The literature that did provide some very useful
information came primarily through the work of an individual who featured
prominently in the 1980s regarding drug, and in particular heroin, misuse.
Howard Parker’s ‘Living with heroin’ (1988) charted the impact of a heroin
epidemic on a community in the north-west of
On a more theoretical note ‘Heroin, Deviance and Morality’ (1980) by Lidz and Walker took a more hypothetical approach to explaining a heroin crisis, incorporating various ideologies, schemas and relationships into the argument. Supporting literature came in the form of Hartnoll’s ‘Drug Problems: Assessing Local Needs (1985) and ‘Introductory Sociology’ (1996) by Bilton etal. The latter text was particularly important in helping the researcher to gain a basic knowledge of the work of Howard Becker and the labeling perspective.
The Internet proved to be a very useful tool also in gaining literature on heroin use, particularly BBC Online and the numerous drug agencies that one discovered through the use of a search engine (see references section).
The theory that underpins this dissertation is Howard Becker’s ‘Moral Crisis Production’ concept, which essentially stated that a number of criteria had to be fulfilled for a moral crisis to exist. This consequently lead to the formation of this study, which questioned the relevance of Becker's theory when applied to a modern day crime epidemic, which in this case was heroin.
In terms of choosing the right methods of investigation for this study one had to look at the various advantages and disadvantages of both positivist and interpretevist methodology, which individually were both one-eyed approaches. Both types of research technique have shaped the theory and practice of criminological research, yet today opposition between the two sides seems to be diminishing, giving way to a more ‘reflexive and pluralistic approach.’ (Bilton etal 1996). Giddens structuration theory embraces this view in that it links structure and agency as ‘simultaneous dimensions’ of social life. He believes that structures cannot be created independently of actions, while actions can never take place except within structural circumstances.
The implications of this argument is that the most effective way to research this area is through employing a multi-method approach, drawing knowledge from both the interpretevist and positivist fields of investigation. This would not suite the assumptions of neither Becker nor Durkheim, but it would work on the principle that the negative effects caused by one type of methodological technique could be countered by the advantages of another. The notion that underpins this type of methodological approach is that the actions of the drug user and government agencies cannot take place other than within the structural circumstances of society, and consequently the structure/agency debate ceases to be relevant as both can co-exists at the same time.
The main body of research aimed at complimenting the application of Becker’s model took the form of interviews conducted within a qualitative framework. The interviews were carried out with the intention of discovering the views and beliefs of both government agency representatives and the heroin users themselves, in terms of the existence of a moral panic and the extent of the real problem. The interviews were informal, and took place in an environment chosen by the interviewee, hence at the respected government agencies and the homes of the heroin users respectively. The interviews were all tape recorded, and later transcribed, and followed a general outline of a prepared schedule of areas that needed to be covered. Flexibility was the key initiative adopted for all interviews, with the intention of creating a ‘relaxed atmosphere where the interviewee could speak freely.’ (Dunsmuir & Williams, 1990)
Participant observation was also used in an aim to get myself, the researcher, into a position of understanding the extent of the heroin problem in the town. Having already known people who were taking heroin, access into the heroin culture proved to be fairly straightforward. One was also fortunate enough to know someone who was a ‘runner,’ a street dealer, and as a result was invited to spend a few days with him. This offered the perfect opportunity to perceive the number of users who relied on this one runner. Ethical considerations were vital to the validity of this technique, as people were not informed that research was being carried out. However as one only came into contact with these heroin users for a matter of minutes one felt that informing them was not essential, they were not being deceived as such, my presence neither harmed nor endangered them.
However this study is not based solely on qualitative research, it was felt that in order to gain a more accurate picture of the reality of the heroin problem, some quantitative techniques were needed. This primarily took the form of a small scale questionnaire constructed for three mainstream schools in the town, with the sole aim of establishing the proportion of 14-16 year olds that had been offered heroin, and taken it, in the past year. 222 children from the three schools completed the questionnaire, and the sample was based on random selection. The proportions needed to be quantified so that a fairly accurate number could be gained, and so a closed questionnaire was constructed. The application of this technique would also give some indication as to whether heroin had reached its saturation level within the town, that is had its availability been exposed to the youth element of society.
Content analysis of the local paper also played a key role in establishing the extent of the heroin problem in the town. Over a period of 7 years (1994-2000) the paper was checked for the number of heroin related articles that appeared in it each year. This ‘pragmatical’ approach was according to Jannis (1965) ‘counting the number of times something is said which is likely to have the effect of producing attitudes towards a given audience’ (Krippendorff 1980). So although this technique had the empirical aim of gaining an insight into the ‘real rates’ of the heroin rise, the rise in articles may have played a part in shaping the beliefs and attitudes of its audience, the XXXXXX public.
The final type of research technique employed was the analysis of some statistical data, made available largely through the police; drug arrests/prosecutions etc… Of course the ‘unreliability of statistics (selective policing/offenders not caught) had to be taken into account,’ (Langley, 1987) but it would still prove to be a useful addition to building up an overall picture of the problem.
The intention of adopting a multi-method approach is that two types of research, qualitative and quantitative, can be carried out and used simultaneously. The idea was generated through the reading of various studies that had found it an advantage to use this approach, most notably Dobash & Dobash (1979) and Barker (1984), who stated that….
“It was obvious that no one method would be sufficient to obtain all
the information that I would need.” (Pp. 17)
In each case a variety of methods were used with a great deal of success, and so one felt that this piece of research would be suited in adopting this approach, particularly when aiming to assess the extent of a heroin epidemic (better suited to quantitative methodology) and assessing the existence of a moral panic (created within a qualitative capacity).
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