Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes Elizabeth Ettore, Professor of Sociology in the School of Law and Social Justice at the University of Liverpool. In it, she explores more about her article on the utility of autoethnography in drug research, which appeared in a special co-produced edition of SHAD and CDP, Special Issue: Gender and Critical Drug Studies. Enjoy!
In my paper “Feminist autoethnography, gender and drug use: ‘Feeling about’ empathy while ‘storying the I,'” I explore autoethnography as a feminist method in the drugs field. My writing Women and Substance Use in the late 1980s/early 1990s felt like pathbreaking, feminist sociology. In 1986, when I was asked to write a book on the experiences of women who used drugs, very little had been published on women’s use of substances other than alcohol. At that time, the term “substance misuse” rather than “substance use” was used to stigmatize users; no one dared talk about “the body” or “pleasure.” I had been working as a research sociologist at the Addiction Research Unit (ARU) in London, and, sadly, I had not succeeded in drawing attention to women in the addiction research world.
Regarded in retrospect as not only one of the first comprehensive portraits of women as substance users, but also as a critical, feminist sociology of a group once regarded as so “deviant” that even those who researched this group were viewed as contemptible, my book emerged out of the ARU when, in fact, the structure and culture of the unit presented obstacles to my voice, sexuality and views. Not until decades later, when I began to explore the theoretical implications of using autoethnography as a feminist method in the drugs field, did I fully process the experience of gendered marginalization and vulnerability that I lived through during that time. By telling my story during my 40 years’ experience as a feminist researcher in the drugs field, I hope to help those practicing critical drug scholarship become familiar with autoethnography as a viable way of employing gender analyses and furthering feminist research.
In my paper, I explain what feminist autoethnography is; look at how doing feminist “drugs” autoethnography helps to develop empathy in the process of “storying the I”; describe the methods and use of data employed in autoethnography and tell my story chronologically from 1972 to the present time. As with many autoethnographies, my analysis of my “story as data” is left until last and I discuss the political implications of my experiences, while “feeling about” empathy as resonance with the other.
Hopefully, my autoethnography will make readers see that going from understanding to “feeling about” empathy in our work helps us to think and feel not only with our research respondents but also about ourselves and our own development as drug scholars and as feminist researchers. Being a feminist fieldworker means that we attend to the subtleties of inequalities (in race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, age and so on), including the ways in which we ourselves live out sexist programming. Being aware that “storying the I” helps to shape ourselves as human beings, feminists and drugs researchers and allows us not only to attend to these “subtleties” but also to bear witness to the hidden, complicated piecing together of our lives with others.
I find that autoethnography reveals that the “self” is enormously “complex” and feminist conceptualizing of the self, within as well as across conventional discipline boundaries is also complex. With autoethnography, we see the transformative power of “writing the self,” altering personal stories into political realities by revealing power inequalities inherent in human relationships and the complex cultures of emotions embedded in these unequal relationships. Autoethnography reveals stories as complex living realities, exposing power disparities intrinsic to women who are living with drugs. Whether as users, addiction treatment providers, or researchers, we all need to be aware of the dehumanizing/depersonalizing, “ungendered” and damaging discourses that obscure a full picture of the embodied experiences of women drug users.