Good Bad People: A Photo-Ethnography of Methamphetamine Use in Rural Alabama

October 14, 2021, 7:00pm | Sun Room, Memorial Union

The recent rise in the use of methamphetamine (meth) across rural areas in the United States has led to increased “cultural anxiety” about the drug and those who consume it. The general narrative of meth use, which highlights the destruction of meth use on people’s lives, has been heavily influenced by popular television programs and pervasive anti-meth campaigns. However, the lives of people who use drugs are more complex than this. Using data from a two-year photo-ethnography Heith Copes provides a considered, contextualized portrait of those who live in rural poverty and struggle with addiction to methamphetamine. Using traditional ethnographic methods (interviews, observation) and photographs (traditional documentary and portrait photographs, alongside images from family albums, social media pages, and texts) of 52 people from rural North Alabama, Copes documents how those who use meth construct personal narratives, social identities, and symbolic boundaries to gain a sense of agency amidst rural poverty, diminished social status, and tumultuous familial and romantic relationships.

Heith Copes is a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His primary research agenda uses qualitative methods to examine criminal decision-making and narrative identity. He has published over 100 refereed journal articles in journals such as British Journal of Criminology, CriminologyEuropean Journal of CriminologyJustice Quarterly, and Social Problems. He has been a visiting scholar and speaker at universities across the United States, Europe and Australia, including the University of South Wales, Aalborg University, University of Oslo, University of Queensland, and the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research at Aarhus University. In 2014, he received the Outstanding Educator Award from the Southern Criminal Justice Association. He also received the 2017 Ireland Award for Scholarly Distinction from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He is the current Co-Editor of the journal Deviant Behavior.