Is there such a thing as pure empiricism?

It has seemed that my fieldwork has evolved into the LA-public health component more than my own fieldwork. I've constantly struggled with trying to ground myself in a community, a location, a relevant cultural group. And every time I attempt this, things fall apart. There seems to be no center and no connector. Ultimately, I suppose, this is because I'm more interested in knowledge and information than in people. That's terrible to admit, but it's kind of true, that people are the medium for the circulation of information, and therefore, they are a means for me to get to the knowledge. I've never totally written this out before and admitting to it feels a bit risky.

One of my professors in an attempt to "help" me, suggested that biosociality often doesn't have a center; the concept refers to how people organize around biological/medical identities, such as cancer survivors as a social group, even when as individuals they may not have other socially similar attributes (this is highly reduced, so forgive me). In other words, the lack of grounding with which I'm grappling is a reflection of the subject rather than my own failing. She's probably right, but it doesn't make a researcher feel better when everyone else is studying a particular community and its habits. And when asked about whom I study, I end up kind of tongue-tied and abstract.

Anyway, this apparent distaste for humans means that when the LA project was offered to me, I couldn't resist. It gave me a "location," and it will allow me to collect a huge amount of data without having to do the labor or pay for it. Also, I was seduced by the prospect of being sought out. I hadn't intended to work for/with them, I simply wanted to know more about what they were doing. I have moments of regret, where I wonder if it was a wise decision to take the job. At some point, we will start the research, but most recently, the IRB expressed concern that my observation methods would generate "bias" in those being observed. I've written about how deeply frustrating this "bias" anxiety is to me -- as it presumes that other forms of data collection (surveys, etc) are unbiased. Really, they are simply accepted biases, which doesn't mean that they don't also produce biases, it's just that we have more standardized ways of accepting these biases. The IRB honcho who has expressed his concerns has assured us that he is familiar with qualitative research methods, as he has conducted "qualitative" research around HIV, but the minute someone insists he is "familiar" with "qualitative" work, my suspicions are immediately heightened.

Those who conduct this form of research are usually pretty sanguine about the imperfection of the methods, its messiness, its risk of imprecision. Generally, and perhaps someone will object to this description or assumption, those who use these methods anticipate and find interesting the tricky moments. In fact, some would even suggest that the tricky moments are the most interesting. This is where, I think, sociologists and anthropologists differ quite clearly, and where anthropologists and other qualitative researchers differ.

Anthropologists see the process as compelling and complex as collecting "rigorous" data. The idea that clinical encounters will fit into standardized data collection methods is naive. Clinical visits vary. Human interactions are generally diverse and complex, and to try to impose a formulaic way of capturing "what happens" is to impose an external expectation of what will happen in that encounter. It seems that what we call empiricism is actually highly dependent on imposing boundaries of understanding information. Anthropology is messy and often scattershot, but I would suggest that it can actually produce a far more robust understanding of "what is happening" in the world than the most "rigorous" of experiments.

Sigh...this was useful. Now I can go and respond to the IRB meanie. Better to vent here than in a professional context.

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