on designing new methods for needs assessment

This blog will take a somewhat different tack as I try to think through how to fund the work of the still unapproved Center I inaugurated a year ago.  As I mentioned earlier, one of the difficulty of intellectual work that takes into account what we have taught ourselves about the properties of all work, is that every aspect of this work must take into account its multiples conditions.  Simply put, we must speak (write, perform, etc.) differently to different audiences without losing the core of what we are trying to say.  Some might consider this shaping of one’s statements as forms of dissimulation, selling out, if not hypocrisy or outright lying.  But we know, as Sacks put it, that “everyone must lie”–which, of course, is not to be taken as a moral statement but as a statement of the human condition, and thus of the intellectual condition as well, particularly when ones steps out of solipsitic ivory towers.

So, I was looking at the web site of the W. K. Foundation, and particularly at the list of the grants it has recently awarded.  None of the first 40 or 50 I looked at have anything to do with anthropological research, or indeed with research of any kind–at least in terms of their purpose statement.  Typical is a statement that states:

strengthen the capacity of low-income pregnant and parenting women to improve
their birth outcomes and optimize the health and development of their children by supporting a planning process to develop specific interventions, implementation strategies, and evaluation plans


educate providers about how to best address the physical and psychosocial needs
of overweight/obese children, adolescents, and their families and increase their access to current, culturally-sensitive, evidence-based prevention, treatment, and management modalities by …

I chose this one because Sarah’s professional experience might make her credible as the designer of programs aimed at “parenting women” or “providers [of services] to families.”  I suspect we might also find Kellogg funding programs relating to autism.  Our issue is whether we can fit our work under such a statement?

The problem is not simply that I, as potential Principal Investigator, do not have a credible professional experience in the design or delivery of services.  Some of us have this experience.  The issue is how to remain true to our sense that much of these programs are based on faulty understanding, and thus research, on the issues the programs are aimed at alleviating–and still claim that we could help.

So can we say that we are proposing something that will be based on a sounder understanding of the conditions people are facing?  Could we say something like:

“It is common sense that service delivery must be responsive to familial or community needs.  What is difficult in this statement concerns the assessment of these needs.  How do we, as expert outsiders, get to know these needs?  Census figures about the rate of a condition (e.g. obesity) look like a good place to start.  But they do not tell us much about the social and cultural settings that are likely involved in the rate.  Surveys, focus groups and other such techniques may offer a glimpse into the actual settings of the condition of concern, but, at their best, they only produce reports of what happens in the settings, reports often framed by questions imagined by the investigator.  Ethnographers have claimed that they can provide more ecologically valid accounts of life in the settings of context.  We agree with this but are aware of one further limitation.  Any account of the “culture” of a community or family is inadequate if it ends with a list of traits, customs, and procedures, that are then presented as an indefinitely long present.  Recognition that human beings are always involved in transforming their most local conditions, wily nilly often as the conditions around them change, must be a fundamental investigatory principle.  We need new methods for assessing community characteristics and needs, as well as the impact of a service on the people served as they are being served–particularly if it is successful enough to produce the kind of cultural change hoped for.

Our goal then is to use the setting up of a model [health] [autism] educational center in [TBA] founded in a new form of communal need assessment both before and during the first years of the center.  This assessment will be based on the now well-documented reality that people, everywhere, and on an ongoing fashion, face the uncertainty of their conditions, particularly when these are directly impacted by a major life event [such as XXX], by investigating, analyzing, discussing, deciding what is to be known and what is to be taught, and then develop the methods to move forwards–methods that can include services offered by expert outsiders, or resistance to these services.  In our words, people always educate themselves, and service delivery must bring out the work that the people do.  Identifying conditions is one step but is not sufficient when people keep transforming these conditions.  Finding the methods they use to do so is essential.”

I have drafted a longer draft of this elsewhere.

So, what is my phenomenon?

