Care-full engagements: researching recovery from alcohol and other drugs (AOD)

Lena Theodoropoulou

In October 2016 I started conducting empirical research with people in recovery from AOD[1]. Through the oral and visual narratives of service-users engaging with two recovery services, one in Liverpool, UK and one in Athens, Greece, I followed the connections emerging between the two fieldsites. As part of my empirical research with the two recovery services I engaged with their practices through volunteering, I conducted semi-structured interviews with service-users and members of staff, and a photovoice project with service-users. Taking the contextual into consideration, as well as situating my analysis within ongoing debates on recovery, my aim was to empirically demonstrate that it is not the disengagement from drug use that drives the recovery process, but the production of connections that enhance a body’s power of acting. Following service-users’ experiences, recovery is unfolded as a practice of collective care, entangled with a body’s capacity to affect and be affected.

Staying with the connections emerging through practices of care invites reflection on my standpoint; drawing on feminist Science and Technology Studies (STS), I understand care as an ongoing commitment to being troubled, worried, sorrowed, uneasy, and unsettled (Murphy, 2015: 721). ‘To care’ means to become attached and committed to something; it directs us to a notion of material doing, an ethically and politically charged practice (de la Bellacasa, 2011: 89-90, emphasis in original).  In the practice of empirical sociological research, this commitment encompasses a problematisation of how the knowledges we produce are affected by the positions we occupy within our chosen fields of study.

My interest in recovery from drugs started to grow while training in art therapy at an Athens-based drug recovery centre. Having no previous knowledge of the theory and practice of recovery left me open to becoming affected by the forces in place, and to embrace the enthusiasm of the service-workers and users. Following Gomart’s (2004) experience from conducting empirical research with a detoxification clinic, enthusiasm refers to the researcher’s decision to enter the fieldsite looking for colleagues, for those asking the same questions, for service-users and workers we can learn from. Through this experience, recovery shifted from a matter of interest to a matter of care (de la Bellacasa, 2011). My care for recovery was materialised through empirical research practice, and specifically my engagement with two recovery services in Liverpool and Athens.

Caring for the practice of recovery can be done from various different standpoints and acquire various meanings; ‘…what care can mean in each situation cannot be resolved by ready-made explanations. It could be said that introducing care requires critical standpoints that are careful’ (de la Bellacasa, 2011: 96, emphasis in original). My chosen standpoint while conducting fieldwork was one of ‘in-between-ness’. In ethnographic studies, the terms ‘outsider’ and ‘insider’ are often mobilised to describe the transition of the researcher from an external body to someone that stands with the population they are researching (Maher, 1997). However, these terms are contested as being unable to grasp ‘the effect of a dual transition on the part of both researcher and researched as they struggle to create and continually re-negotiate the space or ‘between-ness’ opened up by the ethnographic encounter’ (Maher, 1997: 231). My experience of fieldwork resonates with Maher’s argument that the relationships built during empirical research are too complex to be accounted for through the description of the researcher as an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’. Conversely, ‘in-between-ness’, leaves more space for the exploration of the liminal spaces created during fieldwork, and the knowledge that these liminal spaces produce (Enosh and Ben-Ari, 2016).

Throughout my engagement with the collaborating services and their users I was positioned ‘in-between’ in various different ways. To start with I was in-between two services, in different contexts and with different treatment approaches, attempting to make sense of the connections bringing them closer. Secondly I was in-between the academia and the recovery workers, as a PhD researcher whose approach is informed by my previous experience as a worker in the field. Additionally, in both services, I worked as a volunteer for approximately six months, before and while conducting research. I was therefore in-between full-time members of staff and service-users, a volunteer who is expected to follow rules and boundaries but does not share the same responsibilities as permanent members of staff do. Finally, in relation to the service-users I was in-between the position of a volunteer and a researcher. Although I was performing tasks that volunteers do, I was asking more questions and, through the interviews and the photography projects, I spent more time with them and got to know them in a different way that I would have, if my only identity had been that of a volunteer.             

This in-between-ness led to a significant amount of self-reflection in relation to my standpoint that was constantly re-negotiated. ‘In-between-ness’ rendered me aware in practice of how our standpoints affect the situated knowledges we produce (Haraway, 1988) and what it means, when conducting empirical research, to view from a body, rather than to view from above (Strathern, 2004). Occupying my own ‘unique’ position in the field, revealed the uniqueness and particularity of each service, as well as the uniqueness of the connections created within the services. This standpoint derived from the acquisition of multiple attributions (support worker in the past, sociology researcher in the present and volunteer throughout), and consequently the creation of multiple social positions (Knight, 2015: 26). By occupying these different positionalities I refrained from isolating the narratives of service-users from the spaces within which they were becoming. Conversely, I was interested in situating these narratives within the recovery space, by ‘taking seriously all actors’ (Knight, 2015: 233) involved in the practice of recovery. ‘Taking seriously’ refers to a commitment to not look for ‘blame’ among those that deliver or experience recovery, but to follow and unfold the complexities of the recovery process.

Therefore, researching recovery as a matter of care signified in this project a care not for one aspect of recovery, for example the workers, or service-users, but for all human and non-human components that hold the recovery process together. Following this line of thought, ‘in-between-ness’ becomes an alternate standpoint, both methodologically and empirically, a care-full positionality deriving from the intention to stand with the services and become surprised by their practices (Gomart, 2004). In-between-ness was produced, at the given time and space, as a way to understand what kind of worlds were being made in the recovery space (Latimer, 2018), while becoming intimate with the ordinary daily practices of recovery practice (Latimer and Strathern, 2019).  

This is not however to suggest that certain forms of care should be prioritised over others. All ways and practices of care carry exclusions that very often remain unknown until practices of care emerging from a different standpoint render them visible. Ethnographers researching recovery spaces have often chosen to either keep their distance from the professionals or to adopt a more flexible approach when it came to boundaries with participants (Garcia, 2010; Zigon, 2011). In other words, they enter the service with the intention to engage with service-users, rather than to search for colleagues among users and workers (Gomart, 2004: 86). This one-way alliance of researchers with service-users potentially produces knowledges and practices of care that remain hidden when one remains in-between, colluding with both service users and workers.  Overall, the question of care in empirical research is entangled with questions of positionality in the fieldsite. From a feminist technosicence studies lens, care is a knowledge-making practice (Martin, Myers and Viseu, 2015: 627). Knowledge is produced with care, and in many cases questions of positionality and practices of care cannot be answered in advance but through empirical engagements in the field. However, care cannot be uncritically deployed as ‘good practice’ (Martin, Myers and Viseu, 2015). Critical questions ‘about who will do the work of care, as well as how to do it and for whom’ (de la Bellacasa, 2011: 91-92) should not be side-lined but constantly present in our care-full engagements with participants and practices. Whether care is directly addressed through our chosen epistemologies and methodologies or not, empirical sociological research is an expression of care, and by extension an expression of the ethical and political positions we occupy within the worlds we choose to engage with.

Lena Theodoropoulou is a researcher and drug and alcohol recovery practitioner interested in how practices of care come into being through the encounters taking place within spaces of recovery. She recently completed an ESRC-funded PhD at the University of Liverpool, department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology. Her thesis is an empirical exploration of the material and affective, human and nonhuman components that shape recovery practices in recovery services in Athens and Liverpool. Through empirical research, her aim is to unfold recovery as a practice of collective care, and to argue for the reconstitution of policy as a practice, emerging organically through the affective relations produced inside the recovery space.

[1] Alcohol and other drugs (AOD) is a term widely used within the relevant literature, and challenges the distinction between legal and illegal substances. 

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