Today, I participated in a scientific experiment. At the promise of a solid gold payment (well almost, anyway), I went to the Faculty of Medicine to play my part as the guinea pig in a test examining the levels of BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrofic Factor) before, during and after physical activity. Now, I don’t know anything about this stuff – but I was told it wouldn’t be dangerous.
As it so happened, all I had to do was to meet up this morning and ride an exercise bike at 60 % of my maximum capacity for 2 hours, and then rest for 5 hours. Meanwhile, the very kind doctors would take blood samples – using a funny little tap inserted into my arm. I believe it’s called a venflon:
That wasn’t too bad – and it certainly wasn’t what was making my legs hurt. That were the muscle biopsies. They did 5 on me during the experiment, and they really aren’t as painful as I’ve heard them described, but afterwards your legs feel kind of wooden. I’m walking around like an old man right now – and it probably won’t be getting better for the next few days, as I’ll be returning for follow-up biosies and blood samples the next three days.
But apart from the actual business of the medical trade, I got an idea of how scientific study is done in a completely different field – though also centered on human beings. But in retrospect, apart from their obvious interest in me, not as a person but as a meat machine to be measured and tested – the same basic scientific and epistemological values apply.
I know that psychologists also hire people as test subjects for experiments, and it made me wonder whether it would actually be possible to make some relevant excuse or setup for doing something similar in an anthropological or sociological frame.
I find it fascinating that in those, more “hard-core” scientific studies focusing only on the test subject’s basic human features like blood, muscle and memory, it is considered ethical valid – necessary, even – to offer a monetary reward. But not so in the social sciences (though it is generally accepted that anthropologists pay informants who wouldn’t be able to sustain themselves for spending their time talking instead of working).
I know that you cannot be friends with people that you pay to talk to you. Or that you can’t expect straight answers from people who are trying to please you in order to get the money. And that you’d only get a certain kind of informants willing to cash in on their cultural and social relations.
But even if it isn’t viable in the slightest, I still think that quite a few social scientists have a hidden urge to just keep their informants in a lab for further testing and questioning. Not only would it guarantee the social sciences’ status as proper science (i.e. any discipline where you get to wear a lab coat) – but it would be pretty darn easy as well.
It is because of this that I find that anthropology to be one of the most interesting disciplines around: because we take a pride in not making things to easy for ourselves – that even in the everyday gathering of data, we have to challenge ourselves, give up our own authority and qualify our research decisions. It may lead to a schizophrenic attitude towards “proper science” – but we’ll have to learn that we as anthropologists have to qualify our research through other means than mere method.
Actual relevance and pragmatic usefulness would do nicely, I think.