Friday, August 29, 2014

From the mouth of a Hard-of-Hearing student

Its a Friday night and 9pm and I'm home transcribing interviews.  I just finished this quote.  It gave me chills and I wanted to share it with you all.

When asked about being a Hard-of-Hearing student at Gallaudet my participant responded:

"You’re a stranger in a strange land. You’re either Deaf or Hearing, and when you’re in the middle ground it’s like either being black or white, or mixed, you don’t really have an identity.  There is no point in coming here [Gallaudet] when you’re kind of an unwanted here. Like all the hearing kids, "Oh you’re hearing, you’re an interpreting major; or you're Deaf, you’re a legacy. Oh you’re Hard-of-Hearing? Well why are you here?"  "Well, I play football."  "Oh of course you’re here to play football, you’re here to play basketball, you’re here to do something." Its just like you kind of....just [SHRUGS SHOULDERS].  We’re the labor force. Like you have X amount of Deaf people, and you have X amount of Hearing people, you got to have something that fills the void.  You have to put Hard-of-Hearing kids in the middle, and when you do that it gives you someone to hate, I guess. I don’t know.  You know what I mean? Everyone needs a scapegoat, every community has a scapegoat."

These whoa.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Research is Raw.

In the four months since my last published blog post I've begun dozens of posts, some a few lines, others pages and pages of stories, others still my humous attempts at philosophizing. Reading back through these unpublished blog posts one truism glares at me, the research process is ugly, raw, and full of false starts. So for this post I figured I would take snapshots of a few to to highlight the honesty of my process.
From the draft, "DEAF ENOUGH?":

In 2006 the students of Gallaudet University launched a second campus-wide protest against the incoming administration.  This time students were enraged that a deaf woman who wasn't "Deaf enough" had been named as the university's 9th president.  The named president, Jane Fernandes* was raised through oralist methods, and learned to sign in her 20s. Fernandes was critiqued by students for her use of PSE (Pigeon Signed English) as opposed to the proper grammatical structure of ASL (American Sign Language). Students argued that while Fernandes was audiologically deaf she could not be trusted to hold the values of American Sign Language and Deaf culture.  After # days of protest the board redacted Fernandes's appointment and Robert Davila, a Deaf man, took office for a 3 year term.

* an earlier publication of this blog had incorrect information citing Alan Hurwitz as the appointed president that set off the protest.  However, Hurwitz took office as the 10th president with no protest.  As community folklore goes, sometimes narratives change in the retelling.  Yet another reminder to check your facts before publishing!  :-)

Mummerings of the "Deaf enough" spirit still haunt the student body at Gallaudet creating issues for a growing population of students who aren't "Deaf enough."  In this setting, issues of audiology, language and culture intersect to bring biology into a culture war.   Today, two such groups of students routinely critiqued as not "Deaf enough" are Hard-of-Hearing and Hearing students. These students are singled-out, either through self identification, or by others through a variety of auditory, linguistic, and cultural markers of "otherness."  Yet, for many Hard-of-Hearing and Hearing students the resistance they face is mitigated by the metaphor of two worlds (Deaf World and Hearing World) which is perverse in the socialization of these students through informal and formal training upon, or in some cases even before, their arrival at Gallaudet.  Some students even explicitly respond to their place in the caste structure of their new Deaf world, "Well, I understand.  I'm not Deaf!"


I've been accused of talking about my year of data collection as if it was something "as life changing as a marriage or child."  Well, for me it was.  At 28 years old I've made decisions in my life that as a consequence have left me single, childless, and happy.  At 29 those same decisions will lead me to a PhD with some of the most incredible stories to share from meeting, building friendships, and loving a group of 20 something's at Gallaudet. So for all of those who've I've had the honor to accompany along your journey, I've Had the Time of My Life, (Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes)

The end of this data collection has brought with it more opportunities than I could have ever imagined.  Overcome by the generosity and support of so many different people and organizations I called my dad recently for some fatherly advice.  So its only fitting that a Frank Sinatra song helps me keep his words in mind, "Don't be nervous about what happens after the PhD...There will be opportunities [that] come to you way beyond your wildest dreams. Just give it a chance."  The Best is Yet to Come, (Frank Sinatra)


Students who once had me as their first phone call have found a home at Gally.  My phone doesn't ring as often now as each have found their own way.  The field is leaving me.

