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.


Why I (currently) do not wish to be an academic

Listed in order of importance:
1. I have bad hair, and I blame this on my abject poverty. Also lack of hairstyle inspiration being directly related to the mind-numbing that I attribute to a life of the mind.

2. I have boring clothes, many of which I have owned since college. Most of which fit badly and/or are being worn way past their fashion and functional life.

3. I am tired of theorizing things. The world feels predictable and small and I'm not convinced that I have anything new to add to it.

I suspect that I really ought to re-order and re-prioritize the list, but right now my room is a mess, and I've not done any productive work today due to running around for my new part-time employment. How is a person supposed to think during the day when she's busy slinging to keep herself afloat? Lately, I've been making major decisions while straightening up or vacuuming. I feel that any decision made during this process should be listened to, and I'll deal with the aftermath some other time or way. So far the art of domesticity hasn't failed me yet.

Basically, I do not want to be an academic because I hate the desperation of needing to secure financial support, and the desperation of trying to prove oneself intelligent through publishing and self-aggrandizement. It all feels very distasteful. I would much rather work mindlessly for a for-profit organization where I have only my scruples and morals to contend with. Also, recently someone told me he thought he'd like to go back to school for a PhD, and I realized what a crock the romanticism of advanced education can be. Having seen, at one point, how deeply miserable I was for a good semester or so, I can't quite understand why he would even consider it. But I suppose we all fantasize about the world that is not our own. And if I were at a desk everyday, I'd surely be getting off by perusing academic books and academic papers. That is just so so sad.

This concludes my snippet of personal ruminations. I've tried hard not to be a personal confessions blogger...but sometimes, I feel I need to vent a little.


Re-thinking the medium

I started this blog as a site to work through some of my initial ideas about my research, while in the middle of fieldwork. But as fieldwork became increasingly amorphous and unclear, it became harder to keep a blog on it, and as with everything, I increasingly became distracted by all the other worldly things that are tangentially related to my research. My problem, in my work, in my writing, and possibly in my life more generally, is that I find it very easy to get distracted by all the data surrounding me. It is as though I were hyper-sensitive to all information and can no longer parse out the important stuff. It used to make me feel like I had a super-power, but I've started to worry that it actually is a hindrance. I want to move toward tunnel-vision, focused and ready. But it's really damn hard.

Anyway, I present this dilemma here in order to remind myself that the next three and a half months or so need to be uber-precise. I want to finish this project (aka the dissertation, grad school, doctoring, etc) by 2010, not because I have a clear sense of what comes next, but because I'm weary of the world of studenthood. Perhaps my biggest problem in completing the tasks at hand is that I'm still unclear what the future projects will be. Academia often makes me nauseous, yet I've been there (is it a place? a mindset?) so long, that I've started to worry that I can't function in any other environment. Any time the threat of staticness, or narrowness, or confinedness rears its head, I start making plans to leave. It has happened frequently in grad school, but now that I'm far away from the city of my institution, all I can think about is quitting. A friend sent an address update that informed me that she had taken an assistant professorship in Northern NY. She was always so adamant that she wouldn't leave the west coast. But the idea of her now being a professor, when I knew her when we were idealistic college students, freaks me out. She's really in it. And I'm not sure that I want to join the fray.