Infinitesimally small findings, divorced from context: further reflections on teaching research methods as social justice

My mother has her own terrifying brand of religion and ritual, which as an adult I can recognize as her disordered attempt at keeping the family trauma at bay, but wisdom comes with age and my earliest memories are of being lost at sea, swimming through the images she lived by, disjointed scenes of biblical proportions, with all epic consequences. Highly empathic, I was the caretaker oldest daughter tasked with rowing to shore, but there were so few oars on our ark, save for my innate perceptiveness and bravery, and so I shouted our full story into the wind like a message in a bottle. And thus began my mother’s campaign to convince me that truth and perception are dangerous and would dismantle our isolated world.  And so of course I became a midwife, and then a researcher headed towards journalist, because I am convinced that truth and perception are dangerous, and can dismantle our world and row us to a better shore.

Or that’s the vision anyway.  Another vision is one of my mother’s images, of angels so small and specialized that hundreds of them can fit on the head of a pin, sent to spy on us and report our transgressions to my mother’s angry god. Infinitesimally small angels, single minded and stubborn, with just one job, waiting expectantly to carry a single message of a single sin.  And lately, my mother’s single minded angels, perched like sleeping bats on the head of a pin, they drift into my line of sight when I read much of the published research. And last night, when several of my students complained that our introduction to research methods class devoted too much time to social justice, I could almost hear the flutter of tiny angel wings.

What I mean is that so much of the research I read, and, if I’m honest, so much of the research I’ve done is focused on infinitesimal research questions, with findings so small they could sit with my mother’s angels on the head of a pin.  This is the kind of research that usually gets funded, and published, and praised, because this kind of research is a neat and tidy package.  Researchers can come in and tell ourselves that we have removed variable after variable, stripped our questions down to the bones and gotten to the heart of the matter.  And we have.  We have definitive answers to show for ourselves, and that means more publications, more grants, more prestige. But the heart of the matter we’ve gotten to is so incredibly small that it fits with all the other angels on the head of a pin.

For example, can people who watch a video about three reasons to exercise name three reasons to exercise? Do people agree, strongly agree or disagree that cervical cancer screening is one way to detect cervical cancer?  Is there a relationship between having a mobility impairment and having  a maternity care provider tell you that they are unable to weigh you if cannot stand on the scale?  Are people of color more likely to have heart disease, or asthma, and by what percent? How many calories do the first grade children in the raggedy elementary school at the end of my street consume on the third of February, a Friday, as compared to the caloric intake of the first graders at the shiny new school across town, the one with the gym and the freshly plowed roads? How many acts of perceived inter-personal discrimination do English-speaking Puerto Ricans aged 41-50 with diabetes in New York experience per day that they are hospitalized, as reported on a survey of 100 people during the study period of 8 months in 2004? How many hundreds of thousands more nickels sit in the bank accounts of white law enforcement officers as compared to the bank accounts of Black officers? These are small questions with smaller answers, but they have been answered, published, re-answered and published again, because they are definitive, and because they fit on the head of pin without displacing even a single angel.

I have some more questions whose answers could fit on the head of a pin: Exactly how many minutes longer than white people do people of color wait to be given pain medication when they arrive at the emergency room with a broken bone protruding from their skin?  And how many milliseconds of deliberation did it take an all white jury to acquit Trayvon Martin’s killer as compared to milliseconds it took to acquit the officer who murdered Michael Brown? How many treaties have been broken today, analyzed by state, by region, by branch of government? How many children are drinking poisoned water when the funding for any one of the studies in my last paragraph might have been enough to replace at least half of the corroded pipes in Flint?  And actually, many of these studies have also been done, and in the last week, three people have forwarded me announcements of three separate grants to fund research to demonstrate that a tiny, discrete, pin-sized amount of racism and injustice is real.

The answers to these research questions are definitive, but this is not the kind of research that will dismantle unjust systems.  The answers to these research questions are true, but this is not the kind of truth that will row us to a better shore. 

And so I want different research questions, research questions that are perhaps less fundable and whose findings are perhaps less publishable, but whose answers would never fit on the head of a pin.  I want research questions with real answers, complex answers, contextualized answers. And that’s where social justice and research become one and the same, because the context is and always has been oppression and inequity.  And because the context is and always has been survival and resistance.  I can time additional minutes without pain medication, count number of “perceived” acts of discrimination reported on a survey, and track caloric intake or asthma rates and get little answers, but the big answer will always be institutional racism.  No one lives their lives in number of minutes or composite rates; we live our lives in communities, in context, the context of oppression and resistance, inequity and survival. And until I recognize that, my data is suspect and my research is crappy.  And I am better than teaching students to do crappy, de-contextualized research with suspect findings that proves an already proven and always irrelevant point.

So back to those grants to fund research to prove that a tiny sliver of context exists, that an angel-sized molecule of racism is real. Because somehow it was not real when the Mothers of the Movement were foisted into the public eye as they buried their fine young men, boys really, but their public and private grief was not sufficient proof; somehow it is not real until research says it is real. Research somehow makes it real.  And so of course we fund research to obscure the context, to quell resistance pinprick by pinprick, jabs so slight we might not feel them, though each pinprick draws a drop of blood that distracts us from the better shore, slowly and slightly, til it slips off of our horizons.  And again, I want to be better than research that erodes away at equity through a series of small pinpricks and fading shores, and I want that for my students, too.

Research in context could look at discrete outcomes like inequitable asthma rates or caloric intake, but it would have to connect those numbers to the instant acquittals of specific killers of fine young men, boys really, but also to the instant acquittals of white supremacy and its harms.  It would have to connect those numbers to food deserts and school funding, to environmental racism and inter-personal discrimination and economic injustice, to community-led resistance and survival, to ableism in health care and the centrality of eugenics to white feminism, to police brutality, broken treaties and poisoned water, and mostly to every last one of these intersections, but especially the intersections of where we last took to the streets and began to burn the motherfucker to the ground because this is what is real.  And we need research to describe reality until we learn that actually the Mothers of the Movement dressed in their grief and their Sunday best, they have already answered all the research questions, so completely that you could hear a pin drop in the silence that follows their answers.

And that, friends, that is why research and social justice are forever intertwined.  And all the angels can fly home to my mother’s angry god all at once bearing their singular facts, and we will be left with the context, and our answers will always be suspect until they are less definitive, and as real and as dangerous and as whole as Trayvon Martin waving to us from a better shore.

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