Humans are always looking for an edge. Whether in academics, athletics, or simply physical appearance, humans are always trying to find a way to get ahead of the competition. One of the most highly controversial and publicized means of doing so are performing-enhancing drugs or steroids. Contrary to popular belief, athletes are only part of the population that regularly uses steroids. Musicians, actors, even “reputable” occupations such as police officers and firefighters are some of the heaviest users of performance-enhancing drugs. So what does this say about the American perception of the human body? It takes two anthropological approaches to tackle this question.
This first anthropological method we will use to analyze steroid use will be through cultural evolution. This is a dated methodology but will provide us with some interesting feedback. The cultural evolutionary theory is all about placing societies on an evolutionary rating scale from savage to civilized. At first glance, a cultural evolutionary anthropologist would likely rate a society that uses steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs on the side of civilized. Since steroids are created almost entirely artificially, it would take a highly evolved society with advanced technology to engineer such a substance. No “primitive” society could just stumble upon the formula for steroids, thus making this a trait of a more culturally civilized society. However, one can take a different observation from a cultural evolutionary viewpoint at steroid use. Steroids are engineered to make humans specifically stronger, and since humans are doing the work themselves, and not machines, a cultural evolutionary anthropologist could derive that a society that uses steroids is less culturally advanced than that of one who isn’t.
An alternate anthropological theory that one can approach the cultural phenomenon of steroid use is through an interpretative lens. A more modern approach to anthropology, interpretative anthropology searches for the meaning behind cultural symbols. Steroid use is an interesting cultural symbol to tackle because it can reveal a variety of different societal meanings. Possibly the most visible meaning that one can derive from a society’s use of steroids is that its individuals are extremely aware and competitive when it comes to their outward appearance. Even though the risks of steroid use are very well known, individuals still take the risk in order to look “better” than someone else. Another reason why one might be taking steroids might simply be a desire to have a better chance of defending themselves. An interpretive anthropologist may conclude that a society’s use of steroids could mean that society is very cautious when it comes to self-defense and be searching for yet another way to defend him or herself from the uncertain.
The Steroid phenomenon is one that an anthropologist could approach in a multitude of different ways. The theories of Cultural Evolution and Interpretative anthropology are only two ways of approaching this societal artifact. Steroid usage should continue to be at the forefront of anthropological studies because its impact on society will only continue to grow.
– Grayson A.