Friday, March 23, 2007

Thinking Problem: Rethinking Ethnographic Methods in Relation to a Study of Students' Cultural Models of Drinking

The following is a draft for a presentation to the Society for Applied Anthropology Annual Meeting next week. It incorporates revised material from two posts below, “Measurement and Interpretation: Let us Speak no more of Quantitative and Qualitative Research” from March 10 and “Southern Drinkways” from February 20.

I have long thought that the division between quantitative and qualitative research was a false divide. There is neither pure quantitative nor pure qualitative research. There is always a qualitative element in quantitative work – you might be counting things, but the choice of what’s relevant to count is an inescapable qualitative decision. Likewise, there’s always a quantitative element in any qualitative research, even if only in the rudimentary sense that it makes a difference whether there’s a lot of something or only a little, whether something is always occurring, occurs every day, or once a year.

In rethinking my own approach to ethnographic methods following attendance at a National Science Foundation supported summer seminar on mixed qual-quant ethnographic survey methods taught by William Dressler and Kathryn Oths, I have begun more and more to think that the use of the terms distracts from rather than facilitates scholarly communication and would be better replaced by an emphasis on measurement and interpretation. Many social scientists, when asked, pay lip service to the notion I outlined above that there is no pure quantitative or qualitative research, but then go on acting as if there were. This, I think, is done largely uncritically and at least partly (if not largely) out of mutual contempt for number-fetishizing quant types and muddle headed, fuzzy thinking qual types. If we chucked the qual and quant labels, perhaps we could better focus on things that all decent research has in common (whether everyone knows it or not): measurement and interpretation.

Measurement: There is no immeasurable

A lot of “qualitative” social scientists, including most cultural anthropologists (including myself much of the time), tend to be wary of “quantitative” research because they perceive it as ignoring things that are not easily counted and uncritically or simplistically counting things that seem easy to count. Frankly, a lot of “quantitative” work does do these things, though there’s also a lot that doesn’t. What could be better recognized by some quant types is the interpretive nature of choosing what to count, but what qual types could recognize is that we’re all engaged in measurement. There are phenomena that are not easy to count, but there are no observable phenomena that are not measurable.

There are different sorts of measurement. Some things can only be measured in fairly basic and imprecise terms – the binary measurement of the simple presence or absence of a phenomenon or trait, or rough measurement of quantity, e.g. something is absent, present in small quantity or frequency, or present in high quantity or frequency. Other things can be very precisely measured. So, highly “qualitative” ethnography involves measurement just as much as the most “quantitative” of quantitative sociological research. Once we recognize that we’re all involved in measuring, we all ought to measure things as precisely as possible – sometimes that might involve quantification and in other cases might simply involve notation of the presence or absence of something. There’s no reason to be wary of measurement, but good reason to be wary of measurement that is less precise than it reasonably could be or purports to be more precise than it can be.

Interpretation: What’s the Significance of Statistical Significance?

As with measurement, all research involves interpretation whether we realize it (or like it) or not. I alluded above to the interpretive quality of measurement – knowing what it makes sense to measure is an interpretive maneuver. Further, it is always necessary to interpret the results of measurement. (Just as quant researchers are often more aware than qual of the need to measure, qual researchers are often more aware of this fact than quant.) Measurements, and even basic analyses, alone never mean anything, e.g. an analysis indicating statistical significance of a set of data doesn’t indicate at all what the meaning of the data is. There’s no reason to be wary of interpretation, but good reason to be wary of uncritical interpretation not based on sound logical argumentation and good measurement or of interpretation by those not aware they are engaging in interpretation.

Rethinking Ethnographic Methods

What this has done for me is to free up my thinking about research methods in relation to styles of scholarly thought. Like many cultural anthropologists, my ethnographic methods training was mainly in highly qualitative participant observation – which is a fine set of methods to use for many research purposes. But now, rather than approaching any topic as a “qualitative cultural anthropologist” and attempting to fit participant observation to any and every topic at hand, I have begun to think of myself more as a researcher with anthropological interests and to ask myself what methods will work best and how I might best measure and interpret data for a specific research question.

