Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Lee Monaghan, Michael Bloor, Russell P Dobash and Rebecca E Dobash (2000) 'Drug-Taking, 'Risk Boundaries' and Social Identity: Bodybuilders' Talk about Ephedrine and Nubain'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 2, <>

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Received: 12/5/2000      Accepted: 25/8/2000      Published: 6/9/2000


The instrumental use of steroids and analogous drugs is a normalised practice in bodybuilding subculture. However, in a society where bodily health and lifestyle are conjoined, such risk-taking carries negative connotations. Bodybuilders using drugs for purposes of physique enhancement are able to resist accusations of opprobrium and maintain competent social identity by drawing a sharp contrast between themselves and 'junkies'. This self-serving differentiation appears untenable, however, when bodybuilders take Ephedrine and Nubain: drugs that may be compared respectively and unfavourably to amphetamines and heroin. Using qualitative data, this paper considers the variable status of Ephedrine and Nubain as risk boundaries among bodybuilders. In operating as risk boundaries, these drugs signify limits beyond which 'sensible' drug-using bodybuilders should not venture. As social constructs, risk boundaries are also contingent. Correspondingly, bodybuilders using Ephedrine and Nubain may redraw lines delimiting (in)appropriate behaviour thereby retaining competent social identity. These ethnographic observations ground theoretical debate about the impact of risk society on body- and identity building in late modernity and highlight some of the limitations of influential cultural theories of risk.

Body; Bodybuilding; Drugs; Ephedrine; Nubain; Risk; Risk Boundaries; Social Identity; Steroids


Lee Monaghan recorded the following extract after talking with a bodybuilder:

Colin informed me that certain drugs used for training purposes, notably Ephedrine, might also be taken on a Friday/Saturday night with or without alcohol when socialising. He told me that while he has done this, rendering him a 'drug user of sorts', he wasn't a 'junkie' because he believed 'junkies' were pathetic individuals who sit in public lavatories, with a sleeve rolled up, and a cord tied around one arm. However, some bodybuilders he knew who turned to Nubain to assist their training, and who developed an addiction, were junkies from his point of view. He mentioned a former gym owner as an example: 'He had to sell his gym to pay for his addiction and had to have an intravenous injection every fifteen minutes. He'd be in the middle of a conversation, and all of a sudden he'd run to the toilet so he could have a jab [injection].' (Field Diary, 22 August 1997: Night Club)

People use drugs in different social contexts for different purposes, and participants in bodybuilding, who are primarily concerned with body modification, are no exception. However, individuals as bodybuilders often use subculturally prescribed drugs specifically as tools for muscular development and enhancement. In a context of risk and uncertainty, many bodybuilders inject and ingest steroids and analogous drugs in order to maximise their bodybuilding regimens and construct 'appropriate' bodies and identities (Monaghan, 2000 in press). Drugs taken instrumentally as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves, are implicated in processes of individualising the body in late modernity where the body has become a reflex of the self and an expression of identity (Giddens 1991, Shilling 1993). Correspondingly, research on bodybuilding, drugs and risk serves to empirically ground recent theoretical debates about the impact of reflexive modernisation and 'risk society' (Beck 1992) on the sense-making activities of embodied subjects.

An increasing body of ethnographic research on risk among illicit drug users highlights that risk behaviours communicate social meanings which are context dependent (McKeganey and Barnard 1992, Rhodes 1997). Drawing on the social paradigm to risk behaviour, Rhodes (1997) makes the important point that variable 'risk behaviours' among drug injectors are socially situated and cannot be theorised simply by taking the individual as the unit of analysis. Risk perceptions and behaviours are symbolic, relative, processual and may be socially habituated as well as calculated. Other sociologists agree and describe the significance of risk in the negotiation of identity and the presentation of self: 'what an individual espouses and propounds about risk reflects on him or her as a person and what an individual is prepared to endorse as an acceptable personal risk carries connotations of personal characteristics' (Plumridge and Chetwynd 1999: 330).

While discourses of risk often imply moral danger, signifying the same meanings as sin (Lupton 1997: 89), talk about risk may also be constitutive. Risk discourse may delineate the boundaries of peer groups and be utilised in the construction of subjectivity. Green (1997: 476), for example, suggests that people may construct social boundaries through talk about risk in such arenas as leisure activities and forge subjective social identities. Of course, it is not only the making of identity which occurs within risk culture; the physical body, as exemplified in bodybuilding subculture, must also be created and recreated in a framework of risk (Giddens 1991). These points highlight the limitations of influential cultural theories of risk (Douglas 1985, Douglas and Wildavsky 1982). The culture of risk approach, as exemplified by Mary Douglas' grid/group theory, ignores how individual social identity and the shaping of the body may be accomplished within a risk cosmology (Green 1997: 476). Moreover, such an approach does not account for intra-group variation in risk perceptions and practices (Bloor 1995: 95).

Recognising these deficiencies, this paper adopts an interpretative or phenomenological approach to explore the forging of identities and bodies within 'risk society' (Beck 1992). Linking the sociology of risk with recent body theories, we offer a grounded analysis (Glaser and Strauss 1967) of body and identity building. Specifically, we report and analyse bodybuilders' talk concerning the (in)appropriate use of two 'physique-enhancing' drugs: Ephedrine, a stimulant comparable to amphetamines, and Nubain (Nalbuphine Hydrochloride), an opioid analgesic (McBride et al. 1996). As will emerge, these drugs may be of instrumental value in bodybuilding and users are able to preserve competent social identities by invoking vocabularies of motive consisting of justifications (Weinstein 1980). Aside from their expressive and recreational potential, Ephedrine and Nubain offer the possibility of maximising the impact of bodybuilding regimens and the enhancement of bodily aesthetics. This is ideologically important for users who attempt to maintain self-identity by complying with 'organisational rules' while finding in the rule the means for doing whatever need be done (Bittner 1965). Bodybuilders' ethnopharmacological stocks-of-knowledge consisting of sophisticated cycling theories that legitimate an experimental approach to drug use (Bloor et al. 1998) - enable competent members to invoke organisational schemes of interpretation 'for information, direction, justification, and so on, without incurring the risk of sanction' (Bittner 1965: 77).

