When you read what academics write, you are immediately struck by their immense confidence and certainty. Here’s what we’ve shown; here’s what we know to be true; here’s this theory that solves all our problems. This confidence and certainly is to a considerable extent an illusion, a by-product of the biasing process of getting papers into journals, pitching books to publishers, doing what you need to do to get ahead in your career. The usual landscape of the academic is one of doubt, uncertainty, dissatisfaction, changes of heart, and random stumbling around. This is actually a good thing: it’s what makes science different from other kinds of belief systems. Consumers of academic literature–whether students, lay people or colleagues–don’t see the true depth of the doubt and uncertainty though, and this is a bad thing. It gives them quite a misleading impression of what the processes of science really are, and what the academic life really feels like. The first goal of Hanging On To The Edges is to find a way of writing more openly about what we know and what we don’t know in the study of human nature and human life.
A major theme of Hanging On To The Edges is inter-disciplinarity. Specifically, I have spent 20 years (20 years!) trying to make a career as both a biologist and a social scientist. A lot of the essays are about how the biological and the social do, or do not, fit together. This attempt at spanning raises both scientific and personal issues. Scientific issues: Many scientists, quite sensibly, make no real attempt at inter-disciplinarity. Implicitly, it seems, they believe that inter-disciplinarity is too hard to be useful. Advocates of inter-disciplinarity, on the other hand, make forceful cases for it, but they do so largely from their armchairs. The problem with them is that they make it sound too easy. All you need to do is x, and disciplinary boundaries will melt away. Somewhere between these extremes is a middle ground: good inter-disciplinarity is very valuable but very hard and hence rare; you have to respect the concerns of both sources; you have to command the granular detail; people often misapprehend what you are trying to do; and inter-disciplinary synthesis sometimes comes, if it comes at all, in surprising ways. You end up, not bestriding the chasm between disciplines like a colussus, but as a little guy hanging desperately on to both edges.
Personal issues: How do you make a career as an inter-disciplinarist? Who employs you? What do you call yourself? Where do ideas come from? How do you decide what to do next? How do you know if it is working? How do you deal with the periods of depression and aimlessness? But of course these issues are not unique to interdisciplinary researchers: they affect us all. There is no How-To guide for being an academic, or indeed for being a person. Emulating successful models does not help, since you tend to have biased information on their true processes. Anyway, the point is to be the person you need to be, not ape someone else’s attempt to be the person they need to be.
So these are the themes of Hanging On To The Edges. There is also going to be a fair bit of discussion of poverty and deprivation, since that is what I currently do research on. I am aiming for a style that is informal and readable first, and maybe a bit scholarly second. The idea is that each essay should be readable at one sitting, and can be read in isolation as well as part of the series. And hopefully there might be some funny bits.
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