Agency lost and recovered: A social constructionist approach to smoking addiction and recovery

Lucy McCullough, Murray Anderson

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal Articlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Deterministic, disease models of addiction assume human agency is co-opted by a biologically-driven compulsion to engage in the addictive behaviour. A central tenet of counselling, on the other hand, is that clients are agents of their own change [Beatch, R., Bedi, R.P., Cave, D., Domene, J.F., Harris, G.E., Haverkamp, B.E., & Mikhail, A.-M. 2009. Counselling psychology in a Canadian context: Report from the executive committee for a Canadian understanding of counselling psychology. Ottawa, Ontario: Counselling Psychology Section of the Canadian Psychological Association. Retrieved from userfiles/Documents/sections/counselling/CPA-CNPSY-Report-Final%20nov%2009.pdf]. Our essay explores this agency divide between theory and practice, and proposes that attention to agentic language [Davies, J.B. (1997). Drugspeak: The analysis of drug discourse. London: Informa Health Care; Wittgenstein, L. (1968). Notes for lectures on "private experience" and "sense data". The Philosophical Review, 77, 275-320; Zidjaly, N. (2009). Agency as an interactive achievement. Language in Society, 38, 177-200] and use of discursive therapy techniques (e.g. narrative therapy, [White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York, NY: W.W. Norton]) from a social constructionist perspective [Burr, V. (2003). Social constructionism (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge; Burr, V. (1995). An introduction to social constructionism. London: Routledge; Gergen, K.J. (1994). Realities and relationships: Soundings in social constructionism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press]) can help reconcile the agency divide. Agency is conditionally defined as the biologically and socio-culturally-mediated capacity to act [Ahearn, L.M. (2001). Why agency now? Annual Review of Anthropology, 30, 109-137]. Furthermore, all human action has a reciprocal relationship in shaping, enacting and responding to our biological substrates and socio-cultural context. Brief narratives from smokers are presented and analysed within the anti-smoking policy environment where they live. Smokers claim agency for themselves as they make personal meaning of their smoking, and disclaim agency as they submit to dominant explanations of smoking as an addiction or a disease. These agentic turns can be found in how the smokers talk about addiction. This spectrum of responsible agency appears to be mediated by social expectations and context. The smokers' narratives are used as a springboard to (1) further explicate a social constructionist approach to the agency paradox in addiction and (2) to show how counsellors may listen for agentic language and use discursive therapeutic approaches in treating addiction.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)247-257
Number of pages11
JournalAddiction Research and Theory
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • Addiction
  • Agency
  • Counselling
  • Discursive therapy
  • Smoking
  • Social constructionism


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