However, while users may be more or less able to preserve moral social identities, the inclusion of Ephedrine and Nubain in some bodybuilders' drug repertoires is questioned or even condemned by others expressing 'pro-steroid' attitudes. Certainly, bodybuilders may concede that Ephedrine and Nubain help create 'perfect bodies'. Nevertheless, an important reason for subcultural scepticism or disapprobation is the potential for these drugs to be used for sensual hedonism: a style of drug use often characterised as uncontrolled and typically associated with 'junkies' (Plumridge and Chetwynd 1999). Expressive drug-taking, as evidenced among pleasure-seeking heroin injectors, serves as a point of contrast with bodybuilders' carefully planned, controlled and monitored drug use (Bloor et al. 1998). Here the 'illegitimate' use of Ephedrine and Nubain within an athletic drug subculture may operate as a 'risk boundary' (Rhodes 1997).

For illicit drug users 'risk boundaries' signify limits beyond which 'sensible' users should not venture. However, these boundaries, as social constructs, are dynamic and permeable. Rhodes (1997) employs the concept of 'risk boundary' when discussing the processual nature of risk perception. Because 'risk acceptability' changes over time, 'the boundaries or limits which determine risk behaviour differ for different people' (Rhodes 1997: 220). The example of injecting among heroin users is cited:

'For some heroin users we interviewed, the act of injecting operated as a "risk boundary". The "onwards transition" from non-injecting drug use to injecting had symbolic meaning for some who saw such action as risky because it signified "deterioration", "serious addiction" and "junkie behaviour"' (Rhodes 1997: 220).

As will emerge, the status of Ephedrine and Nubain as 'risk boundaries' may be more or less relative among bodybuilders endeavouring to fashion muscular bodies and preserve competent identity. Indeed, the drawing and redrawing of risk boundaries, similar to the making and remaking of the body and identity in risk society, may be described as an ongoing practical accomplishment which is socially contingent.

The Research

Details of this two-year Economic and Social Research Council funded qualitative study are provided elsewhere (Bloor et al. 1998, Monaghan 1999a) and are only briefly outlined here. The research was based in South Wales and consisted of participant observation, audio-recorded face-to-face depth interviews with a range respondents (N=67) alongside the analysis of secondary sources (e.g. bodybuilding magazines, 'underground' steroid handbooks). Sampling of sites resulted in the selection of four 'hard-core' bodybuilding gyms for the main ethnographic fieldwork over a sixteen-month period. These gyms were dedicated to the serious business of creating 'the perfect body' (Monaghan 1999b) and were mainly frequented by experienced male bodybuilders, many of whom used or had used steroids and analogous drugs. Three quarters of bodybuilders formally interviewed reported ever using steroids. Over half of the bodybuilders interviewed had entered a physique show. These events, which rarely, if ever, tested competitors for drugs, ranged from the local level to world championship standard. Most interviewees were recruited during participant observation in gyms. However, efforts were also made to contact respondents from other sites, including a 'Well Steroid User Clinic' and a men's prison (N=15). All the interviews were transcribed, and the transcripts and ethnographic field notes were indexed and systematically analysed using computer software (Ethnograph).

Rejecting the 'Junkie' Label and the Maintenance of Identity

While bodybuilding and drug-taking are often considered synonymous, not all bodybuilders regularly use muscle-enhancing drugs. For example, risk discourses constraining steroid assisted female bodybuilding centre upon normative ideas about acceptable feminine appearance. Indeed, the use of strong muscle-building drugs may be considered especially 'dangerous' and 'polluting' for women who risk transgressing heavily guarded gender boundaries (Mansfield and McGinn 1993). Nevertheless, most physique bodybuilders - irrespective of gender - have used pharmaceuticals for developing 'excessive' muscularity, steroids being the principal drugs of choice. For these athletes steroid injecting is a normalised subcultural practice and talk about drugs is commonplace. Correspondingly, bodybuilders' social routines and interactions associated with their radical 'lifestyle choice' (Giddens 1991) shape perceptions of risk acceptability (cf. Rhodes 1997: 218). The carefully planned, controlled and monitored use (as opposed to abuse) of steroids among bodybuilders is considered part of a self-realising and ennobling project. Knowledge aimed at managing steroid risks, alongside various rationalisations and justifications, bolster the fundamental tenets of their drug subculture and preserve moral social identities (Weinstein 1980). Here bodybuilders' situated rationalities of drug risk perception are socially organised by behaviour norms (Rhodes 1997: 217).

Voluntarily engaging in behaviour which medicine labels as 'risk-inducing' carries negative connotations, resulting in possible accusations of irresponsibility and opprobrium. Steroids have been described as 'dangerous' by clinicians and this is a potential source of ideological dissonance for those users who consider themselves responsible risk assessors and managers. An important technique for resisting actual or potential objections raised by others in the social environment and/or oneself is for drug-using bodybuilders to differentiate themselves from other types of illicit drug user (Bloor et al. 1998). Similar to LSD-taking 'heads' in 1960s San Francisco who draw a sharp contrast between themselves and Methedrine-taking 'freaks' (Davis and Munoz 1968), 1990s steroid-using bodybuilders present themselves as radically different from 'hedonistic' drug users. At an individual level the acceptability of steroid use is dependent upon a social process of becoming within an embodied habitus and is illustrative of the reflexivity of modernity.

The subcultural emphasis upon the instrumental capacity of steroids may also legitimate the use of other drugs and is implicated in the construction and maintenance of social identity. For example, bodybuilding ethnopharmacologists theorise that steroids may suppress the natural production of testosterone among male users. This is deemed problematic because diminished endogenous testosterone may result in substantial muscle atrophy following steroid cessation. Human Chorionic Gonadotrophin (HCG) is injected either during or following a typical six to twelve week course of steroids with the aim of stimulating natural testosterone production and the retention of lean body mass. This sophisticated 'constructive rationale' (Weinstein 1980), where HCG is taken as a means to an end rather than an end in itself, no doubt bolsters potentially fragile social identities and assists the development of subculturally valorised muscular bodies.

There are potential ideological difficulties, however, for bodybuilders taking 'other' substances which are comparable to illicit drugs used outside of bodybuilding settings for non-bodybuilding purposes. As will emerge from some bodybuilders' accounts, Ephedrine and Nubain may be compared, respectively and unfavourably, to amphetamines and heroin. Correspondingly, there is a potential blurring of the self-serving differentiation which drug-using bodybuilders' draw in order to distance themselves from other stigmatised drug takers. For bodybuilders using Ephedrine and Nubain, rhetorical appeals in the form of 'accounts' may therefore acquire particular ideological significance (Scott and Lyman 1968).

The symbolic meanings which bodybuilders attach to Ephedrine and Nubain are reported and analysed below. Here several themes are pursued, including: the extent to which usage may be justified, and social identity negotiated, through the avowal of subculturally acquired constructive rationales or self-fulfilment accounts; disparaging subcultural talk denying the legitimacy of these drugs as bodybuilding tools; excuses vocalised by bodybuilders who have 'inappropriately' engaged in these untoward risk behaviours; and, given possible variability within social groups in their risk 'cosmologies' (Bloor 1995: 95), the extent to which there is consensus among bodybuilders concerning the status of Ephedrine and Nubain as risk boundaries. The paper concludes by noting limitations associated with the culture of risk approach (Douglas 1985) and the significance of talk in realising a world where risk, bodies and identities are increasingly conjoined.

Ephedrine and Supplements with a 'Drug-Like' Effect

Documenting the variable meanings attached to Ephedrine by bodybuilders necessitates a brief description of supplementation. The construction of a muscular body often entails dietary regulation and the regular consumption of nutritional supplements such as protein drinks. Other types of supplement for assisting muscular development, which are attractively packaged and often advertised in bodybuilding magazines, include 'Creatine Monohydrate' and 'Cell-Tech'. These 'new generation' supplements are widely claimed to exert 'anabolic' (muscle-building) effects similar to some types of steroid. The consumption of these supplements is accepted among drug-using bodybuilders and is often considered necessary in order to compete successfully. Gym members adopting an egalitarian orientation to risk (Adams 1995) and who thus abstain from or limit drug use through fear of side effects also ingest supplements.

Ephedrine, containing the generic pharmaceutical substance Ephedrine Hydrochloride, is an oral compound blurring the distinction between 'supplement' and 'drug' within bodybuilding subculture. During fieldwork and interviews it emerged that two particular products ('Ultimate Orange' and 'EPH.25'), legally obtained in Britain from health food shops, also contained Ephedrine or substances exerting a similar effect. The ambiguous status of Ephedrine as a supplement/drug is relevant given the rejection of the 'drug taker' label by bodybuilding ethnopharmacologists. The possible categorisation of Ephedrine along with innocuous and widely available supplements suggests that risk boundaries are not necessarily clear- cut and that such ambiguity may be functional. For example, the everyday use of commercially produced Ephedrine by the public in cough mixtures provides one possible justification for users in the form of an appeal to normality (Weinstein 1980: 582).

Many of our ethnographic contacts reported using Ephedrine and related products, in contrast to Nubain discussed shortly. However use was by no means as systematic and regular as steroid use, which is cyclical in fashion (Korkia and Stimson 1993). The following excerpt is illustrative, and also points to vocabularies of motive for using Ephedrine:

LM: Ephedrine reasons for use?
Soccer: Um, to suppress my appetite to cut up [shed body fat] and secondly to increase the intensity of my workout. But primarily to cut up []
LM: How do you take it in relation to your steroid cycle?
Soccer: There is no relation to my steroid cycle. I just take it when I want to cut up.
(Interview 07.)

And, as stated by another respondent who, like many other bodybuilders, was less interested in losing weight through fear of sacrificing hard earned muscular gains:

Sonny: I've used Ephedrine only when, when I've been really tired before a workout just to sort of wake me up a bit.
LM: You just use it now and then? You don't use it for several weeks at a time?
Sonny: Oh no. I think I used it about three or four times in my life. That's all. 'Cause it kills your appetite. You don't feel like eating. You might end up losing weight so I don't like doing it.
(Interview 17.)

Although, following Colin quoted at the beginning of this paper, Ephedrine is sometimes used recreationally in certain contexts, bodybuilders contacted during this research claimed they primarily used the drug as a bodybuilding tool. It is this commonly espoused reason which is of primary concern here. This type of self-fulfilment account is most likely to be honoured within bodybuilding subculture because members' background expectancies render such talk reasonable (Weinstein 1980: 587).