One corollary of the systematic doubt about the epistemological status of any “it” for social science inquiry, is that it makes it hard to state simply what a project is “about.” There are at least two aspects to this corollary.  Both are matters of practice, but within different polities (communities).

I may return to the first of these polities.  For now, to those outside our immediate field of disciplinary practice, we say that our project is about the “it” of their concern.  Foundations, policy makers, informants, etc., can be told that we are studying “autism in Queens” or “adolescent health in Harlem.”  We are not dissembling when we say this, even as we proceed on the basis of the critique of the status of the phenomenon such statements transform into objects.  Actually, it is only because we proceed in term of the critique that we can actually contribute to our ethical/political responsibilities outside our own practice.

So, when we study ‘autism’ (as we say to those whom we thereby place outside our disciplinary polity), we start with any practices that are matter of factly relevant to some practices that are usually packaged as aspects of autism, but we do not limit ourselves to these, nor do we necessarily weigh practices the way they are usually weighed.

The preceding paragraphs are a summary of my previous two posts (On Following Indexes… , Recapturing Phenomena).  But neither addressed something that has become more salient as I have mentioned in various settings that I am directing research on “autism, health, and information technologies” as one project, or “settings for education in Harlem” (not to mention the dissertations I am sponsoring on indigeneity in Vancouver child welfare, women seminary in Iran, Bangladeshi in Detroit, political representation in Belfast, etc.).  How could all these matters be addressed together?  Throughout my career at Teachers College, I have greatly enjoyed working with students on what can also appear as a very miscellaneous multiplicity of topics.  But when I approach someone with a request for support, then I find myself challenged: What is my field of expertise?  “Anthropology” in most professional or policy setting is not much of an answer, or one that might lead to polite redirection to those who fund “anthropology.”  By grounding myself at Teachers College, I accept the responsibility to contribute to the understanding of issues of importance to the more encompassing of our polities (and not only national ones).  Which is this issue (some ‘it’)?  It is not easy to be convincing when I claim expertise about social processes of human everyday life even as I refute the reality of any of the ‘it’s around which expert authority is usually organized.

Trying to take this into account, here is part of the message I recently sent to the “Director of Sponsored Programs” at Teachers College.  I wrote:

my working group has received two small grants (one from the Provost Investment Fund, and one from Google) to explore aspects of informal education about matters of major life crises (autism, adolescent health, information technologies) when people have to figure out who has authority, expertise, resources, and then corral their understanding to organize their future.

(Note that I am making us a “working group” for TC purposes since the Center is not approved…) .

This is an initial attempt to state simply (I hope) where I am placing my expertise: “Education into matters of major life crises.”  “Major life crises” becomes the index to phenomena that have the property of breaking the routine and, I postulate, triggering what I call “education” (figuring out constraints, possibilities, and constituting futures given conditions and bricolage).  If ‘totemism’ revealed itself to hide a very general human process of constituting paradigmatic correlations among what Western classifiers had conceived as separate “domains,” then autism may reveal itself as just another case of the “world” (the body, ecology, social structure, symbolization, etc.) imposing itself on our consciousness and requiring a transformation in our ongoing practices.

In other words, for those to whom this will make sense, I am generalizing Garfinkel’s concern with disruptions, not only as a tool that reveal what people do to maintain an order, but also as the ongoing possibility that order will not be maintained.  We all work hard at driving down a highway so that we can leave it unscathed.  But accidents do occur.  What happens next?

recapturing phenomena

This is the second in a series of reflections about ethnographic methodology given theoretical critiques of the initial constructing of the ‘it” which we investigate. In the first, I mused about what to do when we come to doubt that this “it” might be a place (the Trobriand Islands, County Clare in Ireland). If we are not sure that there are places “there”, then where do we go? Geertz summarized this doubt, but then appeared to suggest that the solution was in substituting what might be most charitably labeled an ideal-type as the ‘object’—for example “colonialism.” But Lévi-Strauss had already obliquely shown the dangers involved in that step when he wrote about “totemism” (1963 [1962]) at a time when anthropologists had come to doubt whether totemism was any kind of “it.”

