Studying online drug culture: some reflections on method

This post is a brief discussion of the methods adopted for the Illicit Drug Use research area, which is concerned with the online drug culture within which the use of such drugs is discussed and debated and knowledge and experience is exchanged.


What are we researching?

The Illicit Drug Use research area is concerned with exploring a variety of online settings in which drugs and drug use are discussed, these settings will be looked at in terms of interaction and online communication with a view to increasing understanding about how trust and empathy figure in the online drugs scene, as it were. This description of the project begs two obvious questions: what kinds of drug use are we looking at and what are the online settings that we are investigating?

Online drugs culture is truly extensive and there are an enormous number of sites that discuss all manner of drugs, with content being produced by a variety of contributors (charities, government bodies, clinics, drug users themselves as well as family members who might be affected by drug use by their nearest and dearest). These online communications span a wide range of online platforms (forums, wikis, blogs and various other forms of social media).

All manner of drugs and drug use are represented online, across this variety of platforms and the ‘genres’ of communication they support. Clearly we needed to create focussed project which would hold out the prospect of producing insights that would be both interesting and potentially useful in the context of public concerns surrounding drug use and at the same time indicative of the roles of trust and empathy in these environments with regard to the co-creation and sharing of knowledge and experiences.

On the basis of prevalent trends, in terms of what one immediately encounters in the online world, as far as mediated drug culture is concerned, as well as with one eye on the popular typologies of drug use in wider circulation, we decided to structure the investigation around three distinct types of drug use: addictive drug use, NPS (‘novel psychoactive substance’) or ‘legal high’ use and, thirdly, the use of medicinal drugs for non-medicinal purposes.

Of course this doesn’t capture everything – nor is it intended to, and we realise that the whole question of the categorisation of drugs and drug use will always remain open to debate. You could say that we have taken our lead in this typological decision, at least partly, on the basis of the way that participants in the online drug scene choose to identify themselves as participants or interested parties, and on the basis of the primary material of the study, namely, the sharing online that we are observing.

Adopting these typologies of drug use has allowed us to narrow down the project, giving it greater clarity and a sharper focus, and this effectively directed us toward the specific online settings we have selected to study. The process of deciding what online content to study involved a scoping exercise, in which three search engines (Google, Yahoo! and DuckDuckGo) were utilised to explore the variety of online settings in which the drug typologies we settled on were evidently in play.

This period of scoping was very important, as it required us to address the difficulties of using social media to collect data, exposed the problems of potentially using an online ethnographic approach, and highlighted the need to look for dialogue and interaction in these settings. As is usually the case at the initial stages of any study of this kind, it also led to new reflection on the fundamental questions of the nature of trust and empathy as functions of communication and the technical means of communication as an aspect of both these phenomena and the ways in which they are conceptualised.

The questions ‘what is empathy?’ and ‘what is trust?’ are, of course, far from simple. (We will be coming back to them as the study proceeds, not least in the context of the transdisciplinary dimension of the Spaces4Sharing project as a whole.)

So, what makes a site interesting to us? In view of what we discovered during the scoping exercise and having read an array of the related literature, it was decided that the project would concentrate on peer-to-peer sharing and, therefore, on sites that facilitated discussion and interaction between users; and so we would prioritise forums, blogs and submitted story sites.

How are we going about the study?

How do you collect data in these settings? How will it be analysed? Although our initial idea was to undertake one or another form of online ethnography, the scoping exercise prompted a rethink. We quite quickly arrived at the view that this would be too messy and impractical given the time constraints of the project. The method adopted needed to be both manageable and to provide the necessary degree of depth, breadth, context and comparability.

The existing literature suggested we should go down the path of a multi-case study approach. Multi-case research, in a nutshell, is research that is interested in a phenomenon, concept or function, known as the quintain, and uses single unique cases in order to explore this quintain in its natural, context bound setting (Stake, 2006). This allows the exploration of a set of individual online settings, while still serving to further understanding of trust and empathy in a range online environments. The scoping exercise allowed us to identify a number of potential sites for study.

We then sampled candidate sites from this set for their learning potentials and made the decisions as to which to include according to their unique attributes and what they could potentially contribute to knowledge of trust and empathy online (the quintain). One forum, a collection of blogs and one submitted story site, were chosen for each typology, as represented in this diagram:

Diagram: Trust and empathy in online spaces where drug use is discussed.

Why are we taking this approach?

The question as to why we are adopting this, rather than some other, research design is an important one. Certainly, there are many factors to consider. In the case of this research area, the question of methodology is clearly connected to the decision to limit the study to the specific typologies of drug use as these arose out of the initial scoping exercise, as noted above, and, of course, because the phenomena of the co-creation of knowledge and experience sharing around drug use are fully public and open-ended activities

 These aspects of online drugs culture have been little studied to date and there are no simple precedents to follow. The research that has been conducted on online drugs culture is largely, though not entirely, quantitative in focus, with researchers often conducting surveys or using content analysis to gain an understanding of these environments.

What we will be doing is exploring these online environments from a purely qualitative perspective, and focussing on dimensions of the culture in a way that is both cognisant of the mediated nature of the communication in question and of the ways in which trust and empathy figure in the production of this culture in the widest sense.

Finally, studying online drugs culture in relation to trust and empathy offers the potential to understand these sites in a wider context, as the method allows us to gather observational data on the online lives of drug users in so far as online activity is integral to the ‘expression’ of such lives.

We will leave to one side, for the time being, a fuller discussion of the online/offline life distinction and the conceptual and theoretical issue associated with it.

So, this post has dealt with just a few of the ‘hows, whys and wherefores’ of the project to date. As we proceed we will be revisiting some of them in the light of what we discover as we go along.


Corbin, J., Strauss, A. (2008) Basics of qualitative research 3e: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory Los Angeles, Sage Publications.

Stake, R.E (2006) Multiple Case Study Analysis , New York, The Guilford Press.

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