According to subcultural pharmacopoeia, Ephedrine offers the athlete three benefits: it helps burn fat, is anti- catabolic (prevents muscle breakdown) and is a 'training booster' (Grunding and Bachmann 1995: 108). Ephedrine's effect as an ergogenic training aid is the most common constructive rationale for usage. Considered a mild form of 'legal speed' by South Wales bodybuilders, Ephedrine is claimed to help users exercise with greater intensity leading to more productive training sessions and improvements in muscularity. For others, the drug simply enables them to complete a training session if already tired. The owner of one bodybuilding gym kept a bag of this 'supplement' behind the counter, offering members upon arrival several tablets if they complained of fatigue. This pharmaceutical dispensary service was provided at no extra cost, along with a complementary cup of non-decaffeinated coffee with the intention of soliciting a synergistic effect.

The socially acceptable drug caffeine is similar to Ephedrine in many respects. Both drugs counter feelings of tiredness. Soccer, a night-shift worker who preferred to exercise first thing in the morning relied on a caffeine supplement called 'Pro-Plus' to aid his training. This drug, available from pharmacies without prescription, was useful for pepping up the work-out. However, during the Summer of 1995 an 'over-the-counter supplement' became available called 'EPH.25'. Pre-packaged and openly shelved next to buckets of protein powder and vitamin tablets at various bodybuilding gyms, this oral training aid contained three pharmaceutical substances: Ephedrine, caffeine and aspirin. (The aspirin reportedly thins the blood, allowing the heart to pump oxygen around the body quicker.) Before this product became available bodybuilders sometimes purchased Ephedrine on the black- market, ingesting it prior to training in combination with the other two drugs. More often, bodybuilders simply took caffeine or Ephedrine separately. However, the athlete now had the option of taking 'EPH.25' which is formulated in order to capitalise upon the synergistic effects of these drugs when combined. Although some respondents claimed this is not as potent as amphetamine, its effects are considered similar.

Soccer tried EPH.25 and found it extremely effective. However, because the body quickly develops tolerance to Ephedrine, necessitating ever increasing dosages, use was reserved for occasions when fatigue would have seriously compromised the work-out. This element of self-control, championed among steroid-using bodybuilders (cf. Bloor et al. 1998: 34-40), often enables Ephedrine users to legitimate their drug consumption. Although Soccer's use of Ephedrine was occasional rather than habitual, he complained on other occasions that it diminished his appetite. While this is, to some extent, a useful effect if dieting and positively welcomed among many women endeavouring to sculpt an athletically toned rather than excessively muscular body (see St. Martin and Gavey [1996] on types of female bodybuilding) - reduced appetite is not so welcomed among most (male) bodybuilders who spend most of their time attempting to gain muscular weight. Correspondingly, bodybuilders aiming for maximum muscle development often keep use to a minimum. Amphetamines, while perhaps of some instrumental value in bodybuilding, are also commonly eschewed on similar grounds.

Participants, who had experimented with various products, stated that EPH.25 was simply a tablet version of another commercially available Ephedrine-based supplement/training aid. This product is called 'Ultimate Orange' or simply 'Orange'. This powdered formula is mixed with water and ingested as an energy-giving concoction.

Field diary extracts illustrate that 'Orange' is believed to exert a drug-like effect, meaning its biological activity is far more potent than suggested by the benign label 'supplement'. Indeed, while 'Orange' may well have ergogenic properties - rendering it useful for bodybuilding purposes - side effects such as temporary impotence and insomnia may occur. These 'drug-like' qualities render Ephedrine and related products a risk boundary for some narrators who implicitly excuse their behaviour through an appeal to contingent factors (Weinstein 1980: 580):

'I was down at Al's gym and Jack [co-gym owner] said: "give some of this Orange a try." It's the American version of it [Next nutrition], the strong one. You're only supposed to take something stupid like a thimble full. I just whacked a couple of scoops into a glass and mixed it with water. I downed [drank] it. Fucking horrible. A little later I went to train and I couldn't believe it. Normally after a warm up I can bench press [chest exercise] three plates [total weight of one-hundred-and-forty kilograms] for four reps [repetitions] and then I need a touch [some assistance]. Well, after four reps I was still going, repping out, eight, nine, ten. Fucking hell man! That night I was working the doors [security night-club work] and I pulled this piece [met a woman]. I took her back for a shagging [sex] and I couldn't get a hard-on [erection]. My head was gone [couldn't concentrate] with the Orange and I couldn't even sleep for two days either.' (Field Diary, 22 May 1995: Night Club)

If Ephedrine-based compounds blur the distinction between 'drugs' and 'supplements' then the use of 'Orange' may render the distinction between bodybuilding ethnopharmacology and expressive drug-taking equally hazy. One bodybuilder, familiar with the effects of Ecstasy, remarked:

'The first time I had it [Orange] I was buzzin' [high] for sixteen hours [] I've taken Ecstasy once and the effect was similar to that. After training I go home on the bus and my head's just gone.' (Field Diary, 10 April 1995: Pumping Iron Gym)

The similarities between Ephedrine, Ephedrine-based supplements and what many bodybuilders consider 'proper' drugs such as amphetamine and Ecstasy prompted some steroid-using bodybuilders to condemn usage:

[Orange] that's got Ephedrine in it [] at the end of the day it's speed innit Ephedrine? Speed's pumped full of Ephedrine I think. I mean you don't wanna depend on shit like that, you're gonna start banging the door in [losing self-control] aren't you? (Interview 34.)

