It’s 9 a.m. on Tuesday, and that means it’s time for the weekly meeting at the Roberts Ethnographic Coding Lab. Ten students and two professors are crammed into a room the size of a walk-in closet. There’s one window, which looks out over a nice bit of brick and green copper—a corner of West Hall, the home of the Department of Anthropology on the edge of the Diag.
“It’s energetic and cozy,” laughs Liz Roberts. “We love the window.”
Elizabeth Roberts, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, established the Roberts Ethnographic Coding Lab in 2016 for two reasons: to help her manage the mountains of data she’s gathering from MEXPOS, her cross-disciplinary project in Mexico City, and to train a generation of undergraduates in qualitative ethnographic methods and data analysis. After two years, she’s created a new model for data gathering and analysis in socio-cultural and medical anthropology. Innovative and interdisciplinary, with the lab at its core, her “bioethnographic” process combines elements of ethnography, public health, and environmental engineering. This dynamic allows contributions from each field to strengthen each other, for a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
ELEMENT spawns MEXPOS
In 2012, Roberts joined a decades-long University of Michigan public health project called ELEMENT (Early Life Exposures in Mexico to ENvironmental Toxicants) with the goal of using ethnographic research to inform the study’s quantitative public health data on biological and environmental factors that impact human and development. ELEMENT has followed mother and child pairs for more than two decades, to gain insight into how exposure to environmental toxins such as metals and chemicals affect pregnant women and their children.
Roberts worked intensively with six ELEMENT participant families from two geographically distinct working-class areas in Mexico City in 2014 and 2015, and continues to work with them during summers.
“My interest was in partnering with a project so that we could work together to create new methods for making knowledge about health and inequality,” says Roberts. “They produce biological knowledge. I'm producing ethnographic knowledge, and we are going to put it together in an innovative bioethnographic approach.”
When Roberts returned to the U.S. in 2015, she struggled to handle the volume of data she’d brought back.
“I was overwhelmed by the amount of data,” she recalls. “The fieldwork is ongoing and never-ending.”
In a typical year, she says, a single ethnographer might generate hundreds of pages of field notes By comparison: in one year, Roberts’ research generated more than 100,000 pages of field notes and transcripts, and over 30,000 photographs. And since the research is ongoing, the amount of data keeps growing.
Conversations with colleagues Abigail Bingham and Jason De León, also faculty in the UM’s anthropology department, led her to think about borrowing the biological and archaeological anthropology models: professors lead labs where undergraduates work with the data.
Roberts decided what she needed was a data coding lab, even though cultural anthropologists rarely share their raw field notes with others.
In the Lab
To get started, she needed funding and a physical space for the lab. Once she had the room, she needed chairs, a table, a flat screen TV, and a whiteboard, which she acquired with the help of the anthropology department. When the dust had cleared, the Roberts Ethnographic Coding Lab was open—with two workers. One was her original postdoc, Camilo Sanz, and one was Roberts herself.
Fast forward three years, and the little lab is bursting with activity. In order to operate, the lab needs at least six students per semester. Lab work counts as either a class or an independent study. They have no trouble filling the spots, say Roberts and her current postdoctoral research fellow, Mary Leighton, even though to be considered a student must interview with both of them, read Spanish, and come with recommendations from GSIs or professors.
Roberts is delighted by the fact that her lab attracts students from other disciplines. Among this semester’s students are two Spanish majors, two microbiology majors, two premed majors, and one in gender and health.
“We are getting students who never thought about anthropology before,” she says. “This turns out to be a very cool way to educate undergraduates. We are providing them with hands-on experience.”
The students, for their part, seem equally delighted. Fully half of the team (five students) volunteered over the past summer. Not for money or for class credit—simply because they wanted to keep working on the project.
Each student is responsible for a slice of the data: one person handles food inventories, another focuses on data from prenatal visits, and another on data from beauty parlor conversations. Students can set their own hours, within a specified time range of lab open hours. This ensures that they are often clustered in the tiny lab together, rather than working individually. Attending the weekly lab meetings is a requirement.
