Thursday, May 23, 2013

Life at the Periphery

I've been feeling a bit "existential" about what I do lately. My consulting and coaching activities engage with the work practices and life habits that constitute the social and practical "conditions of possibility" of modern research. My scholarship, meanwhile, operates "beneath method". I'm interested in the processes and practices that ensure the quality of our scholarship, i.e., the integrity of reading and writing practices. What is it that makes our writing "knowledgeable". In an important sense I'm always working at the boundary between "being" and "not being" a scholar.

Two papers that I published last year and a recent essay I wrote with Andrew Gelman might make it clear what I mean.

In "The Supplementary Clerk", my contribution to the 25th anniversary issue of Social Epistemology, I describe myself as a "practicing social epistemologist", comparing myself to Kierkegaard's pseudonymous Johannes de Silentio and Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener. The latter, famously, "would prefer not to" do his job as copyist and the former emphatically declares that he is "not a philosopher". In much more radical senses than might apply to me, they have withdrawn to the outer edge of their professions, just barely practicing them if you will, but perhaps exactly thereby identifying its essential being. Their attitude reminds me of Socrates, who claimed only to know that he didn't know.

In "Legitimate Peripheral Irritations", published in the Journal of Organizational Change Management, I describe my attempt at a critical engagement with the area of organization theory that studies "sensemaking". Here, again, I construe my position as a "socratic" one, but this time in the sense of a "gadfly" that raises important but perhaps irritating questions. As I've discovered, while I would like to think that my work is in some sense "foundational", it is clearly not central to the relevant field of inquiry. I think, however, that we are increasingly in need of practical criticism in the social sciences in order to ensure that errors are discovered and corrected.

This leads to a third sense in which one can be on the outer edge of scholarship: science journalism. Andrew Gelman recently invited me to co-author an essay for The American Scientist about plagiarism. In "To Throw Away Data", we argue that plagiarism is wrong, not just because it passes off work that isn't yours as though it is, but because it disconnects your conclusions from the data that you are drawing it from. Research ethics are part of the epistemological foundations of scholarship in this sense.

At some level, what we know depends on who we are. Science is a social activity.

No comments: