An Ethnographic Study of the Production of Scientific Sexual and Drug-Use Knowledge of and about Homeless, Sexual Minority Young People in San Francisco

Ben Peacock, UC-Berkeley
Social and Behavioral

Background: In ongoing ethnographic research with homeless sexualminorityyoung people (15-28),Iam considering how their stigmatized and illegal behaviors are often concealed by not only themselves, but also by cultural and structural forces within the local gay and larger communities, local and national governments, and scientific practice itself. While identifying these forces (discursive, violent, political, legal, economic, symbolic, epistemological) I came to see the increasing importance of quantitative behavioral survey research since the advent of the AIDS Pandemic to enumerate--and thereby reveal--stigmatized and illegal behaviors. For example, when exploring my informants' participation in survival sex, explicit speech about it was constrained. But contrary to the theorizing of anthropologists on the inexpressibility of suffering and pain in language, I learned that it was not that the youth cannot not speak about their participation in survival sex, but rather that their speech and actions about it are not heard. My ability to label or translate such speech and actions came in part from the work of behavioral epidemiologists to assemble a variety of behaviors into the category of 'survival sex'. As a result I bore a kind of knowledge that many I observed lacked, a sexual knowledge generated from the analysis of data abstracted from others 'like' them in the past. While the quantitative social sciences have been critiqued for concealing structural oppression and the politics of research, the research on survival sex provides a counterexample of how they can also be used in attempts at the opposite. This led me to consider how numbers and enumeration can be used to reveal behavior which other cultural forces serve to conceal or elide, and thereby expanded my dissertation project to consider both the human researchers and researched humans in the production of sexual and drug-using knowledge.

Methods: The majority of my data is constituted by my detailed field notes and interviews with homeless (25) and scientific (15) informants. I have been accompanying my homeless youth and young adult informants in many activities of their daily lives and my scientific informants in their professional practices, including project planning, funding activities, instrument design, writing up and public presentation of findings, and recruitment, outreach and surveying of research subjects.

Results/Conclusion/Relevance: This project seeks to understand how epidemiological categories of sexual behavior and 'at-risk' populations are constituted; a critical feature of this analysis examines how behavioral epidemiologists and the humans they study interact to produce scientific sexual knowledge. This project therefore links an anthropology of science attentive to knowledge practices with an urban anthropology rooted in gay and lesbian studies that foregrounds the subjectivity of stigmatized groups. To understand the relation between the lived experience and social worlds of persons and the scientific practices by and in which they are transformed into a sexual category of risk, I am examining the everyday practice both of behavioral epidemiologists and their human objects of study.