Using ATLAS.ti Mac in an Environmental Health Study

September 1, 2016

In this issue of Inside ATLAS.ti, we interview Dr.Camilo Sanz, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan.  He provides research and administrative support as well as project development for Professor Elizabeth Robert’s ongoing investigation, Mexican Exposures. He has been using ATLAS.ti less then a year.

Could you tell us something about your professional background and research interests?

I am a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropology. I provide research and administrative support as well as project development for Prof. Elizabeth Roberts’s ongoing investigation Mexican Exposures. Mexican Exposures seeks to develop a collaborative bio-ethnographic method which combines biological and ethnographic data in understating environmental health in Mexico City.  At present we are examining lead levels collected by environmental health scientists over the last 22 years and analyzing them in conjunction with intensive ethnographic data gathered from this same participating.

I recently obtained my PhD in Anthropology from UC Davis. My dissertation examined the relationship between time, cancer care and social class, following the neoliberal restructuring of the Colombian health care system in 1993.

 In what study are you using ATLAS.ti?  Tell us something about it.

Mexican Exposures involves a three-year collaboration between myself (a medical anthropologist), and ELEMENT researchers in Mexico City and the University of Michigan. This is an NSF funded project with Dr. Elizabeth Roberts as the principal investigator.

It seeks to develop a bio-ethnographic approach that integrates biological and ethnographic data about the larger histories and life circumstances of working class families that shape disease. Since 1995, the birth-cohort study in Mexico City called ELEMENT (Early Life Exposure in Mexico to Environmental Toxicants) has studied the long-term and intergenerational physiological and neurological effects of in utero and early childhood exposure to chemicals like lead and mercury. ELEMENT researchers have begun to link these exposures to obesity and diabetes. While ELEMENT has made several key findings about chemical exposures, its approach has tended to situate key disease-transmission mechanisms inside individual bodies rather than within larger historical and economic processes. My effort involves building on and expanding correlations between individual health and environment through the inclusion of ethnographic data about the specific historical social and material contexts that shape ELEMENT participants’ lives, as well as data on how participants’ lives are shaped by ELEMENT research itself.

The project has two phases: first, a year-long ethnography of six ELEMENT participant families living in working-class neighborhoods, focusing on household and neighborhood environments and histories relevant to the production of bodily states; second, a two-year phase in which ELEMENT researchers and I combine our biological and ethnographic data to produce a multifaceted and more complex account of the links between ill-health and life circumstances. In this phase ELEMENT researchers and I will work to connect my ethnographic data with their data on the affects of lead exposure on health.  In both these phases, I will also investigate the scientific process itself: how participants’ lives are shaped by research (including my own), and how researchers attempt to universalize the knowledge gleaned from monitoring individual participants’ bodies.   Although ethnographic research is not hypothesis driven I include project questions and specific aims below.

In July, 2013 I conducted ten pilot interviews with ELEMENT participants in their homes in order to determine if a long-term study was feasible. These interviews focused on environment, disease transmission, and the experience of being long-term participants in the study and demonstrated the potential for ethnographic observation to contribute to our knowledge of the relationship of environment and health.

Support for this research will come from funds from the University of Michigan Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and the National Science Foundation.

Figure 1. A data collection site.

Figure 1. A data collection site.

What methods are you using?

The starting point for my project is the recent medical anthropological critique of an epistemological and ontological divide between nature and culture. This critique provides the potential for new symmetrical explorations of the interaction between environments, bodies, and health. By adopting a symmetrical analysis of the biological and historical construction of locally situated bodies, Mexican Exposures will address the following sets of questions:

  1. What life circumstances and material conditions affect bodily states? That is, what effects do factors such as economic conditions, urban infrastructure, religious practice, and kinship relations play in exposure to toxins like lead? What other phenomena might interact with toxins or influence bodily states such as obesity, diabetes, and ADHD? How do research participants themselves understand the forces that shape their well-being? These questions will be addressed through ethnographic research among ELEMENT participant families.
  2. How is scientific knowledge constructed? STS approaches view expert knowledge itself as an object of study, a phenomenon that affects the dynamics being studied. How is generalizable “universal” scientific knowledge produced from concrete, local data from specific bodies? How do local data and scientific findings circulate? What are the effects of this process on participants? How do they interpret their experience of participation in the research? My preliminary research with the ELEMENT project suggests that participation in ELEMENT may produce looping effects on the participants’ life circumstances and conditions.
  3. How can ethnographic and biological data be combined in accounts of bodily states? My preliminary research suggests some directions for this exploration. This project requires refashioning received categories, such as the concept of exposure and the nature/culture divide, and will draw on my ethnographic research, ELEMENT data, existing theoretical literature, and collaboration with ELEMENT scientists.

We have produced more than 7,000 fieldnotes on the participants’ life in Mexico. Each fieldnote is a detailed description of the conversations and ethnographic observations that the P.I (prof. Elizabeth Roberts) had with the study participants. By now we have already imported all the mentioned data into ATLAS. In January 2016 we started coding each fieldnote and organizing the list of codes– doing weekly housekeeping.

Figure 1. A coded transcript.

Figure 2. A coded transcript.

In September 2016 we are planning to teach a lab-class on coding, where undergraduate students will have the opportunity to get training on ATLAS.ti– as they help us code the material– and develop their own research in relation with MEXICAN  EXPOSURES. Students will be given chunks of these notes for coding, which later will be merged into the “mother” ATLAS project (since all students will be coding simultaneously, we decided to split it into chunks). Recently we gladly came to know about the new ‘merging’ option. This will help us distribute codes to students and then merge them together.

The codes will help us organize the data, find patterns, make connections. This will allow us to write scholarly articles and, finally, a book.

Thank you!               


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Written By

Ricardo Contreras

Ricardo Contreras