BACKGROUND: The dominant Australian approaches to understanding illicit drug marketplaces are surveillance and criminological research. These approaches rely on the elementary neoclassical economic model of the market which focuses primarily on supply and demand. In this paper, we draw on anthropological and sociological research to develop an alternative framework for understanding Australian illicit drug marketplaces that emphasises their constituent processes. METHODS: The paper draws on two years of ethnographic research among heroin user/sellers of Vietnamese ethnicity in an Australian heroin marketplace. RESULTS: Trade and barter were key modes of exchange in this marketplace. We identified active negotiation and bargaining over price on the basis of social relationships, with dealers and customers actively working to develop and maintain such ties. Dealers set price collectively and this was shaped by moral and cultural elements such as notions of a 'fair' price. Social processes and relations as well as shared cultural expectations helped to generate trust and maintain order in the marketplace. CONCLUSION: Our ethnographic research suggests that the dominant Australian approaches to the study of illicit drug markets, with their reliance on the elementary neoclassical economic market model, ignore the social processes and social relations through which such sites are made and remade. Nor do they adequately capture the complex character of the subjects who act within these sites. If we are to expand our understanding of illicit drug markets and marketplaces in Australia, we must look beyond the conceptions offered by surveillance and criminological approaches.