Similarly, consider the following account voiced by a gym owner who had ceased using Ephedrine-based supplements on the grounds that he started to develop an addiction. As noted by Weinstein (1980: 581), talk about personal drug addiction enables users to totally disclaim responsibility for drug use while also admitting that such behaviour is undesirable:

I think things like Ephedrine, well, you know, you start with Nubain as well, you start again at the same sort of category as becoming like what I would call a proper drug abuser. And then it's not long before you want to turn onto speed, and a lot of people then take cocaine and all sorts then [] To be honest I couldn't really become addicted, I don't think, to steroids but I noticed last year that I started to become addicted to 'Ultimate Orange'. (Interview 18.)

This recasting of Ephedrine as a risk boundary, because usage reportedly leads to 'deterioration', 'addiction' and 'junkie behaviour' (Rhodes 1997: 220), is presented in various media of communication. For instance, the 'pro-steroid' editor of one 'underground' bodybuilding magazine writes (Hart, undated: 15):

'Another fuck up is Ultimate Orange or it's fancy named competitive counterparts. This shit is packed with Ephedrine Hydrochloride - basically a very mild form of SPEED! This is bad enough and totally useless in the bodybuilding world in my opinion. Why? Well OK, you can boost a workout but what you cannot do is: sleep, make love, think straight, drive or basically anything else. You just sit there - shit faced. That's bodybuilding?'

Sensitive to the disparaging view that bodybuilders are 'drug freaks', Hart distances Ephedrine from other drugs abused outside of bodybuilding subculture by noting its instrumental capacity: 'Well OK, you can boost a workout'. However, although adding that Ephedrine is a very mild form of Speed, the word 'Speed' is written in upper case letters followed by an exclamation mark. This is unsurprising because amphetamines are often grouped along with 'profane' drugs such as LSD, cocaine and heroin. This link with more common substances of misuse has potential ideological implications for bodybuilders who see their drug-taking as part of an ennobling and self-realising project. Are bodybuilders really able to reject the 'junkie' label if they use amphetamine like compounds and, in the case of Nubain, a drug comparable to heroin?

As noted by ethnographers of drug use, context and the types of people who use particular drugs are perhaps more significant in determining (in)appropriate conduct than a drugs' actual pharmacological properties (McKeganey and Barnard 1992: 21). Of course, of most importance in bodybuilding subculture is a drug's instrumental capacity. If used periodically for physique-enhancement, and rationalised in terms of the self- discipline required for building a physique, social identities remain unspoilt. Here Ephedrine may be used in a manner that is appropriate to competent membership; its use may be congruous with an 'all-pervading sense of piety [if] restricted to "on the job" circumstances' (Bittner 1965: 79). Similarly, while Nubain is widely considered a 'proper drug' among bodybuilders (and users a deviant subset comparable to irresponsible 'junkies') usage may nevertheless be justified by competent bodybuilders who have redrawn their own risk boundaries.


'There is a potential risk of crossover between the misuse of drugs of performance and the misuse of psychoactive drugs by injection' (McBride et al. 1996: 69).

If some bodybuilders question the use of Ephedrine, then there is widespread condemnation of Nubain. There are obvious similarities here between bodybuilders' attitudes towards Nubain and feelings about heroin as expressed by young drug injectors in Glasgow (McKeganey 1990), and drug-using hippies in Sunderland (Willis 1977). Although various drugs were spoken of in a way that signalled their acceptance within bodybuilding subculture, Nubain was widely condemned. Just as heroin is considered 'a mug's game' among young working class Glaswegians injecting Temgesic tablets and the contents of Temazepam capsules (McKeganey 1990: 121-3), most bodybuilders who had injected steroids were highly critical of Nubain.

Briefly popular among some bodybuilders in South Wales (McBride et al. 1996), Nubain is an injectable morphine derivative. In medicine, Nubain is used as an analgesic and pre-medicant before full anaesthesia prior to surgery (Wormley and Clarke 1995: 36). Often compared to heroin in its effects, this drug is potentially addictive and is generally shunned by bodybuilders: a questionnaire study of 176 steroid users in Cardiff reported only three instances of Nubain use (Pates and Barry 1996). Bodybuilders using Nubain are often considered 'junkies' by their peers - a 'deviant subset' of drug user within the bodybuilding collectivity. They are typically disparaged on the grounds that they are unwilling and unable to embrace what is sacred in bodybuilding - commitment and hard work. One bodybuilder remarked: 'I think people take Nubain 'cause they're unable to push themselves [while exercising] and take the pain' (Field Diary, 16 December 1994: Temple Gym). Bodybuilders injecting Nubain, similar to deep sea divers persistently engaging in 'inexcusably' risky behaviours, enable other members to differentiate 'normal' and excessive risk (Hunt 1995: 452).

Mick Hart, the 'pro-steroid' editor of a British 'underground bodybuilding magazine', who is scathing of Ephedrine because of its 'drug-like' effects, also condemns Nubain. In his article 'Nubaine [sic]: All Pain No Gain' (undated), Hart focuses upon what he sees as the 'intervention of hard drugs into our sport'. He writes: ' like heroin, once jabbed you are literally hooked and FUCKED!' (14). Sensitive to the disparaging view that bodybuilders are irresponsible risk takers, Hart states: 'I think that the loyal and genuine bodybuilders amongst us will have the strength to resist the temptation of these killer training boosters' (15).

