Conducting Qualitative Research With Psychedelic Psychopharmacologists : Challenges of Co-Production in an Era of Interdisciplinarity
SAGE Research Methods Cases Part 2, March 3, 2017, 1-14
Doi : 10.4135/9781526404862
From 2013 to 2015, I worked as a postdoctoral research fellow with a team of pharmacologists experimenting with psilocybin, an illegal psychoactive compound found in psychedelic mushrooms. The team had conducted an open-label clinical trial with long-term cigarette smokers, using psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy to help them quit. The smoking outcomes were very promising, occurring alongside many other profound positive life-changes. The team wanted to investigate further the mechanisms of change by which the study led to its effects. With my PhD training in qualitative research but little knowledge of psychopharmacology, I spearheaded a retrospective qualitative research project to identify participants’ perceptions of the mechanisms of change. This case study describes the challenges I experienced through my involvement with the pharmacology team and some of the solutions that emerged. The distance between collaborating physical scientists and social scientists ebbs and flows, and I begin by situating our interdisciplinary project in the context of the recent intellectual history of psychopharmacology. I then offer a twin analysis of working on the topic as a qualitative researcher and working in a team with pharmacologists. The case study ends with practical suggestions for getting the most out of interdisciplinary co-production.
By the end of this case, students should be able to :
– Understand how the historical context of a research topic affects the research design
– Describe what “interdisciplinarity” is and how it can enrich a research process
– Analyze some of the complexities of undertaking interdisciplinary research
– Design a research process that enables interdisciplinarity
In recent years, co-produced academic research has become more necessary, incentivized, and trendy. It has become more necessary as we attempt to solve increasingly complex problems through ever-more specialized disciplines. It has become incentivized through funding structures that seek to encourage interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaboration, and academic recognition modalities that cumulatively value joint-authored publications more than single-authored ones. It is trendy because it is seen as cost-efficient at a time of tightening budgets. Within the academy, those who conduct co produced research can accrue capital in a moment when, as Thomas Osborne (2006) has suggested, intellectuals increasingly function as “mediators,” carving out niches in translating across disciplines and between the universities and the public.
As one of a growing number of PhD graduates without secure employment, I have worked on several interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary projects since graduating. In these contexts, team members bring sometimes diverse skill sets, tempered through our own idiosyncratic and ongoing education and training. Our skills are picked up either en masse or in partial form, and applied to an existing—or ideally, emerging—collective problem. In this case study, I describe leading a qualitative research project that sought to retrospectively enrich the quantitative findings of a university-based clinical trial using psychedelics-assisted psychotherapy to occasion smoking cessation. I focus on the challenges I encountered, both in conducting the research and in working with collaborators trained in the pharmacological sciences.
Project Overview and Context
Having moved to the United States after completing my PhD training in socio-legal studies in the United Kingdom, I entered a drug dependence epidemiology postdoctoral research fellowship program in a public health school in 2013. The position was funded by the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Postdoctoral research positions are more common in the United States than in the United Kingdom, and (as is increasingly familiar to those who have completed a PhD) while it was not my ideal next move, I was grateful for the salary and the platform the position afforded. Moreover, as someone whose PhD was at the intersections of qualitative research and critical theory, I was keen to extend my expertise to advanced quantitative methods and the possibility of developing a “critical epidemiology.” However, once in the role, I found both the program’s positivist paradigm and public health’s morally punitive views on all non-prescribed drug use difficult to connect with. Regardless, the position
expected me to form or join a research project, and I was keen to find something where I could both learn and contribute while feeling neither defensive nor sidetracked. Several months into the postdoc, a colleague referred me to a team in my university’s school of medicine that had been conducting studies using psychedelics as change agents, and I decided to reach out and ask whether they needed any help.
The history of psychopharmacological research into psychedelics is unique. In the 1950s in the United States, the scientific debates over how to study drugs were intensified by the challenges posed by psychedelics. The effects of psychedelics, such as mescaline, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and psilocybin, were profoundly influenced by the mindsets and physical, social, and cultural settings of those ingesting them. Set up the right way, the drugs often occasioned profound, spiritual experiences without themselves being addictive.