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.

During a recent field work/participant observation session, I took two of my key informants – Shannon* and Dorothy* (*names have been changed) – to run errands. These are women with whom I have  developed mutually trusting relationships. Their considerable time in “the game”, their struggles as mothers and addicts, their housing insecurity, have all provided me with rich data; the nature of our relationship has provided me with trustworthy gatekeepers whose company I genuinely enjoy. That day, the two women and I drove around chatting. We went to court, to pick up food at the Salvation Army, and to run down money from various folks who owed them. Midway through the day, we took a detour, stopping at an apartment complex where Dorothy had left her bicycle, keys, medications, and assorted other belongings. The night before, Dorothy had been beaten up and chased out by the apartment’s tenant, forced to leave her things behind. Knowing her own presence would only be inflammatory, she had recruited Shannon – a level-headed and relatively well-respected (and sometimes feared) local “server” – to retrieve her things from the woman. I had become their driver. By the time we pulled into the apartment complex parking lot, Dorothy and Shannon had been talking for at least five minutes about the apartment resident’s paranoia and “insanity”. “She’s a crazy bitch”; “That bitch has been tweaking for I don’t know how long and she’ll beat your ass just to do it”; “This one time, she held me hostage for like three days!” This conversation scared me and I quickly became apprehensive about meeting this woman who drew such extreme judgment from two women whom I had come to trust for their knowledge, experience, and genuine concern for my safety.

I parked the car and Dorothy slipped off to find her bike around the corner while Shannon prepared to talk her way into and out of the apartment, bringing Dorothy’s things with her. I took a deep breath and asked Shannon, “Would it be helpful if I came up there with you or would that just make things worse?” Shannon shook her head adamantly and told me it would make things worse for everybody if I came. She said I needed to wait in the car. Shannon has always been very protective of me, and I know that her street smarts and her experience in “the game” equip her with far better tools for making this call than I have. So, although I felt thwarted in what could have been a good opportunity for participant-observation, I knew I needed to trust Shannon’s judgment. I also felt relief, as the earlier conversation had me convinced I should be scared of this particular woman.

As researchers engaging in field work with individuals who may be breaking laws or, as a result of their drug or alcohol use, experiencing altered states of consciousness, we may find ourselves navigating issues of danger and security in our work. Much of this will be instinctual as we learn to trust our own judgment and that of our most steadfast participants in making decisions about whether to get in a car or venture solo to the home of a new informant. These experiences, and our own sometimes visceral responses to them, highlight our role as social scientists in turning a critical lens on the construction of the drug user/dealer/producer as dangerous. How do these constructs/constructions shape the field work experience, the role of the social scientist, the lived experience of the user, structural responses to and regulation of drug use, etc.?

In an effort to address these issues from a holistic anthropological and interdisciplinary perspective, from now through May 2013, we will be accepting blog proposals dealing with the concepts of danger, safety, and trust in the context of research on (il)licit drug use. Please contact our blog master, Stacey McKenna, at stacey.mckenna@ucdenver.edu if you are interested in contributing.


Abstract length: 150-250 words

If accepted, we will arrange specific deadlines for the final blog entry. For final entries, we request the following:

  • 2-3 sentence bio and explanation of your work.
  • Blog length: 800-1500 words