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April 21, 2005

Social and anti-social

Over the past week, I have attended a workshop in my field. The workshop is relatively small, although the number of people registered is over 100. What's interesting is the degree to which the social structure of the workshop resembles high school. At the core, you have the popular kids, who have known and worked with each other for years. Their primary interest is in seeing their friends and talking about possible new collaborations. Surrounding this inner-circle is a set of groupies, who know the popular kids, but don't quite have the common history to be considered part of it. Surrounding that group is a possibly larger one of people who are just beginning their social climb in this hierarchy. These are often graduate students, or people who are just moving in to the field.

In retrospect, this kind of hierarchy seems entirely natural, especially when you consider that smart/good people have limited time and likely want to work with other known smart/good people than spend the time cultivating new contacts of unknown quality. The trouble, of course, is that the casual preference for old friendships will tend to lead to perceived exclusivity. That is, if no effort is made to keep the social circles open, they will naturally close.

For a while now, I've been mulling over the assumptions and stereotypes of academia/research being either a social or anti-social endeavor. Some recent thoughts: While certainly there are parts of research that are extremely collaboratory, there's a great deal of it where you sit alone, thinking about something that few other people in the world are interested in. The peer-review process is, on the surface, fairly objective, yet the common single-blindedness of the review process makes it easy for reputation to substitute for quality. The job-search venue appears to be at least as much about who you know as about how good your work is - letters of introduction and reference from known people are often enough (or a requirement) to get a job in a specific field. This part would seem to make it harder for interdisciplinary people to get jobs in more traditional departments; something I'm slightly nervous about. And then, the conference world is largely run by pure social dynamics, with all the trappings of high school mixers, albeit obfuscated, unacknowledged or perhaps slightly ameliorated.

This is, of course, not to say that anyone is going to get a "swirly", or have their lunch money taken away from them. Academics are much too polite for that. But in the ultra-rational world of academia, there are certainly equivalents. I can't imagine that the business world is any better, and indeed, may be significantly worse. Perhaps this is just how human organizations operate: selfishly, irrationally and in a largely ad hoc manner...

posted April 21, 2005 12:34 PM in Simply Academic | permalink


"Perhaps this is just how human organizations operate: selfishly, irrationally and in a largely ad hoc manner..."

Interesting that you and Cosma, whose links sent me here, should both talk about this idea just as I am finally, after 14 years (counting postgrad studies) of biomed research, coming to terms with it. As Cosma puts it, "most of what all academics do in all areas of research is at best uninteresting and derivative". That this is true, and that I am no exception, came rather hard to me, but I think that it leads not to academic nihilism but rather away from it. If I can keep my output from being worse than uninteresting and derivative, I am at least keeping up with my peers, no? And free of the self-generated pressure (though not the desire) to do better, perhaps I can see more clearly to pick out interesting problems and solve them. Sturgeon's Law will free you, if you let it!

Posted by: sennoma at May 22, 2005 05:39 PM