A sociological investigation into the everyday lives of recovering heroin addicts

Project: Research project (funded)Research

Project Details


Enabling heroin users to overcome their addiction is widely accepted as a key social policy issue. Nonetheless, recovery processes are complex and those with heroin problems repeatedly relapse. The research undertaken moved away from the hitherto dominant preoccupation with heroin use as a deviant and dangerous activity and instead focus on the mundane aspects of recovering heroin users' day-to-day lives. Drawing on two theoretical traditions: the 'sociology of everyday life' and 'embodied sociology', this qualitative project comprised four components. First, focus groups with ex-heroin users and consultations with key stakeholders will inform the conduct of the study; second, interviews with 40 recovering heroin users will explore their daily lives; third, follow up interviews with this same sample will investigate how their recovery journeys are proceeding; and fourth, 2-3 hour periods of non-participant observation with 8 ex-heroin users will generate knowledge of aspects of everyday life and body maintenance. The data was analysed descriptively, to provide in-depth information on the nature and content of recovering heroin users' lives, and thematically, to identify issues which transcend the data and contribute to the development of sociological theory, policy and practice.

Key findings

Theoretical findings and impacts.
Our research has challenged arguments that recovery involves repairing a spoiled identity. Instead, we have proposed that understandings of recovery must recognise the embodied dimensions of change and the importance of non-rational ‘habitual action’. We have problematised claims that drug users must establish a ‘normal’ identity to recover and highlighted the performative aspects of selfhood and the relational and situational nature of identity within recovery processes. Further, we have provided new insights into the role of harm reduction and broader wellness goals when drug users say they desire abstinence.
Empirical finding and impacts.
Our findings have provided a unique appreciation of the everyday lives of recovering heroin users and offered nuanced insights into behaviour change by engaging with conceptualisations of ‘changing bodies’. Published examples include: alterations in patterns of eating, sleeping and physical activity. Such findings move the conceptual and empirical focus within the addictions literature away from the sociologies of ‘deviance’ and ‘risk’ and contribute to sociological debates on the ‘body’ and ‘everyday life’. Research capacity and networks The study has resulted in: an association with the University of New South Wales (e.g. an unrelated e-conference for PhD students); participation in an international network of academics interested in methadone treatment (currently working on a special issue of the International Journal of Drug Policy); and a new research partnership between Oxfordshire Drug and Alcohol Action Team (DAAT), Oxfordshire User Team (http://www.oxfordshireuserteam.org.uk/) and Oxford Brookes University (an evaluation study is underway and a joint research application has been submitted). Oxford Brookes University has also funded two PhD studentships directly related to the ESRC study.
Effective start/end date1/10/0830/09/10