ties and institutional linkages (e.g., family, schools, work, and community setting) that can facilitate social actions or achievement of goals (Coleman, 1988). The following discussion will illustrate several social factors (pertaining to family social capital, school social capital, and developmental disadvantages), drawn from the social capital framework, and their relationships to adolescent drug use.

107Family Social Capital and School Social Capital

With the growing popularity of the social capital concept within the delinquency field, there is an increasing interest among deviance theorists in the roles played by the family and school in the production of social capital (Hagan and McCarthy, 1997). How will family social capital and school social capital be generated? What are the outcomes that both kinds of social capital will facilitate?

Here, in explicating family social capital and school social capital, social bonding theory, anomie theory, differential association theory, and labelling theory are integrated within the social capital framework.

Informal Control, Legitimate Opportunities, Social Learning, Positive Labelling, and Social Capital Social bonding theory is widely known for its focus on social bonds in family and school (Hirschi, 1969). These bonds are important sources of informal social control, which in turn reduces crime and delinquency. The strength of social bonds between family, school, and adolescents emphasised in social bonding theory concurs with the recent discussion of the closure of social relations in the social capital formation (Hagan et al., 1995, 1996). The stronger the social bonds, the more the social capital in the form of informal control can be generated.

The incorporation of Merton’s (1938) classic anomie theory within the social capital framework proposes another form of social capital, that is, legitimate opportunities that can enhance an individual’s attainment of socially approved goals and reduce his/her experience of strain or anomie, thereby preventing deviance. Merton’s classic anomie theory states that deviance is the result of strain, which stems from the disjunction between culturally defined goals and legitimate means to achieve the goals. Integrating anomie theory into the social capital framework, Hagan and McCarthy (1997) argue that the organisation of social ties can influence the ability to obtain legitimate opportunities for attaining socially accepted goals and the likelihood of experiencing strain. Coleman (1988) recognises the crucial role of social capital in increasing non-economic legitimate opportunities to facilitate the creation of human capital and to enhance the life prospects. As found by Coleman, parents who have positive interaction with children are more capable of endowing their children with conventional opportunities, and to translate human capital present in the family into their children’s human capital or other favourable life outcomes. Recent research also reveals that supportive family relation with children is linked to adolescents’ lessened likelihood of dropping out of school

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early, greater high school completion (McNeal, 1999), greater college enrollment (Furstenberg & Hughes, 1995), and lower risk of unemployment in early adulthood (Caspi et al., 1998).

While family social capital and school social capital can exhibit the controlling and legitimateopportunity-producing functions, family and school can also augment youths’ access to social capital in the form of pro-social tutelage and learning of conforming behaviour. From differential association theory, deviant behaviour is viewed as the result of learning in the course of interaction with one’s intimate deviant groups (Sutherland & Cressey, 1978). Indeed, differential association theory explains not only deviant behaviour, but also conforming behaviour. The more the conforming association, the more the conforming behaviour one can learn in the course of conventional learning. This argument has relevance to our understanding of the keeping of youths uninvolved in delinquency.

Establishing pro-social relations between family, school and adolescents can enhance social capital in the form of pro-social tutelage and learning of conforming values and behaviours.

Rather than analysing deviant behaviour per se, labelling theory posits that deviance is socially constructed through the application of the deviant label. The labelling of deviance produces subsequent deviant behaviours on the part of the person so labelled (Becker, 1963). Whilst labelling theory concentrates on the negative outcomes of deviant labels, labels are not restricted to deviant ones. One can be labelled a conformist or a success at conventional activity, which should increase the likelihood of conventional behaviour while decreasing the likelihood of deviance (Matsueda & Heimer, 1997). What is the relationship between positive labelling, social capital and adolescent behaviour? Positive labelling might reduce delinquency by facilitating the building of conventional ties and therefore social capital. As Matsueda and Heimer (1997) argue, favourable appraisals are important elements of social capital. Favourable appraisals by significant others (including teachers, parents, and conventional peers) not just facilitate the building of a positive self-image in adolescents.

They also strengthen the ties with conventional others, and produce informal control through encouraging adolescents’ incorporation of and commitment to conforming roles expected from significant others.

The cumulation of the theoretical and empirical works we have reviewed shows the outcomes that social capital can facilitate. The integration of control theory, anomie theory, differential association theory, and labelling theory with the social capital framework attempts to theorise the potential of family and school, via developing relations with children, in generating social capital, which can

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Formation of Family and School Social Capital In this paper, we suggest that family social capital can be formed on the basis of direct parental informal control, parental support, and parental positive labelling. The first component of family social capital is direct parental informal control that involves the explicit efforts exerted by parents to monitor the behaviours of adolescents and recognise their misdeeds (Hirschi, 1991). The second component of family social capital is parental support. A recent analysis by Wright and Cullen (2001) has alerted us that parental control and parental support are equally important in parenting, as “parents who support their children are also parents who control and are attached to their children” (p. 695). The third component of family social capital is parental positive labelling. Adolescents who have come to see themselves as “good kids” through the eyes of parents will be relatively unlikely to violate norms, when adolescents take the role of “good kids”.

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