Melinda Beckwith


Professor Dan Lubman


Initiation and progression of substance use has a marked influence on individuals’ social functioning, significantly limiting their social networks either through choice or through exclusion and stigmatisation by others.  It can also have an effect at a more personal level on a person's self-perception and identity, with the identity associated with their substance use often becoming more salient to the person as well as significant others. People who inject drugs (PWID) are known to have poorer health and social wellbeing overall, and to be the most stigmatised of the substance-using population due to this perceived social identity.

To address the diminishing of social networks due to substance use, research has reinforced the importance of social network support in recovering from problematic use.  What we don't know is what assists and what prevents engagement with peer support groups and other types of social support outside the substance-using networks. Uncovering these factors will assist in facilitating pathways between treatment services and community-based supports.
Social identity perspectives offer a promising explanatory model.  Social Identity Theory states that identity is at least in part derived from the social networks to which one belongs.  These might be based on family, friendships, shared activities or interests, and so on.  Social identity is dynamic, and how much one identifies with a social network at a given time depends upon how relevant or helpful membership of that network might prove to be in one's immediate context.  It may also depend on the emotional significance attached to identification with the network, such as the importance of connection to one's family, as well as the perceived compatibility of group norms with one's personal attitudes, beliefs and values.

Previous research suggests that belonging to multiple social groups, and therefore having multiple social identities on which to draw, allows a person to more fluidly integrate into a new social environment and take on another social identity.  It is important to note that this does not necessarily involve relinquishing previous identities but making aspects on one's personal identity more salient.  For those who choose to access treatment, the expectation is often that the identity associated with their substance use is relinquished as they move away from social networks that involved substance use.  If this is the only social identity on which a person has to draw, how does this impact on treatment outcomes, especially for the more marginalised?


The aim of the project is to explore mechanisms behind social identity change with view to enhancing ongoing recovery options for those who choose to access treatment.  More specifically, we aim to assess the types of social networks people experiencing significant substance-related problems are involved in, and the extent to which:

a) social networks are restricted to other people who use, and

b) how social identity is perceived by the individual, and how this shifts as individuals' substance use, social networks and life circumstances change.


Working with two linked therapeutic communities within Victoria, data will be drawn from mapping the social networks of people seeking inpatient treatment at these services.  Social network data will be collected prior to treatment, during treatment and at the end of treatment. Analysis of this data using Social Network Analysis will show network changes over time.

At this very early stage, it is intended that data regarding social identification with the social networks uncovered in the previous step will be collected using both qualitative and quantitative methods.


The proposed research will contribute to the understanding of social identity changes experienced by those who choose to access treatment.  Substance misuse is deemed to be a chronic, relapsing condition and part of this may be ineffective transitions to social support post-treatment.


Preliminary work with colleagues in Queensland has allowed us to explore social factors that may facilitate or inhibit a person's identification with the social environment of a therapeutic community, and factors that might contribute to the person missing or disconnecting from their former substance-using networks.  These factors include quality of relationships, social environment, satisfaction with their free time, and experiences of conflict or abuse.


2013 – 2016


For more information relating to this project, please contact Melinda Beckwith: