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Stigma through the eyes of people who use(d) illegal drugs : challenging boundaries through Participatory Action Research

(2021)
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Abstract
Stigma towards people who use(d) illegal drugs (PWUDs) has been articulated as an enduring societal problem by scholars, practitioners, advocacy organisations and PWUDs. Stigma can negatively affect the overall well-being and health of PWUDs, especially with regard to people who experience problems with drugs, who would like to receive support or are in recovery. Furthermore, an extensive body of literature documents the phenomenon of intra-group stigma and boundary work among PWUDs as a strategy for constructing positive (narrative) identities. In this sense, it has been argued that the rationale of drug stigma and stereotypes is maintained and reproduced across several levels, including academia and PWUDs. Meanwhile, the question of how (intra-group) drug stigma could be altered, remains pressing. Against this background, this doctoral study took on a Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach. The epistemology of PAR advocates a close and equal cooperation between academic researchers and participants – co-researchers in this case – in the articulation and enactment of scientific research. Moreover, a significant element of PAR is to engage in action, in order to address concerns expressed by the involved people. Based on the existing knowledge about intra-group stigma, this study explicitly gathered a diverse research team of nine people who use(d) different illegal drugs, in diverting ways and with varying backgrounds. As such, this research aimed to gain insight into 1) significant concerns within the research team regarding drug use and how team members can engage in action(s) on a personal and collective level; and 2) theoretical, ethical and methodological lessons learnt from conducting PAR with a diverse group of PWUDs, also with regard to boundary work. As a research team, we worked together for a period of two years and collaboratively decided on the focus, strategies and objectives of this work. Through team meetings (N=18) and one-on-one conversations (N=14), the PAR team decided to spotlight (public) drug stigma as a major issue. We critically analysed the architecture of historical and contemporary drug stigma, its structural (f)actors and its social, political, personal and experiential dimensions. Based on these reflections and analyses, our creative actions eventually encompassed the publication of an article in Sociaal.net and our participation as a team to the 2020-2021 conference of the Flemish centre of expertise on alcohol and other drugs (VAD). The analysis of the team shows that stigma provides a skewed and reductionist representation of drugs, their diverting meanings and the people who use them. The nexus between stigma and taboo, creates societal knowledge lacunas with a pervasive impact on people who are (in)directly targeted by drug stigma. Based on a historical reflection and a vast body of (experiential) knowledge within the team, co-researchers question political and structural rationales for upholding drug stigma. The PAR collaboration of a heterogenous team of PWUDs, moreover resulted in a gentler theoretical and empirical interpretation of symbolic boundary work among PWUDs. Therefore, the concept of intra-group stigma was expanded and offers pathways for further research and social change. Furthermore, our rather experimental practice of PAR enriches the understanding of diverting fields of (experiential) expertise, their relevancy for academic research and strategies to blend various ways of knowing in a democratic way. Therefore, this study adds to the epistemological, ethical and methodological understanding of collaborative research, especially regarding PAR in drug research and criminology.
Keywords
Participatory Action Research (PAR), illegal drugs, stigma, ethics, methods

