Skip to main content
SAGE
Search form
  • 00:01

    [MUSIC PLAYING]My name is Dr. Steve Wakeman, and I'ma lecturer in criminology in the School of Humanities and SocialScience at Liverpool John Moores University.The case study is going to focus upon what

  • 00:23

    I call autoethnography as a researcher method,as a way of learning about social phenomena,in this case heroin addiction.I'm going to talk a little bit about the complexitiesof drawing upon yourself and your own lifeexperiences as data and to complement

  • 00:43

    ethnographic research.And basically the research I did it involvesgoing out and spending some time with a group of heroinand crack-cocaine users and dealers, going where they went,doing what they did, listening to what they had to say,and being what is traditionally calledin social research a participant observer.And whilst I didn't participate in taking these drugs,

  • 01:06

    I participated in their daily lives.That's known as an ethnographic research strategy.What I do, which is a little bit different,is I build upon my own life experiencesin that, too, because I have a history of addictionto those drugs myself.So what I would do in the field was I would built upon

  • 01:27

    and I would learn from both my personal experienceof these issues and the things I was observingand the things I was looking at in the field.So the case study is very much about the intersectionsof those two things and how we can use them and learnfrom them as a research method.In terms of the actual methods that I

  • 01:49

    used in terms of what I actually did,it can be quite complicated at times.I took, obviously, a qualitative approach to this topic.We've got good quantitative data on heroin and heroin addiction.We know quite a lot about the numbersof these types of drug users.What I wanted to do is learn a little bitabout the qualities of this type of drug use, about what it's

  • 02:12

    like to be a heroin addict or to be a heroin user in Austerity,Britain, basically.So I took this qualitative approachthat involved going out and talking to people.I used interviews.I used participant observation.And I used analysis of everyday interactions.

  • 02:32

    This presents a number of issues, whichI'll talk about a bit later.But for the most part, it just simply involvesgoing to the site, hanging out with people,going where they go, doing what they do,and listening to what they have to say.There are a number of complexities to this method,and I can talk about three specifically.

  • 02:53

    The first one is obviously access to this group.They are a group whose activities,by their very nature, are best conductedin somewhat clandestine manner.If you're going to be taking Class A controlled substancesall day, every day and engaged in the various typesof acquisitive crime, the people engaging in to do that,

  • 03:15

    you kind of need to keep that as down-low as possible.So gaining access to a group is very difficult.I tried through the various recognized institutional means.Quite frequently I approached drug agencies,I approached homeless hostels, I approached organizationsthat are treatment providers in terms of getting introduced

  • 03:38

    to some people who might potentially be able to letme spend some time with them.In this particular project, unfortunately,all of those methods failed.I hit various brick walls.There were various issues that come about around people'sconfidentiality.And obviously the big one was trust.The situation was resolved for me, luckily,

  • 03:60

    though a student who was teachingat the time whose brother was involved inheroin on an estate in an area not too far from Liverpool.And she was able to provide an introduction to me.And from this one person, getting introduced to him,I was able to meet others, and I was welcomedinto his social circle.

  • 04:20

    So I used what we call in social researcha snowballing technique.And then my sample grew from this one individual.As I rolled with him and as I spent time with him,I met his friends.I met his compatriots, if you like, the peoplehe met in his daily affairs.And as I explained to him what I was doingand I was there on the street with them,I found people to be very, very receptive

  • 04:42

    and actually quite keen to let me hang around a little bitand keen to educate me about their livesand their difficulties.So whilst access is really, really problematic,it's often the case that these issuescan be resolved from the most unlikely of sourcesif you keep your eyes and ears open, so to speak.The second complexity of autoethnography,

  • 05:04

    and indeed of ethnography as a method,is that your methodological plans can quite quicklybecome redundant based on what I call the contours of the field.In this particular instance, I hadplans, like a lot of social researchers,to base my projects on interviews.I would go and I would interview the participants,

  • 05:24

    and we would record the interviews,and I would later try and transcribe them and thenanalyze the written data.Unfortunately, when I arrived in the fieldand I met the first few users who agreed to participate,they weren't happy whatsoever with being recorded.They didn't mind participating.They were quite happy to sit and talk to me face to face.