"That's when I know it's over.  As soon as you start thinking about the beginning, its the end." --Junot Diaz, This is How you Lose Her

From the draft, "LYING IN LIMBO":

This morning I find myself lounging in a comfy bed in a hotel room in Kingsport, Tennessee halfway between Washington, DC and Nashville.  The symbolism of the morning is hard to overlook; I'm halfway between where I collected my data and where I will write my dissertation; lounging in a state of limbo, I'm comfortable where I am and am nervous about what is to come.  I've spent this time allowing myself to breathe and reading over field notes and old blog posts, reflecting on what I am leaving behind me.

I've attempted to edit this particular post more times than I would like to admit.  I've tried to find the story that connects the 2006 Deaf President Now protest, to lyrics of two classic pieces of American music, to my advisors question "How are you preparing to leave the field?," to the racing thoughts I managed while lying in my hotel room in Kingsport.  The truth of the matter though is that these streams on consciousness posts aren't connected thoughts.  Much like the stories I hope to tell in my dissertation, I haven't figured out what weaves them all together.  And that's okay.  Wait, I need to tell myself that again.  That's okay. So stay tuned, readers.  The benefits of sharing this vulnerability with you all is that when I do have the final intricately woven dissertation product you will all know that it wasn't in fact a stroke of genius, but rather developed through repeated refinement and crafting, something I feel far too few authors/academics expose.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Insight into the Highs and Lows of Ethnography

Early this summer I met with a fellow researcher for what I thought would be a locker room pep talk.  Yet, what stands out most from that meeting was the warning: "Everyone is nice and welcoming now.  But wait.  You haven't met everyone yet.  Just like any community there are good ones and there are bad.  But the bad ones here bite hard."  

True to these words, recently I was crushed by the painful discovery that several community insiders, those I considered allies of the Deaf community, are somewhat jaded by their experiences. Despite this warning, seeing multiple perspectives from those I've come to know and love has been one of many emotional obstacles I wasn't prepared for when coming into this research. 

Sudhir Venkatesh's Floating City has been therapeutic for me as I make my way through this ethnographic experience, the highs and the lows.  This quote in particular now hangs on my wall:

"Unlike the big-n researchers who work the telephone and never see the nameless souls who give them forty-five uninterrupted minutes, an ethnographer is always haunted by his subjects and their tragic vulnerabilities. Insight gets more painful when you grow close to people" (2013: 89-90). 

For me this quote doesn't take away the pain of my more unsavory findings.  Rather, it helps ease the pain of having just been bitten.  Ethnography is amazing because it allows us to draw close to our subjects and become a part of their lives, and them a part of ours. With such vulnerability often comes pain.  I hope we're all lucky enough to fall into the care of loving participant-friends who soothe of us as we make these discoveries together, for better or worse.  

Friday, February 28, 2014

Innovation, Connection, and the Spreading of [unpublished] Dissertation Ideas

By this point I assume most academics have read or at least heard about Nicholas Kristof's op-ed piece Professors, We Need You! in the New York Times and the countless angry, supportive, dismissive, and defensive responses to his plea.  I personally come down on the side of agreeing with Kristof, knowing that the many caveats and "well but wait's" are all valid criticisms of his brief argument.  Despite all of these rebuttals and my own awareness of the structural barriers academics face in their attempts to make their work publicly accessible and more importantly, meaningful, I think he's got it right. Academic research is far too often unintelligible to lay audiences (and even to other academics... have you seen what's being published in the flagship journals lately???), or is published in obscure journals, or hidden behind paywalls.  

