Life on the fringes: The early-career sociologist in the health care milieu
by Sara Wheeler
Part 1: The fieldwork
In the clinic I sit and wait
uselessly pondering the suffering around me.
I’m not here to heal or be healed
and I’m in everyone’s way.
The study explained, it’s time for me
to simply fade into the background
as much as possible,
which isn’t difficult
because I am unremarkable.
On my precariously placed chair
I frantically read patient notes
desperate not to hold them for too long
lest I should slow down any essential proceedings.
Before me doctors walk and sit
imparting detailed case-notes into dictaphones
with breathtaking speed
complete with directions for punctuation
and all from scenarios just experienced.
It’s awe inspiring
and more than a little humbling
as they simultaneously juggle
administration with counselling
of patients whose lives they are saving.
I’m a curiosity during lulls
recruiting in clinic, interviewing, allocating
then back again to find some more.
A life like that – can I contemplate?
How can I articulate?
I already do this for a living and
am studying higher to get paid better.
But this is not the question they’re really asking
I imagine they are actually wondering:
How can such a person stand
such an unfulfilling and unimportant life?
And can one really make a living like that?
Who would employ such a person, to do such a thing?
I try to piece together a suitable explanation
but am soon forgotten in a swirl of clinic matters
and in any case, I am unconvinced,
by my own justification.
“See you next week, same time, same place
when hopefully we’ll have some patients for you.”
So out I traipse, into the other real world where
my nothing status is less pronounced
and I can fade further into the background
without so many apologies.
On the journey home I am reluctantly reflective
unsettled by a sinking feeling of unworthiness.
It must be marvellous, to be a healer
a legitimate and cherished person
of standing and gift-giving.
And yet, perhaps the tapestry needs a fringe
to give those centre stage
some distance from the edge.
Part 2: Immediately post-fieldwork
The last verse is slightly disingenuous; the place where I did this woeful navel-gazing was actually in a Lebanese restaurant, around the corner from the hospital where the events described took place. I’d hobbled out of the clinic in my supposed-to-be-comfortable new ‘kitten heels’, which had actually torn my feet to ribbons on the much-further-than-it-looked-on-the-map hike from the train station to the hospital.
Passing the restaurant, with its friendly, colourful sign, my heart had lightened slightly – some nice food was what I needed, to lift my spirits, and after all, I was a decent sort of a person really, trying my best, in my own little way, to make a difference to others, whilst making something of myself at the same time. Yes, I deserved a little treat.
Inside there was a lovely calm atmosphere and I settled myself at a table, ordered some food and took out some paper. I started jotting down words, feelings, sentences; there’s no writer’s block when I’m in this emotional state – happy, sad, angry, whatever, they all gift a rush of creativity. It was as if the poem was tapping me on the shoulder and insisting on being written (Hooson 1971, P. 7). The Heartsink feeling subsided, allowing me the confidence to write.
I ate my food, which was delicious, and then sat with my paper and pen, playing with the words on the page; in my full-bellied, dream-like state, I fancied myself as a poet and author, who someday would spread comfort and happiness through the genius of my poems and prose. Life was a rich tapestry after all – and I was happy to be the fringe.
Then something made me look up and I noticed two of the restaurant staff looking over at me in a manner which implied curiosity; one of them approached me:
Had I just come from the hospital? That shook me from my daydreaming – but not quite enough for me to be articulate, or fathom what was going on. I said yes, and murmured something incomprehensible. But that was enough, it seemed; the waiter beamed, turned and nodded to his colleague, who disappeared into the kitchen. He re-emerged with a plate of baklava.
I was astonished and confused – I hadn’t ordered any baklava…though I had to admit that it looked delicious. No, no, this was ‘on the house’ it seemed. The manager had also been at the hospital earlier, accompanying a relative. The hospital had been great and he was delighted to have me eating here in his restaurant. I snapped back into focus.
I tried to explain that I didn’t actually work at the hospital, I was just doing some research there, but that only seemed to strengthen his esteem – health research was very important work indeed, and then they were all smiling and nodding meaningfully to each other – definitely free baklava for her! And before I could protest any further, they were gone – back to the business of running a fabulous restaurant.
And so they left me to enjoy my baklava, feeling like a charlatan and a parasite. Here I was, on suspension of studies, juggling short-term contracts and going nowhere fast; I could barely afford the food I’d just eaten and my future was looking horribly uncertain. And they’d mistaken me for someone important and given me free baklava – I didn’t deserve it, but under the circumstances it was better to accept it than risk causing offence…and after all, it was rather good.
Part 3: Reflections
I finished the poem and sent it to a poetry competition, where it sank without trace. I sent it around a few literary magazines, from which it was promptly rejected – probably because its subject matter – the career woes of a fledgling academic – was a bit niche, to say the least. It joined the metaphorical pile of rejected poems I had on my computer. But this lack of success didn’t seem to dampen my resolve; I loved creative writing and found it therapeutic – being a writer was my original, childhood ambition, and I’d come back to it as a source of comfort during my spell of early-career uncertainty. Unfortunately I hadn’t yet discovered Creative Analytical Practice (CAP) ethnographies (Richardson and Adams St.Pierre, 2005, p. 962-965), or the associated inter-disciplinary genres, so I had no idea that these kinds of outputs could be incorporated into my academic career.
Reflecting on this memory, and writing about it for this ‘Literary Experiments in Ethnography summer series’, I can see that I was being too hard on myself and I should have had more faith. I completed my thesis, graduated, and successfully, though precariously, remained employed in the academic milieu (Wheeler, 2014). I have begun to publish in various forums, including peer-reviewed journals, and I am now working towards becoming an Associate Fellow of the HEA, for which I have enjoyed teaching students and gathering feedback for my assignments. So following a long bout of uncertainty, there are positive signs of a tangible, sustainable career beginning to unfold before me; and perhaps I am beginning to write the kinds of things which will be helpful and interesting, to all kinds of people, including myself.
Hooson ID (1971) Y Gwin a cherddi eraill. Gwasg Gee.
Richardson L and Adams St.Pierre E (2005) Writing: A method of inquiry. Third. In: The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, London: Sage Publications, pp. 959–978.
Wheeler SL (2014) Constructing a Sociological career: An eternally complex autobiographical practice. The Sociological imagination.
Dr. Sara Louise Wheeler is a Research Associate at Bangor University; she is working on a project within the WISERD Civil Society Research Centre.