  • 05:46

    But they didn't like the idea of their words and actions beingrecorded, which isn't necessarily a problemassociated with my method of access.There is no institutional means, so they were stilla little bit distrusting of me to begin with.So what I had to do was developed my plans.And I had to on the spot think a little bit differently

  • 06:06

    about how I would actually record datafrom this population.And if this means my recording device would now be redundant--and it did have to become redundantbecause I was told quite early on in researchthat I could get to meet heroin dealers,but if they were to find out that I had a recordingdevice in my pocket, then the guaranteesof my safety I'd been given earliermay become null and void.

  • 06:28

    So from there on in, I left the recoding device at home.I had to adapt slightly.And in social research, autoethnography and ethnographyitself are very much like.So I adapted, and I used the system of observation.I spent more time listening.I spent more time watching.And I would go home at the end of every day in the field,and I would write a detailed account over what I'd observed

  • 06:50

    and what I'd seen and what was said and what happened.I even developed my own form of shorthand writingto scribble down quotations and scribble down thingsthat people had said when they were saying them.The third key point I'd like to makeabout this particular methodological approachis that I think, on the back of the project,that it's potentially the best approach to take

  • 07:11

    with this particular group.I'm not the first to claim that.American anthropologist Philippe Bourgois,he's researched heroin-using populations in San Franciscoand in other areas of the United States,and he's made similar claims.The observation-based method is best for the simple reasonthat there are often disparities between what

  • 07:33

    this group say they do and what they actually do in practice.And I don't mean that to be in any waydiscriminatory towards them.I think that would absolutely be the casein many groups of people that you were to speak to, studentsbeing a classic example.However, let's give an example from the field,I would often be told of how users were safe injectors

  • 07:54

    and they used safe injection practices.They would tell me, I never share works.I always use a clean needle every time.I make sure I use a swab to clean the injectionsite and these things.And they would tell me this in all earnestness,and they meant it.However, just from watching and from sitting around, sometimesless than an hour later, I would see

  • 08:16

    those practices, those good intentions,weren't always put into practice.Sometimes somebody would always have the intentionto use a clean needle every time,but if they were withdrawing from heroinand they needed some there and thenand a clean needle wasn't available,I often saw people using dirty needles, using old needles.I saw them sharing injection equipment.

  • 08:37

    I saw people engaged in practicesthat they didn't necessarily speak aboutso freely in what might have been an interview setting.So I remain convinced now that whilst the observation-basedmethod has its inherent problems, limitations,and complexities, in settings such as this,it remains the strongest way today to gaingood, quality, reliable data about what it's actually

  • 09:00

    like for people on the ground.The first thing that I'd like to talk about a little bitwould be the pros and cons of taking this approach,so to speak, how it can be both beneficialto take this approach, whereby I sit backand I observe and then I reflect upon my experiences

  • 09:23

    and my understanding of my own past and my history in relationto what I've observed in the field,I found that can be very, very beneficial.That can afford, in some respects,a privileged viewpoint in the field.But also counterintuitively, I foundthere to be a number of problems with that particular approachas well, that is necessitates a number of difficulties

  • 09:46

    and in fact limits what I can do.So I can give you examples of both of those.The first one, an example of a benefit,is I had an increased awareness of whatwas going on in the field.I've termed this in my work biographic emotive awareness.And what I mean by that is, because of my biography

  • 10:08

    and because of my past addiction to these substances,I knew a little bit about the way that world works,and I was able to feel things.My emotive awareness triggered things in methat might not necessarily have been triggeredin another researcher who didn't have that particular biography.And this, in turn, leads into whatI'd like to call a more enhanced or a slightly more

  • 10:30

    sophisticated understanding of the complexities of drugaddiction.To give a concrete example of this,one day I was sat in a flat with a geezer in his early 30swho had just, last time I saw him, done his withdrawal.He'd withdrawn from heroin, and he was clean.

  • 10:51

    Now he wasn't using.So as I arrive in the flat, I see him,and the last time I'd seen him, hewas in the middle of his withdrawal,and he wasn't very well at all.So I sat down, and I asked him, how you doing?Are you better than last time I saw you?And he had a kind of spring in his step.Yeah, I'm really good, he said.It's all good.I'm clean now, quite happy.I'm keeping away from it.

