The inspiration

Today one of my neighbors asked me if I was the girl he always sees on her bike. I said, probably. He chatted with me and asked me how far I ride. He said he'd seen me bike around the neighborhood, as well as on our street. He told me that I was an inspiration -- which was kind of great. He was older, so I'd like to believe he wasn't actually hitting on me. I prefer to believe it was just a pure compliment. It's kind of nice to be an inspiration to someone, sometimes. I was feeling very grouchy because I've destroyed one of my feet, from running more frequently, was having trouble walking normally, and feeling achy in ways that just make me feel like I'm getting old. But in a city where neighbors rarely speak to one another, not only is it cool that my biking has inspired him (whatever the hell that actually means -- I doubt he'll drive less, for example), but also that my biking prompted a form of social interaction. Sometimes it's good to be an oddity.

Public Healthians and Anthropologists -- in a teleconference-off

Gotta work on these post titles -- never my forte. Though since I know that not even my father is reading this blog (thanks, Dad! I feel so loved), the odds of anyone else doing so seem slim, as well.

Yesterday I spent a number of hours in my role as "consultant" to a public health research project. Originally wooed by being told I would be the "architect" of the study, the reality is, of course, more base. The LA people have been great, and they were receptive to anthropological methods (or what public health people like to call, often dismissively, "qualitative" methods) and really did give me a lot of free reign. (Though in retrospect, I learned from the project coordinator, with whom I work the most, and whom I really like a lot, they had not intended to do this part of the project and it just got dumped on the director's desk. Thus, the sense of independence and liberty comes from a desire not to have to take care of it themselves...but as long as I get paid, I'm pretty pleased.) But then, there was the CDC.

I've known, since my own days in the public health research world, that the kind of work I do is baffling and not highly valued to the epidemiologists/traditional science researchers. They love statistics! Counting! Denominators! Risks! And I think those things are also highly subjective measures, though you can try to front-load the subjectiveness by making it all very well-defined at the outset. Still, if I said, all white girls who live in the Los Angeles area, well, not all white girls might consider themselves white, or I might live in L.A. but actually have residence in, say, Baltimore...and then, the categories that the researcher thought were self-evidently defined suddenly are still skewed. Ok...these variations are perhaps rare, etc, but I do think it's important for the public healthians (and some of my best friends are public healthians...though in my mind, the good kind) to not make such clear divides between us and them. Though a number of my friends are trying to fight the good fight by showing how "qualitative" methods can radically enhance information about data sought, we are mainly seen as an amuse-bouche to the more hearty main meal. (Which, let's be fair, is mainly just counting stuff.)

In the course of the conference call, when we were discussing my proposal, for which I have termed anthropology practices as non-alarmingly as possible, it was clear that the bigwig at the CDC felt that the methods were too labor-intensive or not collecting "useful" data. They were also very concerned that in conducting observations in the clinic that the researchers would "influence" the behaviors of the providers. This concern with objectivity really irks me. It's naive at best and over-simplifies and reduces research methods at worst. I have learned in working on projects not to get overly attached to my ideas, especially when I'm low on the totem pole. So I've tried to remain zen about the major reworking.** Though, I suppose in this instance, I'm the one who's going to analyze the data and write the paper, so if it's not something I find well-designed or well-thought out, I'm going to be the one to suffer the consequences.

On the upside, after the conference call, we had a postmortem discussion in the director's office. When I first met in her office months ago, I got a kick out of seeing her glass dildo standing upright on her windowsill so that the light streams through it (no, I don't mean that it's actually "hers"). I noticed this time that she has tacked a vulva puppet up on her bulletin board. While I'm sure I could analyze to bits (urgh, unintentional pun) the material differences between the glass object and the plush puppet, mainly, I'm just happy to be working somewhere that these things are de rigueur (crap, potential pun again). Even if they are public healthians.

** I do sort of enjoy their resistance. I get a big kick, as many who do not read this blog know, out of making persuasive arguments to demonstrate that I am RULER of all LOGIC, and that those triflin' arguments can be poked apart. This makes me an obnoxious friend/relative, but an excellent pseudo-lawyer. I also write very good contracts.


Not all empiricism produces foregone conclusions

One of the things I find most fascinating when reading scientific studies (or secondary/tertiary discussions of those studies, because I am lazy) is the conclusions drawn from the data collected. This is something I enjoy teaching to students -- forcing them to ask whether the conclusions are necessarily self-evident from the data, and introducing the possibility that many of our interpretations of outcomes are highly mediated through social and cultural constructs.

There are a number of times in which this article, about the neurological "roots" of the "orgasmic mind," makes inexplicable conclusions about current data on the way a brain functions (and functions differently in men and women, homosexuals and heterosexuals) in the course of an orgasm. While I suspect the author intended to challenge social norms about the female orgasm, I find he reinforces simplistic tropes of female desire. The article's conclusion raises one of the more compelling problems for me. The last section is titled "Pleasure Pill?" and returns to the article's opening example, one woman's ability to overcome sexual "dysfunction" depended more on social triggers than any physiological/chemical alterations. Thus, the article points out, though neurological mapping of the mind during sexual response may be a possible solution in the future for those who have difficulty reaching orgasm, understanding the social phenomena that contribute to sexual pleasure may be equally relevant.

