UB sociologist to speak at international conference devoted to the paradigm-shifting addiction recovery theory he co-developed

People in a group therapy session.

Release Date: March 7, 2024

Robert Granfield, vice provost for faculty affairs at UB.
“We were initially told our work was unscientific and that it lacked validity. But within 10 years, we started seeing a growing science of recovery capital that took off in ways that were unimaginable at the time. ”
Robert Granfield, PhD, professor of sociology
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Leading researchers, clinicians and policymakers from around the world will meet next month in Calgary, Alberta, for a conference devoted to recovery capital, a pioneering theory in the field of addiction recovery that was co-developed by Robert Granfield, PhD, University at Buffalo professor of sociology and vice provost for faculty affairs.

Granfield and William Cloud, PhD, now a retired professor in the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, were each faculty members at that university in the late 1990s when they conceptualized the theoretical foundations of recovery capital. The subsequent application, influence and expanding body of research related to recovery capital have all contributed to a paradigmatic shift in the science of addiction recovery, moving away from traditional ideas of willpower toward a more holistic approach.

The concept’s growth in 25 years is remarkable considering that Granfield and Cloud, despite their early evidence suggesting recovery capital’s role in overcoming addiction, couldn’t get federal funding to extend their initial research.

“We were initially told our work was unscientific and that it lacked validity,” he says. “But within 10 years, we started seeing a growing science of recovery capital that took off in ways that were unimaginable at the time.”

Today, there are currently more than 150,000 unique websites that reference recovery capital.

“It’s so rewarding to have an entire conference focused on recovery capital,” says Granfield. “This will be the seventh of such conferences that began in 2017.”

The Recovery Capital Conference of Canada will be held April 3-4 at the Telus Convention Centre in Calgary. Granfield’s presentation, “From Inception to Integration: The Origins and Growth of Recovery Capital,” takes place on the first day of the conference at 11 a.m.

Recovery capital is a term for the collective elements in someone’s life, the internal and external resources they draw upon to help their potential for success to start, and sustain, the process leading to recovery from addiction. Recovery capital is comprised of social, physical, cultural and human forms of capital. It consists of but is not limited to personal and social characteristics, networks, housing, access to transportation, community aspects, cultural values, and the friends, family members and others who might support the recovery process.

Derived from Granfield and Cloud’s qualitative study of natural recovery or spontaneous remission, recovery capital is a fluid construct. People can spend or accumulate it as part of a recovery experience. Recovery capital interacts with the problem of addiction by providing support and presenting paths that can lead to recovery.

“The concept of recovery capital being holistic, rather than disease-based or with an emphasis on flawed personhood, is something that can be effectively integrated into how people live as social and cultural beings,” says Granfield.

As the recovery capital movement has grown it has been adopted by practitioners in the field of mental health, with applications related to any kind of addictive or excessive behavior that is negatively affecting people’s lives. It has become a central paradigm in Canada and is being used in various countries around the globe such as the UK, Australia and Ireland.

Granfield has recently completed a National Institutes of Health-funded study led by Elizabeth Bowen, PhD, an associate professor in the UB School of Social Work, to develop an assessment tool to measure recovery capital. He is currently working with a group in Italy to determine if recovery capital can be applied to young people and social media use.

“We saw early on that recovery was something people didn’t accomplish on their own,” says Granfield. “It was an ecosystem of factors, but it was also what people were able to involve themselves in, like reading groups, church groups or other civic groups.”

That early research began when Granfield and Cloud, who both had an interest in addiction recovery, launched their first study with 46 participants. They were aware of weaknesses in the disease model of addiction and also knew of research on addiction recovery without treatment.

“We didn’t go into that first study with the objective of developing a comprehensive term,” says Granfield. “We wanted to conduct these interviews in order to advance the literature and think more theoretically about natural recovery.”

But the overarching narrative emerging from those interviews began taking an identifiable shape.  It wasn’t any one element coming from stories that suggested a keystone responsible for supporting recovery. It was a multidimensional approach to understanding how various elements could help build the capacity for individuals to overcome addiction.

“It’s all of this,” Granfield says, remembering what he and Cloud concluded. “We started writing our first book while we were analyzing our data and coined the term recovery capital in the process.”

Their book, “Coming Clean: Overcoming Addiction without Treatment,” was published in 1999, and has since become a classic study in the science and practice of addiction recovery.

“The opportunity to have this kind of impact, internationally, nationally, locally, right down to the individual, and in different corners of the world, is truly gratifying,” says Granfield.

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