Knowing Menstruation Beyond PubMed

Several years ago, when I first started interacting with scientists, I went to a symposium featuring presentations of graduate and medical students’ research projects. One project undertaken by a medical student examined some aspect of menorrhagia, or excessive menstrual flow. His study required that participants measure their daily menstrual flow by noting the number of pads they used and by comparing the amount of blood soil on the surface area of the pads with a pictorial chart of standardized measures. This apparently is an established means to measure flow. However, it tends to be inaccurate, and he was encouraged by an audience member to have participants weigh the pads for better accuracy. The alternative was discussed, but it was remarked that it is not very practical for women, and thus the consensus seemed to be that using the surface area chart was the best approach.

Having at that point not spent much time with scientists, I did not want to go out on a limb in front of the audience with my comment, so I approached the student during the lunch break. Surprised by this seemingly crude means of measuring flow, I asked him why he did not employ menstrual cups, like the Diva Cup or a similar product, which could provide an easy and accurate means of liquid measure, particularly as the cups feature ounce indications on the side.

He had never heard of menstrual cups.

I was taken aback by this – that a researcher could undertake an entire project without having done what I consider to be basic research into the topic at hand. A simple google search, maybe a little outside the scope of PubMed, will reveal a wealth of information on how people who menstruate experience menstrual blood throughout their lives and the various means by which they manage their menstruation. While I couldn’t find studies on the prevalence of the use of menstrual cups, I do not believe this is a marginal means of managing flow, as Diva Cups can be commonly purchased in many drugstores and online, and are discussed in news media and online as means of managing flow that some women prefer.

I believe it is this medical student’s ethical and intellectual responsibility to inform himself of basic information regarding women’s practices and experiences of menstruation. I also believe it is his responsibility as a scientist to be aware of this possible method of measurement for his study, which has been used by other scientists to collect menstrual blood and may very well be superior to his initial method. Due care and attention not only to the “research subjects” but to the everyday lives of people may have vastly improved the quality of his measurements and therefore his research results. There may have been other benefits, such as sharing with participants an alternative to manage their menstrual flow, and providing this alternative without cost (indeed, Diva Cups are rather expensive). As menstrual cups are reusable, there may have even been an eco-ethical outcome for the research, should participants have liked the product and wanted to continue using it (this study assess women’s satisfaction with the Diva Cup and discusses the potential environmental benefits from reduced pad and tampon wastes). That being said, menstrual cups may not be suitable for every person who menstruates or every research study. My point is that this scientist should have known what a menstrual cup is.

This experience has bugged me for a while.

So You’ve Been Recruited: Why Would a Sociologist Ask a Scientist to Participate in a Study?

Having more or less completed the data collection for my PhD research, I have started to reflect on the reaction and reception I received from scientists and physicians when I asked them to participate in my study. Much to my surprise and utter gratitude, almost all the people I approached were happy to help me. I think part of this comes from their appreciation for research in general, their shared experiences with the frustrations of recruitment, and their knowledge of and concern for social issues. So, instead of facing the typical and often major problems associated with recruitment, I now face what I think is a much more difficult obstacle that weighs quite heavily on me: how will I ever pay back the generosity, kindness and contribution of these scientists? I do not know if it is possible that I could balance out this debt. I hope that having a unique opportunity to share their experiences and ideas with me was personally fulfilling and interesting for them. I hope that my dissertation can make a contribution to scientific and social scientific knowledge that in some way resonates with changes they would like to see in science or in society. I hope my study will raise the profile of the scientists with whom I have worked. And I hope I exposed them, even if just a little bit, to sociological ways of thinking that they find valuable.

Yet despite not having faced significant problems with recruitment, I still feel that many scientists I talked with were not at first sure of why I would want to talk to them or what contribution they could possibly make to a sociological study. I often heard the following:

– I’m not the best person to talk to.

– This part is really boring and there is nothing to see.

– I’m not really an expert in social issues.

– I just do lab work so I’m not sure that is relevant for you.

– I’m just starting out my career so I don’t have much to say.

I can completely understand where these concerns come from. Indeed, as much as their world was a mystery to me at first, mine must be quite removed from their experiences. Some even told me they had never spoken with a sociologist before. However, the kind of thinking reflected in the statements above actually reflects the exact opposite of what many sociologists believe about people. A foundational assumption in much of sociology is that all people are experts in their lives and experiences. This is an expertise that is a consequence of just being in this world, and it is this expertise that sociologists want to explore. While I can’t speak for all sociologists who study science, each of whom would have a different focus, motivation, and methodology behind their studies, the following are points that might be helpful for scientists who are asked to participate in sociological studies:

  1. All people are experts in their lives and experiences. You do not need to prepare anything for your interaction with a sociologist. You come pre-equipped with all the ideas, opinions, and experiences required.
  2. In particular, what is mundane and “everyday” for you is fascinating for a sociologist.
  3. Sociologists are not journalists. They are not looking for “sound bites” or “lay explanations”; rather, they are looking to understand your ideas, opinions, and experiences.
  4. You do not have to answer any questions you find objectionable, and you can always withdraw from the study without providing a reason. Sociologists are trained to be mindful and protective of your anonymity and privacy.
  5. In sum, your opinions, ideas, and experiences are not inconsequential or unimportant; they are integral to empirical sociology.

I value the contribution of the participants in my study greatly. To everyone that has helped me with my study in even a small way, THANK YOU.

Transdisciplinary Research Methodologies: Canadian Sociological Association Annual Conference Session

My session proposal for next year’s Canadian Sociological Association Annual Conference during Congress (held next May  28th to June 4th in Fredericton) was recently accepted by the organizing committee. I’m looking for papers that discuss some aspect of “Transdisciplinary Research Methodologies.” Here is the description for the session:

Defined as a research practice in which ‘boundaries between and beyond disciplines are transcended and knowledge and perspectives from different scientific disciplines as well as nonscientific sources are integrated’ (Flinterman et al, 2001), transdisciplinarity has gained currency in academia and public discourse as part of a growing recognition that responses to wide-ranging problems must be multi-pronged, multidimensional, and draw on many forms of data and analytic resources. Sociologists have much to contribute to such projects. Yet sociologists working collaboratively across disciplines face many challenges, one set of which pertains to methodology. This panel addresses methodological challenges faced by transdisciplinary researchers. In particular, paper will focus on novels approaches to research that overcome these challenges.


We’ve scheduled two panels for the theme. Here are the papers:

May 31 – 1:30-3:00pm

Jacqueline Low, University of New Brunswick
Recruiting Seniors And Social Workers: Implications For Research Designs Across Disciplines

Will C. van den Hoonaard, University of New Brunswick
The Colonization Of Social Research By Bio- Medical Paradigms

Peter Duinker, Dalhousie University
Interdisciplinarity, Transdisciplinarity, Antidisciplinarity: What To Choose For Resource And Environmental Studies?

June 2 – 8:45-10:15am

Jenny Godley, University of Calgary
Using Social Network Analysis To Assess Collaboration In Obesity Research: Evidence From A Canadian University

Cathy Holtmann, University of New Brunswick; Steve McMullin, University of New Brunswick; Nancy Nason-Clark, University of New Brunswick
Interweaving Research On Abuse In Families Of Faith And Social Action: The RAVE {Religion And Violence E-Learning} Project

Rebecca Scott, Queen’s University
The Barker Hypothesis and Transdisciplinarity: The Case of Obesity