Ethnography in the Drug Field
Ethnography is an underutilized research method within the drug field. This is despite its proven ability to: reach hidden drug-using populations, gain an understanding of patterns of thought and practice from the insider’s perspective, and chart the spatial, social and economic factors that influence drug use. This paper will explore some of the issues that arose during an ethnographic exploration of the use of ‘party drugs’ in licensed and other venues by a social network of young Australians in Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city. Of particular interest are the ethical issues of illegality, insider knowledge and emotionality. A constant reality in this research was my knowledge of illegal activities and although I took precautions to protect the confidentiality of my research subjects, this knowledge of illegal behaviour was a continual source of stress and had the potential to have very negative outcomes for the people that let me into their social world. Furthermore, my unique position in this circumstance as having a degree of pre-existing membership in the group created certain ethical and emotional obstacles. While insider knowledge may be beneficial in facilitating trusting relationships and useful for enabling the researcher and research subjects to mutually negotiate the meanings and practices involved in the research, it also has practical implications for the way the data is interpreted and understood. My insider position raised a number of ethical and emotional concerns including a) blurring the boundary between ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ researcher-subject relationships, b) an inability to ‘withdraw’ from the field after the research concluded, and c) pressures relating to the nature, type and dissemination of research findings. In addition to these obstacles, my personal, social and emotional involvement had to be managed in regards to my analytical position and integrity of the data. Drug research can be a particularly emotional arena, and emotionality within the drug field has been under-explored.
Keywords: Ethnography, Drug, Ethics, Illegality, Insider Knowledge, Emotionality
PhD Candidate, National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University of Technology