What They Learned: Gabriel Halperin-Goldstein ’19

Personal experience with volunteer work became a valuable research tool for the sociology major.

Distilling his volunteer work into his sociology thesis, Gabriel Halperin-Goldstein wrote on the implications of employing scientific evidence to establish political policies. The senior paid specific attention to the effect that this phenomenon has on the perception and treatment of drug users.

Halperin-Goldstein was inspired to pursue this topic following his participation in the Fall 2018 course, Community Engagement and Social Responsibility, taught by Anne Montgomery, a Visiting Professor of Health Studies.

The class put students in contact with local community engagement opportunities and allowed him to volunteer for SOL collective a Philadelphia group who seeks to alleviate the city’s drug epidemic through “harm reduction” policies, such as the establishment of safe-injection sites, described by Halperin-Goldstein as “places where people go to inject drugs while under the supervision of medical personnel that will intervene.”  

“This class got me very interested in alternative models of medical treatment that treat the patient’s experience instead of the disease,” said Halperin-Goldstein, who, under the guidance his thesis advisor, Professor and Chair of Sociology Matt Mckeever, was able to transfer his experience with activism into thesis research. “I used the political conflict over safe injection sites right now as a case study.”

From this groundwork, he was able to finalize his thesis, titled “The New War on Drugs: How Science and Biomedicine Disguise the Value Conflict Over Harm Reduction.” The senior argued for the potential benefits were health policy-makers to “re-center the discussion to be about values instead of science.”

Continuing down this avenue of activism in Health Policy, Halperin-Goldstein will spend the next year as a Haverford House Fellow working at the Center for Hunger Free Communities.

What did you learn from working on your thesis? What is your biggest takeaway from the project?

These are some of my major takeaways:

  • 1) Even when policymakers advocate for “science-based policy”, they often selectively choose evidence that aligns with their own fundamental values.
  • 2) People often claim that the introduction of biomedicine and science into drug policy has removed moral considerations from policy, however this is not the case. The medical industry relies upon notions of values when implementing health policy – just like the criminal justice industry – and many of the values that justified the War on Drugs are still being used to justify the government’s decision to not implement a safe injection site.

What are the implications of your thesis research?

Health policy would be more effective if stakeholders could re-center the discussion to be about values instead of science. This includes both advocates for safe injection sites, who often appeal to scientific studies instead of values pertaining to social justice and human rights, and advocates against safe injection sites, who often harbor values of individualism that stigmatize drug users but deny that they do so. Furthermore, my research highlights the importance of giving people who use drugs, and in general populations that are considered to be “sick”, a forum for social organization and political advocacy.

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.