Ernie Kurtz on Research

Highlights from Research on Alcoholics Anonymous- The Historical Context

Many have asked why I heroize the Late, Great Ernest Kurtz.

This article, presented during the February of 1992, NIAAA sponsored conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico is a great example: “Research on Alcoholics Anonymous: Opportunities and Alternatives.” Attendance was by invitation only and was limited to scholars who had published research on A.A.

Among attendees were Bill Miller and Barbara McCrady, the conference’s conveners, and such scholars and practitioners as Margaret Bean, Linda Beckman, Stephanie Brown, Chad Emrick, Fred Glaser, Nick Heather, and Alan Ogborne. After a brief introduction by Bill Miller, he opened the conference with the following paper, which remains a challenging review of the perils and promise of researching Alcoholics Anonymous.

Here follows selected highlights from Dr. Kurtz’s presentation (you can read the entire paper either in his book The Collected Ernie Kurtz or by clicking the link in the title above):

Projects such as this volume seem to verify the law that Mark Keller formulated in 1972:

“The investigation of any trait in alcoholics will show that they have either more or less of it.”

That seems even truer of those alcoholics who are members of Alcoholics Anonymous. Both Dickens and Goethe suggest that

“Those who have no memory have no hope.”

And so if it is important to see Alcoholics Anonymous over time, it is also important to see research on Alcoholics Anonymous over time. For research on A.A. has its own history, and the story of what we have learned about Alcoholics Anonymous, and of how it was learned, reveals certain patterns that it would be irresponsible to ignore.


[In] recent years, there is a very real sense in which, increasingly,

…there is no such thing as Alcoholics Anonymous – rather there have developed Varieties of the Alcoholics Anonymous Experience.

Under the impact of alcoholism treatment (through which an increasing number of new A.A. members arrive at the fellowship), shaped also by cultural pressures to widen the concept of addiction, Alcoholics Anonymous, decentralized as it is, now presents itself in a vast variety of groups, of formats, of understandings even of such basic-to-A.A. realities as serenity, not to mention spirituality. This can be a difficult point for people like us to accept, people who want to study Alcoholics Anonymous. Even when we study process, we like our phenomenon to hold still. At the very least, we want it to be phenomenon rather than a multiplicity of phenomena.

But A.A. doesn’t hold still, and increasingly it mutates. Current research suggests that most A.A. members agree that it is no longer possible to assume that every meeting listed in an A.A. meeting-list is an A.A. meeting. To take an example recently offered: “I went to this place where a meeting was listed, in Akron itself, for God’s sake, and they began by suggesting we go around the table and tell ‘how we had nurtured our inner child today.’ Hell! I’m a drunk, so I left: that wasn’t the kind of meeting I need to keep me sober.”

Note the kind of variety addressed here: this point has nothing to do with the different kinds of subjects investigated: young or middle-aged or old; also using or not using drugs other than alcohol, legal or illegal; and other such obviously important differences.

The point here concerns the varieties of experiences available within Alcoholics Anonymous – and the consequent reality that all generalizations about Alcoholics Anonymous need careful qualification.

But there is a consolation connected with this caution: Although the breadth of A.A.’s varieties is a new phenomenon, the reality of diversity within Alcoholics Anonymous is not merely recent. A.A.’s differences were one reason why it developed in so decentralized a fashion. Early researchers were aware of that, but they fell into the easy (and enduring) trap of researching what was available – studying those A.A.s who welcomed their research. Influenced also by the secularization hypothesis shared by most sociologists of the era, they tended to overlook the Akron birthplace of A.A. and its more Oxford Group-oriented offspring, concentrating their attention on New York A.A. and its derivatives. The affiliations (and so the locations) of those early students also suggest that they found East coast A.A. more convenient to research. Then too, the strong personality and central role of Bill Wilson had much to do with this focus. Although Bill himself to a perhaps surprising extent welcomed diversity and even disagreement, seeing in them a useful spur to the spiritual virtue of tolerance, not all members agreed with him, even about that.


From our perspective, here, perhaps the best evidence that “the spiritual” cannot be directly measured may be found in our ready (and appropriate) acceptance that there exists no “scientific proof” of the efficacy of Alcoholics Anonymous – this despite descriptions by hundreds of thousands of members of Alcoholics Anonymous who attest that A.A. has saved their lives and made it possible for them to live lives worth living.

If we have no such proof, despite all the efforts expended over the years by talented and sophisticated researchers, that very lack (1) supports A.A. members’ claims that their program and the spiritual cannot be separated and (2) challenges us to think out research strategies that respect that reality.

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