This debate over the availability and accessibility of the "public intellectual" comes alongside a growing industry movement recognizing the importance of sharing ideas.  Steven Johnson's TED Talk "Where good ideas come from" and  Seth Godin's "How to get your ideas to spread" have been particularly inspiring for me as I think about issues of innovation and convention (thanks to Jenn Lena's production of culture class for always sticking with me...). This quote from Steven Johnson sticks out to me as I reflect on Kristof's statement: 

"We often talk about the value of protecting intellectual property, you know, building barricades, having secretive R&D labs, patenting everything that we have, so that those ideas will remain valuable, and people will be incentivized to come up with more ideas, and the culture will be more innovative. But I think there's a case to be made that we should spend at least as much time, if not more, valuing the premise of connecting ideas and not just protecting them."

I take these issues seriously in my own work.  I've been told often by the powers-that-be at Vanderbilt that I'm a "creative" scholar.  I've also been candidly told that these evaluations should not be understood as compliments.  But I don't care if my creativity puts me at the fringes, I'm going to follow Godin's advice and "be remarkable." Doing so allows my ideas to move forward so that my scholarship might actually begin to engage a broader public audience.  

So with that in mind I've made the decision to no longer withhold the ideas I've been developing over the last 6 months to write in a dissertation that perhaps only 4 people will read.  I acknowledge issues of intellectual property that might come up as a result of me publishing this information on a public blog--and hope that my readers are respectful of this issue.  Nonetheless I am committed to being a public intellectual, and even more importantly, to starting dialogue about my research in hopes that together we can move ideas forward.  So here I go [*big sigh*]'s the outline of my dissertation.  I look forward to starting the dialogue with criticisms, critiques, and suggestions. (Note: names, dates, and identifying information have been changed to protect the confidentiality of my participants.)

Outsiders Within:
Cochlear Implants, Oralism, and the Deaf Community (Outline)

