Up until recently, all of my ethnographies have been rather leisurely affairs. My PhD work in the kinky community took upwards of twenty months, not to mention the year it took me to write. In my defense, I was working full-time. My Master’s work, although more compressed, was the result of two months in the field followed by two semester’s writing. I had a class on rapid anthropological assessment but never the opportunity to apply it. This recent grant, while much smaller in scope, spanned from August 17 to October 1. I went quickly through the development-to-product cycle. It acted as an abstract of what I love (and hate) about fieldwork. Non-anthropologists might be interested in the actual research process, as it is often a black box, obscuring the details of how conclusions are formed. Anthropologists may compare my experiences to their own. I’m interested in how other people feel about fieldwork.
This was relatively easy for this grant, as the health department approached me about doing some sort of study involving the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (and whatever other designations seem appropriate) community and the health department. This particular department does not normally consume qualitative research, so they weren’t entirely sure what I could offer them. In our initial meeting, I threw out several ideas about how to measure cultural competence. Then they told me they needed a report in six weeks. Yikes! Realistically evaluating my options (and still working full-time), I told them I could give them eight interviews and a few hours of participant observation. The time limit constrained the scope of the project. We decided to explore some community members’ perceptions of the department and to gauge knowledge of the services offered. I have never had such a laser focus. Like writing a sonnet, the constraints inspired creativity while lending structure to the process.
Although I had worked in public health previously and I am a cultural anthropologist, I was not overly familiar with the literature on LGBTQ people’s experience in healthcare settings. This was a crash course in provider toolkits, academic literature, activist perspectives, and popular websites. It left me a little breathless. (As a side note, over the course of this grant, I began tutoring a high school junior in American history. I taught her how to use the index of her text book and she was excited. I remember that magical moment when I realized I could look up anything I wanted.)
I knew what question I wanted to answer, but how to go about answering it? I am a huge fan of grounded theory analysis. This is the process by which you interview people about general topics and transcribe their answers. The transcriptions are then coded freely in the first stage to see what themes emerge. This allows for analyses of correlation and subtext. The silences are often as intriguing as the explications. Knowing I wanted to use grounded theory analysis, interviews became central to the project. Relying on my research blitz, I formulated general questions to guide the interview, but I always find the tangents to be more revealing once specific topics are introduced. I didn’t have a lot of time for good old-fashioned participant-observation, the quintessential anthropological process of hanging out. I scheduled some time to check out the STD Clinic and attend the Pride Festival. This was to take a brief snapshot of the community and the best-known health department service. There are a lot of political implications of relying solely on Pride, but I think by specifically recruiting people on the queer fringes of the mainstream LGBT community, I could offer different perspectives. The serendipity of Pride occurring smack dab in the middle of my small window made it too important to pass up. Of course I would rather more participant-observation in multiple settings, but I felt like the little I had added some depth to the overall study.
This is definitely my least favorite part of the process. Since this was a grant, I was able to pay some connected individuals to recruit for me. I still had to be involved in the selection process and had to manage the demographics. I paid particular attention to include people of color and at least one transgender person, as these perspectives can be overwhelmed by the strong white gay male voices in my city. Of course, my initial recruiting efforts were strict but once my deadline was coming up, I got a little more lax. Recruiting is always feast or famine, especially with convenience samples. No one for days and then three at once. Since I had a little money to compensate people, it was easier to ask for their time. That was a novel experience for me and one that I would like to repeat.
The fifteen minutes before an interview are nerve wracking for me. I have learned to be compulsively early, as I almost always end up getting lost. After much practice, this doesn’t fluster me as much as it once did, but it’s still annoying. This project was challenging because I hadn’t met anyone I interviewed prior to sitting down with a tape recorder. I met people at home, at coffee shops, at bodegas, at recovery centers. Despite my worries, I was always able to judge who my intended interviewee was. I forget that people are generally lovely and self-aware. People are the experts on their own lives and usually want to share that expertise, if approached in the right way. Many people offered to participate further with the health department in training or outreach efforts. I felt like I was asking about something that mattered to them. The interviews were short, maybe thirty minutes. My favorite was held mostly in English, but with a good sprinkling of Spanish as both of us worked to make ourselves intelligible. Less pleasant was an interview I had with someone who used the process to spin tales. I didn’t realize it at the time, but listening to our conversation again, this person constantly contradicted what they (the singular they!) said for no reason I could discern. I’m not saying that this is the first time I’ve been lied to during an interview, but it’s the first time I’ve had reason to doubt everything a person said. The lack of larger context provided by lengthier fieldwork and participant-observation was a drawback. It also disappointed me a little. Of course, this project matters to me more than it matters to probably anyone else, so I have to accept that people participate for their own reasons. “Understanding the plight of humankind” may not be on their agenda.
There’s nothing for it but to do it. It eats up time. I’m not a fast typist (although I am much faster than I used to be, thanks to hours of quality time with the transcription pedal). However, it is also a way to spend time with the data. Coding really begins here, when you are truly listening to the words people use. And since I use qualitative analysis software, it is a necessary evil.
This is simultaneously frustrating and pleasing. It is like a huge puzzle. Depending on what you are looking at, each segment can be coded in different ways. Whole paragraphs may refer to “positive associations” with sentences, or even fragments of sentences, coded as “STD Clinic,” “insurance,” or “gender.” Even having transcribed the interviews, the codes sometimes magically appear. I had no idea that themes of addiction would occur as often as they did, yet there they were. Less wonderful is the process of recoding. Categories morph, expand, break up, over the course of coding. So I go through all the interviews once and generate all the codes I can think of, then go through again and apply them more selectively. Then I can begin to look for correlation or themes.
This is actually my favorite part. I love to think deeply about things, to see the connections that are left unspoken. Why is it that the women in this study approach gender with less surety than the men? Who uses the term queer and who uses the term gay? These questions are outside the general purview of this specific study, but point to larger social issues I think about all the time. Much of my analysis goes hand in hand with my writing. It’s only spilling it onto the page that I can see whether something is working or not. I think one of the most interesting things I learned in this study was that people have a cultural model of the health department as reactive rather than proactive and therefore do not associate preventative care with the department, despite the plethora of programs offered. I like analysis because I carry it around with me, talking it out with random people, trying it on for size, and sometimes the “aha!” moment while I’m doing dishes. It is what keeps me returning to anthropology like a drug addict.
Absolutely necessary, but often boring when it has to be plowed through. I want to share my results with others, but I sometimes fall into the trap of French philosophers (although less graceful than they) of presenting the data and the conclusions and letting the reader figure it out for herself. Luckily, I’ve been able to work with a good friend and keen editor on this project who calls me out on my laziness and makes me a better writer.
I am not sure I am going to present this work to the health department. I don’t really know what they plan on doing with this report. It bugs me that I may just be a cog in some giant grant wheel, just a box to check that they have completed x widgets. But I plan on presenting my findings at a professional conference soon. I enjoy presenting, which is a lot like teaching, except you get to use slightly more jargon. I particularly love the post-presentation conversations that happen organically when someone responds to the work.
That has been this research cycle, in its intense, hectic distillation. I am not sure how it compares to years-long ethnography yet. I think I’ll have to get through the final stage. The final report is due on Monday. I think it will be a long weekend for me. But it’s my first paid gig as an anthropologist, and on the whole, I feel competent. I know how to do this. And it makes me happy.