Men at Work: An Ethnography of Drug Markets and Youth Transitions in Times of Austerity

  • Michael Salinas Edwards

Student thesis: Phd


Based on six-years ethnographic research, this thesis provides an in-depth account of a contemporary British drug market. The study follows a group of twenty-five friends, termed The Lads, during their transition from late-adolescence (16-22) through to early adulthood (22-28). This was a critical stage in their life course; it was a time when many had begun advancing into the world of work and business entrepreneurship, in search of their chosen career. Yet it was during this time that two key developments occurred: bulk volumes of illicit drugs became available to The Lads through credit and the UK experienced several years of economic recession and stagnation. The economic constraints The Lads encountered during this time prompted many to become involved in the trafficking of illegal drugs. Though their entry into the markets was not necessarily motivated out of absolute need or poverty, the experience of low-paying salaries, the loss of work and income, and the inability to secure legitimate investment capital, all made drug dealing an alluring source of untaxed revenue, available as and when needed.This study assesses the practices of this cohort of closed-market drug dealers, who capitalised on their expansive social networks as a means of trafficking a variety of illegal substances at the time of these two developments. During the course of the research their involvement came to span several stages of the supply chain, including: mid-level wholesale brokerage, import/export, wholesale, and retail (i.e. to the end-users). The study addresses various structural elements of their trade, including drug purchasing and selling, the assessment and mitigation of risks in relation to law enforcement, and the use of informal credit (i.e. 'fronting') as one of the principle facilitating factors of The Lads' various trade networks. A variety of data collection methods were employed over many years to garner a depth of understanding and appreciation difficult to achieve in the study of active offenders. The data comprises of life narratives, observations, interview data and economic data. The findings offer some new insight into: the kinds of people who deal drugs; what characteristics they share; how they function as traders; what motivates them to either enter or exit the trade, and what social structures influence their offending careers?These young men were not the archetypal drug dealer: they were neither predatory nor territorial. They were ambitious and hard working. Drug dealing was simply a shortcut to the lifestyle they aspired to; it was a source of capital; a means of funding their studies; a 'means to an end'. To these young men, drug dealing was just another form of work: a bad job that paid a good salary.
Date of Award1 Aug 2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJudith Aldridge (Supervisor) & Juanjo Medina (Supervisor)


  • ethnography
  • criminal networks
  • working class
  • austerity
  • criminal desistance
  • youth transition
  • drug dealers
  • illegal drug markets
  • life-course turning points

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