Social life is structured around categories (e.g., race, religion, and deafness).  Individuals and scholars alike treat these categories as static and the groups within broader social categories (e.g., black vs. white, Christian vs. Muslim, Deaf vs. Hearing) as mutually exclusive.  Yet, social reality is not always packaged in discrete categories.  For example, mixed race individuals introduce the concept of racial liminality, interfaith marriages between Jews and Catholics produce children who are born with ambiguous religious and cultural ties, and Deaf people who have cochlear implants challenge the distinctions between Deaf and Hearing. 
I argue that these “outsiders within” and the communities they straddle warrant scholarly attention.  Studying those who do not squarely fit into these categories provides an opportunity to better understand how categories are used to create communities, which actors are central to these communities, and how communities adapt to social change.  In this dissertation I utilize the case of the Deaf community to understand the outsider within. Specifically I ask the following three research questions: a) In response to outsiders within, what cultural symbols are used to enforce and simultaneously make porous community boundaries?, b) How does occupying the social position of outsider within affect an individual’s conception of her community identity?, and c) How do both community boundaries and individual identities change as outsiders within are socialized into the community?
I use the metaphor of bridges and walls throughout the dissertation to explain the ways in which outsiders within navigate community life and also to explain community-level responses to these “pollutants.”  In particular, my preliminary findings have pointed to four cultural symbols that are used as both bridges and walls around the Deaf community including history, language, bodies, and technology.  I have designed the chapters of this dissertation to allow me to produce an in-depth review of each cultural symbol and an analysis of how each is used as both a bridge and a wall to include and exclude outsiders within.
In Chapter One I introduce readers to the concept of the outsider within through a review of existing literatures, comparative cases, and my research methodology.  This chapter will set the stage for the analysis in the remaining five chapters of the dissertation by also providing my reader with a theoretical and contextual roadmap to guide them through subsequent analyses of symbolic bridges and walls in the Deaf community.
I have two aims that will guide the writing and analysis of data presented in Chapter Two.  First, I aim to introduce readers to the history of Deaf culture, education, and medical treatments for hearing loss. Secondly, I will critically examine cultural events I have observed during my ethnographic research that celebrate Deaf history as both a bridge into the community for outsiders within and a wall that protects the community against the oppression and ignorance of the Hearing world. 
Historical narratives play a significant role in the socialization of outsiders within the Deaf community. For example, during the summer JumpStart program I accompanied a group of 40 oral deaf students on a fieldtrip to the US Capitol building.  As we arrived at the Capitol steps students reached into their pockets, pulled out cell phone cameras, and hurriedly took snapshots of themselves and their friends posing in front of the awe inspiring structure.  Minutes later one Deaf instructor, Paul, ran to the top of the steps waving his arms and making low booming noises—which are often still detectable by people who have even profound levels of hearing loss—to gather the attention of the students. With exaggerated signs and facial expressions Paul declared, “Welcome to the Capitol Building! This is an important building for American history.  Also, this building is important for us Deaf people.  25 years ago Gallaudet students marched to these steps and fought for our rights during the Deaf President Now! student protest.  DEAF POWER!”[1]  Faculty and students erupted in cheers and Deaf applause[2] as they mirrored Paul’s sign, “DEAF POWER!”[3]
This event served two functions, first, to briefly introduce the historic Deaf President Now! student protest of 1988. In his brief introduction—which would be expanded upon in the weeks to come—Paul emphasized signs such as “our” and “us.” These linguistic markers acted as a symbolic bridge designed to connect students on the fieldtrip to the Deaf community through a sharing of Deaf legal history.  However, because these oral Deaf students were enrolled in a language emersion program the speech was made in ASL, a language in which none of the students present were fluent, the symbolic wall of language separating them from community insiders remained intact. As unknowing students mimicked the sign “DEAF POWER” the group headed away from the Capitol steps towards the Smithsonian museums.  As we left I came to realize that most of the students in attendance that afternoon did not see the symbolic bridge that had been constructed for them to cross.  It would not be until much later in the semester that the oral Deaf students would begin to notice the small bridges that were built using the bricks of historical narrative that would enable them to take their first steps into the Deaf community. 
I further my analysis of American Sign Language as a bridge into and a wall around the Deaf community in Chapter Three.  Linguists argue that language serves three symbolic and practical functions—a marker of social identity, a medium for social interaction, and a source of culture (Lane et al. 1996:67).  In this chapter I analyze the ways in which both outsiders within and established community insiders negotiate the functions of ASL in the Deaf community. Oral Deaf students are encouraged to attend the summer pre-orientation program to gain exposure to the language in an attempt to ease the transition for these students from a world of spoken language to one of manual communication.  Students arrived to the 2013 summer program eager to learn and optimistic about their abilities to gain fluency.  Yet, to the dismay of several students, fluency did not come with haste.  Jason, a 23 year-old oral Deaf transfer student tearfully confided in me during an interview 3 weeks into the summer program (in spoken English), “I’m never going to get this. I thought coming here was going to be right. For once I was going to communicate without struggling… But now I can’t understand anything!”  Even in his despair Jason pressed on through the program attempting to find an entrĂ©e to the community that he was barred from by a linguistic wall. One evening late in the fall semester Jason and I went to a loud bar for a drink.  Instead competing against the undiscriminating amplification of hearing aids he took them out and we had our conversation in ASL.  In the midst of our discussion I corrected one of his signs, and to my surprise he confidently stated, “You can’t tell a Deaf person how to sign!” The improvement in Jason’s fluency over the course of the semester had provided him a bridge not only to communicate with me in another language, but also to define himself as “Deaf” in opposition to me, a hearing outsider. In Chapter Three I will focus my analysis on language as both a bridge and a wall for outsiders within paying particular attention to the effects of time in the socialization of these students. 
In Chapter Four I analyze the challenge against the audiological prerequisite for membership in the Deaf community. Specifically through a focused analysis of Hard-of-Hearing[4] students I demonstrate how students connect to one another through similar audiological diagnoses.  For example, I will analyze the common phrasing used by students in initial interviews, who stated they chose to come to Gallaudet to “find others like me” to describe the ways in which bodies are used as a bridge for outsiders within.  Yet, despite students’ initial recognition of similarities, embodied diversity in the range and quality of hearing loss is often used to exclude Hard-of-Hearing students from activities at the core of the Deaf campus community.  For example, at the height of the fraternity rush I observed Ronald, a 22 year-old Hard-of-Hearing transfer student having a conversation with his teammate Tim, a self-identified Hard-of-Hearing junior, about not being admitted to a prestigious fraternity. Tim confronted Ronald with the reality of his outsider status, “Delta Pi is for ‘DEAF DEAF’ people.  You know… like profound. Deaf parents, ASL, the whole thing.  You’re too Hearing for them, dude.  But its okay, I am too.”  Delta Pi fraternity’s admittance criteria is a symbolic wall that prevents Hard-of-Hearing outsiders within like Ronald from gaining complete access to the community.  In Chapter 4 I analyze instances such as these that highlight the importance of the body in defining boundaries of the Deaf community.  
Moral panic around cochlear implants was at its height in the early 1990s.  Today, despite the positioning of the cochlear implant as a panacea for the deaf by medical practitioners and educators, my research shows that young Deaf community members no longer construct walls to position implanted individuals as community outsiders. In Chapter Five I analyze cases such as Rebecca, a 20 year-old self-identified Deaf woman who has bilateral (2) cochlear implants to understand how cochlear implants have fallen from a marker of abandonment of the Deaf community to something as common and accepted as a hearing aid.  When asked about her own Deaf identity Rebecca tells me (voices), “I’m a tomato.  With tomatoes people think they’re a vegetable, but really they’re a fruit.  That’s like me. People think I’m hearing because my implants help me hear and I speak really well, but really I’m Deaf. I’m a tomato.”  For Rebecca, her cochlear implants provide a bridge into the Hearing community rather than as a wall separating her from her peers in the Deaf community. Previous scholarship on the Deaf community’s response to cochlear implants shows that older generations of Deaf community members saw this bridge into the Hearing community as a rejection of Deafness; implanted individuals were considered traitors to their community. Rebecca’s Deaf identity as an implanted individual and the responses to her and others like her has been one of the largest departures from existing scholarship on Deafness that I have discovered through this research. In this final empirical chapter of my dissertation I propose to make a strong intervention into the literature on Deafness, disability, and technology through the analysis of the shifts in views on implants across generations and cohorts of Deaf people.  Additional interviews and observations with Gallaudet faculty, staff, and alumni will help me to understand when, how, and why the Deaf community underwent the dramatic shift in views on cochlear implants “from hostility to huh?” (Christiansen and Leigh 2014).
In my concluding chapter I will return to my discussion of comparable cases to demonstrate the ways in which my research on the pressures against the boundaries of the Deaf community can be extended to broader theoretical conversations about community boundaries and category pollution. I will also provide policy suggestions for organizations and agencies that serve the Deaf community with specific attention to outreach towards implanted and oral Deaf individuals.

