During the past several years we have witnessed renewed mainstream interest in psychedelic drugs and particularly their medical and therapeutic potential, a phenomenon that is being described by some as a 'psychedelic renaissance'.
This paper aims to historicise these developments and will be split into three parts. Firstly, the existing historiography of psychedelics both in Britain and beyond will be reviewed. Research into the history of psychedelics in Britain (as elsewhere) has often situated itself within the context of the clinic, the laboratory, or the military and intelligence services. Social and cultural histories, on the other hand, have been far rarer historiographical commodities. So too have been histories that cast an eye beyond the heady London counterculture of the mid-1960s.
Secondly, some of the conceptual and theoretical frameworks pertinent to the study of the history of psychedelics will be considered. It will be argued that one of the most exciting and promising approaches to the history of these drugs has been proffered by scholars such as Ido Hartogsohn, drawing on insights from Science and Technology Studies (STS). In his recent book American Trip, Hartogsohn expounds the idea of ‘collective set and setting’ as a way of understanding the psychedelic experience and how it has been influenced by, and in turn influenced, the surrounding culture and society in a kind of ‘feedback loop’.
Finally, the paper will look briefly at the social and cultural history of psychedelics in Britain since 1967, thinking not just about the London-centred counterculture but also provincial experiences. In Britain, psychedelics were employed for a range of purposes. Importantly, in the second half of the 1960s, they were used as a means of challenging the social status quo and dominant culture. In this way, far from
simply being restricted instruments for scientific research and medicine, after 1966 psychedelics became central to movements of protest, rebellion and counter-authority, put to work as technologies of political engagement and social activism. Beyond this, these drugs opened up entirely new possibilities in ways of thinking, living and being for tens of thousands of people.
I am a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield in the third year of my studies, supervised by Professor Adrian Bingham. My thesis is entitled 'Boundaries of Acceptability: Obscenity, Pornography and Permissiveness in England, c. 1970-1990’ which examines the cultural categories of ‘obscenity’ and ‘pornography’ and debates around ‘offensive material’ as well as ‘permissiveness' in that period.
I am broadly interested in the social and cultural history of Britain since the Sixties with a focus on the ‘counterculture’, youth cultures, activism, drugs and ‘moral panic’. Alongside my PhD, I have been researching the social and cultural history of psychedelics in Britain for a forthcoming collection, which is what my proposed paper relates to.
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