The mutual extraction industry: Drug use and the normative structure of social capital in the Russian far north

Hilary Pilkington, El'vira Sharifullina

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Background: The article contributes to the literature on the role of social networks and social capital in young people's drug use. It considers the structural and cultural dimensions of the 'risk environment' of post-Soviet Russia, the micro risk-environment of a deindustrialising city in the far north of the country and the kind of social capital that circulates in young people's social networks there. Its focus is thus on social capital at the micro-level, the 'bridging' networks of peer friendship groups and the norms that govern them. Method: The research is based on a small ethnographic study of the friendship groups and social networks of young people in the city of Vorkuta in 2006-2007. It draws on data from 32 respondents aged 17-27 in the form of 17 semi-structured audio and video interviews and field diaries. Respondents were selected from friendship groups in which drug use was a regular and symbolically significant practice. Results: The risk environment of the Russian far north is characterised by major deindustrialisation, poor health indicators, low life expectancy and limited educational and employment opportunities. It is also marked by a 'work hard, play hard' cultural ethos inherited from the Soviet period when risk-laden manual labour was well-rewarded materially and symbolically. However, young people today often rely on informal economic practices to generate the resource needed to fulfil their expectations. This is evident from the social networks among respondents which were found to be focused around a daily routine of generating and spending income, central to which is the purchase, sale and use of drugs. These practices are governed by norms that often invert those normally ascribed to social networks: reciprocity is replaced by mutual exploitation and trust by cheating. Conclusions: Social networks are central to young people's management of the risk environment associated with post-Soviet economic transformation. However, such networks are culturally as well as structurally determined and may be sites not only of cooperation, support and trust but also of mutual exploitation, deceit and distrust. This does not imply these regions are devoid of social capital. Rather it suggests that the notion of social capital as a natural by-product of a self-regulating economy and its institutions needs to be reconsidered in the context of local configurations of capital and social relations as well as their cultural and normative context. This reconsideration should include further reflection on whether the kinds of social networks described might be better understood not as motors for the generation of social capital but as sites of its 'mutual extraction'. © 2008.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)251-260
Number of pages9
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - May 2009


  • Russia
  • Social capital
  • Social networks
  • Youth


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