Public accounts of indiscipline in the case of drug-use-related research: stories of public affairs and coming-outs – by Benjamin Petruželka

To introduce the issues to be discussed more thoroughly at the conference, I will here elaborate on one aspect of scientific indiscipline in the field of drug-use-related research. In this brief commentary on the topic, I specify my object of interest as the public accounts of being undisciplined because it reveals the relationship dynamic between the scientific world and other social worlds. Specifically, I will provide a few stories of indiscipline as examples. Subtle means and/or non-public accounts of disciplining are also of high interest; however, due to space limitations and access difficulties, I will focus only on the public ones. Non-public and subtle means are hidden from absent individuals because they are realized within institutions in everyday interactions, which are usually not publicly communicated. Furthermore, I assume that these subtle means are based in the dominant values and power relations which are related to the issue of drug use (see Derrida 2012; Weinhauer 2006). The first section of this commentary briefly discusses the conceptualization of indiscipline. The next sections move on to the discussion of specific stories. The stories are suitable material for study because they provide access to the process of making research public. In this case, making indiscipline public provides the opportunity to investigate what discipline means in regard to social science.

To discuss the issue of indiscipline, it is important to initially define what it means to be undisciplined. Using the ethnomethodological trick, instead of providing my own definition, I simply describe the ways through which descriptions of indiscipline are produced, focusing on the public accounts of it.[1] There are two basic ways that the indiscipline is made public. Basically, the researcher is coming-out, positioning and labeling himself as undisciplined, or the researcher is labeled as undisciplined. I conceptualize coming-out as the deliberate disclosure of the information by the researcher himself. The disclosed information was hidden because the researcher was not keen on sharing publicly the information which was considered to be in opposition to the values of his social world. Coming-out is usually brought up by ethnographers who investigate drug use or other phenomena which are on the borders of social acceptability (so called deviant activities). The labeling of the researcher as undisciplined seems to be produced in the form of public affair when the accounts of indiscipline are shared by different public media.

The coming-out and public affair also constitute completely different situations and consequences which are at stake. It is plausible that the coming-out is less likely to bring institutional repercussions. When the researcher is publicly labelled as undisciplined, it is potentially linked with an attempt to discipline and punish the researcher. Attempts to discipline and punish related to the public accounts of indiscipline are conditioned by the existence of institutions that are able to exercise some kind of power over the researcher. As the following examples demonstrate, these institutions exist within as well as outside of the borders of academia.[2] Outside of academia, the institutions that come into play are the police and other political institutions. Within academia, this role is played by different kinds of ethical and other commissions.

In this section, I introduce two examples of the researchers who were publicly accounted as undisciplined, and who also encountered some form of disciplining and punishment. First example is the so-called “Nuttsack” affair (Monaghan 2011). Professor Nutt was a chair of Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, who was sacked from his position because he was accounted as being undisciplined, “overstepping his remit and campaigning against government policy” (Monaghan 2011, 1). Nutt’s transgression was that he shared in public his scientifically based opinions on the classification of illegal drugs. Specifically, in his famous article, Nutt (2009) compared the dangers of using “ecstasy” with the dangers of riding a horse. In this case, it seems that the undisciplined researcher is the one publicly expressing opinions that are not in accordance with governmental line. Furthermore, it seems that, according to politicians, the researcher should stick to the status quo or, in the worst case scenario, save their discoveries for scientific journals. The other case is that of Ansley Hamid, who was also successful in the field of drug-use research. Amongst numerous articles, Hamid (2008) wrote the book Drugs in America: Sociology, Economics, and Politics. The problems in his career appeared during the time when he was working on huge three million US dollar grant (Payne & Gainey 2005). The issues that came up in the public affair were the accusations that he misused the funds, asked assistants to buy heroin for interviewees, and that he partook in the use of heroin. Hamid was disciplined not only by academic institutions, but also by the police that searched his apartment. Considering the academic institutions, Hamid was suspended from his post and his tenure was stripped. In 2003, the affair came to closure when Hamid retired. Significantly, Hamid admitted that he used heroin for one month because he wanted to understand his research subjects. According to Sandberg and Copes (2012), the main problem was that Hamid used heroin. To conclude, in this case, being undisciplined means that the researcher was not able to keep the distance from the object of research.

Accounts of researchers’ indiscipline do not become public only on the basis of public affairs, but also on the basis of a researcher’s own writing as a coming-out. The iconic example of the coming-out is Venkatesh’s book Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets (2008). This book received attention not only among sociologists but also in the broader public.[3] Venkatesh (2008) comes-out at multiple points in his books, asserting that his research proceeding would not be approved by his professors or research committees. To make long story short, before even thinking about it as a research project, Venkatesh befriended the “gang leader” when he tried to test the survey instrument.[4] Furthermore, he admits that he was an accessory to the illegal activity of the “gang leader”. For example, Venkatesh (2008) describes the situation where he was checking from the “gang leader’s” car that they are not being followed by the police. Plausibly, ethnographers do come out in this manner because they carry out their projects on the borders of what is considered as “disciplined” and because they tend to reflect the issues that are linked to the personae of the researcher. For example, ethnographic research borders are often not so clear-cut, and the research projects are frequently framed as research only in retrospect (Katz 2006). According to Blackman (2007), the seminal work of Becker (2008) is one example of this. That ethnographers come out, nevertheless, does not mean that a researcher using different methods could not encounter similar problems. For example, if the researcher gets into the contact with their study objects, he is in danger of becoming an accessory to the illegal activity. Furthermore, the socialization of the researcher influences his choices (for example, see Whiteacre 2003).

