Learning limits: College women constructing meaning about drugs in their relationships

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Cultural Foundations of Education


Joan N. Burstyn


women students

Subject Categories

Sociology | Women's Studies


This project is a qualitative, feminist analysis of a group of college women and the role of drugs in their relationships. Women at a large, northeastern, private university who were enrolled at any point between the Fall 1995 semester and Fall 1996 semester in the course that I taught entitled Drug Education for Teachers wrote personal observations of their experiences with drugs in a weekly journal for the seven weeks of the course. Only the narratives of women who were full-time, matriculated undergraduates residing in University housing were used in this study. The journal entries of 72 women were analyzed: 43 first-year, 17 second-year, 10 third-year, and two fourth-year students. Sixty of the women were enrolled in the School of Education. Sixty-one of the women were White, three were Asian, two were Hispanic and six were Black (including Jamaican and African American). Of these women, 13 were interviewed at length about their experiences with drugs in their lives. The purpose of this study was to examine how these women constructed meaning about the role of drugs in their interpersonal relationships as college students.

Relationships with friends and boyfriends were of primary importance to these women, and decisions to use or abstain from using certain drugs were often viewed as important in finding, keeping, and/or ending relationships. These women socially constructed drugs in traditional ways (i.e., using discourses of morality, legality, health, and safety) drawing upon experiences within their relationships with friends and boyfriends. Based on experiences within their relationships, women formed and modified what I labeled a "drug acceptability ranking" which simplified the often complex decisions about drug use and helped women set their own personal limits. These personal acceptability rankings were modified and/or validated as each woman obtained new information through a personal drug experience or through intimate involvement with a friend's or boyfriend's drug experience.


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