Qualitative Research Methods in Drug Abuse and AIDS Prevention Research: An Overview

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Book Chapter

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Almost two decades ago, at the first workshop/technical review on qualitative research methods and ethnography sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Siegal (1977, p. 79) remarked that despite the existence of numerous excellent qualitative studies on drug abuse, “Ethnographers have had difficulty explaining precisely what they do.” In the intervening years, qualitative research methods have gained increasing importance as a systematic means of data collection and analysis that have become critical dimensions in drug abuse and AIDS research (Lambert 1990). For example, qualitative and ethnographic research are key components in NIDA’s recent program announcement, “Strategies to Reduce HIV Sexual Risk Practices in Drug Users.” Moreover, through the National AIDS Demonstration Research Program (Brown and Beschner 1993) and the Cooperative Agreement for AIDS Community-Based Outreach/Intervention research initiative, qualitative methodologists, or ethnographers. have worked increasingly on research teams composed of epidemiologists, statisticians, health educators, and psychologists, thereby promoting interdisciplinary cooperation. The recent publication of Denzin and Lincoln’s (1994a) compendium, “Handbook of Qualitative Research,” emphasizes this momentum toward interdisciplinary understanding.

Despite the increased receptivity toward qualitative research methods, however, there is still some lack of clarity in what qualitative methodologists do. This chapter presents an overview of what qualitative research methods are, how they are used, and the key features required for their successful application. The ways in which qualitative methods contribute to the goal of preventing and treating drug abuse as well as associated problems, such as HIV infection, are emphasized.