Research in the laboratory setting is tightly controlled (ideally), but things are more chaotic ‘in the field’. Contemporary research is moving into newer, sometimes dangerous, areas of research (eg urban tribes, drug supply, terrorist groups), from new/er theoretical positions (ethnographic, feminist, postmodern, Queer), with the ethical and personal challenges that accompany ‘frontier’ research. Does that mean that academic credibility is at risk from lawless cowboys trampling ethics and getting drunk with the Indians? I will discuss the design and results of my investigations into recreational drug use, drug attitudes and drug supply, to illustrate some of the strengths and dangers of contemporary field research.
My research into cannabis use and marketing in a highly visible ‘alternative’ community crossed disciplines and used a participant-focused multi-method design — including a door-to-door household survey of drug use; taped and participant-edited interviews with public figures; semi-structured interviews with crop growers and dealers; and participant-observation of festivals, protests, and the street drug market. The multidisciplinary and multi-method design provided a richer, more detailed and more balanced picture of illegal activities in an over-policed community. Unexpected, however, were the ethical challenges, design changes, and relationships I developed with participants, all of which influenced the design and results of my research, and demanded critical self-evaluation. The research experience was a reflexive journey, a minefield of ethical dilemmas, and sometimes it was downright dangerous. Cowgirl? Possibly. Lawless? Sometimes.
There are more opportunities for advocacy and information exchange (if not outright collaboration with the group under study) in contemporary social research. Riskier, on-the-edge (and often highly individualistic) research designs are necessary for a responsive and expanding interface between science and society. Correspondingly essential are the conversations—both within the academy and between researchers, the researched, and the wider community—about ‘frontier ethics’, relevance, accountability, and inclusion.
|Keywords:||Drug Research, Field Ethics, Cannabis, Cultural Studies/Ethnography, Nimbin|
Casual Academic Staff, Arts Department, School of Arts & Social Sciences, Southern Cross University, Lismore, New South Wales, Australia