It is apparent that there is a disproportion between the reported and actual doings of researchers, that in itself constitutes the possibility of coming-out. These hidden aspects of doing research were recently made a topic of the methodological debate by Blackman (2007), and by Sandberg and Copes (2012).[5] Blackman (2007) conceptualizes this gap between hidden and public, using the notion of hidden ethnography. The aspects of the investigation stay hidden because they are regarded by researchers as controversial (Blackman 2007). Researchers assume that talking about these aspects of the research will make them seem undisciplined and, thus, that their credibility will be threatened. Interestingly, these are the issues of morality related to sex and use of drugs. It is significant that researchers do not talk about their drug use (see Sandberg & Copes 2012, Blackman 2007) in spite of the fact that it is very probable that they were offered drugs, or that they used some form of drug. Blackman (2007), and Sandberg and Copes (2012) come out about these hidden aspects because they want to change the situation. For example, Blackman (2007) describes how the use of alcohol with informants helped him with the investigation.

To conclude, I sketch the direction for future research. It is important to note that the commentary introduces the typology and sketches the stories as a starting point for the future investigation. This investigation should examine more closely the dynamic nature of making things public, especially the institutionalizing power of scandal (de Blic & Lemieux 2005). To investigate it, the thorough study of documents and materials should be carried out. The starting point for this investigation could be to elaborate more on the question of what different actors try to achieve by making these issues public. For example, it is plausible to interpret coming-out as the self-defensive strategy of the researcher, protecting his investigation against a constant threat of being dragged into public scandal. Furthermore, the researchers might want to challenge the standard research paradigm of the discipline (see Blackmann 2007; Sandberg and Copes 2012). Public affair could be interpreted as a mean of social order reinstitution.



Becker, H. S. (2008). Outsiders. Simon and Schuster.

Blackman, S. J. (2007). ‘Hidden ethnography’: Crossing emotional borders in qualitative accounts of young people’s lives. Sociology, 41(4), 699-716.

de Blic, D. & Lemieux, C. (2005). The Scandal as Test: Elements of Pragmatic Sociology. Politix 71 (3), 9-38.

Derrida, J. (2012). The rhetoric of drugs. In Alexander, A., & Roberts, M. S. (Eds.). (2012) High culture: Reflections on addiction and modernity, (19-43). SUNY Press.

Hamid, A. (1998). Drugs in America: Sociology, economics, and politics. Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Katz, J. (2006). Ethical escape routes for underground ethnographers. American Ethnologist, 33(4), 499-506.

Monaghan, M. (2011). Evidence versus politics: Exploiting research in UK drug policy making. Policy Press.

Nutt, D. (2009) ‘Equasy’ – an overlooked addiction with implications for the current debate on drug harms’, Journal of Psychopharmacology, 23 (1), 3-5.

Payne, B. K., & Gainey, R. R. (2005). Drugs and policing: a scientific perspective. Charles C Thomas Publisher.

Sandberg, S., & Copes, H. (2012). Speaking with ethnographers: The challenges of researching drug dealers and offenders. Journal of drug issues, 43 (1), 176-197.

Smallwood, S. (2002). A heroin researcher partakes and pays the price. The Chronicle, 49(9), A8. Sociological Forum (2009). 24 (1).

Venkatesh, S. A. (2008). Gang leader for a day: A rogue sociologist takes to the streets. Penguin.

Weinhauer, M. (2006). Drug Consumption in London and Western Berlin during the 1960/70s: Local and Transnational Perspectives. Social History of Alcohol and Drugs. An Interdisciplinary Journal, (20) 1, 187–224.

Whiteacre, K. W. (2003). The cultural milieu of criminology and drug research (Doctoral dissertation, Ph. D. Student, Indiana University Department of Criminal Jus3ce. Retrieved from



[1] Focusing on the interaction, researchers using an ethnomethodological perspective observe the production of the social order. To study social order, the ethnomethodologist rather uses knowledge of members than abstract concepts because it offers the researcher insight into the production of social orders and knowledge. In this case, instead of providing my own definition, I investigate how indiscipline is produced in order to understand the how members produce this phenomenon.

[2] It is important to acknowledge that the borders between these two are not as clear as they may seem because both social worlds are independent and influencing each other.

[3] Venkatesh published this book already having a firm position in his field which suggests that these coming outs are made only by researchers with strong position and that researchers are successfully disciplined.

[4] Venkatesh (2008) encountered the “gang leader” when he was assigned to study survey instruments. He went into terrain to test them and during this attempt he was caught by gang members who held him in the project building for the night. Later on, they set him free and, surprisingly, he came back and started to spend time with them.

[5] Blackman (2007) mostly discusses his research and draws from published works while Sandberg and Copes (2012) interviewed other researchers.


About the author

Benjamin Petruželka, 26, Phd. student at the Department of Addictology, First Faculty of Medicine at the Charles University in Prague. He works at the NGO “In Iustitia” (Prague) as an analyst of hate crime. His research interests are social science methodology (qualitative, quantiative, and beyond this divide), social aspects of drug use and drug policies.

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markus (2016, 19. September). Public accounts of indiscipline in the case of drug-use-related research: stories of public affairs and coming-outs – by Benjamin Petruželka. soziologieblog. Abgerufen am 19. Juni 2024, von

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