Science Is Cultural Product
Interview with David Moore
What do you focus on in your research?
In general, I do critical sociological research on alcohol and other drug use and the harms associated with this use. Besides academic outcomes, NDRI’s research is also funded to inform government policy and practice. Our focus is always on “alcohol and other drug use”, which is a term used widely in the Australia sector to remind people that alcohol is also a drug. In Australia, it is the most widely used drug. In the history of Australian national attempts at harm minimisation, the insistence on viewing alcohol as a “drug” stemmed from the 1980s when a progressive health minister together with researchers wanted to make sure that alcohol was not left out of “drug” policies. It has been part of the national strategy ever since.
You have just presented on a conference devoted to men and masculinities. How is your research informed by gender?
Right now, I’m involved in research (with Australian colleagues Suzanne Fraser, Helen Keane, Kate Seear and Kylie Valentine) looking at the way unexamined concepts of gender might be influencing the conduct of alcohol research and the kinds of realities it is creating, and in turn how this influences policy.
What type of research is typically used when shaping policy on alcohol and drug use?
There is certainly an evidence-based policy discourse that goes along the lines of “we need robust, unbiased facts to make good decisions.” In this field, epidemiological science is strong and research involving statistics is often given greater credibility. But much epidemiological research is – like qualitative research – based on self-report. The difference is that the data are then “cleaned” and treated as objective and scientific. What gets obscured is that it the findings are co-produced by the funding bodies and their priorities, the researchers´ assumptions, the methods used and a host of social factors that shape what kind of science gets done and what conclusions it draws. Behind the calls for “unbiased facts” is a set of values that direct what we choose to highlight. There is a whole politics of research that should be scrutinised more and discussed more than at present. In the end, all scientific enterprise makes the reality we come to understand as such. We therefore need to think carefully about what kind of research we want and why.
At present, you critically review some of the research used in policy making. What role does gender seem to play in it?
Clearly, science is a cultural product deeply embedded in the society in which it is produced. Issues such as unexamined gender norms and other concepts play out in the way science is measuring and reporting on drinking. The unexamined concept of gender also influences policy. Our project therefore focuses on quantitative research into alcohol and other drug use that informs policy decisions. Interestingly, the empirical data that get reported often specifically talks about men as being much more implicated in alcohol-related harm. Men are reported to binge drink more, drink drive more, be much more implicated in violence related to alcohol use, etc. These data are there in the bodies of reports and articles. However, when you reach the conclusions, all you get are blanket recommendations for the whole population and there is no mention of gender at all. As a result of such gender-blind interpretations, gender is rarely taken up in the research and policy.
What are the concrete effects of gender-blind interpretations of alcohol consumption?
They reinforce stereotypical gender norms, which is a problem in itself, but in terms of the broader field of alcohol and drug use they also misdirect attention. The problem with unexamined gender norms is that they misidentify where the issues are located. If you misidentify the issues, you can hardly tackle them.
What do you mean by stereotypical gender norms?
In Australia, many reports on alcohol use have been done by different bodies. You can find reports that focus on violence and other harms in licenced settings such as clubs, pubs and bars, there are various consumption surveys as well as alcohol monitoring surveys. We examined these, focusing on how gender gets treated. An example of the approach to gender is a state government survey on alcohol use among young people. The highlights in the executive summary single out young women as their risky drinking has increased. However, when you look at the survey data, you see that the rate of heavy drinking among young men remains much higher than for young women: at least 1.6 times higher, and at some points 2.5 times higher. The report focuses on the drinking of young women as problematic and a risk priority and ignores the drinking of young men, and this is partly a result of stereotypical gender norms.
How does this translate into policy?
You can also see the effects of unexamined gender concepts in recommendations for policy action. In Australian national policy, young men and masculinity have not been recent priorities. The gendered aspect of alcohol use and particularly its strong link to masculinity was identified in Australia alcohol policy discourse in the 1970s but seems to have been forgotten. Six months ago a strategy with masculinity as a priority finally appeared in the strategy of one state health promotion body. Instead of focusing on male drinking, it is women´s pleasure that seems to be one of the first things disposed of in policy. When you adopt a blanket policy on the population, the effect is to restrict pleasure and encourage responsibility. However, everyone then has to bear this responsibility including those who have not triggered the policy. If there’s a choice between focusing on male drinking and young men and a blanket policy, then restricting women under a blanket policy is seen as acceptable. Another problem is that with a blanket policy focused on alcohol, you fail to account for other relevant issues, such as masculinity.
Are there any other factors that impact policy decisions that you deem important?
Research is only one component of the material that policy makers use when developing policy. Such decisions are also influenced by available funding, public opinion, elections and the possible effects of policies on electoral results but also by dramatic events. For instance, many commentators have argued that one of the factors instrumental in Australia’s decision to adopt a comprehensive alcohol and other drug strategy in the 1980s was the struggle with heroin of the-then Prime Minister´s daughter.
Is there any research in place that could shed some much needed light onto gender as an issue in the whole process?
Alongside the quantitative work, there is qualitative literature in Australia which examines gender and drinking. It indeed shows drinking as heavily gendered and as an intrinsic part of the way in which gender is performed. Unfortunately, this literature does not circulate as readily in policy debates because it is complex and rarely offers straightforward solutions. It is more complicated, but it also stems from the rhetoric of ‘objective science’: that qualitative research can be seen as anecdotal and ‘soft’.
The interview was conducted by Blanka Nyklová of the Centre for Gender and Science.
Professor David Moore is an anthropologist who leads the Ethnographic Program at the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI). In his career, he has held positions at the Australian National University and Deakin University, and is Editor of Contemporary Drug Problems and an Associate Editor of the International Journal of Drug Policy. His research interests include social and cultural contexts of alcohol and other drug use typically using a qualitative methodology. At the Men and Masculinities conference at Örebro University, Sweden, he presented his critical research on how masculinities get erased in Australian public health research on alcohol and violence and how such research findings get misinterpreted when their authors ignore the issue of gender in their data.