Anthropology and Sociology students in Maureen Mullinax’s ANSO 103 “Contemporary Social Issues” course have been studying the relationship between meth and small-town America since the beginning of term. As part of their investigation, they invited Professor Ralph Weisheit of Illinois State University to speak to Knox students on Friday, October 2, about the research methods and practices he uses to study the effects of methamphetamine on the social fabric of the Midwest.
As a professor of sociology with a specialization in criminal justice, he’s a veritable expert on the subject of meth. He has authored eight books and appeared on such shows as Frontline and 60 Minutes.
“Luck has played an enormous role in my success,” he said. “Yes, talent’s a factor, but my achievements are mostly a result of being in the right place at the right time.”
During his studies to become a sociologist, he discovered that his favorite part of the discipline was actually going into the field to do research, to talk to real people. But he explained that field research requires a lot of tough work.
“Going out into the field requires a lot of background research and reading. Before you start talking to anyone, you have to know your topic very well and come prepared,” he said.
A glance at a copy of Professor Weisheit’s “Methamphetamine User Interview Questions,” provided by Professor Maureen Mullinax of Knox’s department of Anthropology and Sociology, shows just how extensive Weisheit’s preparation was. The document is thirteen pages long and attempts to anticipate every possible tangent each question may lead to. Some examples from the document are, “How did you feel when you were coming down from using meth?” and “Are you aware of any violence connected to local methamphetamine cooking?”
Despite his best efforts, Professor Weishiet did not have an easy time when he first started to study meth. Out of all his problems, not being able to reach his research subjects was by far the biggest.
“It became very hard for me to do my report because meth addicts, by nature, are hard to reach. They’re paranoid; they’re unlikely to have listed phones, to keep appointments, to trust people. And, at the time, it didn’t help that we really didn’t know much about the typical meth user,” he said.
Over the course of his research, Weisheit discovered things that contradict deeply-held notions about methamphetamine and its users. One of these discoveries was that the drug itself is not inherently bad or instantly addictive. Secondly, all meth users are not the stereotypical, anorexic “hillbilly.”
“We actually give forms of meth to children to treat certain mental disorders. Under doctor supervision and in controlled doses, meth can be quite useful,” he said. “Also, many, many meth users have good intentions when starting the drug. They take it to work harder so they can work longer hours and, thus, have more money for their families.”
According to Weisheit, the most important value for a sociologist to keep in mind when interviewing is objectivity. He explains, “You need to find a topic that’s personally interesting, but not so consuming that you can’t be neutral. As a researcher, you are not on anybody’s ‘side’, per se.”
The research community makes great efforts to protect the human subjects they study. At colleges and universities, boards have to approve researcher’s methods and questions before any human subjects can be contacted. Knox College has such procedures which, along with an application form for human subject research, can be found on the college website under “Policy Concerning Investigations Involving Human Subjects.”
“These policies have to ensure that no one will be harmed during research. You can’t do things that will cause the subjects to experience emotional trauma. Also, the more directly you are interacting with subjects, the more steps you have to take,” said Weisheit.
As a sociologist, the professor said his main goal is to “read through the literature and find out what’s missing.”
“There’s no easy answer to the problems I’m studying. That’s what makes them continually interesting,” he said. “Just think, if solutions were simple, wouldn’t we have solved the meth problem and the drug problem, in general, by now?”