Fieldwork tactics

I am trying to prepare my data for future analysis, so that when I sit down to write, I don't have to wade through 3 years of documents (PDFs, emails, interviews, transcriptions, oh my!) and process it all. This is an obvious needed step as one conducts research, but unlike more traditional scientific research, it's sometimes hard to know in advance what method will be appropriate for the data collected. And though I anticipated certain themes would come out in interviews and the various information sources I use, I am only now, 6 months into fieldwork and 2 years into studying the vaccine, feeling confident about interesting conceptual terms. I'm excited to apply these to the future interviews as well. This is part of why I have started the blog -- to explore certain trains of thought in a more moderated medium (that makes no sense, as I am the moderator of my own notes, as much as this blog...but somehow it feels different). Sources of knowledge and what information is considered legitimate are obviously of great interest to me.

The mom for whom I made the sweet potato muffins was a second interview. It was really satisfying to come back to her after listening to our first interview and feeling like I could prepare properly for it. My first few interviews had been so stilted and awkward. (I cringe when I listen to myself on the recordings.) The digging deeper part is the part I like, but I'm not terribly patient (in case you couldn't tell from earlier posts, or from knowing me) with the slow accrual that's necessary to get to the more compelling parts. I'm still trying to figure out how to connect the larger themes of vaccination that I'm hearing with my specific vaccine. I hope that I can find the overlap and the differences soon, as I sometimes feel like I'm stumbling around, groping haphazardly at things I believe are related but can't quite bring together.
The Canadian Public Radio station CBC has a very cool podcast with science studies' thinkers. I've only listened to one podcast, with Margaret Lock, a well-known medical anthropologist, but it was extremely well-done. It explored a lot of themes I'm familiar with in her work, but it was interesting even to someone who has engaged with her theories before. I really recommend checking it out if you are remotely interested in the sorts of things I've written about thus far.


Feminism today

Is sorely lacking. I know, it's hard to come up with new and creative and inventive ways of re-interpreting the world. So, in lieu of making feminist proclamations, I will just encourage you to read Bitch, Ph.D., whose recent post on feminist boyfriending (and really you could just call this all-around good humanist attitudes, if you're leery of the feminist part or the boyfriend part) is charming and fun. Not rocket science. Or sex research science, or anything... Salon has an interesting article about why some women are balking at the deification of Obama by men, which I found compelling, since my suspicion of him has fallen along similar lines -- even as I'm ambivalent and not thrilled by Clinton, either. I am not promising that this is the most nuanced or sophisticated article, and it obviously tries to extrapolate about larger phenomena by making some logical leaps about the democratic race, but I thought it was worth reading and sharing.

I am having second thoughts about hosting this blog on blogger. I didn't do any technology homework and just found myself on blogger. Perhaps I ought to have used wordpress, it looks nicer. I will try not to be compulsive about my choices. Perhaps I ought to first refresh my html knowledge so that I can personalize this the way I like. I am awfully particular about the interface of technology.

Mary Roach single-handedly ruins it

I realize the title could seem vaguely euphemistic, but I'll leave it stand. I've been reading Mary Roach's new book, Bonk, as I was curious about the mainstream press's representation of sex research. There are, unsurprisingly, quite a lot of academic books about sex -- usually from a historical perspective. I wanted to see how this highly lauded author would handle the topic. (I have not read her other books, Stiff or Spook, though I think I did buy one of them (which one?) for a boyfriend. I have no idea if he read the book, nor if it was any good.)

Bonk is not good. Perhaps I have been in academia too long, but her book is like popcorn. The first 100 or so pages, I read quickly. It was easy prose, though like popcorn, there were some mild annoyances and irritations. Like the kernels getting stuck in one's teeth, the first few are negligible, tolerable in the context of a larger enjoyment. However, halfway through the book it was completely clear that there was no point or real connection that she was trying to make about sex research besides maybe: it's been considered taboo and risque for a long time. (What a useful and productive revelation.) Sex researchers come up with funny and outlandish ways to test human intimate behaviors, yet they do it quite seriously with dedication to empiricism in its purest form. Chapters end sort of like the way my cat runs at the closet door mirror, throws himself at it, and then runs off. As though it had never happened. Leaving me baffled as to why he had decided at this precise moment to hurtle himself across the room, whack himself against the mirrored surface, and then pretend as though it were no different than cleaning himself or eating breakfast.

