Are drug ethnographies necessary?

Several semesters ago, I taught an interdisciplinary course called Addiction in History, Science, and Culture. I had a wonderful group of undergrads, and they often posed questions that have troubled researchers across these fields for decades. A favorite question is the topic of this post: What is the point of ethnographic research? Didn’t we learn all we can from addiction ethnographies in the 1970s?

By the 1970s, we had learned quite a lot. Canonical qualitative research on drug cultures by Alfred Lindsmith, Bingham Dai, and Howard Becker was on paper before the heroin epidemics of the late 1960s and early 1970s hit. In the US and UK, those epidemics linked ethnography to epidemiology; community-based surveillance teams began to monitor drug using behaviors as though they were contagious diseases. The approach proved useful in the 1980s when injection drug use was found to be associated with transmission of a famously epidemic disease—HIV. Ethnographers, activists, and ex-addict outreach workers tapped into previous knowledge about networks of illicit drug users in order to communicate evidence-based preventive strategies (such as needle sterilization) that later became known as “harm reduction.”

Street Ethnographies, circa 1979

By the 1990s, harm reduction, though contentious, became the dominant paradigm in which ethnographic research on “under-studied” populations of illicit drug users was conducted. Nancy Campbell and Susan Shaw have suggested that state-funded ethnographic research today functions more like a modest public health intervention into the lives of drug-users than a source of new knowledge. In fact, they argue, the incitement to harm reduction could actually impede the exchange of information that runs contrary to the dominant paradigm. And the ethics of the interactions between researchers and drug-using study participants are tricky to begin with.

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