Cookies on this website

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Accept all cookies' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. If you click 'Reject all non-essential cookies' only necessary cookies providing core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility will be enabled. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

Contemporary debates around Attention Deficit/Hyperacrivity Disorder (ADHD) and the most common form of drug treatment, Ritalin, are rarely placed in the context of the social-scientific history of diagnosis and drug treatment. This is possibly due to the fact that brain talk and brain imagery have replaced earlier theories about children's psychopathology that had mainly focused on the toxic effects of the mother. These theories and their psychoanalytic roots are considered somewhat embarrassing and certainly unscientific in a contemporary light, and modern biological psychiatry has worked hard to demonstrate that physiological and genetic factors underpin this contested disorder. Such theories have tended to make the history of ADHD and Ritalin seem irrelevant to scientific progress and understanding of disorder, as well as to public understanding and acceptance of disorder and drug treatment. Examining this history, however, clarifies the relation between social, cultural, and scientific values in constructing a need for medical intervention within the domestic realm. When Ritalin came on the United States market in 1955, neither psychiatric diagnosis of children's behaviors, nor drug treatments for children's behavior were commonplace. Mothers especially were located in the center of active political, moral, and scientific debates over boys' normative behaviors. These debates helped codify an intimate association between a problem boy and his problematic mother in relation to ADHD diagnosis and Ritalin treatment. The story I tell here suggests that this association may have supported mothers' acceptance of medical intervention and drug treatment for their boys' troublesome, but arguably not pathological, behaviors. In the concluding sections I argue that the lack of attention to these social-scientific roots means that we miss seeing their potential relevance to the contemporary predicament of rising ADHD diagnoses and Ritalin use.

Original publication




Journal article


Science in Context

Publication Date





577 - 603