“We insist that they code together,” Roberts says. “There are these cross-cutting conversations... They innovate things together that then become part of the protocol.”
Why it Works
Faith Cole, a senior majoring in anthropology, Spanish, and international studies (global environment and health), has already worked in the lab for three semesters. She explained in an email how working in the lab is central to her studies.
“In many ways, the interests that inform my thesis about medical diagnosis in Mexico using MEXPOS data are in conversation with the objectives and interests of the MEXPOS project as a whole,” she wrote. “For example, [I’m interested] in the locality of health and a broad conception of the forces that converge to shape health in specific places. Working on a project through Dr. Roberts’ lab is a great way to research something you’re particularly interested in, with the support and feedback of a whole team of undergraduates, as well as Dr. Roberts and Dr. Mary Leighton.”
Andrew Mitchel, a senior majoring in anthropology and Spanish, believes that this interdisciplinary, collaborative research will ultimately help improve lives in the participants’ communities.
“This research is a way to connect anthropology and public health together, to help understand the cultural context of exposure and environmental conditions,” wrote Mitchel in an email. “On campus, the project fosters cross-disciplinary work between these same two fields, and for students involved, like me, it becomes a talking point.”
Graduates credit the lab with teaching them to think collaboratively and preparing them for doing field research and analysis.
Hannah Marcovitch, who graduated from UM with an anthropology degree in 2017, used Roberts’ work as a starting point for her honors thesis. Marcovitch carefully reviewed details about food-related aspects of Roberts’ field notes and became the coding authority on food, earning her the title “Food Czar.” Marcovitch also collaborated with ELEMENT and public health researchers to create more comprehensive assessments of dietary data and is now working to publish her findings with both Roberts and the public health team.
“This work has, in some ways, been a guinea pig for the larger Mexican Exposures projects. My attempt at actually combining anthropological and epidemiological methods has been among the project’s first. As the Mexican Exposures project matures, the collaborations will undoubtedly be increasingly synthetic and sophisticated,” wrote Marcovitch in an email.
Clara Cullen, another 2017 graduate, feels that her time in the lab helped prepare her for her current endeavors. The experience taught her how to approach a project from a bioethnographic perspective.
“My work with Dr. Roberts’ lab has been instrumental in preparing me to collaborate with an interdisciplinary team of researchers as I now do on a daily basis through my Fulbright research,” wrote Cullen, who now works in Ecuador. “Working with Dr. Roberts and her team showed me the power of interdisciplinary work and combining the social and natural sciences. As a result, I will be applying to medical school in the near future and hope to continue qualitative medical research throughout my career.”
Postdoctoral researcher Mary Leighton, who since joining the Anthropology Department in August 2017 has run the coding lab and refined its protocols and methodology, also finds the interdisciplinary aspect of the lab to be a critical part of its success. Leighton brings to the project a background in science and technology studies and research expertise studying transnational and interdisciplinary scientific collaborations.
“I was looking at collaborations between archaeologists in the U.S., Canada, Chile, and Bolivia, who worked in South America, and why those collaborations sometimes falter. It’s not always to do with language and money. It’s just to do with different understandings of what it means to be an academic and what it means to be a scientist,” said Leighton. “People assume that they’re talking about the same thing but they’re actually talking about something completely different. So I was excited by this project because of the many layers of collaboration.”
While a table full of students bring coherence to her data, Roberts reminisces about the families she lived with in Mexico City.
“With this project I have a kind of a depth that I didn’t have in my previous ethnographic projects,” said Roberts. “I have spent an extraordinary amount of time with these six families and their neighbors. The idea is that we will be able to put their lives in relation to all kinds of things happening to and in their bodies. I’m hoping that will be interesting and useful for them. That’s something we hope is really useful for Mexico City too, in relation to how these neighborhood systems shape health and inequality and people’s life trajectories.”
Across the continent, in a small room at the corner of the UM campus, students are finding their life trajectories shaped by a different force: the time they spend in the Roberts Ethnographic Coding Lab.