May 9, 2019 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn

An independent study led to the partnership of a King’s student and professor on a paper entitled "Absolutely the worst drug I've ever seen": Risk, governance, and the construction of the illicit fentanyl ‘crisis,’ since published in Theoretical Criminology, a leading journal in the field.

In the fall of 2017, Madelaine Coelho, then a third-year student, Honours Specialization in Sociology, asked Dr. Liam Kennedy, Assistant Professor of Sociology/Criminology, to supervise her independent study.

“We thought analyzing media coverage of the fentanyl ‘crisis’ was timely and important because we were hearing about fentanyl-related overdoses and deaths,” says Dr. Kennedy.

Over the next year and a half, Dr. Kennedy and Coelho analyzed over a thousand news stories and spent dozens of hours discussing ideas and crafting their central argument.

The research revealed how media coverage of Chinese producers and Mexican cartels bringing the deadly substance into North America, and the increase in fentanyl-related deaths and overdoses, stoked feelings of insecurity. This led to the closings of borders and new governing practices targeting broader segments of the population at home.

Coelho says the foundational skills derived from the Sociology and Criminology coursework, including critical thinking, structural analysis, and looking to the social world to make sense of patterns or trends gave her the tools necessary to participate in the research process.

The paper produced at the end of the independent study was “an excellent first draft that outlined preliminary findings and situated those findings within existing scholarship,” says Dr. Kennedy.

Deciding to share the paper with a wider audience, Dr. Kennedy and Coelho spent the summer of 2018 re-reading and analyzing news stories, developing their argument and editing the paper. Even after submitting it for publication at the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, they continued to work, using reviewer comments as the impetus to re-think their central argument and explain how the paper contributed to the field of study.

The paper was accepted for publication in February 2019 in Theoretical Criminology.

Happy to have their work recognized by their peers, Dr. Kennedy also says “this is a big deal for Madelaine’s career. Madelaine is graduating from King’s this June and is already an accomplished scholar. Seeing students achieve their goals is one of the best parts of teaching at King’s!”

Coelho is now off to graduate school at the University of Toronto. She hopes to then pursue a PhD.

“I got to learn about the research process in a very applicable way. With this project, I had the opportunity to work on a paper from initial draft to publication which challenged me but also allowed me to gain so much academically. This gives me a competitive advantage while contextualizing the breadth of my experience acquired at King’s,” says Coelho.

To read Dr. Kennedy and Coelho’s paper in Theoretical Criminology, please visit