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MLA
Van Impe, Michelle. Stigma through the Eyes of People Who Use(d) Illegal Drugs : Challenging Boundaries through Participatory Action Research. Ghent University. Faculty of Law and Criminology, 2021.
APA
Van Impe, M. (2021). Stigma through the eyes of people who use(d) illegal drugs : challenging boundaries through Participatory Action Research. Ghent University. Faculty of Law and Criminology, Ghent, Belgium.
Chicago author-date
Van Impe, Michelle. 2021. “Stigma through the Eyes of People Who Use(d) Illegal Drugs : Challenging Boundaries through Participatory Action Research.” Ghent, Belgium: Ghent University. Faculty of Law and Criminology.
Chicago author-date (all authors)
Van Impe, Michelle. 2021. “Stigma through the Eyes of People Who Use(d) Illegal Drugs : Challenging Boundaries through Participatory Action Research.” Ghent, Belgium: Ghent University. Faculty of Law and Criminology.
Vancouver
1.
Van Impe M. Stigma through the eyes of people who use(d) illegal drugs : challenging boundaries through Participatory Action Research. [Ghent, Belgium]: Ghent University. Faculty of Law and Criminology; 2021.
IEEE
[1]
M. Van Impe, “Stigma through the eyes of people who use(d) illegal drugs : challenging boundaries through Participatory Action Research,” Ghent University. Faculty of Law and Criminology, Ghent, Belgium, 2021.
@phdthesis{8722239,
  abstract     = {{Stigma towards people who use(d) illegal drugs (PWUDs) has been articulated as an enduring societal problem by scholars, practitioners, advocacy organisations and PWUDs. Stigma can negatively affect the overall well-being and health of PWUDs, especially with regard to people who experience problems with drugs, who would like to receive support or are in recovery. Furthermore, an extensive body of literature documents the phenomenon of intra-group stigma and boundary work among PWUDs as a strategy for constructing positive (narrative) identities. In this sense, it has been argued that the rationale of drug stigma and stereotypes is maintained and reproduced across several levels, including academia and PWUDs. Meanwhile, the question of how (intra-group) drug stigma could be altered, remains pressing. 

Against this background, this doctoral study took on a Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach. The epistemology of PAR advocates a close and equal cooperation between academic researchers and participants – co-researchers in this case – in the articulation and enactment of scientific research. Moreover, a significant element of PAR is to engage in action, in order to address concerns expressed by the involved people. Based on the existing knowledge about intra-group stigma, this study explicitly gathered a diverse research team of nine people who use(d) different illegal drugs, in diverting ways and with varying backgrounds. As such, this research aimed to gain insight into 1) significant concerns within the research team regarding drug use and how team members can engage in action(s) on a personal and collective level; and 2) theoretical, ethical and methodological lessons learnt from conducting PAR with a diverse group of PWUDs, also with regard to boundary work. As a research team, we worked together for a period of two years and collaboratively decided on the focus, strategies and objectives of this work. Through team meetings (N=18) and one-on-one conversations (N=14), the PAR team decided to spotlight (public) drug stigma as a major issue. We critically analysed the architecture of historical and contemporary drug stigma, its structural (f)actors and its social, political, personal and experiential dimensions. Based on these reflections and analyses, our creative actions eventually encompassed the publication of an article in Sociaal.net and our participation as a team to the 2020-2021 conference of the Flemish centre of expertise on alcohol and other drugs (VAD).

The analysis of the team shows that stigma provides a skewed and reductionist representation of drugs, their diverting meanings and the people who use them. The nexus between stigma and taboo, creates societal knowledge lacunas with a pervasive impact on people who are (in)directly targeted by drug stigma. Based on a historical reflection and a vast body of (experiential) knowledge within the team, co-researchers question political and structural rationales for upholding drug stigma. The PAR collaboration of a heterogenous team of PWUDs, moreover resulted in a gentler theoretical and empirical interpretation of symbolic boundary work among PWUDs. Therefore, the concept of intra-group stigma was expanded and offers pathways for further research and social change. Furthermore, our rather experimental practice of PAR enriches the understanding of diverting fields of (experiential) expertise, their relevancy for academic research and strategies to blend various ways of knowing in a democratic way. Therefore, this study adds to the epistemological, ethical and methodological understanding of collaborative research, especially regarding PAR in drug research and criminology.}},
  author       = {{Van Impe, Michelle}},
  keywords     = {{Participatory Action Research (PAR),illegal drugs,stigma,ethics,methods}},
  language     = {{eng}},
  pages        = {{360}},
  publisher    = {{Ghent University. Faculty of Law and Criminology}},
  school       = {{Ghent University}},
  title        = {{Stigma through the eyes of people who use(d) illegal drugs : challenging boundaries through Participatory Action Research}},
  year         = {{2021}},
}