[1] As there is no direct ASL to English translation, all quotes are my own interpretations. 
[2] Deaf applause is the waving of hands side-to-side rapidly in the air, used instead of clapping to visually display approval and excitement. 
[3] The sign “DEAF POWER” is similar to the gesture used in the Black Panther movement. The iconic gesture is modified through the signer using her left hand to cover their left ear to emphasize a lack of hearing.
[4] From an audiological perspective, “normal” hearing is reserved for people who have a losses in the range of -10 to 15 decibels (db); slight—but still considered to be in normal ranges of hearing loss—is between 16 and 25db; hard-of-hearing labels are for those with losses between 26 and 70db; deafness as an audiological diagnosis is separated by severe (71-90db) and profound deafness is 91+db loss. To further illustrate the implications of hearing loss, leaves rustling make a sound at a level of about 15db, a couple whispering is produced at a level of about 25db, and a dog’s bark is around 70db.  Speech sounds are also produced at various decibel levels.  The “f”, “th,” and “s” sounds are the faintest at around 25db, while the vowels are produced at ranges between 40-60db.  Therefore, those labeled as “Hard-of-Hearing” are the groups who can hear many sounds, but are often most troubled by speech sounds.  However, with the assistance of devices such as hearing aids, FM systems, and loops many Hard-of-Hearing individuals are able to mange oral communication in ways that someone with severe or profound deafness cannot. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Letting Go

Fieldwork can be lonely.  I knew coming into this year of fieldwork that I wold struggle with the position. A position where I interact with people everyday, but yet somehow those interactions become tainted by the reality of research that hits when I sit down at my computer to write fieldnotes.  This reality is painful for me.  I'm still working through ways to negotiate the role of researcher so that I can savor the authentic relationships I am forming with those who have become friends here at Gallaudet.  (I will ignore my sociological urge to debate the concept of authenticity here.)

