Talking about drug use: what are we (and our participants) doing in qualitative research?

Anthea Martin, Paul Stenner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper considers the use of qualitative research in the drugs field. Proponents have traditionally claimed that by capturing participants’ lived experience through language, qualitative approaches are either the ‘antidote’ or the necessary complement to quantitative methods. The present paper troubles this over-simplistic dichotomy between quantitative and qualitative: both approaches often share the same ontological assumptions, rely on the same representational logic and are, in the context of ‘applied’ research, subject to a ‘will to truth’ born of a specific relation to policy. Poststructuralist ideas about the production of knowledge and the relationship between discourse and power are presented. Drugs research as both praxis and knowledge base may be seen as part of the machinery of advanced liberal government, which seeks to govern at a distance through the inscription of subjectivity. The drug user is produced and re-produced as a subject within research, always already positioned in relation to certain ‘truths’. We need to conceive of qualitative research and what our participants tell us differently, such that the constructive and constructed nature of knowledge and talk becomes the focus of inquiry. Discourse analysis - with its focus on construction and function within discourse - is presented as compatible with poststructuralist ideas. To illustrate the use of this approach, three interview accounts of how participants first came to use heroin are analysed. The discourses and subject positions underpinning the ‘peer pressure’, the ‘response to distress’ and the ‘risk appraisal’ account are described, and we consider how these accounts might function as ‘harm warrants’ for intervention. Criticisms of a poststructuralist approach and its implications for qualitative research within the broader field of drugs research and policy are addressed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)395-405
Number of pages11
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
Issue number5-6
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2004


  • Accounts
  • Discourse analysis
  • Drugs
  • Government
  • Qualitative research
  • Poststructuralism


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