Cultural Models of Drinking

Here I will present material from an ongoing research project conducted by myself and my colleague in the Department of Health Education at the University of West Florida, Dr. Debra Vinci. In this project we are interested in students’ cultural models of drinking and related activities, contexts, and concepts, and we are interested in this as a topic of interest in and of itself and as an applied anthropological subject, where we hope that our research will contribute to a safer campus for students and contribute to efforts to reduce risks of dangerous drinking patterns among students.

I should first address two issues before proceeding to what we have found so far: First, what do I mean by cultural models? And Second, what do I mean by drinking and related activities, contexts, and concepts?

By cultural model I mean something akin to what Sherry Ortner discusses as cultural schemas. In her discussion, she argues that culturally significant schemas are built up out of important cultural symbols, and certainly anthropologists have long focused on symbols as something that makes humans unique and as the basic building block of culture, though this alone doesn’t explain how culturally important symbols are related to one another nor to practice. C.S. Peirce’s discussion of the argument as one particularly complex type of symbol built up out of more basic symbols is useful here. The argument, as Peirce defines it, “is a sign whose interpretant represents its object as being an ulterior sign through a law, namely, the law that the passage from all such premises to such conclusions tends to the truth.” Or, as he puts it elsewhere, the argument is a sign of reason, building upon propositions to enact overarching logical systems (which is to say that argument involves theorization broadly understood) and is always composed of simpler symbols (specifically rhematic and dicent symbols). Culture, I would argue, is not just the learned and shared lifeways of minimalist definitions of culture, but also an all encompassing mesh of symbols, premises, and arguments. The argument, for human culture, is akin to what Ortner calls key scenarios or cultural schemas. She defines these “as preorganized schemes of action, symbolic programs for the staging and playing out of standard interactions in a particular culture. In her own analysis of Sherpa Buddhism in Nepal, she identifies such a cultural schema (Rivalry, Acquisition of a Protector, Defeat of the Enemy, Departure of the Loser) which recurs in Sherpa myth and ritual and which provides a prototype for culturally typical interaction situations – which is to say that (using Clifford Geertz’s terminology) cultural schemas or arguments provide both “models of” and “models for” cultural action, and further that culturally significant arguments or cultural models are grounded in practice and simultaneously function to ground practice.

What do I mean by cultural models of drinking and related activities, contexts, and concepts? Essentially, we are interested in ascertaining the basic assumptions and premises of students’ conceptualization of drinking, places associated with drinking, behaviors typically associated with drinking, and notions of responsibility or irresponsibility with relation to drinking. Further, we are interested in how such basic premises are related and combined to form larger arguments or cultural models. We are also interested in how the models represented in our data collected from a particular setting (A Southern setting, a student sample, a medium size university setting [with large proportions of commuter and “non-traditional” students], a small to medium size city [and a military and tourist town – and not so much a college town]) relate to other, potentially overlapping contexts.

There are a variety of methods and techniques that could have addressed this research topic, but given the primary interest in understanding the key terms and premises of students’ models and conceptualizations of drinking, methods that could directly elicit such material seemed clearly most useful.

Methods for initial data collection

The first stage of this project (and the one which I will report on here) involved the collection of free lists from 101 students from three classes at the University of West Florida, two sections of Introduction to Anthropology (46 and 33 students – chosen for convenience, but also because of the representation of many different student major interests in the classes) and one section of an upper level nutrition and health course (22 students – chosen again for convenience, but also for contrast – this was a course with mainly upper division students with an interest in nutrition and health, and who had already been asked in a variety of ways to think critically about health and nutrition, including alcohol related issues, in class). Students were asked to generate five free lists: 1.Types of alcoholic drinks or beverages; 2. Types of places or settings in which people drink; 3. Activities people engage in when drinking; 4. The characteristics of someone with a drinking problem; and 5. The characteristics of someone who drinks responsibly.