I remembered the book as I advised Jeff Schiffer in his struggles with “indigeneity.” Undoubtely, there are many people in Canada and elsewhere around the world who are quite sure this indigeneity is an “it” of some sort. And, to this extent, indigeneity is an “it” of precisely that sort: it is an object around which political conversations are organized, institutions as reconstituted, careers are made. But that sort of what I have called “cultural facts” are awkward matters to investigate. The question being: how do I know I am looking at what I am interested in investigating? Is this (a regulatory text about ways of properly referring to some people) and instance of that (indigeneity)?

This is the problem Lévi-Strauss addresses in the first two chapters of Totemism. He starts with a provocative sentence in the context of much that interests students in anthropology:

Totemism is like hysteria, in that once we are persuaded to doubt that it is possible arbitrarily to isolate certain phenomena and to group them together as diagnostic signs of an illness, or of an objective institution, the symptoms themselves vanish or appear refractory to any unifying interpretation. (1963 [1962]: 1)

Initially, students come with interests like “identity,” “nationalism,” “autism,” “indigeneity.” They immediately bump into the problem of “definition” and Max Weber is not much of a help. Lévi-Strauss might be more of a help but this is not quite obvious at first sight since he compares his topic to something that has been so discredited as an object that even the phenomenal symptoms appear to have vanished. Nationalism, autism, indigeneity have not been so discredited (yet?), but the method requires that we suspend belief.

If we do, suspecting that the verisimilitude of these objects is the product of what Lévi-Strauss calls “cultural conditions,” what do we do next? Following Lévi-Strauss’s argument could be a starting point.

The first thing to notice is that Lévi-Strauss is embedding two arguments. The first argument starts with a postulate: that totemism (hysteria) is a historical product so that understanding what happened to make it real, and then un-real, requires a diachronic account of the conversation (my word). The embedded argument that allows for the rest of the book is that the conversation was about something, that is about some phenomena, that remains.

The first chapter is, essentially, a review of the literature that destroyed (we would now say “deconstructed”) the idea that there was some institution that coalesced 1) a social element; 2) a psychological element; 3) a ritual element (Lévi-Strauss’s summary of Rivers 1963 [1962]: 8).

The second chapter is a reconstruction starting with a postulate: “certain phenomena, arbitrarily group and ill analyzed … [are] nevertheless worthy of interest (1963 [1962]: 15). The rest of the chapter is an introduction to what became known as a peculiar form of structural methodology which has proven to be altogether a dead end (at least to the extent that about no one in anthropology used it as Lévi-Strauss proposed it).

What remains is Lévi-Strauss’s insistence that there was some phenomenon some where, and that the ethnographic activities that inscribed this phenomenon in observations, field notes, and field reports, were not purely the product of a culturally produced hallucination as bad post-modernism sometimes made it appear. People have been seen associating animals with groups of people. Whether this association is “totemism” or not must not make us doubt our senses radically. But it must refocus our reporting. Sports team in the United States, like political parties, are often named after animals (Marlins, Tigers, Panthers, Lions, Eagles, Bears, etc., as well as donkeys or elephants), and much ritual behavior builds up around these identifications. Where these activities are totemism should not the issue anymore. The issue should be how these identification arise, how they are reconstituted in everyday practice, by whom.

In that perspective, Lévi-Strauss’s conclusion that “totems are good to think, not to eat” (1963 [1962]: 89) makes sense—though I would not put it that way unless we take “thinking” as it has been developed by Michael Cole and his followers as a social process of distributed conversation.

In this perspective, “autism,” like all labels for organizing mental properties, is a bunching of activities. And so is indigeneity, nationalism, learning and, of course, education.

[still more to come…]