This is how odd Roach is. Nothing gets seen through, it's just a collection of anecdotes -- for what? Titillation? She seems to want to make it all seem very ordinary by piling on information. But there is lots of fascinating stuff to say about why sexual behaviors and attitudes are sectioned off from other human behavior. There's tons of cultural ways of interpreting these things. And human behaviors, whether they're sexual or social (er...not that these are mutually exclusive) or hygenic, or whatever, are fascinating and complex, so why reduce it all to just a wacky romp through scientists' laboratories or sex toy manufacturers' factories? Quite honestly, it pisses me off.

In one of the later chapters she cursorily mentions the (limited) research on the birth control pill's effect on female libido. This is something that really concerns me, as I've read little research on it, though anecdotal evidence from a variety of sources suggest it is a serious problem [though it dawned on me this afternoon that I have been railing against anecdotal science throughout my own blog...I'm just owning up to the inconsistency]. Last summer I read a phenomenal book (though perhaps the exact opposite of Roach's take on a subject, almost too in-depth) on the male birth control pill, by Nelly Oudshoorn, called The Male Pill: a Biography of a Technology in the Making.

As Oudshoorn noted, one of the major obstacles in developing the male birth control pill was the multitude of side effects. Side effects that are considered irrelevant in female hormonal contraceptives (such as, oh, decreased libido) are not necessarily tolerated by male subjects. This discrepancy and the purported difficulty in developing male hormonal contraception reveal really compelling evidence about how male and female bodies are treated differently by science. Suffice it to say, the argument that male's physiology is just "more complicated" to control hormonally is total bullshit. The idea that one sex's biology is "more difficult" begs the obvious question -- "more" relative to what (or to whom)? I would like to quote the ever enlightening "Square One TV" of my childhood (a PBS math/science show that was one of the the few television shows I was allowed to watch regularly as a kid) -- "Change your point of view". [I can't believe I could find this on YouTube...this alone may make me a convert.] Researchers identify the male physiology as "more complicated" because there have been fewer studies or focus on the male reproductive system. Women's reproductive systems offered more socially compelling reasons to muck around in there, and the (presumably) shorter lifespan of a woman's reproductive potential made the research more finite. This lack of understanding of many aspects of male reproductive physiology is especially odd when you consider that for centuries the "human" body that was referred to as universal in medical texts and scientific research was usually a male body (and it's amazing that we managed to develop Viagara but not yet a male contraceptive pill). But that is a story for another time.

Roach cites a primate researcher as commenting that the lack of warning of decreased libido on the birth control pill is because the FDA doesn't really care about the behavioral side effects, particularly sexual behavior side effects. This, it seems, is a really interesting phenomenon worth delving into. (Oh yeah...I guess, I sort of kind of do something like that.) But Roach dumps it in with a gazillion other observations, none of which go beyond a brief mention. Perhaps she thinks the facts speak for themselves. But really, this is not why I read books. Accumulating facts without any sort of analytic reflection is tedious. (Ummm...I think this is called trivia? I have a sinking feeling that a few good friends will take this moment to poke me for my year of enforced trivia night attendance, and yeah, yeah, mea culpa.)

I may need to go on a media diet. I've realized that my information sources are all new-yorker-y and intellectual-liberal-elitist. Also, I've started to realize that I can't trust most of the sources when so many of them have praised Roach's book. I am curious to read this book, Terror and Consent, on American politics, a subject I rarely read in book form. Though the gloom and doom of the world lately is starting to take its toll on me. Hence, the contemplation of information blackout.


Assorted photos

I've not been good about taking photos -- partly because it feels weird to photograph my informants, but also because it feels weird to photograph L.A.

Here are a few of Sunset Blvd. near my house -- my neighborhood is in the throes of gentrification, as one coffee shop goer discussed with me. The hipsters live in my neighborhood and the adjacent one, east of here, but there's lots of abandoned storefronts, as you can see here:
I took these as I was walking back from the car repair shop, on Thursday. There were no pedestrians out and (uncharacteristically) no cars, either.

[I used to be quite adept at HTML, but I've apparently forgotten how to code things so that they sit properly on the page. Apologies. I'm too lazy to re-learn it.]

