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Unhealthy Habits: Unlearning Methodological Divisions to Enable the Study of Drug-using Social Worlds

Prof. Nancy Campbell (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, History of Science and Technology)

Lunch Lecture am 23. November 2017


Methods are committed modes of attention; students learn them over time as they are being initiated into disciplinary knowledge projects. Mature researchers comfortably inhabit methods. An assumption that has become an unhealthy habit, the quantitative/qualitative divide haunts the social sciences and to a more limited extent the humanities. In advocating the unlearning of this “unhealthy habit,” this talk reimagines the multiple methodological possibilities for making knowledge via multidisciplinary collaborations. Concretely, this talk presents the varieties of empirical documentation of historical experiences of opioid drug use in the United States. How do we know what we know about this topic? By what methodologies have knowledge claims been produced about drugs and their users? What conceptual methodologies are useful for producing interpretive work situated within the material conditions and social relations of their production? We in the history of science and medicine owe much to feminist theories of situated knowledges, practices, new ‘objectivities’ and ‘subjectivities’ that reply to what Michael Polanyi termed “indwelling.” The interdisciplinary knowledge formation known as Science and Technology Studies (STS) gets around this problem by scrutinizing material and discursive practices—what researchers actually do in addition to what they write and say—and reconstructing the conceptual methodologies that are used to ground knowledge claims in different domains.

As a social and cultural historian of the sciences that study opioid drug addiction, I have been forced to learn the assumptions of the many domains that study “drugs” as a complex object and “drug users” as complex subjects. Doing so often requires “unlearning” in order to study multiple domains from the perspectives of public health epidemiologists working for agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control; ethnographers working to identify emergent trends for the National Institute of Drug Abuse; or “community epidemiologists” surveilling current street-level practices for the Drug Enforcement Agency; social scientists studying everything from etiology to inequality; psychologists, psychotherapists, and psychoanalysts; economists studying illicit drug economies; natural scientists who study the pharmacology, pharmacodynamics, and pharmacokinetics of synthetic opioids; and neuroscientists who study the effects of drugs upon the brains of human and nonhuman subjects. This lunch lecture tells the story of how STS has evolved meta-methodologies in order to integrate and critically situate sciences that straddle the qualitative/quantitative divide.