Category Archives: Blog

Complexity at the CDP Conference

Complexity: Researching alcohol and other drugs in a multiple world

Contemporary Drug Problems Conference

Aarhus University, Denmark

21-23 August 2013

The title says it all. This past August, researchers of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs came together in Denmark for an exciting international and interdisciplinary conference. The conference theme – complexity – was met on several levels. Researchers came from multiple disciplines, multiple institutions, and multiple home countries to consider complexity not only in the experiences and contexts of drug users or in societal, institutional, and psychological constructions of addiction, but to critically examine the translatability of “complexity” to a variety of intervention and outreach settings, the challenges associated with funding research projects steeped in the very notion of “complexity,” and the increasingly complex research methodologies that may ultimately be necessary to effectively elucidate it. I was honored to attend and even more honored to present a paper at this conference; it’s left me inspired for collaboration and excited to get started on future research projects!

Though the conference was small enough that a junior scholar like myself had the chance to talk one-on-one and at length with the likes of Lisa Maher, Nancy Campbell, David Moore and many others, it was big enough that I was unable to attend every paper. So, you can see the full conference program and abstracts here, but I’ll use this blog space to think a bit about the broader theme of complexity and why this theme is especially relevant to the anthropology of drugs.

The conference’s keynote speakers laid the foundation for the conference: Nancy Campbell pointed out that most intervention professionals and funders simply don’t want or know how to navigate the multitude of unknown and unpredictable accompaniments to complexity but noted that academics are increasingly looking for ways to apply interdisciplinary collaborations to meet these challenges; Lisa Maher asked, “What do we sacrifice in trying to reduce findings to translatable forms accessible by policy and intervention professionals?” and highlighted the need for research approaches that truly integrate methodologies toward the end of understanding complexity; and Kane Race applied the frame of emergent causation to dispute the common trend in clinical, epidemiological, and health evaluation research of treating drug use, drug experiences, and addiction, as resulting from linear pathways.

As a discipline, anthropology is poised to address many of these challenges. Its very strength can be found in its holism and abundance of tools – both methodlogical and theoretical – for illuminating multiple levels, for situating subjective experience and individual practice in many overlapping and intersecting contexts. In fact, many anthropologists who study the use of drugs, both licit and illicit, already use the best of the discipline to explore the experiences, behaviors, and subjectivities of users. One could argue that it is an anthropological approach that has brought much drug research forward to where it is today. For decades, medical anthropologists have found themselves a sole social scientist in a medical school or department full of psychiatrists, and, historically, our discipline has been met with resistance. However, as an interdisciplinary researcher, I find that the ethnographic approach is increasingly appreciated by the epidemiologists and sociologists I encounter on a regular basis. Nancy Campbell pointed out that more and more neurologists and other “hard” scientists actively seek to engage with social scientists in order to better understand why our brains respond the way they do, what this looks like in context, and what can be done about it. Accomplished ethnographers such as Lisa Maher and Lee Hoffer find themselves working with mathematical modelers in an effort to achieve both thick description and greater generalizability. Steve Koester works with pharmacologist and biologist, Robert Heimer, to explore the actual risk behind injection drug users’ risk practices (observed in ethnographic context) by conducting controlled experiments in the lab.

This type of work may be the way forward for the study of drugs, and anthropologists may be uniquely prepared to engage in it. The Contemporary Drug Problems conference that inspired this post highlighted the importance of international and interdisciplinary conversations and the need to acknowledge and manage complexity rather than hide behind or ignore it. For decades, our own discipline has grappled with the challenge of balancing intimate knowledge of individuals’ subjectivities and experiences with the situated complexity of the multi-level contexts in which they manifest. As such, our answers may not be simple; they will likely be very complex. Perhaps through continued engagement with researchers and activists outside of anthropology, we can work together to address complex realities with practical solutions.

ADTSG at AAA 2012 in San Francisco!

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Juliet Lee presenting at AAA 2013

Papers in these panels demonstrated cohesiveness, exploring notions of stigma, social construction, and cultural and political economic contexts of drugs, drug use, and addiction. Meeting panelist Juliet Lee and discussant Geoffrey Hunt’s recommended standard for research on alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, the papers on these panels showcased one of the greatest strengths of anthropologists in this field: the successful integration of research on licit and illicit drugs, providing a venue for the exploration of how and by whom the boundaries and definitions of drug use and addiction are constructed, how they change, and how they are navigated by users, the medical and psychiatric communities, and even researchers. En route to addressing these common themes, each paper took a unique approach. Continue reading

Danger/Security in Drug Research

When I tell people what I do for a living – that I am an interdisciplinary researcher who primarily conducts ethnography with active methamphetamine users – they often don’t actually know what I do. When I go on to explain that a key part of ethnography – participant observation –  involves “hanging out”, chatting, spending time with people as they go about their daily lives, the first question people ask is nearly always, “Aren’t you scared?” (After all, methamphetamine users are regularly portrayed as the most scandalous of all drug users – if you don’t believe me, check out the Meth Project’s Not Even Once campaign).

Always wanting to challenge the stereotype, my response to these questions is usually an abrupt and sometimes bristly “No” followed by “Why should I be scared? They’re people too”, or “Just because they do drugs doesn’t mean they’re dangerous”. And it’s true, their drug use itself does not make my participants dangerous. However, the patterns of criminality some engage in may place them (and subsequently me) in dangerous situations. Therefore, sometimes I am scared when I’m conducting my field work. For the most part, I rely on basic common sense. If someone cold-calls me to talk, I meet him/her somewhere where we both feel safe; I take extra precautions about being alone with men; I am quicker to go to the home of someone I have met previously or who came to me referred by a participant I trust. Most of all, I try to follow Dr. Susan Phillips’ dictum, “you need to trust in order to be trusted” (Phillips 1999), but every now and then I encounter a participant or a situation in which I am forced to recall the many differences between my “normal” and that of the men and women who so openly share their worlds with me. Continue reading