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On the Other Side of Hyperactivity: an Anthropology of ADHD


This dissertation, On the Other Side of Hyperactivity: an Anthropology of ADHD, provides a meta-historical and cultural perspective on the emergence and proliferation of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in the United States over the last three decades. Through in-depth multi-sited ethnography (15 months in the San Francisco Bay Area) with doctors, educators, parents, and children as well as detailed archival research into the disorder's antecedents, my research explores how ADHD operates as both a psychiatric category and social imaginary that links together in its operation the domains of education, biomedicine, and family life in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. More broadly, by examinig the relationship between consumption and time, my analysis pushes the study of ADHD into new territory showing how ADHD's symptoms--hyperactivity and impulsivity--operate both through the body and its exteroor milieus creating a new architecture of experience in contemporary American life.

Toward this end, my analysis here develops a renewed concept of hyperactivity that differs from the term's everyday use. Hyperactivity comes from the Greek "huper-," "over, beyond, above" and the Latin "activus" related to the noun "actus," a "driving" or "impulse." In both its broadest sense as a concept and its specific meanings as a medical category, hyperactivity as a condition marks a threshold. On the one hand, the challenge of this dissertation is to locate this threshold by attending both ethnographically and historically to the ways that hyperactivity has been marked as a significant problem in the world: for example, when and where does hyperactivity emerge as a target of psychiatric intervention? Why does its diagnosis and treatment remain controversial today? How do scientific and medical approaches to hyperactivity challenge commonsense ideas about personal responsibility and accountability? More importantly, the challenge is to think life on the other side of this threshold, on the other side of hyperactivity. This means thinking hyperactivity not simply as a medical category or oppressive label, but as an active and dynamic force. It also means thinking hyperactivity not only in the negative sense of the limits it sets on life--how do the categories, labels, modes of treatment and diagnosis of the condition constrain and confine, etc.--but also in the positive powers of creativity, novelty, and difference. Therefore the task, I argue, and what my dissertation attempts to do, is to show through sustained empirical attention and conceptual reflection the singular way hyperactivity articulates things like neurological deficit, rituals of self-stimulation, habits of consumption, and modes of identification and belonging that before had no direct connection, and thus to appreciate what is new and different about hyperactivity in the world today.

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