Boundaries or limits determining risk behaviour are apparent within bodybuilding subculture. For example, Nubain's questionable role as a bodybuilding drug - its status as a risk boundary - means that it is uncommon to find reference to this compound in subcultural pharmacopoeia. The '1995/1996 UK Steroid Guide' (Wormley and Clark 1995), is one of the few 'underground' steroid handbooks describing this drug. Even so, they write (1995: 36-7):

'[we] had a few reservations about including Nubain in this text since some people who are ignorant of its existence might end up getting hold of some and start using it. But after much deliberation [we] reasoned that it is best to have it included so as to ensure that any unsuspecting and unknowing trainees who have it offered will be knowledgeable and sensible enough to turn it down given the information [we offer].'

Because some people have taken Nubain for bodybuilding purposes, it is necessary to examine rationales for use. This is done below by focusing upon drug characteristics, (side) effects alongside methods of use. As will emerge, although bodybuilding ethnopharmacology points to the instrumental value of Nubain, as a highly addictive compound it is ultimately seen as a 'hard drug' that should be avoided.

Bodybuilding training can be extremely painful. The analgesic properties of Nubain would therefore suggest the drug has some value as a training aid:

'Some smart fellow reckoned that if Nubain acted as an anaesthetic and pain killer it might have a use in training to numb the muscles being trained, making it possible to subject oneself to extreme intensity past the normal amount tolerable. In use this drug works extremely well making gut busting sessions a regular pastime, and as we all know the higher the training intensity sustained, the greater the growth stimulation and resultant muscular growth (all things being equal)' (Wormley and Clark 1995: 36).

And, as commented by Hart in respect of the perceived benefits of Nubain (undated: 14):

'This product was introduced into the sport a few years ago with forward claims that it would give perfect gains in muscularity, a leaner physique and a boost to the training session like never seen before - it did! People reported fantastic training sessions and were very soon coming out of the gyms looking harder and sharper than ever before.'

Three bodybuilders formally interviewed for this study reported experimenting with Nubain. None claimed the drug was a useful training aid. One said: 'I tried half a mil prior to training and felt physically sick when I trained' (Interview 21). Another, who 'had the tiniest amount' before exercising, remarked: 'I felt like I was going to go to sleep' (Interview 19). And another, who denied responsibility for use by claiming his physician prescribed the drug to relieve pain caused by injuries sustained in an accident, remarked:

No [it didn't help with my training]. Psychologically it can because er, a lot of people think: 'oh, you can't feel the pain.' You know? But you can feel the pain. It just takes the edge off it. You know? (Interview S03.)

Although none of these bodybuilders considered Nubain a valuable adjunct to their work-out, one claimed the drug nevertheless had some value as a bodybuilding pharmaceutical 'if used correctly' (Interview 21). In the following account this bodybuilder partly justifies using Nubain by describing accompanying ethnopharmacological and ethnophysiological reasoning. However, although offering a constructive rationale, he said later in the interview that he was now a former user and voiced the subcultural disapprobation of Nubain. In the following account, this successful steroid-using physique competitor therefore engaged in the strategy of 'scapegoating' (Weinstein 1980: 581) by shifting culpability to somebody who 'told' him to use the drug:

I was told to use it because of its anti-catabolic effect. Because, your body is either in two states. It's either anabolic or catabolic. If it's catabolic, then it's in a state of disrepair. If it's not catabolic, it's anabolic which is in a state of growth. So, obviously, we all want to be in a state of growth. So I was offered the chance of using it and I used it primarily, as I said, as an anti-catabolic drug. (Interview 21.)

Another high level competitor, who did not report using Nubain himself, offered a similar self-fulfilment account which could justify rather than excuse use:

'There's Nubain [] It's also used as an anti-catabolic during contest preparation. It's not an anti-catabolic as such but it has an anti-catabolic effect by relaxing you. You know, with stress the body releases cortisone which inhibits the effect of testosterone so you don't build as much muscle. Before competitions you're under a lot of stress so you need to minimise that. Nubain helps to mellow you out. I suppose you could smoke marihuana instead but that holds water in the body [thus blurring muscle definition].' (Field Diary, 9 November 1995: The street)

Nubain may be injected at particular times in the belief that this helps maximise its anti-catabolic effect:

I took one mil per day based on two injections, half a mil per time [] half a mil directly after training when your body is in a catabolic state, and then I tried it, the other half a mil then I had sometime through the night when it's the other time your body becomes catabolic. It [your body] is catabolic after training due to the fact that you've depleted your body of all its glycogen stores and when you keep yourself down to a low body-fat then obviously the only form of energy is going to come from protein so it counteracts that effect. And then the only other time through the twenty-four hour clock when it [your body] becomes catabolic is whilst you're asleep because it's not fed for eight, nine, ten hours so it's likely to become catabolic through the night. (Interview 21.)

Nubain may be injected in one of three ways: intramuscularly, subcutaneously and intravenously. Mode of administration reportedly affects drug pharmacokinetics i.e. the time taken to exert a biological effect and the period of activity before the body's metabolism renders the compound ineffective. As suggested below, the pharmacokinetics of Nubain's anti-catabolic and opiate derived psychotropic effects are believed to be dependent upon type of injection procedure:

The difference [between types of injection] is the length of time or how quick it [Nubain] gets into your system. If you do it intravenous, before you've taken the needle out of your arm, it's hitting you. It's instantaneous. If you do it subcutaneous [as I was] the effect is say, between thirty seconds and a minute and it [the anti-catabolic effect] lasts for possibly four to five hours. If you do it intravenous it's instantaneous and possibly lasts four to five minutes. If you do it intramuscular, the [anti-catabolic] effect hits you in about forty-five minutes and it lasts for about seven to eight hours but you don't feel the opiate effect of it. (Interview 21.)