Interesting Trends and Reactions

Drinking Discourse and Drinking Behavior

Overall, the results of the first list are consistent with the findings of two other surveys that have been conducted on the University of West Florida campus that indicate that the vast majority of UWF students either do not drink or drink infrequently and in low quantities. To be more accurate, the surveys find that students claim to not drink or not drink in high frequency or quantity. The relationship between students’ discourse about their drinking and their drinking behavior (or lack thereof) is clearly something difficult to ascertain, though this freelisting exercise offers at least a slightly different window on the situation. A small handful of students provided us with frighteningly comprehensive lists of drink types (so, in fact much of the variety of items listed came from just a few students), but the rest provided much shorter lists (generally 10 – 15 items at most) with mostly general categories of drink that many non-drinking children would probably be familiar with from simply having grown up in the culture. This, of course, is still another example of drinking discourse and doesn’t prove that most UWF students in fact do not drink or do not drink much (i.e. the lists don’t indicate clear lack of familiarity with drinking, but they also don’t indicate clear familiarity with drinking), but it also is consistent with those other findings and doesn’t give any contradiction to students when they respond to surveys indicating low frequency and quantity of drinking.

Drinking and Food

This and the following examples address the relationship between public health discourse and students’ discourse in the ways in which students’ conceptions and expressions of thought on drinking correspond (or do not) to institutional messages.

In some ways, many students clearly associated drinking with eating. Fourteen students mention eating as an activity associated with drinking (with three more mentioning dinner), and “eating contexts” were even more associated with drinking – with restaurants mentioned by 25 students as a setting associated with drinking (and 11 more mentioning “at dinner” or “at a dinner” as settings). At the same time, “eating before drinking” was listed by only two students as an attribute of responsible drinkers (with both in the upper level nutrition and health course). This is not so surprising given the (understandable) greater emphasis in public health campaigns on not drinking and driving, though at the same time, eating before and during drinking is often mentioned in public health campaigns, brochures, etc., as one strategy to reduce potential dangers of overconsumption of alcohol. This pattern of associating eating with drinking in one set of domains, but not within the context of thinking of responsible or appropriate behavior, is possibly the result of one message being swamped by another (and in this case more important) one.

Drinking and Sex

In one way, students clearly associate sex and drinking. Aside from dancing, sex was mentioned by the largest number of students as an activity associated with drinking. At the same time that sex is clearly part of the model of drinking generally, responsible sexuality does not seem to be a significant part of students’ model of responsible drinking. “Promiscuity” was mentioned by one student as a trait of those who drink irresponsibly, and one student mentioned “Has condoms” as a characteristic of someone who drinks responsibly. This, and the previous example to a lesser extent, is indicative of the fact that as we engage in further research to fine tune our understanding of students’ cultural models of drinking, we will almost certainly be dealing not with a single or unitary model, but multiple overlapping models.

Irresponsibility and Responsibility

Possibly the most interesting example of the existence of overlapping but not identical models concerns the freelists of traits of irresponsibility and responsibility. For the most part, these appear as opposing domains – which is what I expected – in the sense that items frequently listed in one domain tend to show up in similar frequency in opposite form in the opposite domain. The major exception to this has to do with drinking and driving. Students have clearly absorbed the message that not driving drunk and/or having a designated driver are responsible thinks to do when drinking: Doesn’t drink and drive (36), chooses a designated driver beforehand (24) were common responses. When it comes to what makes a person irresponsible, though, drunk driving seems to have fallen out of consideration - only five students mentioned anything to do with drunk driving or not having a designated driver as being a characteristic of someone drinking irresponsibly.

Ongoing Research

The goal of this first stage of research was to elucidate the common terms of students’ models of drinking, which it has done. A second stage of research will ascertain relationships between the terms to understand the shape of the larger model(s). Those items commonly listed in the free lists were used to produce cards (with one item listed on each card) to be sorted by another sample of 30 students, with students in my Applied Anthropology course conducting this research. The results from this stage of research are still being tabulated and will be analyzed using non-metrical multi-dimensional scaling techniques to provide a “map” of the relationships between sorted terms. This in turn, along with the results of another ongoing survey, will be used to develop a fine tuned survey to ascertain degree of cultural consensus on various elements of the model.

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