Complexities Conference

NDRI’s SSAC staff played a key role in a recent international conference on drugs and addiction. The international journal Contemporary Drug Problems (CDP) held its second bi-annual conference from 21st to 23rd of August, 2013, with the theme Complexity: Researching alcohol and other drugs in a multiple world. Associate Professor Suzanne Fraser was a conference co-organiser, and both Suzanne and SSAC’s research fellow, Dr Kate Seear, presented on new work underway in the program. Suzanne’s presentation was entitled, ‘Comparing concepts of addiction across national contexts: A multiverse of habits’, and Kate’s was entitled ‘Regulating addictions: Complexity and multiplicity across legal realms’.

The main issues the conference considered included:

  • Managing and doing justice to the complexities of alcohol and other drugs (AOD);
  • Affect – the place of emotions in AOD;
  • The contribution of Science and Technology Studies theory to AOD research.

The conference was opened by David Moore, editor-in-chief of CDP, and Vibeke Asmussen Frank, the Director of CADR at Aarhus. Professor Moore explained the interests and focus of CDP and the background to the CDP conferences, and called for more innovative social science research on alcohol and other drugs.

Conference delegates were treated to three exceptional keynote addresses.

The first was Professor Nancy Campbell, whose presentation entitled ‘Lexicons of complexity in drug science, policy and culture’ examined, among other things, what complexity enables and effaces in alcohol and other drug research. Professor Campbell argued that there has been a longstanding tendency in scientific research to describe addiction as a ‘complex’ disease, arguing that claims about ‘complexity’ are often a signifier for science’s inability to understand ‘addiction’. She considered some of the social, political and cultural implications of talking about addiction as ‘complex’ and multi-faceted.

This was followed by Professor Lisa Maher, who spoke about ‘Complexity and simplification in quantitative research on illicit drugs: Tensions, challenges and opportunities’. Professor Maher’s presentation explored the utility of mathematical modelling in research into blood borne viruses and considered the ways that this often involves simplistic and problematic assumptions about drug use, people who use drugs, networks of drug use and ‘flows’. Professor Maher also spoke about the way that research grants on these and similar issues compel us to produce neat and succinct findings with translatable policy implications, one effect of which is to lose sight of the inherent complexity of phenomena.

Associate Professor Kane Race presented the final keynote, on ‘Complex events: Drug problems and emergent causation’. Associate Professor Race discussed developments in policing and law enforcement strategies around the Sydney LGBT community, which often involve assumptions about drugs and drug effects, including ‘effects’ as linear and bounded in time. Instead, using the theoretical notion of ‘emergent causality’ Associate Professor Race emphasised the ways that these practices generate new and different ways of engagement with drugs and produce their own risks and harms in ways that cannot be neatly or simply reduced to individual actors.

SSAC's Dr Kate Seear presented in a session chaired by Professor Nancy Campbell, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York.

SSAC’s Dr Kate Seear presented in a session chaired by Professor Nancy Campbell of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York.

Sessions comprised presentations from almost 50 speakers from 11 different countries, with backgrounds in epidemiology, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, science and technology studies and history. The conference programme was impressively diverse. Some of the main themes to emerge from the conference were:

  • The complexities and multiplicities of drugs, drug ‘effects’, ontologies, substances, bodies, subjects, agencies, subjectivities and actors implicated in drug phenomena;
  • Reconceptualisations of causality, especially the notion that drugs possess certain properties or qualities that act (uniformly) upon individuals, in the sense that they cause or generate certain adverse effects. Instead, conference delegates emphasised the multiplicities of substances and the relevance of space, time and non-human actors (among other things) in the co-production of ontology; and
  • Analyses of research methods and their role in the production and/or simplification of the realities of drug use.

The conference followed the journal’s inaugural conference held in 2011, in Prato, Italy. This three-day forum focussed on the theme of ‘problematisation’, or the ways drug use is ‘problematised’ in different ways for different political and social purposes. The inaugural CDP conference was designed to encourage more critical thinking about the implications of problematising drugs, including the way that practices and policies associated with drug consumption frame people who consume drugs, the ‘effects’ of drugs, drug treatment possibilities and a range of other issues. At the close of this year’s Aarhus conference, Professor Moore flagged plans for a third conference in two years’ time.

As with the inaugural CDP conference, selected papers will be published in a future special issue of the CDP journal to be edited by Professor David Moore and SSAC’s Postdoctoral Research fellow Dr Kate Seear. Those interested in a more detailed summary of papers from the conference may wish to look at the #CDPAarhus feed on Twitter.