  • 11:12

    And then he said, well, I mean, Idid have some yesterday, a little bit,and a little bit the day before, but I'm not having any today.I can keep a lid on things.I'm staying away from it.And he was quite sure of himself about that,and he meant it, that he wasn't taking any heroin today.At this point, if I read that dataas researcher who's there just listening

  • 11:34

    to what this gentleman was telling me,I see him making positive life choices.I see him steering away from heroin,and my researching theory goes in that direction.However, at this point, based on my own historyand based on my own understanding of howquite cunning and quite insidious addictions can be,it didn't quite feel right to me.

  • 11:55

    It didn't quite feel that this individual was notnecessary telling me the truth.It just felt like there's a little bit moreto what he was saying.And there was this moment of emotional identificationwhere I thought, he is going to use again.I just know it, because I recognized where he was.I'd been in that kind of space myself.So my research and my theory went off in a different way.

  • 12:16

    And I started to question, whether he's actuallygot complete control of his actions in this sense,whether he can make the decision notto use today and stick to it.A couple of hours later on the wayback from getting lunch at from the chip shop,we saw this individual stood by the phone box,having just called the dealer.He did use again that day.So from that, having that kind of biographical emotive

  • 12:38

    awareness, I can start to questionthings in a slightly more enhanced way.I'm not saying he's a slave to his addiction as such,but we can start to problemitize the degree to which hehas choice and control.And my theory moves in a slightly different waybased on the intersection of my researchwith my biography, which I found to be very beneficial.

  • 12:58

    I found to give not necessarily superior, not betterthan anybody of his accounts, but just slightly different,slightly more enhanced.It's an alternative viewpoint that can teach usabout this phenomenon.However, this approach has its downsides, too.There are a number of difficulties,and there are a number of issues that presented themselvesthroughout this project, the first of this being

  • 13:21

    what I could call overidentificationwith the study population.Having a history of addiction to these drugs myself,I've experienced some of the painsand some of the tribulations thatcome with that, when, for example, Iwas in the company of a man who was in very, verypoor health because of his heroin addiction,

  • 13:42

    because of his alcohol use.The doctors haven't given him too much longer to live.He was in a very, very severe state.I had a friend, quite a close friend,who died of a similar condition at the time a few years back.And the kind of outpouring of emotional difficultywas something I wasn't necessarily prepared for.

  • 14:02

    In lots of research methods textbooks,they talk about autoethnography and reflexivityand increased focus upon the self,but they don't talk enough about the emotional pricethat you will pay for that, I find.And a key limitation, a key difficultyof this particular methodological approachis you will take you work home with you.And that can be a whole lot harder than I first

  • 14:25

    anticipated it to be.With inside the first few weeks of being in the field,I found myself dreaming about crack cocaine again.I found myself waking up tasting it,and long-forgotten desires for these drugswere reawakened inside of myself.And that that brings with it obviously its own complexities.So paradoxically, whilst we continue to preach

  • 14:48

    and we continue to call for an increased focus upon the self,perhaps we need as researchers to be a little bit moreaware of the emotional price that that comes at.Another key point to cover, another key kindof question we need to ask around the pressas we're doing research is around ethics.And ethics in social research are a huge area.

  • 15:10

    And all the time, I need to make sure I'm conducting myselfas a sound researcher engaged in sound ethical practice.Autoethnography presents a numberof distinct ethical issues, particularly autoethnographyin this particular setting.The first one would be around disclosures,would be around the degree to which I disclosed to my study

  • 15:33

    participants my past, my biography, and my history.To begin with, we took the initial approachthat full disclosure is always best.And it would be unethical to go with anything else.So I would always tell participantsand I would tell people that I havea history of drug addiction.Unfortunately, this proved to be really, really problematic.

  • 15:54

    And then in the early days of the research whenI was negotiating access, it was this history of drug addictionwhich ruined my access options on a number of occasions.People were somewhat reticent to talk to me.They thought I was some sort of reformer.And as they found out I was an ex-addictwith nearly 10 years' clean time, theythough I wanted them to get clean or I'd be preachy

  • 16:14

    or I'd be trying to convert them to a particular wayof thinking.Conversely, I also found that treatment agencieswished to use my recovery and my history of addictionto help push people in certain directionsin their own treatment practices,which is kind of dubious on ethical grounds.So the decision was made, not likely,

  • 16:35

    but after a good deal of consultation with the projectsupervisors and with other trusted researchersthat I would hold back on my disclosures.Whilst in the field, I would resist the urgeto be completely open with people about my past.Ethically, this is somewhat dubious,but it proved to be the only way.

