Selected for the first Qualitative Methods Journal Club hosted by Simon Fraser University, an article which explores men’s experiences of ‘coming off drugs’ and going through self-detoxification in prison. The group highlight findings about the role of social dynamics and vulnerability to violence in participants’ decision-making, as well as issues raised by the study such as ethics, sampling, and data quality in qualitative research.

About this month’s journal club

The article (available here) was discussed online (Zoom) within Simon Fraser University. Members included research and teaching faculty, as well as postgraduate and graduate students. Alissa Greer (School of Criminology, Simon Fraser University) presented and led the discussion, and gave the following insight into the November 2021 meeting of the journal club:

“This paper elicited an inquisitive process throughout reading and discussing it. We learned about new theories, explored alternative ways of writing qualitative findings, and reflected on our own practice. This article served as an excellent starting point for our journal club; it raised several interesting discussion points that we were eager to talk about.”

Summary of the article

The article by Ian Walmsley presented a qualitative examination of men’s experiences of ‘coming off drugs’ and going through self-detoxification in prison. The author used the idea of the absent body and literature on prison masculinity (1 2) as an analytic framework in this examination. Social dynamics and vulnerability to violence played a big role in participants’ decisions to ‘self-detox’ or not.

One of the interesting findings was that the men were vulnerable both to violence in the prison by continuing to use drugs, but also by being on methadone and using harm reduction services given the pressure to supply the drug market inside prison. The men described using strategies, such as keeping a low profile, to mitigate this vulnerability to violence, therefore underscoring the agency that men who use drugs have in prison.

The author concluded the article by asking how the prison medical system may support self-detoxification and prevent future victimisation among men who use drugs.

Discussion of the article

Sampling and data quality in qualitative research

Journal club members highly appreciated the level of detail the author provided in the method section of this publication. The author was forthcoming and provided details about the challenges in sampling and how they proceeded with the analysis. The author faced several unanticipated bureaucratic obstacles leading to a different sample size than originally anticipated.

Initially, the author aimed to sample a prison population but, citing safety concerns from prison administration, could not access this group. Instead, sampling occurred through community organisations. However, after ten interviews the author was no longer able to recruit participants from the community organisations. At this point, data collection ended. Journal club members talked about how we often do not see this level of detail and decision-making in methods sections, but our group were happy to see these insights.

As qualitative researchers, we can adjust our questions if we realise we are not asking the right questions yet.

Given that this study was with ten participants, we talked about how small sample sizes are often critiqued by reviewers and others both within and outside the field of qualitative research. However, for us, it was more about the quality rather than quantity of the data. In this study, the approach to data collection perhaps seemed to address this issue – the author asked meaningful and purposeful questions that elicited rich and relevant data. More specifically, the author’s questions evolved following the first two interviews, thereby enabling Walmsley to probe for interesting and relevant topics – namely those presented in the findings. This iterative approach data collection seemed to promote richer insights and lines of questioning. One of our club members described this iterative process as: “a reflection of the beauty of qual.” As qualitative researchers, we can adjust our questions if we realise we are not asking the right questions yet.

Ethics and the evolving question guide

The ability for qualitative interview guides to adapt and evolve to the data collection and emerging themes sparked another discussion topic amongst our group – ethics approvals. We talked about the need for and process of ethics approval for all or some of the questions that are often added to qualitative question guides as a study unfolds.

For us, the main question is whether the questions are an extension of what is already being asked. Are we just asking the question in a more specific or deliberate way? Given that qualitative data collection is a conversation, probing questions within a line of questioning or topic may come up. Whereas if there is a substantial shift in topic altogether, an amendment is certainly necessary. However, based on the experiences of our group, it seems that the point at which approvals are required may be different across research group, topic, and ethics board.

Presenting the findings and discussion in combination

We talked about the author’s presentation of findings and discussion together. For people in our journal club, some liked reading them together. For them, it was a more meaningful presentation of the findings and made quick connections to the literature and ideas. However, others preferred a discrete discussion section separate from the findings as this format provides an opportunity to go back to the overarching focus of the paper and discuss the overall findings (rather than individual themes). We recognised that the style choice may be journal dependent or reader preference. There is no right or wrong here.

Further discussion points:

  • Alternative research approaches: The topic of self-detoxification might have worked well as a phenomenology. However, we recognised that Walmsley’s inductive approach to collecting data was not originally designed for this approach.
  • The word ‘prisoners’, use of people-first language, and the power of language: For some of our group, ‘people in prison’ was preferred, but we grappled with this (and other words such as ‘offender’ and ‘patient’). Being in prison shapes someone’s entire existence; the word ‘prisoner’ can be powerful in encapsulating the experience of individuals.

About the article

Walmsley, I. (2021): Self-detoxification, embodiment and masculinity: a qualitative analysis of dependent heroin users’ experiences of coming off drugs in prison. Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy. DOI: 10.1080/09687637.2021.1886252.

The article can be accessed here.

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