I've always known that I do not have a large arsenal of personas, or selves, in the way that Goffman teaches.  I have pretty much only 1 frontstage Carly.  She is loud, thoughtful, curious, sometimes inappropriate, funny, etc... But that's it. That's my one presentation of self.  Perhaps I don't play the role of researcher very well because "researcher Carly" is a lot like "go out on Friday night Carly," who is a lot like "attend a business meeting Carly."  But perhaps, on the flip side, this lack of divergent selves actually makes me a better researcher? Because in having a more uniform presentation of self I do not get caught up in monitoring my own performance, and can instead focus on the performatitivy of others.

Either way, I've been struggling with the pressure to disconnect from research, from my participants who have become friends, and from a campus community that has started to feel like home.    How does an ethnographer manage the seemingly opposing roles of "participant" and "observer?"  To begin to answer this question I needed to unplug.

So, along with my college roommate and DC bud, Stephanie, I signed up for a one-time art class/wine event out at a small gallery in Rockville, Maryland.  For some unexplainable reason I was nervous on the ride out there.  I knew that my artistic abilities were limited to my photography skills.  I knew that I shouldn't expect much in terms of my brain-to-hand-to-canvas abilities.  But this didn't stop my fears.  What was I afraid of?  Perhaps I was afraid of failing?  Or of doing something "wrong?" Or of not being a good enough artist for this class?

True to form and my expectations, my painting was awful.  But I am proud of this painting because in those 2 hours I learned that there is no way to fail at art.  There is no right and wrong.  And that there are no prerequisite artistic abilities to enjoy a basic painting class.

After some lengthy Buddhist support from Rene, our teacher, I left the gallery with my painting in tow and a realization that my fears, loneliness, and saddness about my research are connected to the fears in my head that I might fail as an ethnographer.  I might make connections with participants that are "wrong."  And, that I might not be a good enough sociologist to do this research.

My painting will not be sold in the gallery it was created in.  And my dissertation will not win me a Nobel Prize. But more art classes will help me improve my skill.  And revisions of my dissertation will improve the research.

In this class I learned to be patient with myself as a painter.  I am hopeful that I can transfer that patience to my research and begin to accept my research persona as one who is connected with her participants and her research beyond the scope of strictly "data collection."  I hope that I can begin to accept that my fears of failing, and of doing something wrong, and my struggles with impostor syndrome as roadblocks to something that, with practice and revision, could be really good. I'm going to sign up for another art class.  And I'm going to go back into the field tomorrow unapologetic for the researcher/friend/colleague/and person I am.

In case you need a laugh, here's my painting:

(The penguin was added to prove to myself that I could actually paint something that resembled a real life object, even if fruit in a bowl wasn't something I could manage.)

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Deafness and the Problem of Disability: Reflections on research post ASA 2013

This past week I had the great pleasure to make the journey from Washington to New York City for the annual American Sociological Association meetings.  The decision to go was semi-spur-of-the-moment and spawned mostly from a desire to see sociology friends and colleagues, rather than for academic or  networking pursuits.  The result would be, of course, great times with friends, but even more so, I was to find myself in the most inspiring conference panels.  Inspiration would continue in conversations with new friends and respected colleagues over $17 glasses of wine, and some of the worst, then best, pizzas NYC had to offer.  I would leave with more questions than answers, and with the inspiration to do more.  

After one of the easiest airline travels I found myself quickly into a cab and on my way to the conference for a medical sociology panel entitled, "Emergent Research in BioSocial Interactions."  After seeing this panel in the conference program I was eager to attend for several reasons, the biggest of which was that I had identified as a BioSocial researcher in my dissertation proposal.  I had done so in an effort to distinguish myself from the two existing theoretical approaches to disability which I find lacking for various reasons: the medical and social models of disability.  In writing my proposal and researching some of the theoretical justifications for the BioSocial model, I had assumed this is where I would find my theoretical foundation. So, I was eager to see what was in the queue for these BioSocial researchers.

