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9 The PCP Study in Context: Some Comments on Policy and Method PDF Print E-mail
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Books - Angel Dust
Written by Administrator   
Saturday, 13 October 2012 11:07

The chapters you have just read constitute something of an innovation in ethnographic studies of drug use. Four ethnographers, working independently, though coordinated through meetings and site visits, studied PCP users in four U.S. cities. While there is a tradition of coordinated team studies in anthropology, the simultaneous use of several ethnographers in different settings has not previously been done in the area of U.S. drug research. Most drug ethnographies to date represent the classic model of a single ethnographer associating for some period of time with a small number of individuals. By coordinating four different ethnographers in four different settings, several advantages are gained. Among them are the larger number of individuals contacted and the advantage of multiple perspectives on the same type of chemical-using groups. Similarities that appear across four different cities studied by four different ethnographers are likely to be generalizeable. Similarly, if there are differences in PCP use across the country, the differences in settings, researcher, and group studied are quite likely to reveal them.

By coordinating their work through meetings, site visits, and telephone calls, the four were able to retain their sensitivity to the specifics of the local research setting while at the same time ensuring that some subset of the total information obtained was comparable with the work of the others. The results of their work offer an initial picture of PCP use in context for the outsider with no personal contact with use or users. There are a number of methodological questions that qualify the study results, and these will be considered in some detail shortly. But even the most skeptical reader will admit, I think, that the four reports offer a description of PCP use at once much richer than, and at variance with, current descriptions available in the professional literature.

One is reminded of the early ethnographic work on the heroin addict done by myself, Feldman, Sutter, and Preble during the sixties. At that time, the dominant portrait of the addict in the literature was that of a social-psychological failure. The research question of interest was how best to "explain" that status, the particular choice of independent variables depending on the theoretical commitment of the researcher. In contrast, the addict ethnographies described a more complicated image of the addict, one that allowed for success as well as failure. The ethnographic reports contained in this book elicit in a veteran of U.S. drug ethnography a remarkable sense of deja vu.

The "drug field"—research, prevention, treatment, and law enforcement—depends for its existence on drug "problems"—drug abuse. Seldom are the basic postulates of our notions of "drug abuse" examined, except for study-specific operational definitions of questionnable relevance to the phenomenological world of use. Such distance gives a false sense of clarity, uncomplicated by first-hand knowledge of use or users. Such a situation reminds one of the British civil servant in India who knows little of Hinduism, the corporate manager who knows nothing about her employees, the professor who knows nothing about his students. Power and distance allow one's interpretation of the world to persist untrammeled by contradictory information.

It is in just this kind of situation that sensitive policy makers find one of the major frustrations of their role. Limited by the constraints of their position, they can hardly be expected to venture out and invest the time and energy to document a series of direct experiences with the groups about whom they are formulating policy. One of the messages of this book is that they do not have to. There is available to policy makers a research tradition in the social sciences which is here called ethnography. It has also gone, more or less appropriately, by a variety of other names—phenomenology, symbolic interactionism, dramaturgy, field work, qualitative analysis, and ethnomethodology, to name few.

Ethnography is not usually part of the public image of "social science." Ethnography is not the same as checking a hypothesis through surveys or tests, though it may draw on such techniques as part of the research. As discussed in the earlier methodology chapter, ethnography emphasizes learning how some group perceives and acts on their world. Because this learning requires time, complicated social relations with group members, and the distillation of pattern from various informal and formal interviewing and observing, ethnography poses numerous methodological challenges. The scientific goal of publicly displaying some of the experiences that lead from research to general statement—doing so in a manner that potentially can prove the researcher wrong—takes on an intricacy that is not present in more limited investigator-controlled kinds of research.

Yet the dominant alternative paradigm—the testing of hypotheses—cannot do what ethnography does. Control is achieved at the expense of understanding the broader nature of the human situation. Variables are clearly operationalized at the risk of misunderstanding the context-sensitive response of the "subject" who attempts to fit his behavior to the situation imposed by the researcher. Hypothesis testing is, of course, a powerful tool with applications in the study of human life, but it does not substitute for the inductive search for pattern in order to understand the "native's" world.

This is not the place to discuss various reasearch modes and their comparative strengths and weaknesses. Some readings are listed at the end of this chapter for those interested in pursuing samples of the literature on ethnographic research. For the present, I would like to discuss briefly two aspects of the study contained in this book. The first aspect has to do with the study as a drug research methodology; the second, with it as a more general exemplar of ethnographic research.

Viewed from the drug field, the studies in this book show the naviete of the current view of PCP use. As often happens, the relationship of the chemical and the user is characterized in its worst possible form. Further, effects attributed to the drug may be in the mind of the nonuser rather than in the experience of the user. PCP, like many chemicals before it, is described as a controlling force causing the user to engage in behavior that is overwhelmingly, often terrifyingly, negative.

