Ayahuasca in Brazil. Innovative anthropological research about psychoactive substances

The research by Polish anthropologist, Zuzanna Sadowska will be focused on building relations with psychoactive substances among Santo Daime followers. It will analyse the meaning of using ayahuasca in Brazil.

The aim of the project is to analyse anthropologically use of psychoactive substances as socio-cultural practice, in order to critically engage with the dominant paradigm of drug addiction as a brain disease. Most of the Euro-American discourses formed around the drug use, including brain-disease model stress the individual loss of self-control related to drug use.

This project is located within those critical studies of drug use, that challenge the notion that regular drug users are deprived of their agency in the interaction with psychoactive substances. Through anthropological exploration of substance use practice in the social context where the connection between psychoactive substances and control is differently framed than within the hegemonic western discourses, the project will provide alternative conceptualisations of addiction and control. 

About the project

Ethnographically, the project focuses on processes of building and negotiating relations with ayahuasca and other psychoactive substances among the followers of Santo Daime religion in Brazil. Ayahuasca is a psychoactive brew containing DMT, a compound, the use of which is restricted under international treaties. At the same time, ayahuasca is admitted for religious use in Brazil and traditionally consumed in shamanistic practices in the Amazon.

Its consumption is a central sacrament of syncretic religious groups formed in the region under study during the 20th century, of which Santo Daime is the oldest one. At the phenomenological level, ayahuasca provokes the so-called “altered states of consciousness” characterised by modified perception and intense visions.

Ayahuasca in Brazil

Although ayahuasca in Brazil is illegal and treated as a drug in many other countries, in the studied cultural context ayahuasca rituals are used in the treatment of addiction to other psychoactive substance like alcohol, opiates and stimulants.

The research hypothesis states that the changes in consciousness caused by the influence of psychoactive substances are not only result of individual substances influencing the human nervous system, but they are also a result of rules, ideas and practical considerations concerning their use, as well as environment (social, material, non-human) in which the substances are consumed.

Pharmacological characteristics of a substance and its impact on cognitive processes are one among many factors of the subjectively experienced drug effect. However, the use of psychoactive substances takes place in a specific context through which users mediate intoxication, and acquire knowledge how to interpret their experiences.

The research in Santo Daime

The research will address the question of effectual relations in the process of psychoactive substance use. To this end, the study will analyse experiential substance use trajectories among Santo Daime followers as well as epistemological trajectories of concepts related to substance use. Through the anthropological exploration the researcher will trace how they move across the life-courses and cultural, political and institutional domains.

The research will focus on the following relations:

1) environmental relations of various kinds built around the substance use

2) relations between concepts related to substance use like ‘drug’, ‘self-control’, ‘addiction’ and their trajectories through different domains. The ethnographic analysis of cultural practices and notions related to ayahuasca use as well as individual substance use trajectories, will provide empirical data allowing for a theoretical discussion with the paradigm of addiction as a brain disease, also referred to as the NIDA model. 

Methodologically, the project can be placed within social anthropology, critical studies on addiction and neuroanthropology. The research has been designed as an attempt at exploration and analysis of the impact of the social context on ayahuasca use, taking into account the mechanisms of its influence on the brain and mind. T

The project will contribute to a development of interdisciplinary studies in which methodological approach of social anthropology play an important part as well as the theory of agency within drug use studies.

The research is a result of a grant from Polish Nacional Science Center

See also Santa Muerte the skeleton Saint