While the work presented was interesting and valuable for both sociological and natural scientific communities alike, this wasn't my "home."  I was disillusioned to discover that Biology * Sociology = Biology.  During the panel presentations I struggled to find the connection between the emerging field of BioSocial research and my own work.  While I am thrilled to be able to follow these scholars in their impulse to critically engage the intersections between biology and the social environment, I recognize that this work is problematic in that the outcome variables are often left in the realm of the biological.  That is, BioSocial researchers seek to explain biological outcomes.  These biological outcomes are then sometimes linked to broader social issues like inequality, often in terms of the health disparities research; but understanding the inequality is not, at least explicitly, the primary focus of this research.  Now, let me clarify, I believe whole-heartedly in this research.  I believe that understanding health disparities in terms of the connections between biology and society are of primary importance to the scientific research agenda.  This, however, is not the focus of my own research.  The "dependent variables" in my research are not biological outcomes that can be linked to broader social issues.  Rather, the outcome variables for my research are identities, and products of social interactions from which biology and the social environment cannot be separated.  My outcome variables are, without any additional explanation required, BioSocial.  In the words of Carol Padden and Tom Humprhies, I am studying individuals who are both "deaf" (the biological status of hearing loss) and "Deaf"(the socio-cultural experience of identifying with Deaf community).

In the days that would follow I found myself in several Disability & Society panels and one engaging session on "Technologies and/of Marginalized Bodies." These presentations and Q&A discussions would help me to consider the intersections of biology and society from a socio-cultural approach.  While undeniably inspired by this work, I often was left wanting for an engaged discussion of the connections between the social, cultural AND biological impacts of health and disability.

The two groups of scholars whose presentations I had attended throughout my 3 days in New York were each talking about different sides of the same coin.  But I couldn't find a group who was talking about the meanings and impact of the entire coin!  In the same way that doctors are criticized for treating the symptoms, not the whole patient, I think sociologists are also at fault for addressing only small pieces of a larger BioSocial phenomena.

I spent a majority of my time at the conference wondering if it was even possible to study the social experience of being both Deaf and deaf without reproducing the biological/social binary.  Perhaps the reason BioSocial researchers, disability & society scholars, and medical sociologists don't present on the same panels is because sociology doesn't have a theoretical model for this kind of research.

In the midst of my confusion I met an inspiring fellow grad student who has been working on some of the same issues I've been working through.  We had several conversations about this theoretical puzzle.  We'd agreed that disability scholars had also been calling for a new theoretical approach to disability that did not privilege biological or socio-cultural explanations, but that one did not yet exist. After breathing a sigh of relief for the fact that I might actually have understood the literature I'd been reading, I began to ask: But now what? What do you do when you're trying to work with a theory that doesn't exist?  Can a graduate student, or even the two of us grad students both working in this field, build a theory to explain deafness (and disability more broadly) as both socio-cultural AND biological without giving primary weight to either facet of the BioSocial experience?  We never came to an answer, but I think we both agreed that sociology would benefit from the development of a new theory.

As a sociologist who sees myself responsible for engaging in life outside of the academy, I looked back to the the realm of the popular media to see how these theories are playing out in the "real world."  Not surprisingly, popular media reports also reflect the heated binary between Deafness as a socio-cultural status and deafness as a biomedical marker of hearing loss, especially when it comes to cochlear implants.  See for example this article in The Atlantic published just one day before my ASA trip entitled, "Understanding Deafness: Not Everyone Wants to be 'Fixed.'" In sum the article states that the contentious debate around cochlear implants "stems from a fundamental disagreement: one group sees deafness as a disability, and the other group sees it as a culture.  The trouble is that the former group holds a disproportionate amount of power, and the latter group are the ones affected."  This argument is highly sociological and would reflect the disconnect between BioSocial and Disability & Society researchers.  However, discussions with my peers at ASA and my own preliminary findings suggests that the binary is too harshly drawn.  When asked, "Is being deaf a disability?" many of my participants have responded by saying "yes and no."  It is clear from their physical responses to my question and their often complicated answers that the either/or approach to the Biology vs. socio-cultural debate is inadequate for explaining the d/Deaf experience.  I take this as my call, whether its possible to complete or not, that BioSocial research and socio-cultural theories of health, disability, and deafness must come together to explain a more complete picture of the d/Deaf experience and push the field of sociology, and of public discourse beyond this exceedingly useless binary.

