Discover lives as lived: create puzzlement and elaborate your bafflement

The researcher stance should be one of polite but informed puzzlement and a willingness to learn from the world.

A few of the posts I have been writing are about different ways to spark your curiosity. It is that willingness to push beyond face value answers and assumptions that is the fuel for a fun research career. Great questions to ask are simple ones. ‘And then … and then …’ or ‘You mentioned x?’ They invite research subjects to elaborate and give themselves voice. Curiosity should also be ethical. We hope to gain a complete picture of the lifeworld and experience of the topic: enough and no more. Finding out what it is means discovering what matters, and the latter is what everyone really wants and will benefit from knowing.  Discover lives as lived, not as described.

One angle on that is repeated injunctions about what it is you really are studying. Just discussing the cryptomarkets recently and the question came up of why we talk about them as a unitary phenomenon. If you were talking about the illicit drug street market the first question would be, ‘well which one do you mean’? There are millons of drug exchanges every day in pubs, parks, streets, workplaces, homes, underpasses. To throw that all together as ‘the street market’ or ‘the face to face market’ or ‘the digital market’ is letting the phrase do a lot of work. So far, so typical of my inherent research laziness.

Likewise recent research into the cryptomarkets shows how we should not treat it as all one thing. Even the term ‘market’ flattens our analysis in ways that might be limiting. I would presume a market has several features such as commodification, standardisation rationalisation and so on but these appear very differently in different market spaces. One drug market I study resists commodification due to the cultural commitment that market participants have to the product, psychedelics. I prefer the term community of exchange for that one since it does not seek to explicitly conform to typical market precepts. You still have operators who make the market identity part of their approach and seek to defend it but it is not predominant within that particular place.

You can gain a lot in the attempt to answer that question: well, what is it? What is it not? Howard Becker (1993) has a lovely illustration of his attempts to understand with medical students what made a patient a ‘crock’. A crock was a patient they did not like to deal with. The puzzle was what put a patient into that category. At first it seemed someone who had vague and ill defined psychosomatic symptoms.  That was only half the story though. Becker sought to understand the issue theoretically: why did a ‘crock’ patient violate the medical students’ interests? The medical students had a good sense of what a crock was but found it hard to articulate as a category. You just know them when you see them.

Through repeated discussion with the students, they came to understand that a crock was a patient whom the students could learn nothing from. Dealing with many such patients did not add to their sum of knowledge about human pathology. A crock would also be worthless in the informal economy of experience working at medical school. If I have several patients with ovarian cysts and you have several with an ectopic pregnancy, it benefits us both to ‘trade’ so we can each learn about a class of pathology we have no experience with. A crock was worthless to trade with. The crock also illustrated a crucial element of medical status operating at the time: true medicine is powerful and dangerous, where you can kill or cure. With no physical pathology, there is no opportunity to act out the doctor as god role. The main lesson from this is to use and elaborate your bafflement. When you ask a question and the people around you scoff at your ignorance, it means you are onto something. Don’t be embarrassed to be ignorant and hold onto your polite puzzlement like drunk ex clings onto their self-pity.

Becker, Howard S. “How I learned what a crock was.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 22.1 (1993): 28-35.
Childs A, Coomber R, Bull M, et al. (2020) Evolving and Diversifying Selling Practices on Drug Cryptomarkets: An Exploration of Off-Platform “Direct Dealing.” Journal of Drug Issues: 0022042619897425. DOI: 10.1177/0022042619897425.

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