Society For The Study Of Addiction

QMJC February 2022: “I was raised in addiction”: Constructions of the self and the other in discourses of addiction and recovery

For the February 2022 meeting of the Qualitative Methods Journal Club, participants discussed a study set in rural Ohio about the way people who use drugs talk about their substance use.

The February 2022 journal club was led and summarised by Dr Alissa Greer at the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University (Canada).

Summary of the article

Our journal club aimed to read and discuss a range of qualitative approaches, particularly for data analysis, and so this month the article was a discourse analysis by Sibley and colleagues (2020). In this study, researchers conducted a discourse analysis on the lived experiences of people who use drugs in rural Ohio by examining the ways they talked about their substance use, including their “linguistic choices” and how the concept of “addiction” – a topic explored extensively in discourse literature – is “sent down” or “carried up” to construct ideas of self, others, and substance use. The authors found three distinct subject positions: (1) “addict” as victim of circumstance; (2) “addict” as good Samaritan; and (3) “addict” as motivated to change. This study demonstrates that language is a “powerful resource for [people who use drugs] in meaning making and identity construction”.

Discussion of the article

No one in our group had done a discourse analysis before, but this paper made us want to try one; even in our work in the past we have questioned the use of words and the construction of selves within narratives. It was fascinating to see an analysis of the social construction of the subjective positioning of participants and other people who use drugs.

We were surprised that there was less of a focus on individual words and more of a focus on narratives. In other words, researchers looked at how people constructed their social reality through what they were saying.

We questioned whether every qualitative study does this (or whether this is possible with all qualitative data), and what specifically makes this a discourse analysis. We also talked about the differences and grey areas between discourse analysis and thematic analysis.

Discourse analysis: an analytic method or qualitative approach?

The study by Sibley and colleagues was not designed as a discourse analysis, as recognised in their limitations section. This distinction led to a discussion about discourse analysis as an analytic method (an analysis of discourse) or as an overarching study design or approach (capital ‘D’ / capital ‘A’ Discourse Analysis). We appreciated that the authors used discourse analysis as an analytic tool and realised we could use this for many of our own studies. However, we also recognised that there is an issue in the field overall with how we label our research (e.g. an analysis of content or a Content Analysis).

Studying social phenomena

This research was a good example of studying a social phenomenon that individuals or subjects can’t identify themselves. That is, participants might not explicitly say ‘I am a victim of circumstance’ but in an analysis of what they say, this idea may clearly be present. One club member said: “[research] participants distance themselves from a moralized stance”, especially when they experience internalised stigma. Analysing social phenomena such as these in this way is a strength and a beauty of qualitative research.

Would participants agree?

However, this discussion about interpreting what people say led into a lively discussion about member checking and participatory research: would participants agree with these findings; and, do they need to? What role would a community advisory board of people who use drugs play in a study of this? We agreed that this paper might be completely different if you had input from the affected community as they might not agree with what researchers are interpreting.

This conversation drew out some of the benefits, pitfalls, and challenges with member checking. First, our social realities are always changing; participants might not agree with what they said at the time of the interview even though they said it. Second, our interpretations as researchers will be different from what the participant thinks and what do we do if the community or individual does not resonate with our interpretations (even if they are rooted in the data)? Finally, the community members are not necessarily representative; some members may validate your findings, whereas others won’t. These points underscore a quote from one journal club attendee: “member checking is controversial in our field”.

The messiness of community participation

Related to this conversation about member checking was a conversation about participatory research more generally. This conversation was an opportunity for journal members to debrief, reflect, and grapple with issues we are having. Participatory aspects of our studies are always presented and framed in a pretty package, but they are so much messier than this, which is seldom discussed. This conversation sparked an interest in reading a community-based participatory research study design for one of our next meetings.

About the article

Sibley, A. L., Schalkoff, C. A., Richard, E. L., Piscalko, H. M., Brook, D. L., Lancaster, K. E., … & Go, V. F. (2020). “I Was Raised in Addiction”: Constructions of the Self and the Other in Discourses of Addiction and Recovery. Qualitative health research, 30(14), 2278-2290.

The article can be accessed here.


The opinions expressed in this post reflect the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or official positions of the SSA or the author’s academic institution.

 The SSA does not endorse or guarantee the accuracy of the information in external sources or links and accepts no responsibility or liability for any consequences arising from the use of such information.