Ben Belek is a PhD candidate in social anthropology at Cambridge University. His research focuses on the role of emotions in the lives of autistic adults in the UK. He is also the author of the blog The Autism Anthropologist You can contact Ben via Twitter @benbelek
I’ve been spending too much of my time and energy recently trying to decide what my next research project would be about. For the past three and something years, as a master’s student and then as a PhD student, I’ve been looking into the social and cultural aspects of autism. This field is fascinating, exciting, and altogether extremely rewarding, and I have absolutely no reason to look sideways.
And yet there I am, making makeshift lists on the train, on my living room sofa and at my desk, trying to come up with a research interest. The plan is not to quit autism research altogether. No, there is still so much to read and write, discuss and analyse, and I’m far from getting bored or tired. But at the same time, I guess I just want to branch out and explore other areas. I kind of miss that feeling of reading about a topic for the first time, coming to know the different angles and issues, the relevant histories and approaches. Asking questions in my head for the very first time (only to then learn, with both joy and slight disappointment, that these have already been asked and indeed answered). Exploring new territories. You know, being a kid again.
So I’ve been making lists, as I’ve mentioned, and downloading relevant literature (reading only as much of it as I can afford without feeling unbearably guilty by the fact that I ought to be using this time to write my PhD), and emailing other researchers in the field, with the off-chance that one of them will write back saying “Yes!! We desperately need a medical anthropologist on board, what are you doing this September?” No, that hasn’t happened quite yet, surprisingly. But I’m hanging in there.
So far, my list of has included the following: Kawasaki Disease. Army combat medic training. Jerusalem syndrome. Non-medically trained rabbis in Israel offering medical advice and referring ‘patients’ to medical specialists. And most recently, medical marijuana.
The way I decide (or don’t decide, because spoiler: all of these have in the meantime been ruled out) is this: I’ve come up with a list of criteria for what my desirable research project should have. After all, whatever I choose to study, I want to be in it for that long run.
First, the topic has to be accessible. In other words, I need to have relative confidence in my ability to get access to the field, whatever that field may be, in order to do fieldwork. So that’s how the ‘medical rabbis’ thing got ruled out. I just don’t really see how any of these guys would want me there, creeping around, asking difficult questions and compromising whatever they’ve got going on (there’s a lot at stake for them, I’m sure, and I’m fairly convinced it’s not 100% kosher…). It wouldn’t be entirely impossible for me to find my way in, perhaps, but it is unlikely. And seeing as before I even give it a shot, I will first need to do a lot of reading, design a research proposal, and write grant applications, it’s not really worth the risk, as far as I’m concerned.
Second, it needs to be relevant. It’s true that the great thing about anthropology is that you can study one thing, one group or practice or phenomenon, and what you’ve learned can almost magically prove to be applicable or relevant to something else entirely. It’s all about making sense of human behaviour, and in that sense, studying people practicing sheep shearing in Sudan might actually tell us something quite profound about Wall-Street brokers. And vice-versa. But I just don’t feel I can count on these connections just somehow emerging. I want to know. I want to know that my work will matter, that people everywhere could potentially find it interesting and relevant, and hopefully even benefit from it. So this rules out my idea to study combat medic courses. These have been around for decades – centuries, probably – and while they’re definitely very interesting, in that they combine such different kinds of knowledge (medical and military), and different premises (making people well within an organisation that engages in violence); none of this feels immediately relevant. It doesn’t strike me as important enough. So I withdrew this plan.
Third, I want my project to be feasible. I want to situate myself in a position where I already have a handle on the issues and stakes, the relevant theories and literature. This sounds a bit like a contradiction, seeing as my whole purpose in doing something new is to, well, do something new (new for me, that is). But some steps are just too big. I need to keep in mind that there are always other researchers doing similar projects, and I don’t want to find myself struggling too much to keep up. In other words, if I have to spend months and months of reading just to acquaint myself with the most basic scholarship in the broad area, its vocabulary and discourse, it might very well put me in a position that is just too disadvantaged. And so while I love STS, for example, and I definitely want to gradually position myself within this discipline one day, I feel I need to make that shift gradually. So however fascinating and important (and problematic!) I find the construction of scientific knowledge about Kawasaki Disease, I feel I’m not quite ready to make that rather big leap. So that’s been ruled out.
Fourth, I want my project to be taken seriously. It’s common for social anthropologists, I think, to find themselves in a position where they have to explain what merit their projects actually have when speaking to people from outside the discipline (and often, when speaking to people from within the discipline as well). The recent increase in the prescribing and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, coupled with recent changes in legislation that make the plant far more tolerable from a legal perspective (and in some places, straight-up legal), make it a phenomenon that’s both important and relevant. Also, I think my set of skills and theoretical knowledge would allow me to enter this field without too many obstacles. So my only concern in choosing this as my next research project is that I worry people might not take it seriously, and think I was just in it for the high… (Participant observation, after all). It might be silly of me, I know, but I don’t feel like I can just shake off this concern and take the plunge.
Finally, I want my research project to be novel, at least to an extent. Again, social anthropology is different, perhaps, than other disciplines in that the novelty of one’s research does not necessarily depend on the question of how much is already known about a specific phenomenon, group of people or what have you. You could walk into a village that’s been studied through and through and still come up with novel insights, which would stem from employing a slightly different method, having a different theoretical inclination, or looking at aspects that were hitherto mostly ignored. There are, after all, infinite stories to be told about any group of people, depending on what you focus on. Religion? Gender? Economy? Emotions? Language? Health? And yet there’s a risk there. Taking that route would mean, I think, that it would be harder to get people automatically interested in my project. It needs that initial appeal. Of course, if it’s only an initial appeal, that’s not going to take me anywhere. But alongside a good, rigorous, creative research project, I also want it to be about something that would appeal to as many people as possible. Something that would stand out. Something that, hopefully, would find its way to outside the walls of academia and interest a wider public. Jerusalem Syndrome, while a fascinating phenomenon insofar as it combines faith, travel, place, pilgrimage, and mental health, has had a book published about it just last year. Although authored by a psychiatrist, it touches on many of the issues that I, as an anthropologist, would also want to engage with. And so I just sort of feel, rightfully or otherwise, that this territory has been claimed.
So there you go. A world full of fascinating, complex, intriguing people, practices and phenomena, and an anthropologist who just can’t seem to decide. But it will come, I hope. And in the meantime, I have my eyes wide open, preparing for that moment when that light bulb lights up, and I get to say Aha! This is what I will study from now on. Until then, I’m checking my inbox every hour or so, just in case there’s an email there with the subject line “Re: by any chance do you need a medical anthropologist aboard?”