Anthropology effaced

As I sit on a two-hour conference call, listening to them re-working the survey, it's amazing to me how much depth and attention surveys garner, and how little anyone actually cares about my methods. I know some of this is because few understand my research methods, but it's sort of like being the belle of the ball and then being usurped as quickly as I rose to attention. That's a bit melodramatic, but it is strange to realize that we've not yet given my methods the depth of attention that the survey has merited. I suppose it's ok, it's a way in which I get to be left alone to do what I need to do. But it's also incredibly discouraging.

Similarly, I was reading the CDC grant that I want to apply for, that's due in less than two months, and I feel a bit hopeless about it. I mean, what's the point of their gazillion page protocol when I probably won't get it anyway. Public health is purportedly multidisciplinary, but I've always felt that it has an ugly stepchild syndrome, feeling like it needs to prove its mettle to both medicine and science...I don't know where on the kinship map Anthropology would fall, maybe little matchstick girl begging for alms? (This metaphor is going to incur the wrath of HL, as she never lets me draw insane analogies, but they're so much fun. Someday, my dear, you will get to make an example out of me to your future students, and then, you'll be grateful.)

I was talking to another dear friend (why must these wonderful people be so far away from where I am?) -- and she was confronting the frustrations of fieldwork with people whose lives are quite messy and often get caught in the horrible web of incarceration and racism and poverty. There's an inexorability to their lives that can be very sad and painful to watch. I compared it to my work with men and women in a drug rehab center, and when you hear and follow these people's stories, it's very hard to feel that the work we are doing is meaningful. As fellow "qualitative" researcher extraordinaire (FQRE) put it, it's difficult to work with individuals with the goal of helping larger populations. The work you do with any individual and the theoretical and practical challenges that you're hoping to achieve won't actually line up. We are not helping any specific individuals in our work -- it's all abstracted with longer-term goals. That can be hard to accept. And, as FQRE also expressed, it's incredibly hard to find oneself losing the empathy and emotional reactions to some very upsetting circumstances. After 9 months talking to recovering addicts and drug dealers, I really wanted to say, yes, yes, yes, why wouldn't you turn to dope when life is so insurmountable and the problems keep piling up. Those very limited interviews that I conducted would drive me and my research partner to drink on a regular basis. And when you live in the same city and have to confront the huge social disparities by virtue of your own privilege, it can be extremely jarring and intense. It's not just abstract theorizing, rather, it's simultaneous lives in the same space, with vastly different experiences of the place.

And yet, in order to continue the work, you can't let yourself be distracted too much by the problems of people's lives. You can help as best you are able (and I think FQRE does an excellent job of following and helping people maneuver the systems as best she can), but it can only go so far. Of course, this is also why we're not in direct service work, as that approach to social problems has its own huge limitations. Really, what it comes down to, and as I pointed out to FQRE, is that no matter what tack we might have chosen, we would be limited by our methods. We cannot (sadly) rule the world and fix all the interconnected social problems. But that doesn't mean we should give up, either.

I attribute this brief glimpse of Pollyannaism to the fact that I no longer feel like Camille on her deathbed, and that I suspect it's not deadly tuberculosis after all. Amazing what Nyquil will accomplish.

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