Complexity: Researching alcohol and other drugs in a multiple world

An interdisciplinary conference for international researchers
in drug use and addiction studies from a range of research disciplines.
Aarhus University, Denmark. 21-23 August 2013.

Main theme

The last decade has seen the idea of complexity gain force in social science and epidemiological research. As social problems of all kinds prove less amenable to change than is sometimes suggested by the reductionist demands of orthodox positivist approaches, theory and method have turned to ways of articulating the elusive, uncertain and complex.

Complexity and simplification

For some, such as the science and technology studies scholars Annemarie Mol and John Law (2002), complexity means multiplicity rather than unity, realities rather than reality, distinct but overlapping worlds, logics and orders. Implicated, too, are questions about the relation between order and chaos, and the validity of binaries of any kind, including that of simplicity and complexity itself.

Certainly, Mol and Law see a necessary connection between complexity and simplification – research methods, they argue, must simplify if they are to enact order and make useful statements about issues. The trick is to remember that simplification is occurring, and to resist the urge to tidy it away or obscure it. Issues of complexity, simplification and research method are of direct relevance to alcohol and other drug problems.


Addiction, one of Western liberalism’s most productive concepts, is both heavily contested and frequently taken for granted.

Drugs, too, are seen to be self-evident (in their action in the body and role in addiction), yet ‘behavioural addictions’ such as gambling and overeating promise, via emerging neuroscientific understandings of brain chemistry, to remake the category of ‘drugs’ in policy, practice and popular culture.

Diseases commonly associated with drug use – especially the blood-borne viruses HIV and hepatitis C – challenge simple epidemiological estimates of incidence and prevalence and straightforward understandings of the social, behavioural and biological dynamics of transmission. Quantitative methodologies wrestle with tensions between elaborative and parsimonious modelling, especially in relation to large populations conceived as a diversity of sub-groups. Retaining the complexity and richness of the data in research results while still drawing succinct and direct conclusions is a major challenge for both quantitative and qualitative approaches. The demands of policy and service provision favour simplification, but many ask at what cost. Qualitative and quantitative research of all kinds is, it seems, implicated in these contemporary dilemmas of complexity and simplification.

A new forum

This conference offers a forum in which the issues and dilemmas of complexity in alcohol and other drug research can be explored. It welcomes research based on quantitative and qualitative methods, and encourages innovative use of methods, concepts and theoretical approaches.

Conference format

The conference will run over three days. The program will feature a mix of plenary presentations and concurrent streams. Presentations will run for 20 minutes to be followed by 10 minutes for questions and discussion.

More Information

More conference details can be found here.

EURAD's Contribution

EURAD's President, Stig-Erik Sorheim will conduct a session named "Cannabis: Research gaps and policy questions"