Flashback: Drugs and Dealing in the Golden Age of the London Rave Scene

Jennifer R. Ward
Cullompton: Willan Publishing, 2010.
ISBN: 978-1-84392-791-4 (hardcover)
RRP: $84.95 (hardcover)

Sean Leneghan

Independent scholar (Australia)

Originally developed for the treatment of blood-clotting by the German pharmaceutical company Merck in 1912, ecstasy was subsequently “rediscovered” by the Shulgins, who through their own experimentations and critical-self reflections had the remarkable foresight to anticipate the clinical use of the drug as an aid to psychotherapeutic practice. More recently, federally approved trials in the United States have openly sanctioned the legal use of ecstasy as an adjunct to psychotherapy in clinical trials treating people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Standing in contrast to this controlled use in strict clinical conditions is one of the largest socio-cultural movements of the 20th century: transnational club and rave culture. It is against the backdrop of the rise of the “chemical generation” that Jennifer Ward’s ethnographic research focusses on the socio-economic networks that sell and distribute ecstasy. What is impressive about this ethnography is the unflinching honesty through which the author dives straight into the deep end of the London drug scene to study the use of ecstasy and the socio-cultural dynamics of its dealing.

Although some qualitative research has addressed the significance and meaning of these activities, Ward addresses the paucity of ecstasy-based studies within the international research community as she describes and analyses the income generation and economic networks of ecstasy distribution. The central methodological orientation of this study derives from the ethnographic tradition generated by the Chicago School in the 1930s and 1940s with its emphasis on extended immersion in socio-cultural contexts. This orientation to ethnographic research allows the ethnographer to get a detailed first-hand sense of the actions, meanings, emotions and projects of the individuals, groups or communities with whom the ethnographer is working. A central theme that emerges in Ward’s work concerns the enterprising activities of rave and club participants. By focusing on this dimension, Ward moves away from stereotypical simplifications of ecstasy users (e.g. derogatory terms such as “pill-heads”), preferring to conceptualise these people as active agents within the socio-historical worlds they live in. Hence, what this ethnographic work accomplishes is an honest and detailed examination of the myriad activities surrounding the use and distribution of ecstasy.

Chapter One situates the study within the broader context of rave and ecstasy research, focussing on the theoretical and ethnographic debates and literature surrounding the field. Chapter Two discusses the numerous dimensions of the London rave scene, including detailed descriptions of Ward’s own research and direct involvement in venues and milieus. Chapter Three explores the friendship networks, groups and styles associated with drug use and distribution. Chapters Four and Five look at the organisational dynamics of drug purchasing and selling within public venues as well as private networks of distribution. Specific attention is given to the safety strategies that are adopted by sellers to avoid being caught in the projects they are undertaking. Chapter Six provides a detailed examination of the role that women play in drug markets, overturning stereotypes and depictions of women as passive beings, and presenting them as active and central in the creation of networks. Chapter Seven discusses how drug selling operations were established and grew in proportion beyond their original scope. The obstacles that the people in these activities faced in seeking to move away from such lifestyles are also presented. The last chapter looks at the lives of these people after the study was completed. A summation of the ethnographic research is offered alongside theorisation of entrepreneurship, friendship and functionality in the London urban setting. A final synopsis of the London rave scene at the time of completion of the study is presented, looking at how, for example, mobile phones came to change the entire dynamics of clubbing and raving.

Ward’s book strikes me as an accurate and informative study. Her approach is clear and astute as she presents these people’s lives and the activities they are engaged in. There is no doubt that her direct involvement in hanging out/blending in with these people led her to an intimate position within the workings and changing nature of relationships and networks. It is not my intention here to take issue with the kinds of theoretical claims that Ward argues for in this study. Rather, I wish to draw attention to some of the issues that are specific to ethnographic fieldwork, with its focus on participant observation, especially in drug scenes that are outside of clinical settings. What impressed me about Ward’s own approach was the tremendous courage and honesty in her observations and analysis of activities such as drug dealing. What is often overlooked in so much scientific thinking, whether ethnographic or clinical, is the centrality of the dynamics of the researcher’s own psyche (the un/consciousness) in the generation of theoretical and empirical knowledge. My intention here is to draw attention away from our usual habits of thinking about the people within an ethnographic study, to looking at the observational situation itself. I am aware of these dynamics precisely because I have undertaken ethnographic fieldwork in comparable drug scenes in Australia, which included direct participation in the use of ecstasy (Leneghan 2011). The aim of this methodology is to complement the observations of other people with a synthesis of one’s own self-knowledge. Thus, I think it is important for the researcher to reflect on themselves and the kind of knowledge that is included and excluded (for whatever reasons) from completed ethnographic monographs.

It is in this sense that countertransference dynamics presented in the tradition of ethno-psychoanalysis are of the utmost relevance in the current methodologies of ethnographic practice. Whether one is aware of one’s own un/conscious dynamics in the field, or whether one chooses to remain oblivious to them, our defensiveness, anxieties and conscious selections and deletions as thinkers is of the highest import, whether this is in the field, in a clinical situation, or at the writing-up stage. One of the praiseworthy aspects of Ward’s study is her willingness to look at activities that are not only potentially dangerous but also illegal. In my own work in Sydney, this was the only area that I consciously chose to leave out of my ethnographic investigations and writing. This was because I was seen, by those who did not know me, as an undercover police officer.

It would be interesting to know whether Ward kept a private research diary, incorporating her open field notes, observations and experiential self-reflections in the field. The latter, especially, are inclusive of the knowledge which is sanitised by the ethnographer, more often than not, through one’s defensive manoeuvres. These insights would give more of a real sense of Ward’s participation in the scene: how did she arrive at ethnographic knowledge in the partition/encounter between observer and the observed? Did she choose to participate in ecstasy use or distribution networks? If not, what are the situations in the field which preclude or dissuade an open discussion of these issues and dimensions to research? For me, these are not trivial questions, but are at the forefront of social science research in general.

I see Ward’s study as a valuable contribution to ethnography. In examining these people on their own terms, this work is honest and courageous, investigating human social fields that are charged with anxiety arousing encounters. The scope of this ethnography and its theoretical analysis will be useful to students and educators from a range of fields in the social sciences and the humanities. Finally, this study could be used as a blueprint by future researchers wishing to undertake ethnographic research into the worlds of drug dealers and consumers.


Leneghan, Sean. 2011. The Varieties of Ecstasy Experience: An Exploration of Person, Mind and Body in Sydney’s Club Culture. Saarbrücken: Lambert Academic Press.