  • 16:57

    We made the decision, or rather I made the decision,that I would never lie, and I would neverbe intentionally misleading.And if anybody asked me as to whether or notI'd taken these drugs, I would tell them the truth.But I also made the decision that I wouldn'tmention unless I was asked.So on the few occasions in the field whereI was asked if I'd take drugs, I respondedby saying, well, yeah, when I was a bit younger I mucked

  • 17:17

    about with various drugs.And it was left at that.Nobody really cared.The truth of the matter was that my participants in the fieldheld the somewhat erroneous beliefthat a job at a university would somehow preclude someonefrom engaging in serious drug use.They were content to just assume that Iwas a kind of naive outsider.And in many respects, I kind of let that go,

  • 17:38

    and I use that to my benefit.However, there was always the issue disclosure.And so I made the decision that if I was asked,I would tell the truth.My key participant, towards the end of the research,I did tell him, because I didn't likethe idea of him hearing from anywhere else lateron down the line that I had this historyand him thinking that I'd been potentially devious

  • 17:59

    or in any way misled him.Because our relationship had developed.It was quite reassuring at the time to find out that A,he didn't really care, and B, he thoughtit was the right thing to do.The point to make here is that disclosurearound autoethnography, particularly if you'reresearching an area in which you have prior experience,isn't necessarily, though it might seem ethical

  • 18:21

    and it may seem the right thing to do,in terms of conducting the research,it may have quite significant consequences.So the area of disclosure is to be negotiatedon a case-by-case basis.There's no right or wrong approach here,full disclosure or not.As long as participants aren't deliberately misled and liedto, it's still ethically sound.

  • 18:43

    Related to this is a secondary areaaround how much I disclose of myself in my written workand how much I disclose of my past.Because drug addiction as a sociologist,I'll be quite quick to tell you, is not somethingthat occurs in isolation.People are always involved.Other people are always involved.

  • 19:03

    My history, my biography isn't something thathappened in a social vacuum.There are the people from my pastwho are still alive, who have jobs,who have careers, who do things, whomy disclosures around myself and my biographycould have a knock-on effect on them.So I have to be very careful around the waythat I frame my past, the way I identify my past exploits,

  • 19:26

    because these things have consequences.This was something that I hadn't thought about priorto commencing research.But ethically, it's something that requiredcontinuous negotiation of the principles of the research,of the principles of nonmaleficenceand not doing harm to anyone past or present.If you're going to talk about your biography and your past,

  • 19:48

    you need to be aware of the fact that thereare other people involved in that who you may impact upon.This wasn't something I'd consideredprior to starting the research.I'm now convinced it's a significant issue that meritssignificant consideration.Another ethical issue is around criminal activitiesand the degree to which I would witness criminal activities.

  • 20:09

    I knew through my own experience that if Iwent into people's homes and houses whowere long-term heroin users, long-term crack users,I would witness criminal activity.That's a given.However, there are questions about the extent to which youwould be OK with that and the point at which you wouldbreak confidentiality, the point at which you would do things.

  • 20:32

    I found this to be a really, really difficult subjectto broach.Whilst you're in the field, whilst you'remeeting new people, some of whom weren't always aware that I wasa researcher, it's not practical,it's not possible to inform everybody the whole timeabout the limits of your ethical position on criminality,so to speak.So you have to negotiate these in of yourself.

  • 20:53

    I mean, whilst I witnessed people stealing from shops,I witnessed drug deals, I witnessed all sortsof other small, what you might callpetty or acquisitive crimes, I had no issue with that.There were, however, a couple of times where I was in the fieldwhere I came very, very close to witnessing what could have beenquite serious violence, and two occasionsinvolving knives, involving sharp weapons where people

  • 21:14

    could have been quite seriously hurt or potentially evenkilled.At that stage, you have to ask yourself questionsaround your role as a researcher and how you negotiatethe ethical conundrum that is potentiallywitnessing one of these things.Would you break confidentiality?Do you talk to the police if you're called as a witness?Do you notify authorities?

