Ethnographic research has occupied a distinguished niche within the social sciences, dating back to the origins of both anthropology and sociology. As a consequence, the fact that ethnography has found a place within the applied research armamentarium mobilised to address the recent AIDS epidemic should come as no surprise. What has been unprecedented in the United States is the degree to which ethnography has been recognised as a key component in AIDS intervention research and service programmes. Nowhere has this been more prominent than in the US Public Health Service’s initiatives to fund studies aimed at identifying effective strategies for reducing the spread of HIV among injection drug users (IDUs). Beginning with the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (NIDA) first major programme announcement for AIDS intervention demonstration research in 1987, and continuing through to their current Cooperative Agreement programme, ethnography has been an integral component of research designs (NIDA, 1987a, 1987b, 1990).
Two key factors influencing this development help to shed light on how ethnography came to play such a central role in US attempts to control the spread of HIV among drug injectors. The first was the established role ethnography had come to play within the field of drug research. The second was the lack of a solid foundation of knowledge upon which to formulate and test specific AIDS intervention strategies.
While by no means a dominant methodology in the field of drug research, ethnography had grown in recognition over the past few decades as a mode of scientific inquiry particularly well-adapted to contributing to our understanding of the social worlds of drug users and drug use. From the 1940s to the late 1960s, such studies are more notable for their findings and insights than for their number (Lindesmith, 1947; Becker, 1953; Finestone, 1957; Hughes, 1961). Since then, a notable increase in the number of published drug ethnographies reflects a growing interest in this focus of inquiry among trained ethnographers. There can be little doubt that the escalating prevalence of illicit drug use within the US, along with its perception as a major social problem, contributed substantially to this trend. Of at least equal importance was the growth in federal monies being allocated to support such research.