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.