Chapter 41 How an addiction ontology can unify competing conceptualizations of addiction


Disagreement about the nature of ‘addiction’, such as whether it is a brain disease, arises in part because the label is applied to a wide range of phenomena. This creates conceptual and definitional confusions and misunderstandings, often leading to researchers talking past one another.

Ontologies have been successfully implemented in other fields to help solve these problems by creating unifying frameworks that can accommodate divergence while clarifying the basis for it. We argue that ontologies can help transform the way we think and communicate about addiction as well, providing a basis for a shared understanding of the domain and a shared means for communicating and achieving that understanding.

We introduce the use of ontologies in science and medicine, and show how they can unify differing perspectives on addiction. We also show how ontologies provide a practical tool for organizing our collective knowledge in this field, even, and especially, when that knowledge is garnered through distinct disciplinary approaches adopting disparate methodologies or perspectives (e.g., neurobiological, psychological, sociological, etc.).

In the end, we believe that ontologies can help to avoid letting questions like “Is addiction a brain disease?” divide the field, hamper communication, or otherwise disrupt the ability to make meaningful progress.


Robert M Kelly - ORCiD:

Janna Hastings - ORCiD:

Robert West - ORCiD:


Evaluating the Brain Disease Model of Addiction is available from: