In This Article Culture, Ethnicity, Substance Use, and Substance Use Disorders

  • Introduction
  • Historical and Anthropological Perspectives
  • Journals
  • Bibliographies
  • US Government Resources

Social Work Culture, Ethnicity, Substance Use, and Substance Use Disorders
Diana DiNitto
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0168


Individuals in the United States who develop alcohol and other drug (AOD) problems or disorders come from all walks of life, including different ethnic and cultural groups. These different groups often vary in their attitudes and norms regarding AOD use and in their rates of alcohol and drug use problems or disorders (abuse and dependence). The terms “culture” and “ethnicity” are used in this bibliography rather than “race.” “Race” is a term that lacks scientific rigor and that is often used incorrectly to imply that people can be divided into meaningful groups based on some set of physical characteristics, whereas “culture” and “ethnicity” connote that people share a common ancestry, language, and norms or customs. People of virtually every ethnic and cultural group reside in the United States. Many of them have ancestors who hail from European countries, and these countries have different traditions of alcohol use as well as different attitudes and policies about the use of other substances, such as marijuana. A substantial number of people in the United States also identify as people of color, sometimes referred to as minorities, because they are fewer in number than those who identify as whites of European ancestry. These groups include American Indians and Alaska Natives, or First Nations Peoples; African and other black Americans; and Asian (including South and Southeast Asian) and Pacific Islander Americans. A vast literature has developed of theories purporting to explain the etiology, or factors underlying or related to substance use disorders. Among the many theories used to explain why some groups are more prone or less prone to AOD disorders is a compelling literature on culture and ethnicity as sociological explanations of these disorders. Some literature also suggests biological, or genetic, explanations for substance use disorders among certain ethnic groups. This article includes resources to assist readers in better understanding the relationship of ethnicity and culture in the United States to substance use, especially substance use problems and disorders, such as alcohol or drug abuse and dependence. However, no single explanation will likely suffice to explain the origin of substance use disorders, and individual variation may be as important as more general biological, psychological, or sociological explanations. In particular, this bibliography focuses on people of color in the United States, because, as in other areas of social work practice, more attention is being paid to groups that have been underserved and to culturally relevant approaches that may better assist people who develop problems such as AOD disorders. Readers are also cautioned to refrain from overgeneralizing about members of any ethnic or cultural group and to remember that any account of AOD use by members of a particular ethnic group must be read in the context of who wrote it and the purposes for which the information is intended or has been used. Others (e.g., members of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered communities and people with disabilities) have also been referred to as cultural groups, but doing justice to these groups would require separate bibliographies.

General Overviews and Textbooks

Several textbooks provide good introductions to the topic of ethnicity, culture, substance use, and substance use disorders in the United States and include information on culturally relevant prevention and treatment approaches for these disorders. The edited volume Straussner 2001 offers a good overview of substance use and its treatment among members of many different ethnic groups. The edited collection Krestan 2000 focuses on a family perspective to treating substance use disorders among members of various cultural groups, whereas McNeece and DiNitto 2012 uses a systems perspective that also addresses policy issues and that includes a chapter on substance use disorders and their prevention and treatment among members of several ethnic and cultural groups.

  • Krestan, Jo-Ann, ed. 2000. Bridges to recovery: Addiction, family therapy, and multicultural treatment. New York: Free Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Substance use problems are often referred to as family affairs, and this book is useful in addressing treatment for substance use disorders from the perspectives of the family and culture. The book contains two introductory chapters and eight chapters on various cultural groups. It is useful for practitioners as well as instructors teaching both substance abuse and family practice courses.

  • McNeece, C. Aaron, and Diana M. DiNitto. 2012. Chemical dependency: A systems approach. 4th ed. Boston: Pearson.

    E-mail Citation »

    This textbook provides information on the major theories of substance use disorders, including cultural theories, and an extensive chapter on substance use disorders and their prevention and treatment among members of ethnic groups in the United States. The book summarizes research and other literature and may be most useful for introductory courses in upper-division undergraduate and graduate courses.

  • Straussner, Shulamith Lala Ashenberg, ed. 2001. Ethnocultural factors in substance abuse treatment. New York: Guilford.

    E-mail Citation »

    Following an introductory chapter, this book’s nineteen remaining chapters discuss substance use, substance use disorders, and suggestions for treatment among a broad array of ethnic groups, including some groups that often get less attention in the literature on ethnicity, culture, and substance abuse, such as people with European or Middle Eastern origins. Practitioners will find the book useful, as will instructors and university students in classes that address culture and substance use disorders.

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