Through rich and poignant stories and critical analysis of policy, Substances, Welfare, and Social Relations sheds light on what it is like, and how it feels, to manage substance use while simultaneously on welfare. Read the full Q&A with author Amber Gazso, here:
How did the idea for writing this book first come to fruition?
In 2016 I began a research project focused on the design and administration of Ontario Works (or welfare) policy for people living with an addiction to alcohol or drugs in Toronto, Ontario.
The idea for writing this book came from the stories I heard from people I met and interviewed between 2016 and 2017. I completed qualitative in-depth interviews with people about their experiences of receiving Ontario Works and living with addiction – meaning people who self-defined as sober, in recovery, sometimes actively using, and sometimes engaging in harm reduction. The stories I heard from women and men taught me things so very different than what policy documents and stigmatizing discourse about drug use and welfare use would have me and other people believe.
The only way I felt I could capture and honour the magnitude and depth of people’s experiences and illustrate how their stories denounced stigma and pursued hope – for all of us – was to create space and the reach their stories deserved.
Tell us a little more about the “sociology of hope” that the book (re-)invigorates. How do you use this approach in the context of substance abuse and addiction?
I was inspired to think about a sociology of hope and how we might put theories of hope into policy practice for a few reasons.
First, I think sometimes we as sociologists can forget to be hopeful in our research. We can research social injustices and know them so painfully that a way past them seems daunting.
Second, I think that drug and alcohol use and welfare use invite stigmatization to such a degree that we might find hopelessness too easy a response to these social challenges, for people themselves, or for our communities and our broader society.
Third, I heard something different in the voices of the people I interviewed who were receiving Ontario Works and living with addiction. I heard hope or the promise of hope. People invited me to think about what would happen if we extrapolated from their stories and we all were hopeful. We, as collective citizens, inclusive of the general lay public, and even politicians, policy analysts, etc. I was inspired to imagine: How might welfare policy for people living with addiction be different if we designed and administered it through hope?
What was the most challenging aspect of this project?
It is difficult to pinpoint the most specific challenge. There were so many challenges involved in completing this project and then writing a book about it.
One example of a challenge in completing this project was maintaining a commitment to my recruitment and data collection strategies. There are a lot of good reasons that people working through substance use challenges and experiencing low income have for not being able to meet for a research interview. There were times I wanted to give up on recruitment and simply accept a much smaller sample of interview participants. However, each time someone met with me to share their stories with such generosity of spirit and critical insight, I was determined to continue to interview as many people as I could.
A bigger and ongoing challenge that I am hopeful I have met is a more personal challenge to myself: To try to hold up research participants’ voices as their own and to reflexively write myself into this book so that it is obvious when I am narrating others’ stories and for specific purposes. I am no longer keen on maintaining a sense of self as an entirely objective and emotionless researcher and instead felt it ethically necessary to try to convey my own standpoint and subjectivity as deeply entangled with the ‘big story’ I tell in this book. I sought to bring readers on my journey and my relationships with people and policy texts in completing the project and the book.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading Substances, Welfare, and Social Relations?
I hope that readers will be inspired to de-stigmatize addiction and agree that we need differently designed welfare policies that supports people living with addiction. I desire to convince readers that if we first shift discourse about addiction and low income, we can change how we think, how we talk, and how we and governments socially and economically support and live together in our families and communities. We can all act with hope in our support of people working through substance use and in our efforts to create welfare policies that help lift people out of low income.
Read an except of Substances, Welfare, and Social Relations, here.