Tag Archives: imagining future research

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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

Or

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.

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