More public health-anthropology face-offs

For those who inexplicably continue to read this blog, you may have well noticed I am doing little fieldwork at all. It's a bit shameful, as I believe I am a superhero and can move, get horribly sick, and start new research all simultaneously. In addition, I have started to look at a CDC grant for funding the next year of my life (which is proving daunting in its labyrinthian criteria and guidelines). It's all very exciting in its perilousness.

In the work that I've been contracted to do with the LA health department, there have been a number of frustrations in which the CDC people simply fail to have any interest or faith in the kind of work I do. As I've spent a good amount of time in the public health world, it isn't a huge shock, but it never fails to depress me. In spite of being hired to do "qualitative" research, there was a proposal to include an exit survey at the end of some of our research. Anthropologists don't really enjoy being reduced to the "qualitative" category, as it is usually used derogatively and implies a lesser research method than the more robust "quantitative" methods.

Surveys are usually quantitative. You take conceptual questions and you make them fit into binary responses. I hate this. Rarely do we have binary reactions to social phenomena. If you don't want to make it binary, you can use likert scales, which allow for a range of responses. I have never felt either option on surveys matched my feelings about anything. I'm always choosing the least bad choice. Further, the public healthians constantly ask me if my research methods will "bias" those we're observing, as though a survey with slotted answers don't intriniscally bias the respondent -- since one is given predetermined responses, rather than answering with your own terms. Clearly, such methods have utility, but I simply don't believe that any research method is fully sufficient, and thus, it's acceptable to choose a method that is different than the more standard one. Not because my method is superior (depending on what you value -- is it efficiency or nuance? Statistics or depth of information?), but because none is flawless, why assume that there is an actual hierarchy or value attached to the data collected?

Fortunately, on the LA side, my supervisor brought in an epidemiologist to consult on the survey, since I had no interest in it, have no skills to develop it, and think it's kind of a bullshit measure. Suffice it to say, meeting with the epidemiologist, I immediately hated her. Her way of framing questions and understanding the problems offended me and struck me as completely naive about the actual population with whom we will be working. She simply couldn't understand the nuances of the project that the project director and I had been trying to access through the qualitative methods. Not all epidemiologists are dense, and some do some fascinating and wonderful work. But it was kind of depressing to be confronted (again, for the millionth time) with the limitations of the public health methodology. I've very much wanted to bridge disciplines, but these few months working with the public health side of things makes me want to run in the other direction.

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