Notes on a methodology of researching people who use illicit drugs

It is crucial when researching illicit drug use to develop a methodology that doesn’t simply objectively collate data but ensures that data is qualitatively sound, reflecting real experiences in an authentic manner, crucially remaining true to the interviewees.

People and Dancefloors aims to invite people to share their stories of taking “recreational” drugs[i] in social contexts, and particularly at clubs, festivals, and other social events. By recruiting participants to share experiences about the meaning of drug taking in such contexts and collating those narratives together to make a short film (20-25 min), the project provides a unique channel to voice such experiences, and thus, opens the drug policy debate in the direction of affected communities. The current legal and policy landscape displays a combination of criminalisation and harm reduction practices in relation to drug use and users.[ii] Whilst advocacy organisations made up by affected communities have proliferated over the years, these tend to concentrate primarily on the narratives and needs of people who inject drugs and people who use cannabis, and not “recreational” drug users.[iii] In my previous work,[iv] I have noted that harm reduction interventions are partly compromised by criminalisation, while highlighting that affected communities are systematically excluded from public and policy fora. While reflecting on some of the underlying political-economic and cultural circumstances which both enable and constrain people’s choices in relation to drugs, the project is unique in providing a platform for expression of the voices and experiences of recreational drug users. The historical struggles for inclusion of affected communities in other policy domains to shape public discourse and policy landscapes are testament to the need for creating such platform. The project is underpinned by a collaborative and participatory ethos and will be carried out together with two research partners, a film maker and an activist, who have been involved from the project’s inception.

The project combines the medium of film with the principle of framing and the method of participatory action research. The medium of film entails the presence of a degree of subjectivity in the construction of narratives. It also provides wider access to disseminate such narratives compared to a more traditional, written medium. The concept of framing is utilised in various fields, including policy analysis and social movements literature. [v] It may be used to denote a strategy undertaken by stakeholders to shape the representation of a given political issue, or as re-framing, to describe actions taken by organisations to produce distinct narratives to portray the issue at stake, in a manner that allows greater appropriation of such narratives. Participatory action research is a well-established method in social research, and particularly research informed by feminist standpoint epistemology. Promising to give voice to the voiceless, it provides a channel for socially marginalised groups to express their views, seeking to create a more horizontal relationship between the researcher and researched[vi], instead of the more traditional ‘vertical’ relationship that has tended to characterise data collection; where information is ‘extracted’ from participants according to the designs of the researcher .[vii] Thus, the film will be participant-led. Rather than scripted in advance, any academic commentary will be responsive rather than leading, facilitating participants’ sense of ownership over the project and the personal narratives within.

[i]  ‘Recreational drugs are drugs that people take occasionally for enjoymentespecially when they are spending time socially with other people.’,

[ii] Harm reduction is defined as:

‘policies, programmes and practices that aim to reduce the harms associated with the use of psychoactive drugs in people unable or unwilling to stop. The defining features are the focus on the prevention of harm, rather than on the prevention of drug use itself, and the focus on people who continue to use drugs.’


[iv] Zampini, G. F. (2014). Governance versus government: Drug consumption rooms in Australia and the UK. International Journal of Drug Policy25(5), 978-984.

Stevens, A., & Zampini, G. F. (2018). Drug policy constellations: a Habermasian approach for understanding English drug policy. International Journal of Drug Policy57, 61-71.

Zampini, G. F. (2018). Evidence and morality in harm-reduction debates: can we use value-neutral arguments to achieve value-driven goals?. Palgrave Communications4(1), 62.

[v] Van Hulst, M., & Yanow, D. (2016). From policy “frames” to “framing” theorizing a more dynamic, political approach. The American Review of Public Administration46(1), 92-112.

[vi] Fitzgibbon, W., & Stengel, C. M. (2017). Women’s voices made visible: Photovoice in visual criminology. Punishment & Society, 1-21

Salmon, A., Browne, A. J., & Pederson, A. (2010). ‘Now we call it research’: participatory health research involving marginalized women who use drugs. Nursing Inquiry17(4), 336-345.

[vii] O’Neill, M. (2010). Cultural criminology and sex work: Resisting regulation through radical democracy and participatory action research (PAR). Journal of Law and Society37(1), 210-232. PAR offers the potential to forge a sense of collectiveness, while also encouraging a sense of ownership over a shared project. ‘it includes all those involved, where possible, thus facilitating shared ownership of the development and outcomes of the research’ (O’Neill, 226)

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