This user, in redrawing risk boundaries, did not consider Nubain intrinsically dangerous; rather, risk of dependency emerges if the drug is injected intravenously for expressive (social) rather than instrumental purposes:

People are taking it as a social drug because of the opiate effect of it and this is where it's become a bad drug for them. And this is where it's become addictive in the fact that it gives them a very relaxed, spaced out feeling. So obviously, if you're having yours intramuscular, you'd have to take a much higher dosage to get that effect than if you're doing it intravenous. (Interview 21.)

Intravenous injections, similar to groin injections among heroin injectors (Rhodes 1997: 222), are viewed as a risk boundary among most bodybuilders. Differential injecting practices between bodybuilders and other types of drug user also enable bodybuilders to engage in 'dividing practices' (Foucault 1983: 208) and the denigration of what are considered more 'risky' drug-taking activities. For bodybuilders, Nubain and heroin are comparable; however, if Nubain-injecting bodybuilders reject intravenous injections they may still consider themselves responsible risk managers. This retention of competent identity, which is, among other things, a function of the dynamic and expanding nature of 'normal risk' in a subcultural context (Hunt 1995), may persist even if physiological addiction occurs:

LM: Bodybuilders who use drugs don't see themselves as drug users.
R21: Yeah. That's contradictory to a point. It's hypocritical if you like, the fact that we use drugs - I feel a little bit like a hypocrite when - it's like I could call Nubain - I'd say it's like a street drug, if you like, because it is opiate-based, so I would say it's like a street drug [] like heroin, cocaine, Crack, whatever. But then [even though I developed a mild addiction to Nubain] I don't class myself as a junkie because I'm not doing it intravenous. To me that's dirty - that's street drugs. Even though I'm taking the same drug. So it sounds a little hypocritical if you like. I can say: 'well, you're taking the same drug but you're doing it in a dirty way because you're putting it in a vein.' Yet I'm taking the same drug. So really I'm no better than him - or worse than him really. It's just that I feel when you're messing with veins, it becomes a dirty habit. (Interview 21.)

Finally, it should be stressed that physiological addiction is the most significant risk ascribed to Nubain, rendering this drug an unsuitable compound in most bodybuilders' eyes. The use of 'cautionary tales' (Goffman 1968) among drug-using bodybuilders, which nearly always relate to third parties, serve to define a normative order, distinguishing the proper from improper for all collectivity members (Coffey and Atkinson 1996). Stated differently, stories are recounted and drawn upon by peer groups to explore their own rules about appropriate behaviour (Green 1997: 475). Although different injecting practices supposedly render Nubain more or less safe, there is a general consensus that all forms and levels of use must be condemned. In the case of self-administering Nubain, one cautionary tale abounds, which no doubt functions to dissuade many potential users. The following was recounted during interviewing, though the same story is told elsewhere (cf. Wormley and Clarke 1995: 37):

It's crucified a lot of bodybuilders - there's a guy who won the overall British Championship a couple of years back [] He's never competed since. Had an addiction to Nubain. He won the British Championship possibly weighing about 14 _ stone in Class Three [height class] - he was about 5'6'' in height - about 14 _ stone, ripped to shreds [defined musculature]. He is now maximum 10 stone, can't train, can't do nothing. (Interview 21.)


According to theorists of modernity, the body has to be constructed in a framework of risk and thinking in terms of risk is an almost ever-present exercise (Giddens 1991). In many respects bodybuilding and instrumental drug use exemplify the centrality of body projects and the forging of identity in a context of uncertainty. However, it ought not to be taken for granted by social scientists that drug-related risk is inherently problematic, 'to do so is to assume that which is in need of explanation' (Cox and McKellin 1999: 628). From a phenomenological perspective the relevance of risk is contingent, and participation in social research may lead respondents to think and talk more extensively about drug risks. Phenomenologically, it is possible to distinguish between habituation and attention (Schutz 1970), and focused deliberation on risk may clearly be a situated product of an ethnographic interview.

While recognising this conceptual distinction between modes of cognition, it is nonetheless clear that if medically defined risks become 'topically relevant' or problematic, then bodybuilders are able - through accounts and narratives presented in a variety of interactional contexts and subcultural media - to resists opprobrium and sustain competent social identity. Bodybuilding subculture is a domain where 'appropriate' bodies and identities are (re)constructed. This observation, gleaned from an interpretative study of the reflexive 'lived-body', highlights the utility of a social theory of cognition and action. Such theorising is capable of describing heuristically diversity in risk behaviour while also acknowledging the (variable, flexible, contingent) importance of cultural orientations to risk (Bloor 1995). This is not to deny situations of 'risk-taking' are culturally framed. Bodybuilders choosing to use drugs are both in and of a larger society where lifestyle, bodily health and personal responsibility are conjoined (Lupton 1997). However, while cultural factors are more or less salient, difficulties are associated with static cultural theories of risk as exemplified by Mary Douglas' anthropological approach (Bellaby 1990).

For Douglas (1985), variations in risk behaviour can be represented schematically given the degree to which the individual is integrated into bounded groups ('group') and the variable degree to which those groups require adherence to particular rules of conduct ('grid'). Hierarchists, for example, who are high in grid and group, emphasise 'risk management', and differ from individualists (low grid and group) and fatalists (low group, high grid) in their respective risk cosmologies (Adams 1995). However, even within a bounded (hierarchical, individualistic) group such as bodybuilding (see Bloor [1995: 95] on the difficulty in allocating social groups unambiguously to one of four cultural types), risk boundaries delimiting 'perceivably normal' courses of action remain highly flexible and dynamic. At an individual level, notions of 'acceptable' or 'normal' risk are likely to expand as participants gain proficiency in their subcultural setting (Hunt 1995). Adherence to particular rules of conduct is therefore not as clear-cut as suggested by grid-group theory.