So while I headed to ASAs with the intentions of visiting with friends and colleagues, and exploring a new city, I returned to DC with some more clarity, and more confusion, around my research.  I am thankful for the budding connections with colleagues in several subfields of sociology whose work and insights will help me make my way through this puzzle.  I look forward with great anticipation (and fear) to the unpaved road ahead.  Like the eternal explorer I am, as I successfully "found a way" to Penn Station, I suppose I will also have to "find my way" through this theoretical puzzle.  (That's for you, John.)      

Monday, July 29, 2013

Things Nobody Told Me Before Going into the Field...

I'm 2 full weeks into data collection.  I've had some really exciting research highs, and several "oh my God what did I do; take me home; I quit" moments.  Through it all I've begun to understand even more why research, the ethnographic experience, and sociology in general are addictive.

  • Nobody told me how physically exhausted I would be after even a few short hours "in the field."  (Actually that's a lie, one of my committee members, Laura Carpenter, did warn me of this; I just had no idea of the extent).  After my first 2 days I thought something was wrong with me.  (Don't worry, I checked, WebMD says it's cancer.)  My personal diagnosis is that research is the most exhausting total body workout imaginable.  The first week my schedule comprised of observations, meetings, forced sessions of writing fieldnotes, and countless naps.  It was just over a week ago, and I honestly cannot tell you what I did without looking back at my calendar (see point below on organization).  I suppose I fell back on the methods training I had and went to ethnographic autopilot.  I was not expecting this at all!  At the start of week 3 I am feeling a little more at ease, taking fewer naps, and am producing more streamlined thoughts.  Who knew that it would take 2 weeks to get over ethnographic jet-lag and start to feel normal again?
  • I've read much about preparing yourself to enter or exit "the field;" but nobody told me that "the field" doesn't end or begin at the University gates.  I was trained to think relationally about social phenomena, so I don't know why it surprised me that I am learning about the Gallaudet experience while I'm in a grocery store full of hearing adults, or on the metro going to the Smithsonian museums, or listening to the radio.  I am fully engaged with and in the field even when I'm no where near my participants.  I hope this experience doesn't fade. I hope I am able to continue to learn more about the Deaf experience through the writing of this research, and even into my next project.  I hope the limits to  "the field" are boundless. 
  • Nobody told me that I would simultaneously feel overrun with ideas and speechless.  In every interaction I find myself in, or observe, in every question I ask, in every response I "listen" to, my mind is spinning with ideas, theories, more questions, etc.  But at the same time I feel speechless and unable to force these thoughts together into a coherent statement.  I am grateful that my fieldnotes are my own.  That my jottings, voice recorded memos, and post-it note reminders are private.  I am hopeful that soon, or at least by the end of these 12 months, that I will be able to form and also write a coherent statement about this ethnographic experience. 
  • Nobody told me how critical and time consuming scheduling, logistics, and organization would be.  I had no idea I would spend several hours each day organizing, planning, scheduling, and routinizing my life.  Thank god for those junior high school lessons on organizing your trapper keeper, keeping a calendar, and making check lists!
  • Also, nobody told me that Talenti makes the BEST chocolate ice cream/gelato.  Fellow researchers, no further hypothesis testing needs to be done on that one, my case study of 1 jar is conclusive evidence. 

So despite the ups, the downs, the naps, and the sugar rushes at this juncture in the research experience I can say that I am without a doubt thrilled to be here in DC doing the project that was never intended to be.  And, to be quite honest, I'm glad nobody told me because discovery is part of the addiction.