Rhetoric and Visual Ethnography: Envisioning the Future of Health, Medicine, and Bodies in Practice

Rhetoric and Visual Ethnography: Envisioning the Future of Health, Medicine, and Bodies in Practice

(Note: Trying out a title for…who knows what? I’m not even sure what “bodies in practice means.” I was thinking about doctors practicing medicine and people practicing their illness chronologies before they go to the doctor…but maybe that’s just something I do).

I’ve thought more about it, and I’m concerned that my investigation into Lyme Disease images is going nowhere. Yes, it’s weird/interesting that there are four main images in circulation (the deer tick, the bull’s-eye, the Lyme spirochete, and Lyme-endemic area maps), but…can I write a whole dissertation on it? Since I’ve never written a dissertation/book before, I clearly don’t really know the answer. It’s worrying me.

I’ve been tossing around Jason’s idea from the #TeamRhetoric writing group meeting a few weeks ago: that I write my entire dissertation on visual ethnography as a rhetorical research method. Here’s what I think this might be good for:

A) Demonstrating that LOOKING at health and medicine texts/images (broadly defined) might reveal something new/different/important about them. My exploratory research led me to sociology of medicine and medical anthropology journals that highlighted how visual research methods often (more effectively) illuminate the lives and experiences of underrepresented and systemically disadvantaged people. I know that there are a lot of these individuals who are sick and who are lost in the system—forgotten by doctors and the public at large. Perhaps a project that uses visual ethnography could shed light on some of those experiences that might not otherwise be put at the forefront.

B) Putting people and their bodies into practice. (Note: this sounds like a good idea but I’m not quite sure what I mean by it). I think what I mean to say is that it involves both the “participants” and the “researchers” in the making of the thing—which is TBD, of course.

C) A fantastic article about research methods (if nothing else)!

Here’s what worries me:

A) That visual ethnography isn’t rhetorical (enough). Jason is sure that it is, but I think I’m still lukewarm on the subject. The McNely et al. team is also sure that it’s rhetorical, and I can see how it would work for documenting/doing the writing process. And yet…I’m not sure about it.

B) I have no idea what I am doing or will be doing. Visual ethnography isn’t my field. In fact, I have very little training that supports this line of inquiry! I can take confidence in knowing that I know about rhetoric and power and practice and that that will take me where I want/need to go. But I don’t even know how to operate most cameras and I take terrible selfies, so I’m not sure if the images would even come out “right.”

C) Coordinating with the appropriate partners and experts. If I get the DPDF, I will have a (funded!) opportunity to do this and to consult with experts from the social sciences. However, without this boost, I will have to do this work completely on my own. I have some connections through the HHIVE and other friendly people I’ve encountered at UNC and UMD, but I don’t (personally) know any anthropologists or scholars who do digital work. (Well, Dan and Todd do, I suppose, but they don’t do visual ethnography…).

D) THAT THIS PROJECT MIGHT FAIL COMPLETELY BECAUSE I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT WILL HAPPEN! Theoretically, there is a chance for this to happen in any project. But for the first time, I am honestly not sure about what will come out of this project. In general, when I’ve done text-based research, I always know that there’s something to find that I can use for something, even if it’s not what I originally intended. I mean, there was that one time when I was trying to learn about sex education courses at UMD since it opened in 1856 and the sad archivist had to tell me that no records exist because UMD burned down completely in the early 1900s. At the time, I felt a bit disoriented (and definitely derailed), but the absence of ephemera led me to study something related: home economics. In fact, I probably didn’t have the necessary vocabulary—the search terms and historical language—that would have generated helpful results for my sex education study. (Since they very likely did not call it “sex education.” HA! Actually, I know that it was often called “social hygiene” and went by a few other related names). I am in a similar stage with this project: I don’t yet have the vocabulary to locate the information that I’m looking for…and perhaps it doesn’t even exist.

I guess I’ll find out?

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