Rehab, Labeling, and Deviance
Your favorite television shows can be useful for applying sociological concepts and theories. Sometimes it’s easier to look at other people’s lives than it is to analyze than something in your own life.
This occurred to me as I watched the beginning episodes of the second season of “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew” on VH1. We all know people who struggle with addiction whether it be caffeine, alcohol, other drugs, chocolate, sex, shopping, or gambling, yet using those personal examples can be difficult as our emotions may cloud our perceptions of what is occurring.
Since sociology courses are not “therapy” it may be wise to use examples that are further from one’s own life. “Celebrity Rehab” provides many opportunities for us to further develop our sociological imaginations.
On this “reality” show, actors, models, musicians, and other celebrities come to Dr. Drew and rehab and attempt to kick their habits. In this second season actor Jeff has returned – he had been a participant in season 1 but had left the program – and his girlfriend Vikki has checked herself in as well. Actor Gary has a mission and has come to share his tales of sobriety to inspire others. Model Amber is also among the second season participants. Like Sean, the son of a famous person, she has come to quit her opiate addiction.
Self-perception is a particularly salient concept to analyze here since many of these people have agreed to come to rehab because they have realized that they have can no longer live with their addiction. Charles Horton Cooley’s "looking glass self" –that our self perception rests partially on how we think others perceive us—is fascinating to consider for these celebrities. They are volunteering to be on television to show their addictions, therapy, and many other personal details with the public. The show airs long after it is filmed, so they have no idea of how they will be depicted or what will air, and they have no control over that. Like our own "looking glass selves" we never really know how other are really perceiving us, but we make internal judgments and those assessments are based on our own perceptions, thoughts, and feelings about ourselves and others.
This process is rarely conscious; if we feel shame then our assessments are likely to fuel this shame and guilt and all other such negative emotions that accompany low self-esteem.
Many of these celebrities are living out what Robert K. Merton called "self-fulfilling prophecies", or false assessments and beliefs that can become true if we believe them and act as if they were true.
To some extent we expect actors, models, and children of famous people to abuse drugs and alcohol. The mantra “Sex, Drugs, & Rock ‘n Roll” makes addiction almost a job requirement. Thus many who go into these lines of work, or who are members of famous families, the addiction cycle becomes fulfilled as life continues.
Each participant in Celebrity Rehab gives different reasons for why they became addicted to their particular drug of choice. Yet most have in common traumatic childhood events, neglectful or abusive histories, and plenty of emotional and physical pain -- commonalities with all addicts and many other people. Most of them also mention specifically their social context as part of the reason for their addiction: the actors speak of drugs offered to them on their jobs, the model speaks of drugs to stay thin and alert for work then to bring them down to sleep, and the child actor says that partying was the only vocation expected of him.
People who use or abuse illegal drugs (or misuse prescription drugs) are violating a norm and exemplify Primary deviance. When Gary and Jeff talk of earlier cocaine use and Amber mentions her prescription drug use, it’s obvious they know this is problematic or deviant behavior. Amber mentions that her mother taught her how to use – and they used together -- which makes you wonder if she was aware of the deviant nature of drugs when she first began to abuse them.
Secondary deviance moves a step beyond primary deviance: As a result of breaking a norm, an individual is labeled as deviant and then conforms to that label and thinks of him or herself as deviant. (Or others think that they are). For example, the Celebrity Rehabbers talk about themselves as addicts and the problems they have as a result of those addictions.
Gary talks frankly about his cocaine addiction and seems proud that he is “thirteen years sober.” Jeff talks about his back pain and subsequent pain killer addiction, and in the first season of the show he discloses early childhood abuses that provide another level of rationale for numbing himself (albeit ineffectively). Amber and Sean are upfront about identifying themselves as addicts who are there to try and break the cycle of addiction. While they all accept the label of drug addict, Gary is adamant about identifying his problem as in the past.
Jeff’s girlfriend, Vikki, seems to move from primary deviance into secondary deviance when she admits that she needs help for her problems related to drug use. In the first season, it was clear she was using but wasn’t aware that it was a problem. When she checked into rehab, she seemed to accept that label. On the other hand, perhaps this decision had more to do with staying with Jeff as he participated on the show.
Gary’s insistence on his sobriety is a great example of tertiary deviance-- when we reject or transform the stigma associated with the deviant label and redefine it as a positive phenomenon. He sees himself as a member of the therapeutic team who is there to inspire and redeem. That he “uses medicinal marijuana for his asthma” among other substances doesn’t seem to bother him. Dr. Drew tries to point out, carefully, that any substance use means he is not sober and that Gary is a patient not an employee, but this message doesn’t sink in.
While Gary’s brain damage due to earlier events could be a factor in his thinking, his repeated insistence on this role suggests that he has redefined his addiction as an experience through which he can inspire others --thus turning this negative identity into a positive role. He visibly bristles at being equated with the others who are there to kick their addictions, as he firmly believes he has already done so himself.
Television shows like Celebrity Rehab can provide some ways to both practice applying sociological concepts and to identify how these concepts and theories can be of use.
What other TV shows would you recommend for fleshing out sociological theories and concepts?