Like many anthropologists, I’ve long been interested in the relationship between patterns of discourse and practice, or in more simplified terms, between what we say and what we do. (“Saying” and “doing” is a more simplified presentation in that it potentially confuses the non-mutually exclusive nature of discourse and practice. Discourse and practice are not so much different human activities, as different modes of interpreting human activity – what we say, our discourse, is a key sort of practice, and our patterns of behavior constitute not just what we “do,” but also constitute a form of discourse – something recognized in phrases like “actions speak louder than words.”)
Recently, much of my own research has focused on public health issues, including especially the study of cultural models of drinking and related activities. I’ve also been interested in thinking about novel ways to do ethnography through utilization of a broader set of research methods than are typically used by anthropologists. (See my previous posts: Thinking Problem, Measurement and Interpretation, A Clarification on "Qualitative" and "Quantitative," Ethnographic Research Methods and Ethnographic Writing.)
On a topic such as this, it’s relatively easy to collect data on drinking discourse and on what people claim about their own drinking behavior – and in some cases observational data from participant observation style research can complement and inform such discursive data, but this often depends on the specific nature of the population being studied. For instance, along with other colleagues at my university, I’ve been specifically interested in students’ cultural models and actual drinking patterns. I could do participant observation on drinking behavior with this population, but I’m under no illusion that what I would see would come remotely close to “natural” behavior – while I strongly feel that participant observation is the best research method to use for some research purposes, here it’s simply not a very efficient or reliable way to go about studying the cultural context, and the precise relationship between what students claim about themselves and what they do when not being asked questions by pesky researchers is left murky.
I recently encountered an interesting news story on the website Medical News Today, Evidence in Sewage of Community-Wide Drug Abuse. Researchers analyzed raw sewage and were able to discern distinct community patterns of drub use. The research says nothing about any individual’s actions (and so, at least debatably doesn’t violate confidentiality or infringe upon informed consent rights – though that’s a debate I think would be worth having), but this style research could say quite a bit about aggregate patterns concerning any patterned behaviors which would result in chemical traces in urine. (I’m not sure what that range of patterned behaviors that could be studied this way would be, but it’s interesting to think about. On a related note, I remember reading a science news article from last January or so that talked about ecologists having detected elevated traces of cinnamon in Puget Sound as a result of people’s holiday baking.)
I certainly don’t expect ethnographers to dive into this style of research, but I do think it’s worth considering whether unconventional research methods such as this could be of use to the anthropological study of cultural patterns. In instances where behaviors result in chemical traces, such analysis could open an insightful window on that complex relationship between discourse and practice.