Following Bourdieu (1990), the bodybuilding habitus may be conceptualised as a framework of subculturally acquired dispositions where social practice is composed of 'strategic vagueness' and 'tactical improvisation'. Other sociological theories are convergent. In accord with ethnomethodological writings on rule-use, risk boundaries delimiting acceptability will always be permeable because there will always remain an open set of 'unstated conditions' of the application of rules (Bittner 1965). If rules per se cannot determine the specifics of actual conduct then there are implications for the forging and maintenance of embodied subjectivity. Within the bodybuilding habitus, as in any collectivity, it is the hallmark of every competent member to be able to justify whatever they are doing (with and to their bodies) as being in accord with a collectivity rule (cf. Garfinkel 1967). Here bodybuilders may legitimate their stigmatised drug-taking activities by emphasising the instrumentality of certain drugs and by observing subcultural proprieties and tolerated licenses that are appropriate to the status 'bodybuilder'. Relevant 'category bound' proprieties, which are requisite in ensuring drug effectiveness, include self-control, careful planning, monitoring and discipline (Bloor et al. 1998). The presence or absence of these moral attributes, as well as differential drug injecting procedures and contexts of use, are equally, if not more important, than pharmacology in defining (in)appropriate behaviour.

This theoretically informed, empirically grounded understanding of risk is worth elaborating given the diversity of perspectives in the study of risk. Critically reviewing various theoretical approaches, Bloor (1995) maintains that risk perception, interpretation and the search for appropriate 'recipes for action' can be usefully conceptualised by reference to Schutz's 'systems of relevances'. These 'systems of relevances' or various ways in which people orient to perceptual stimuli 'are the bones of a social theory of cognition' (Bloor 1995: 98). Summarising preceding substantive materials provides 'meat' for these theoretical bones:

It was noted that within bodybuilding subculture, different types of drug possess variable statuses as 'risk boundaries' depending upon the ascription of 'hazardous' characteristics and their potential to be used expressively for sensual hedonism. Nubain, more so than Ephedrine, is considered problematic by most 'pro-steroid' bodybuilders despite affording possible physique- enhancing benefits. Indeed, while there is ambiguity among bodybuilders concerning Ephedrine's status as a 'risk boundary' something which, it should be stressed, may be wholly functional - there is near universal condemnation of Nubain. Correspondingly, potential, actual and observed risks associated with Nubain are likely to become 'topically relevant' (Bloor 1995: 98) among bodybuilders. Undoubtedly, (potential) users assenting to this problematic interpretation may voice instrumental rationales that legitimate use and buttress competent identity. There is, within the bodybuilding habitus, an availability of cultural discourses that provide rhetorical resources for explaining and justifying actions (similarly, see Bourdieu 1990). However, excuses serving to deny full responsibility for 'wrongdoing' among former users, and 'cautionary tales' serving to warn others and establish a position of responsibility on behalf of the narrator, are more usual. The denigration of Nubain, more so than Ephedrine, is explicable in terms of the perceived risk of physiological addiction and the risk of embodying the 'junkie' stereotype. These hazards are not confined to Nubain; some Ephedrine users, for example, report addiction. But such risks - determinable through bodybuilders' own cognitive means and often of intrinsic (voluntary) interest (Bloor 1995) among 'health conscious' gym members - are deemed highly probable with morphine derivatives, especially if injected intravenously.

This tightly focused phenomenological analysis does not preclude cultural theory's consideration of categorisation and representation, where risk and danger, similar to pollution and dirt, is 'matter out of place' (Douglas 1984). Talk about drug- related danger in an athletic subculture serves to construct risk boundaries which differentiate the proper from the improper, the sacred from the profane. Risk boundaries, the transgression of which may signify unjustifiably risky behaviour, are symbolically significant among bodybuilders whose bodies, argot and differential drug-taking practices distinguish them from 'other' stigmatised drug takers. That said, what constitutes a 'risk boundary' and thus the identification of limits determining 'risk behaviour' vary between and within individuals comprising the same collectivity (Rhodes 1997). Such social constructions, similar to those bodies and identities moulded through bodybuilding, are ultimately dependent upon different members' specific interests or (variable) projects at hand which are spatially and temporally contingent (cf. Monaghan 1999b).

Grasping the shifting meanings of Ephedrine and Nubain, as common-sense constructs from the perspective of study participants, grounds abstract sociological theory on risk society and the body. Bodybuilders' socially acquired meanings and rules, their varied representations and the possibility of manoeuvrability within these rules, are, at an individual level, illustrative of the reflexivity of late modernity. This dynamic and variable picture of risk acceptability within a subcultural context, compatible with an interpretative or phenomenological approach, helps redress the static picture of risk painted by existing anthropological work (Douglas 1985). Other important points, overlooked by the influential culture of risk approach, include the social construction of the body and subjectivity in a context of risk (Green 1997, Giddens 1991) and the fact that drug injectors are not necessarily 'isolates' or fatalists with low group integration (Bloor 1995: 95). Within the socially integrated network of bodybuilders contacted for this research, emphasis upon risk management was commonplace. Drug-using bodybuilders, rather than simply abandoning their health (cf. Klein 1995), routinely underscored the importance of 'correct' yet highly individualised ethnopharmacological knowledge aimed at minimising harm and maximising benefits (Monaghan, in press).


Thanks go to all those who participated in and contributed to this study including, among others, Andrew McBride, Dick Pates, Kathyrn Williamson, Joe Molloy and Samatha Edwards. We also express our gratitude to the two anonymous referees and the journal editor for their helpful comments.


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