Karin Helmersson Bergmark. Foto: Leila Zoubir/Stockholms universitet
Karin Helmersson Bergmark. Foto: Leila Zoubir/Stockholms universitet

"When I began studying sociology as an undergraduate, I was working as a substitute teacher and had an idea that I would become a teacher. Then when I progressed in academia, I through that the price I would pay for choosing sociology was that I would have to stop teaching. Thankfully, that’s not what happened," said Karin Helmersson Bergmark when we spoke to her earlier. 

She had already started teaching sociology by the time she was working as an undergraduate research assistant. After getting off to a flying start that she remembers as being a little frightening, she found her niche in the role of teacher, something she describes as being the most fun of all. 

"It’s especially rewarding to follow students on what is now the Bachelor’s Programme in Applied Social Research, which I have completed myself, from them being like newly hatched chicks to finished sociologists," said Karin Helmersson Bergmark.

Her gateway into sociology was the interest in social problems she has had since an early age.

"When I was in upper secondary school, I didn’t know there was a subject called sociology. However, I studied social studies, which I liked," she said. 

However, it was in the prospectus for Stockholm University that she noticed sociology, which she thought looked interesting. She first took freestanding courses for two semesters, but did not think that was so much fun.

"At that time, there was a sharply defined boundary between teacher and researcher in the Department of Sociology, which was also much smaller at that time. Those who taught the bachelor’s courses hardly did any research, which was reflected in the teaching and made it less interesting," she said. 
Instead, she switched to what is now the Bachelor’s Programme in Applied Social Research, in the same department. 

"I thought that by doing that I would get a proper education. I felt at home there, both because the courses were interesting and because there were good discussions. We also studied more statistics on that programme than students do now," she says. 

In addition, she got a job assisting Professor Eckart Kühlhorn with his various penal policy projects. 

"After working as a research assistant, I applied to the doctoral programme. At that time, you didn’t need to have a subject for your doctoral thesis ready when applying, so I had no plan for this when I was admitted." 

Instead, through the Finnish sociologist Klaus Mäkelä, she became involved in the first international study of various twelve-step programmes to be conducted by people outside of the twelve-step world. She wrote her thesis on Alcoholics Anonymous in Sweden and gained her PhD in 1995. 

Alcohol and online life

Her research has primarily revolved around alcohol-related research and online life. After gaining her PhD, she researched gender and alcohol within the scope of her own projects, but also as part of a major international project, Gender, Alcohol and Culture: An International Study (GENACIS). In this way, Karin Helmersson Bergmark has been involved in building and developing research into alcohol and gender. 

"All of my research is based on discussions concerning the concept of addiction from a sociological perspective, and I see this as being a problem for which the explanation is there surrounding the individual. Then there are medical explanations that are based on the individual and genes," said Karin Helmersson Bergmark. 

She stated that historically, research into addiction has been a field within sociology and social studies. However, since the end of the 1990s, large parts of this field have been taken over by medics. Karin Helmersson Bergmark is critical of how the term ‘addiction’ is being used today. 

"It’s as if you’re saying: people are born this way, there is nothing you can do about it." 

She prefers the term ‘problem drinker’ rather than ‘alcohol addict’ or ‘alcoholic’. The term ‘addict’, she argues, is being used too hastily and spreading out as part of what she calls a process of medicalising ever more areas of life. Her current research, in the project ‘Contemporary Addictions and Online Life’, also revolves around this.

"Many people talk about internet addiction or computer game addiction, without there being any consensus about what this is or how it is to be measured. The World Health Organization (WHO) now includes ‘gaming disorder’ in its International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD) but it is not a diagnosis that is used in Sweden," said Karin Helmersson Bergmark.

But can you not consider this to be an improvement where the medical perspective contributes to helping people who have an addiction feel better? And that there may be both social and medical factors that contribute? 

"Yes, absolutely. But as a researcher, my perspective is sociological, in other words the significance of the social factors such as upbringing and environmental factors," says Karin Helmersson Bergmark. 

Aside from working as a researcher and university teacher, Karin Helmersson Bergmark, who is planning to retire next year, was also head of the Department of Sociology from 2008 to 2012 and deputy vice-chancellor of Stockholm University from 2013 to 2014. She now devotes part of her time to the position of adviser to the vice-chancellor on internationalisation. 

"The only time I have not been teaching during my time as a researcher was during the period I was deputy vice-chancellor. Otherwise, it’s something I’ve always done, even as head of department I had a small course, which was important to me. I define myself primarily as a university teacher, that’s something I’m really proud of," says Karin Helmersson Bergmark. 

Text: Leila Zoubir