Much of the article is about women's sexual response as distinct from men's, but it identifies these differences through an evolutionary framework. (A very questionable framework, in my mind.) But more concerning, the article focuses far more on the "problems" of women's sexual response rather than considering male sexual response as equally as arbitrary or constrained. Most of the article takes female sexual response as more complicated and demanding than male sexual response, which may or may not actually be true, and what bothered me was the intrinsic problematizing of female desire, and the article's failure to ask whether male sexual response could have nuances as well. One example is that males purportedly exhibit arousal only to visual stimuli of their preferred sexual partners, that heterosexual men do not find seeing men naked arousing nor do homosexual men find seeing women naked arousing. In contrast, women are aroused more "generally" regardless of sexual partner preference. Yet, there is no way of evaluating how much of sexual response has social and cultural norms that influence sexual interpretations.

The article suggests that "Indeed, many sex therapies revolve around opening the mind to new ways of thinking about sex or about your sexual partner." The claim that many sex therapies can address mental challenges, rather than chemical ones made me immediately think of how odd it is that male sexual dysfunction has thus far been treated with a pharmacological solution, while women's purported dysfunctions require extensive social probing. I would argue that Viagara didn't involve any "mind opening" at all. Has anyone bothered to conduct Viagara research on heterosexual men to see if they exhibit signs of arousal when viewing non-preferred sexual objects? It just seems that the article takes far too many concepts for granted, and fails to even acknowledge that the availability of Viagara has a lot of social and cultural consequences. The counter to this article, and it seems that the author is thinking of it indirectly, is that we have developed pharmacological solutions, not "mental" ones, to male sexual "dysfunction." Women's desires, as this article ultimately seems to suggest, are far more complicated and "emotional," even though the point of this article is that women's emotional centers turn off during orgasm.

Perhaps I am reading this article incorrectly, but it does seem that there are a lot of logical inconsistencies. Most of them stemming from a retro-romanticizing** of female desire. (Oooh, "retro-romanticizing," that seems like a good new term.)

** I see that I've been using "retro" in more than one post as a means to suggest it's not a very forward-thinking interpretation. Got to get out of that linguistic slump.


Difference and Sameness

As with most of the posts, this is not an entirely formed thought -- but I've been considering the particular challenges to fieldwork when one is conducting research at home. I spent this afternoon and yesterday with one of the main mothers I've been working with. I've interviewed her twice, been to her home both times, and gotten to know her as a leader of the mothers' group. Though our conversation the last two days faltered often, a few things became clear, mainly the ways in which we were very different, and how that difference may make it hard for me to develop sustainable relationships here in the field, ones that take on their own continuity without the enormous amount of labor I feel that I've encountered thus far. As I think about reducing fieldwork in LA due to the move north, I'm trying to evaluate, as well, why things did not go as well as I had hoped. I tend to internalize and take responsibility for outcomes -- often excessively (and one might even call narcissistically). But when I am the means through which fieldwork "occurs," it's hard not to feel that I've somehow damaged the experiment.

What has happened multiple times in my fieldwork, with various people, is a heightened sense of how much I am not like the people I work with. If I were in another country, that difference might be presumed or taken for granted. But I think being an American, complicates the relationship and the expectation. It's not that I am surprised that fellow Americans are from entirely different cultures than mine (this is why I am intrigued and compelled to study America and its cultural phenomena), but I find it hard to navigate these differences. While conducting research with these other Americans, it's awkward to make clear how my research works. I think that often in foreign places, participants may chalk up their lack of understanding to cultural differences, but that lack of transparency is harder to ignore when you're working in your own country.

A couple of weeks ago, at the mothers' group meeting, we played a game that required you to find people who matched certain categories on the game card. At the end, one mom read off the categories, and if you had been part of that category -- you raised your hand (basically, a form of bingo, but with descriptors rather than letters and numbers). One of the squares identified someone who "reads more than 5 books a month". I raised my hand, but was the only person to do so. A number of the mothers muttered -- well, I read parts of 5 books a month, or, how about kids' books? I read more than 5 kids' books a month. I qualified my book-consumption by pointing out I was a student, but somehow I think I ended up making the mothers feel bad and threatened. There's lots of stuff like this that happen in the course of fieldwork, where my education, or my interests or my lack of having children, somehow stands out in particular ways.

In Morocco, these differences usually were interpreted as misfortunes -- everyone was quite concerned that at 26 I was unmarried. The Moroccan women were eager to help me, as I was clearly in a disadvantaged position. When I admitted to not practicing Judaism, a number of the women I knew worked very hard to help illuminate me and explain to me why I might have not found the connection. So I'm trying to figure out what it is about my role as a researcher in the groups I find myself in here that doesn't allow for a level of openness or eagerness to learn "more" about the lives of the people I'm getting to know. There must be a good way to translate the naive, eager researcher from a place in which I am an obvious outsider, to a place where I'm a less obvious outsider, yet somehow more obviously different.