Mapping the Air-Bridge Locations: The Application of Ethnographic Mapping Techniques to a Study of HIV Risk Behavior Determinant in East Harlem, New York, and Bayamon, Puerto Rico

By Oliver-Velez, Denise; Finlinson, H. Ann et al. | Human Organization, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Mapping the Air-Bridge Locations: The Application of Ethnographic Mapping Techniques to a Study of HIV Risk Behavior Determinant in East Harlem, New York, and Bayamon, Puerto Rico


Oliver-Velez, Denise, Finlinson, H. Ann, Deren, Sherry, Robles, Rafaela R., et al., Human Organization


Ethnographic mapping plays an important role in learning more about the geographic location and temporal movement of hidden populations; it also aids in the exploration of drug use patterns and the social infrastructure of drug users. This paper presents a narrative account of the development and implementation of a mapping process for the ARIBBA project, a dual-site study of the HIV risk behaviors of Puerto Rican drug injectors and crack smokers. The overall goals of the project are to understand the differences in influences on HIV-related risk behaviors. Mapping provided the environmental context for data analysis and led to new insights on both the differences and the similarities between field locations and target populations. Mapping substantively enhanced the ability to make meaningful comparisons in the analysis of both qualitative and quantitative data.

Key words: ethnographic methods, Puerto Ricans, drug abuse, HIV/AIDS, New York, Puerto Rico

This paper recounts the development and implementation of an ethnographic mapping strategy for the ARIBBA project (Alliance for Research in El Barrio and Bayamon), a dual-site study of HIV-related risk behaviors of Puerto Rican drug injectors and crack smokers (Deren 1995). It focuses on Puerto Rican drug users in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, and East Harlem, New York, including "Nuyoricans" (those born or raised in New York) and those who have moved more recently to the mainland. The high HIV seroprevalence among Puerto Rican drug users (Colon et al. 1993) and differences in risk behaviors between those living in New York and on the island (Colon, Robles, and Marrero 1994; Robles et al. 1993) led to this study. The overall goal is to understand the differences in influences on risk behaviors.

The qualitative component of the study consisted of mapping, observations, focus groups, and in-depth interviews with drug users and key informants. A structured interview in a later phase of the project was informed by the qualitative component regarding recruitment locations as well as content areas.

As a direct result of the AIDS epidemic among drug users, many studies have been published on researching "hidden populations." Some specifically target injection drug users (IDUs) and other high-risk behavior groups and delineate methods of developing targeted sampling techniques to access these populations for research (Carlson et al. 1994; Watters and Biernacki 1989; Wiebel 1990). Others outline the importance of applying ethnography and participant observation to epidemiological and drug research (Adler 1990; Agar 1994; Sotheran and Clatts 1996). One of these methods, ethnographic mapping, plays an important role in learning more about the geographic location and temporal movement of populations at high risk for contracting or spreading HIV (Clatts, Davis, and Attilasoy 1995). It also aids in the exploration of drug use patterns and the social infrastructure of users (Sterk-Elifson 1995). Bluthenthal and Watters (1995) point to mapping as a tool to help investigators understand the social organization of behaviors of drug users.

Before we could develop a survey instrument, or even structure our focus groups and field observations, we needed to identify just what it was that we were going to examine. Both teams of researchers in each location have had a long history of drug and AIDS research in their respective communities. How then to go about studying risk behaviors in two locations thousands of miles apart, when the only common denominator is a national or ethnic identity of "Puerto Rican" and the use of drugs? Agar (1986:12) has stated that "For some social research styles, especially those that emphasize the scientific testing role, [hypotheses, sample sizes, and pre-testing of instruments] ... make sense. But for other styles-when the social researcher assumes a learning role-- the questions don't work.. hypotheses, measurement, samples, and instruments are the wrong guidelines. …

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