In these photos, I had noticed that the lamp post flags advertising the Kara Walker exhibit were vaguely reminiscent of the Body Worlds' flags. These two poses, in particular:

Kind of hard to see the one on the right, but hopefully you get the idea.
There's something creepy about the fact that both of them use a similar pose, especially since Walker's work can be very intense and addresses issues of the objectified body, and the Body Worlds' exhibit is creepy and suspect and most likely will be intense and implicitly raising issues of the objectified body. (I am finally going to go see it, since I figure I ought to, for my work).

The medium or the message?

One of the conundrums of my work with this women's health organization (a minority women's health organization, I ought to say), is the way in which the director is eager to correct my information. As I wrote to a fellow anthropologist friend who is in the field:
it's also interesting to experience this weird struggle with her, because I do feel that she's testing me in some way or challenging me. It's like she's ambivalent about my presence, and she wants to see how far she can push my comfort zone, as well. I can't very well say to her, well, all these things you've criticized that I've done, are actually taken verbatim from your own materials -- which is tempting to say. I guess that's what's so weird about the whole thing -- I've not actually generated any new information at all, but it's information that I've "created" in her eyes, and I sort of think that she's challenging the fact that I've created it. Which then is confusing me further, because then it's about me and not about the material itself.

The danger, however, of this interpretation of the dynamic is that then the research is about ME, me, Me, and not so much about the nuances of the communication or the issues at hand. I want to think about this dynamic as being a bit larger than just two people struggling over knowledge. I do think it's representative of something beyond just our interpersonal differences.

After I looked up their claim that Detroit had passed this really racist law, I was telling a friend about my fact checking. He asked me if I were going to correct them the next time I went in to the office. I tried to explain to him why I wouldn't, why it wasn't my place to go in and "educate" them about this information. There are so many reasons why this would be inappropriate -- not the least of which is the fact that the organization is guided by a strong criticism of health institutions as being racist and oppressive -- how could I, over-educated by one of the most well-known health institutions, come in and correct their information? His ignorance about how problematic it would be to do so was also enlightening in its own way, and explaining to him why I wouldn't do such a thing was a good exercise for me to remind myself of why this is all very tricky but also what's at stake when I get impatient or want to revert to my 8-year-old-know-it-all self (not so different, really from the 29-year-old-know-it-all, either).


In other news, it's been hot as hell in L.A. A dear friend came up to visit me, and we acquired an armchair for my apartment at the Rose Bowl. It's been 6 months, and I finally found a chair that suited the space. It seems silly to work on making it more comfortable here, since I'm already counting down (or pretending to, anyway) the months till I'm gone. But domestic space is really important to me, and it's been hard to live in this temporary space. The apartment is pretty small, and there's almost no storage. I hate living with piles of papers and magazines and books everywhere, but it's kind of inevitable. I also hate feeling like I'm living somewhere with the attitude that it's only temporary. It all makes me uneasy. Here is the cat sleeping in the new chair -- apparently he approves. [I never thought I would be a person who photographed her cat, much less "shared" it on the internet. Slippery slope....]

Do not go see the film "Smart People," if you are at all inclined to do so. It was painfully terrible, kind of offensive, and not worth the $4.50 we paid in matinee price. The only redeeming value of the 90 minutes was that we were so hot and needed to escape the oppressive heat, so we did a tried-and-true east coast summer trick, and ducked into the movie theater. Perhaps if we had napped there it would have been a better use of our money.

I'm feeling sanguine about the work in general. I've done a number of good interviews last week. I feel like the pace of the work is just right. As a friend who recently returned from the field reminded me, it's silly to spend time thinking about leaving and not being here. It's a privilege to have the time and space to do this research. I do have a bad habit of getting distracted by frustrations and desires for the next thing. So mainly, I'm working on being a little more appreciative and positive about the time I am spending here. And I feel a bit shame-faced about the last curmudgeonly, whiny post. This may not be the city for me, but I am happy to have left Baltimore. I miss that city, in a predictably nostalgic way, but I am glad to be doing something new. And there are a lot of things I do like about L.A. As the visiting friend reminded me, some of my frustrations and feelings of isolation are not really L.A. specific, they're just part of living in a new city. I haven't really had to do that in a long time. And NY, which to most people is the epitome of hard city living, will never feel that way to me, since it's home and my family (extended and immediate) is there. So here I am, trying to be a little more Pollyanna than usual. Let's see if it sticks.