  • 21:34

    What if, for example, I was seen to witnessthe abuse of a child?And there was one instance where I saw a child in a bed nextto a hypodermic syringe full of heroin.At that point, I have to ask myself some quite seriousethical questions.Do I report this?Do I inform any authorities?Do I ruin in my access and my research

  • 21:55

    in this field for the welfare of that individual childor potentially lose that child to those parents?These are quite complicated questionsthat need to be asked on an individual, case-by-case basis,which will stem from ethnographic straight orautoethnographic research.Autoethnography, particularly the type I practice,

  • 22:17

    where there's a biographical link,isn't offering a superior approachto standard ethnography where no biographic link exists.It's an alternative, possibly enhancing approach.And the key to using it and the key to understanding itis the intersection between research and biography.Both on their own are valid forms of knowledge.

  • 22:39

    You can produce valid forms of knowledgejust by hanging out with heroin usersand observing what they do.I could produce a valid form of knowledgeby writing down my past experiencesand talking about my biography and how I've learned from it.Both on their own are absolutely valid forms of knowledge.However, both on their own have their inherent limitations.And both on their own have their inherent complexities

  • 23:00

    and difficulties that preclude a full picture.When we link the two together, that'swhen things start to get really interesting,and that's when I think that we startto see the true benefit of this approach through the waysthat I was able to feel my way through the field,to negotiate things and to negotiate situations basedon my prior experience of them.

  • 23:22

    That's when we start to be able to push research in a slightlydifferent direction.It's not that we discard participants [INAUDIBLE].It's just that we question them throughtheir internal complexity, which isn't always visible.My understanding of the internal complexitiesof people's understandings of their worldis based on a similar understanding of the issues

  • 23:43

    I experienced at that time.In that sense, when we wed the complexitiesthat I know addiction comes with through my own experience of itto the complexities of heroin addictionas we see it in the field, then westart to get progressive accounts, accountsthat go past the idea of the addict as the rational chooser,as addiction as a simple learned behavior,

  • 24:05

    and start to ask some more fundamental,deep-down questions around choice, about control,and around the embodied nature of heroin addiction.I remain convinced that the best wayto do this in this particular caseis through the intersection of research and biography.We've talked about first of all the complexities of setting

  • 24:28

    up and engaging in an autoethnographic projectin terms of access to a sample and in termsof how you situate yourself in a fieldand how you actually do the research.The main issues here are around gaining accessand are around actually practicing the research,whether you use interviews, whether you use observation.

  • 24:50

    And the key point to take home is the factthat even the best laid methodological plansmay very well change based on the contours of the field.Once you're in the field, once your access is negotiated,the key point here is to be responsive to it,to use the methodological techniques, the methods thatwill suit your particular context

  • 25:10

    and facilitate the collection of data.I've also argued that an autoethnographic approach isan approach in which we should consider taking morein the future and that we can learn moreabout particular subjects through embracingour experience of them and our emotional responses to themat the same time as researching them.The key point here is that this isn't always easy emotionally.

  • 25:33

    It can be very difficult. It can beproblematic for a number of reasons.But it can be very rewarding.The key thing to do in this particular caseand in other cases like it is to work quite closelywith good supervision.There's a great paradox of autoethnographyor to ethnography, meaning the increasedexploration of the self, and the paradox is this.

  • 25:54

    You shouldn't undertake it alone.Increased focus on the self shouldbe undertaken with good support and a good networkof experienced researchers around youthat can deal with it and guide you through the difficulties.If we can achieve that, there are virtuallyno limits to where I think this research method can goand what we can learn from it.[MUSIC PLAYING]

Video Info

Publisher: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Publication Year: 2017

Video Type:Video Case

Methods: Autoethnography, Participant observation, Sensitive topics, Research ethics

Keywords: awareness; confidentiality; controlled drugs; criminal activity and policing; disclosure; drug addiction; emotion; heroin; heroin abuse; heroin dependence; identification; Supervision; treatment; trust; violence and crime; withdrawal ... Show More

Segment Info

Segment Num.: 1

Persons Discussed:

Events Discussed:

Keywords:

Abstract

Dr. Steve Wakeman discusses autoethnography as a research method, as well as his experience using autoethnography to study heroin addiction. Autoethnography uses ethnographic research strategies, such as participant observation. Wakeman used his past heroin addiction to take a different view on the heroin addicts he was studying.

Looks like you do not have access to this content.

Researching Heroin Users Using Autoethnography

Dr. Steve Wakeman discusses autoethnography as a research method, as well as his experience using autoethnography to study heroin addiction. Autoethnography uses ethnographic research strategies, such as participant observation. Wakeman used his past heroin addiction to take a different view on the heroin addicts he was studying.