Public Health Dynamics Seminar:
Ethnographic Research, Agent-based Modeling, and Understanding Heroin Markets
Lee Hoffer, PhD MPE
Assistant Professor of Anthropology
Case Western Reserve University
Friday, January 27, 2012
3:00 – 4:30 PM (109 Parran)
Cartels that distribute illegal drugs in the US are big business operations. However, at the local level, i.e., where consumers and sellers transact, illegal drug markets function more like non-linear (complex) systems than organized ones. Here individual dealers and their customers, who are often addicted to drugs, participate in strategic transactions without explicit direction, central control, institutional support, complete information, or other factors thatoften characterize buying and selling relationships in legal markets. For many years, one of the most successful methods researchers have used to understand these activities is ethnography. In small-scale in-depth longitudinal studies rapport can be established with participants who are highly suspicious of outsiders. However, although these methods have produced descriptive, nuanced, and detailed accounts of drug dealing, it is often difficult to understand aggregated outcomes of findings from these studies, a fact that has stifled theory development. This presentation will discuss efforts toward combining ethnography and agent-based modeling to scale-up, enhance, and facilitate abroader understanding illegal drug markets. Based on information from in-depth open-ended interviewing and participant-observation techniques, simulations have been designed to incorporate the dynamic interactions of dealers and their customers. Although different simulations have been designed using this approach, this presentation will focus on a recent model incorporating "hidden costs" and network dynamics to challenge neo-classical theories on the price of heroin. While both advantages and limitations of this approach will be discussed, combining ethnography and agent-based modeling holds promise for developing new perspectives on the very old problem of the illegal drug economy.
About the Speaker:
Dr. Hoffer is an Assistant Professor of Medical Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in Cleveland, Ohio. His research focuses on understanding the social, political, economic and cultural dimensions of illegal drug use and addiction. He is currently principal investigator of NIH and NSF grants combining agent-based modeling (ABM) and ethnographic research methods to better understand the operations of illegal drug markets. Originally designed to augment an 18-month case study of a heroin-dealing network, entitled Junkie Business (Thompson-WadsworthPress, 2006), his current research addresses illegal drug markets as non-linear systems. Merging ethnography and ABM, simulations from this work have explored how heroin markets adapt to police intervention, influence addiction, and complicate interpreting demand indicators. Dr. Hoffer received his Anthropology (MA, 1995) and Health & Behavioral Sciences (Ph.D., 2002) degrees from the University of Colorado and completed NIDA postdoctoral training and a degree in Psychiatric Epidemiology (MPE, 2004) from Washington University School of Medicine, in St. Louis. Dr. Hoffer is also faculty in the Department of Psychiatry at CWRU School of Medicine and teaches and mentors medical school, graduate, and undergraduate students.