QMJC August 2020: Interaction rituals in an open drug scene

First published: 02/09/2020 | Last updated: October 9th, 2020

Article:  Trond E Grønnestad,  Hildegunn Sagvaag, and Philip Lalander. (2020). Interaction rituals in an open drug scene. Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 37(1): 86–98.

Link: https://doi.org/10.1177/1455072519882784

Toronto reading group – August meeting: Carol Strike; Katherine Rudzinski; Andrea Bowra; Julia Edgar; David Kryszajtys; Melissa Perri; Jessica Xavier (Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto)

Meeting summary:

In August 2020, members of Qualitative Methods Journal Club reviewed Grønnestad et al.’s 2020 paper, Interaction rituals in an open drug scene. This ethnographic study examined human interactions and rituals within an open drug scene in a Norwegian city through participant observation as well as interviews (n=11) with people who used drugs (PWUD) who were part of the scene. The authors were particularly interested in two related issues: how can the value of interaction rituals in an open drug scene be understood? Do interaction rituals impact drug users’ decisions to remain in or return to open drug scenes? Grønnestad et al. draw on several social theories, including Goffman’s and Collins’s theories about rituals as well as Bourdieu’s concept of capital and Durkheim’s ideas on group emotions, to illuminate their findings. Grønnestad et al. found that persons in a drug scene need to have “interaction rituals”, that is specific rules and rituals to help them deal with experiences of being social outsiders and the necessity to hide their, often illegal, activities. These interaction rituals provided study participants with emotional energy, symbols of group membership, and group solidarity. Emotional energy was defined as a kind of power source that can be expressed in joy, enthusiasm, contentment, and willpower” which has social impact (p.88).The authors focus on three predominant themes: rituals that bonded scene members through mutual resistance of “normal people” who pass by, rituals that emphasize the significance of sharing drugs/services and observing rules of conduct in the scene, and rituals that produce emotional energy for the group.

Members of the journal club appreciated the explicit focus of this study on an open drug scene and the rituals that strengthen or reinforce that scene, as opposed to simply using this environment as context. The description of an open drug scene in this study challenged our understanding of these places. We discussed how our understanding of an open drug scene had been shaped by research about and personal experiences within large open drug scenes, such as a needle park in Switzerland or Christiania in Denmark, or even entire neighbourhoods, such as the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, Canada. Thus, we welcomed hearing about a smaller/more contained open drug scene in this study “the bench” – several benches within a bicycle shelter. We were particularly surprised to learn about the large number of individuals who frequented this area during the course of the study, and wondered how this portrayal might influence our selection of research sites in the cities where we work.

The journal club valued that the authors shared a detailed description of how the ethnographer gained entry into the open drug scene but also struggled to establish his credibility. We found it interesting to read about how the ethnographer was able to gain more credibility once a police officer started asking questions about them and the value of participating in sharing rituals (e.g., drinking alcohol with participants). This brought the journal club back to our discussion from last month (see July 2020 summary) about establishing your credibility as a researcher – and whether this means you have to engage in substance use similar to/with your participants? We wondered, how do we as researchers become worthy to share and learn from people who use drugs in a particular setting? Is this established through ongoing interaction and presenting ourselves as non-threatening? These complicated issues are emphasized during participant observation, but researchers face these struggles with other types of qualitative methods as well. In this study the researchers also made use of qualitative interviews to gain greater insight into the drug scene and the interaction rituals. In the past, members of our group have struggled to understand when and how to add interviews to participant observation and we hope the authors might consider writing about that methodological decision in the future (e.g., was it incident specific – following a particular ritual).

Journal club members felt that the authors effectively used their data to tell a compelling story. We enjoyed the use of imagery in this paper: the idea that “the bench” acted as a “social magnet” with a “pull factor”, and that “rituals seem to serve as a glue between insiders, as a magnet to former members, and as a wall against outsiders” (p.96). We appreciated how the data were set up and introduced; it felt seamless and the use of a quote to start the paper was effective to introduce the larger issues of the study.

Not all theory-informed qualitative research is approachable for all readers. We were impressed with how Grønnestad et al. employed specific concepts from larger theories to frame and interpret their data; the authors presented just enough theoretical background without overloading the reader and they related both the theory and their own findings back to what is known in the literature about open drug scenes. This allowed the authors to highlight what their work adds to the field.

We found it intriguing to think about how interaction rituals within open drug scenes can offer emotional energy, group solidarity, and symbols of group membership, beyond what the actual drugs were offering participants. We discussed how a qualitative research approach, as a opposed to a quantitative approach, can help us to examine in more nuanced ways what the emotional appeal of a drug scene is beyond its instrumental appeal. When the need for belonging and social connection is only found in these scenes, there is an emotional pull towards that is difficult to resist for people seeking to escape scene and change their drug use. If PWUD’s skills/qualifications are only valued/recognized within the drug scene as the authors contend, their ability to resist the pull of these scenes is further challenged. This led the journal club to consider what the impacts for treatment/recovery programs that often exhort people to avoid these places and the people in them. How do we replace the emotional energy or social connection for people who want to exit the scene? Moreover, if there is an obligation to use (e.g., you are obliged to use to maintain your place in the group) can you remain connected to this group without using/in recovery? Does one’s probability of relapse increase if you are so marginalized that you do not have any other options to feel a sense of belonging, connection, and worth?

We also considered the implication of interaction rituals on equipment sharing within the drug scene. If there are unwritten rules where you have to take/share what is being offered– rather than risk insulting other group members, it may be very difficult to resist sharing drug paraphernalia. The implications of this are heightened in the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic. We wondered if the rules about prevention of COVID-19 are relevant in these situations? We found the authors discussion about the willingness to sacrifice especially thought-provoking in this regard. The authors state, “Collins argued that the actors established shared rules of behaviour, and the degree of ritual intensity determines the willingness to sacrifice (Collins, 1993)” (p.93). To maintain credibility or your sense of place in the group – are people willing to sacrifice COVID/HIV prevention behaviours and their health to maintain it?

We welcomed the powerful statement that the authors made at the end of their paper: “Politicians, police and, not least, urban planners must take into account that people who are addicted to drugs also need a place of their own. They need to consider the value of open drug scenes as a place where people who are otherwise unwanted in ordinary society can stay, and where they can be loaded with emotional energy through rituals that fulfil the human need for belonging.” (p.96). This statement seems radical given the current situation in North America, where PWUD encampments are being bulldozed and cities are closing services/spaces for PWUD due to political/public pressure. Thus, we appreciated that the authors acknowledge that open drug scenes have value and help to fulfill PWUD’s need for emotional energy and belonging. These findings can have important implications for creation of effective policy and provision of programming/interventions/services for PWUD.

Additional Reading:

Bourgois, P., & Schonberg, J. (2009). Righteous dopefiend. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Collins, R. (1993). Emotional energy as the common denominator of rational action. Rationality and Society, 5(2), 203–230.

Goffman, E. (1967/1982). Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face interaction. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

McNeil, R., Shannon, K., Shaver, L., Kerr, T., & Small, W. (2014). Negotiating place and gendered violence in Canada’s largest open drug scene. International Journal of Drug Policy, 25(3), 608–615.

Sandberg, S., & Pedersen, W. (2011). Street capital: Black cannabis dealers in a white welfare state. Policy Press.