As the studies show, PCP use is much more complex and variable than this image would suggest. In fact, the studies point out that it is sometimes the very complexity and variety of experiences attributed to the drug that are the basis for its attractions. PCP as a frequent cause of violence is hardly supported by the four ethnographic accounts. Compulsive destructive use is reported, but interestingly enough, most users discussed in the studies had learned to control the effects. Further, users intervene to prevent the occurrence of "abuse" in others; failing that, they disassociate themselves from self-destructive users. From this perspective, users theniselves display a wide range of PCP use, running from use to abuse, with a repertoire of informal strategies for abuse prevention when a friend begins to move into the abusive end of the continuum.

Bad experiences attributed to the chemical do sometimes occur, as reported in the ethnographies, but one is struck by their infrequency and predictability. It does not frighten the groups discussed here to consider that occassionally a negative experience will occur. The possibility, in fact, is part of the attraction for some. Further, the ethnographies often report a series of strategies whereby the group provides support for the user suffering a bad experience. There is a sort of "emergency room" system for dealing with such problems—things can be done to counter the bad effects when they occur.

Finally, it appears that PCP use, to the extent that it was ever "epidemic," has declined in popularity. It is now just another item in a growing chemical repertoire. From the four studies we get a picture of PCP as one of a number of chemicals which wax and wane in the chemical ecology of American society. As Cleckner (one of the ethnographers in this study) has argued elsewhere, the "subcultural" model of drug use is not as useful as it was in the sixties. Then, if one knew that an individual was "into" heroin, acid, or speed, one could predict from the chemical several aspects of the user's lifestyle—or at least we thought we could.

But recently several confounding factors have come to our attention. One is the variety of ways that chemicals and lifestyles are integrated in the late seventies. Another is the complicated variety of chemicals available, changing with the vagaries of the pharmaceutical industry, law enforcement priorities, and user experiences. PCP, like other drugs before and after it, appeared and increased in popularity, then declined into more limited patterns of use as it became integrated into the chemical repertoire of the world of users.

This book provides an argument against the simple tendency to characterize a substance user only in terms of uncontrolled use causing exclusively negative reactions. It also cautions against basing our ideas about use on just those who come into contact with "official" treatment and law enforcement agencies. To the extent that this model dominates our notions of drug use, treatment, and prevention approaches based on it will look naive at best to those in actual contact with use, not to mention to the users themselves.

None of this is an argument for or against use—one of the problems of some drug research is that it is a priori committed to finding arguments for or against use. One sometimes feels that nothing delights some nonusers more than the ability to state that use of a particular substance can "kill." Others, with a prejudice in favor of a chemical, sometimes belittle potential problems accompanying high-dosage frequent use.

The ethnographies in this book begin to show the variety of effects of PCP, the many reasons for its desirability or undesirability, and the different ways that it is integrated into a variety of lifestyles. They begin to offer a much more sophisticated base for policy makers to answer some difficult questions. Is a response called for? If so, what forms of use constitute "abuse," on what basis, in whose terms? Given an "abusive" form of use, what sort of services should be provided, if any? On the basis of the ethnographies, there are clearly some individuals who have difficulties with PCP, some of them isolated from their more controlled PCP-using friends. How does one reach them, who should do it, and what should they do when they get there? The studies presented in this book suggest the complexity of these questions. They do not answer them. More knowledge, as the cliche goes, is necessary.

This is one of the frustrations of the policy makers response to ethnography, or social science research in general. I was recently at a meeting where a policy person asked when researchers were going to offer "simple declarative sentences" upon which policy could be based. Therein lies a tension between ethnographic studies on policy issues and the policies themselves. Action without knowledge is neither desirable nor effective. But knowledge, especially knowledge on a complex, variable form of human behavior, may be impossible to summarize in a short list of simple declarative sentences. This tension will not be resolved here, but it suggests that if there is to be a growing interaction between ethnographers and policy makers, a framework within which they can productively communicate must be constructed.

The studies represented here do show that the current policy on PCP is oversimplified at best. They offer a series of "existence hypotheses"—statements that there exist patterns such that our current notions of PCP use are inadequate. However, as noted by several of the authors in this book, the study was a restricted one. Within the limits of time and budget, the four ethnographers produced reports notable for their breadth and depth. However, I would now like to consider them in a broader methodological context—both from ethnographic and hypothesis-testing points of view.

Ethnography is a difficult process to define. In its classic form in anthropology, it involved a long-term association with some group of people—usually a small community—for the purpose of learning from them the beliefs and activities that constituted their way of life. The emphasis was on breadth and connectedness—a portrayal that covered the range of situations group members ordinarily moved through together with the connections between various situations.

Since this learning occurred systematically and serendipitiously, formally and informally, and since it derived from a variety of verbal interactions and nonverbal observations, there was an emphasis on the creative use of intuition and pattern perception on the part of the ethnographer. The ethnpgrapher tried to build a model of the context within which group actions become interpretable in a manner that made sense within the community. The emphasis was on learning the meaning of the perceivable stream of behavior to the group.

In many ways, the four ethnographies represented here are exemplars of this classic approach. The ethnographers associated with groups—usually groups previously known to them or introduced through trusted intermediaries—to learn their interpretations of PCP use. In their reports, a statement of pattern is followed by illustrative quotes or observations. In key areas, counterexamples or deviant cases are also cited to give some sense of the range of variation.

