The struggle, so far

Because this site is designed, in large part, to document the research process in a transparent fashion, I thought I would bring it out of its dormant state with an update about the early stages of the project and a self-indulgent reflection on some of the difficulties I have faced so far.

First, I have spent the better part of the past year attempting to refine the scope of the project and to clarify my research questions. This work is important and necessary, especially considering the richness of what I’m working with. Do I focus on food, or pharmaceuticals? Value, purity, biomedicalization, neoliberalism, and ecology (among many others!) have all informed my oft-muddled thought processes as I have developed this project into something workable. Settling on specific research areas was one major step toward clarifying the key goals and questions of the project; there will, no doubt, be many more. However, considering the degree to which, perhaps especially in the social sciences, refining research questions and identifying contributions is knitted to the need to secure research funding, even the important work of molding the project into something clear and manageable can feel like spending a whole lot of time trying to fund research—time that could otherwise be spent conducting the research. Combined with what feels like a pull to finish graduate school sooner rather than later (a pull that manifests both through personal relationships and institutional norms of the university), time that might otherwise feel well-spent all too easily feels wasted.

Second, I have had difficulty actually gaining access to field sites. I was perhaps a bit clumsy in reaching out to a first potential site (which will here remain nameless), and I received a dismissive response in exchange. This is part of the process of learning the craft of social science research, but this fact doesn’t make it much less disheartening, and does not move the research process along, at least not in a way that feels tangible. Despite the fact that fermentation is everywhere, I have found myself treating my vision o the project too preciously, and I have been cautious and hesitant to reach out to other field sites for fear of having to reconfigure the research project—even before there is really a project of which to speak. Where I have reached out, I have learned another lesson, a simple lesson: life gets in the way. Of course it does, but that doesn’t stop this lesson from reasserting itself in unexpected ways.

Third, and quite unexpectedly, Donald Trump is now president. His inauguration and election have changed my day-to-day life and caused me to reevaluate my project. And I do intend this to mean “to question my project’s value.”  Housed as I am within a sociology department, many of my colleagues’ and professors’ projects suddenly felt so much more urgent and important than mine did. Questions obviously and explicitly about race, class, and gender power, globalization, healthcare, and environment loomed massively as what really mattered, and I found myself wondering how I had come to be interested in things as niche and relatively unimportant as beer production and some fringe emergent technologies. My research interests screamed privilege to me, and felt like a stark confirmation of accusations that both overeducated academic researchers and Millennial whiteguys living in affluent, progressive, coastal bubbles are hopelessly out of touch. I saw the triumph of a political movement that decried these interests, I felt its power, and I wondered who would care about and for my research. It made me question my place in academia more broadly, wondering if it was important to be spend time and energy on this project, or if it were better to organize, to apply my social science training and to exercise my privilege differently and elsewhere. It changed the political and social climate (or perhaps made a long process of change palpable), reconfigured priorities, and imposed constraints on my and others’ time in the process. I had to remember how I got where I was, and why I thought it was important. Then I had to believe that these reasons were enough for me to continue along a path I had already spent the better part of a decade heading down.

I’m only writing this because I decided that they were. So why study fermentation as a social scientist? The easy answer, and the one that I don’t always find entirely convincing, is that people like it. Taking just beer as an example, it brings large numbers of people together, shapes their lives and livelihoods, and accrues capital to its producers and sellers. It forms an important part of culture and identity, and it has for a long time. But the more difficult answer, and the one that sometime let slip away from me, is that it really matters how fermentation brings humans and nonhumans together, and what the formation of these new assemblages means for studying other emerging technologies and forms of production. It matters that beer and other forms of fermentation are being invoked and used to imagine and build new worlds, and why, and how. It matters that the theoretical and conceptual tools that we have for thinking about and intervening in these developments seem to miss much of the subtlety, the nuance, and the flux of these worlds. Microbes are capricious critters, and building futures with them is correspondingly finicky work. Following this work closely and understanding both how it reshapes societies and challenges the social sciences’ existing toolkit still feels important to me, even if the consequences are not immediately, screamingly obvious.

It also feels important to me to air these doubts and difficulties. Rather than either taking the importance of this work as self-evident, or worrying that expressing any doubt undermines an eventual case to a committee, a publisher, or some other scrutinous audience, my own stubborn belief in transparency dictates that I express both this doubt and the ways in which I’ve (only ever temporarily) overcome it in this public forum. How “public” it is, time will tell. Its readers may be friends, family, colleagues, or potential employers. I’ll surely revisit this page from time to time, whether out of regretful revisionist impulses stemming from disagreements I may develop with my past self, fear of looking foolish through typos and grammatical errors left unnoticed and unfixed, some sad sort of pride and self-congratulation at having a physical manifestation of work to admire (the same manifestation I have felt lacking these past few months), or simply to remind myself that I’ve faced doubt before. However far this writing travels, it will have at least served me that purpose.

So. Even if, in these harrowing times, the forces we are working against often feel blunt and plainly evident, ways of working against them—and of understanding the subtleties of both their exercise and effects—often don’t. And “speaking truth to power”(a Quaker phrase; I live in California now, but I guess I’m not out of Penn’s Woods just yet) may require a better understanding of (as the Quakers wrote in 1955, though I have updated the century accordingly) “the idea of Power itself, and its impact on [twenty-first century] life.” The slow, careful, and too-often arcane work of developing this understanding  need not be exclusive of other forms of action and activism. But neither need it be abandoned.

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