The fours studies differ from traditional ethnography in several ways as well. In this sense, they represent the current adaptation of ethnography to the study of complex urban societies. Among other things, there are the problems of group boundaries and problem focus. The constraints on the study forced narrow definitions on both counts, perhaps partly accounting for the ethnographer's statements, reported in my earlier chapter, that they felt that they had just begun their work in the limited time allotted. There was more to life than just PCP use and participation in PCP-using groups.

All four tried to sketch at least some of the other contexts that were significant for informants. But time did not allow for detailed study beyond the chemical-centered situations.

Another methodological problem involves more formal presentation of ethnographic data. By going to other research published by the ethnographers represented in this book, you will find more of a concern with methodological rigor built on the important early phase of informal work. Such rigor is introduced in a variety of ways. One strategy is to build an explicit model on the informal material and then systematically test some of its implications against further data. Another way is to attempt to document the learning process, at least in key areas. In the few months available to this team, there was simply not time for this kind of methodological development.

A third methodological problem has to do with the distribution of pattern. As mentioned earlier, the four ethnographies clearly show the inadequacy of current mainstream stereotypes of PCP use. The appropriate question that a policy maker might now raise is "How typical of PCP use are the patterns described in these studies?" The question is an appropriate one, given that a policy maker is putting his or her reputation on the line in advocating new policy to fit characterizations of use quite contrary to the accepted common wisdom.

This question is answerable, but again not in the time limits of this study. Ethnographers are not necessarily antisurvey, but they generally believe that a distribution check must be conducted after the appropriate knowledge has been gained from the intensive study of a small number of people for pattern. Having achieved that, the ethnographer knows how to define appropriately valid indicators of discovered patterns and has a sense of how to ask the right people the right questions in the right way.

It would be relatively straightforward for the four to design brief systematic checks of the patterns they discovered. As an example of one kind of strategy, the ethnographer might learn the range of PCP-using groups in his or her area and then locate some sample of "representative types" against whom to check for variation in those patterns. This, in fact, is the strategy being followed by James Walters, who is continuing the research he began on this project under further research funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

These methodological shortcomings are important for a variety of reasons. First of all, they reflect the frustrations of these ethnographers—as they would be expressed by any ethnographer—with the limitations on their work. A few months is just time to get started. Were it not for the ongoing involvement of the four ethnographers in their communities prior to the study, it would have been impossible to accomplish the results in the time allowed.

Yet another reason for discussing methodological limitations is that we hope that this book will be read by nonethnographers in a variety of different service agencies. Besides being a report on a specific study, we hope that the book will serve as an example of the uses to which ethnography can be put. Since many of the readers may not be familiar with ethnography, we would not want them to leave with a sense that these studies represent the limits of ethnographic work.

The development of more systematic ethnographic approaches is one of the frontiers of the field, a frontier that many of the participants in this volume are helping to explore. But this increase in systematization, from an ethnographic point of view, must be grounded in the critical informal phase of ethnographic research. With the few months allowed for this study, the basic informal work was the most that could be accomplished.

Even with the methodological limitations, though, the studies remain a rich demonstration of the use of ethnography. PCP users begin to come to life. The image of a chemically controlled monster is transformed into a view of people who do a variety of things, sometimes involving chemicals, sometimes specifically involving PCP. Many manage their use quite well; some do not; others experiment with the chemical and then essentially quit. The ethnographers report, sometimes in their own words, sometimes in those of their informants, what they have learned about PCP, its variable effects, and its relevance to the flow of situations that constitute daily life for different groups of users.

On the basis of what is reported in this book, current policy rests on assumptions about users that are simply not supported. The study demonstrates that PCP use is more complex and variable than we initially supposed. Rather than trying to respond to a situation we do not understand, it is more sensible to take further steps to investigate the phenomenon so that more realistic plans can be developed. Then we could decide more sensibly if we are creating a problem or responding to one.

In fact, the process is continuing. Partly as a result of this study, Services Research Branch at NIDA sponsored a conference between ethnographers and single state agency directors to discuss possible interactions between ethnographic research and state alcohol and drug planning. The state representatives expressed frustration with the current sources of information on patterns of chemical use that they rely on. Their frustration is reinforced by the results of this study, since, as Feldman indicated in his earlier chapter, one of the results is to show that traditional indicators of drug use failed to pick up the spread of PCP use reported here. In addition, no "indicators" could give the breadth of understanding of PCP use in situ as this study did.

The conference was a first attempt to explore a common framework between ethnographers and state planners. While the methodology was of interest to everyone, there were a variety of problems raised. The ethnographers, for example, often expressed concern about ethical issues, ranging from the details of doing their research to the uses to which their work would be put. The state representatives, to take another example, sometimes felt that the ethnographers were not sensitive enough to the kinds of bureaucratic constraints within which they operate. But the conference was a hopeful beginning for the use of ethnography in one of its most potentially important roles in complex society—the humanization of stereotypes. To paraphrase an Indian proverb, before you judge a person, you should walk a mile in his moccasins. Ethnography requires that walk as a part of its methodology and struggles with the task of documenting it for the benefit of a skeptical outsider.


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