My short foray into human geography and sociology and what I’ll bring back to natural sciences

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This week, I officially completed a graduate level course on geography and social theory. Having absolutely no background in geography or sociology, it was an interesting experience. What drew me to this module was that it combined spatial thinking with social thinking. With the disease research I’m hoping to do for my PhD, space is going to be a part of it through spatial analyses. As for the social theory part, I’m going to be focusing on diseases that also affect humans so it would be interesting to think about it in terms of both space and the social.

Sometimes I wonder if I am more suited to the social sciences, but then I remember that I cannot understand their dense writing for the life of me. I’m interested in learning about concepts and theories, but I can’t digest writing that is convoluted, especially the ones that even those who are part of that field have a hard time deciphering.

The readings for this course have really challenged me and made me stretch my thinking power. We covered topics and dense writing that I had never been exposed to before or knew existed. The major themes that we covered were space and place, agency and structure, theories of difference, theorizing the city, governmentality and biopower, and performativity and subjectivity.

These are some of the well known authors that we read:
Doreen Massey
David Harvey
Michel Foucault
Judith Butler

I handed in my research paper for this class a few days ago, and I’m feeling glad that I took the plunge to take a course that was so far out of my normal range. I’m not sure how much will stay with me as I go back to ecology and biology, but I think it was an interesting exercise in exploring other disciplines. In the past, I’ve taken courses like philosophy of science, urban anthropology, and philosophy and film. Sometimes it takes something so different to bring in new perspective. What I chose to write about was actor-network theory and virtual space (in the form of the Internet to be specific) and the role of ideas in those spaces and contexts. Maybe I’ll post some snippets of it here!

One of the topics that I wrote about for a reaction paper was academic dependency. I think this is a very interesting phenomenon, especially now that I’m interacting more with the academic realm. The last section on performativity and subjectivity made me really think about myself and my identity. You could certainly say that as a scientist, you are expected to “perform” your role as an expert. Performance not in the evaluative sense like what grades you get or where you publish, but performance as in you are the performer and you are performing for an audience. From the perspective of performativity, this would mean performance is what makes you you. This is not saying that everyone is fake. Not at all, your performance of yourself is what makes you real.

How does this apply to science?

I think to really think about this in terms of science, we have to consider who scientists are performing for. At risk of oversimplifying, they are performing for the granting agencies, the academic journals, the department committees, least of all the general public. We may say that we are doing it for the common good, but at the end of the day the common good isn’t what brings in the funding. The pressure to perform to expectations has put so much pressure on researchers, that some have resorted to faking data and misrepresenting results in publications. It is regrettable, but it happens.

I think this largely occurs because they have lost sight of who/what should be the goal audience for their work, the common good. If you are not framing your research in terms of how it can improve current knowledge or improve how things are in the status quo, then what is the point? Not just framing your research, but the greater good should be the driving force for why the research should and is being done. Lying about results does good for no one.

What do you think? Is this social theory a bit too distant conceptually to be applicable to science?

One of the authors that I wrote about before, Nicky Gregson, is now working on science in practice. Though she doesn’t go into much detail about this project, she conducted an ethnography of a university science lab. It will be interesting to see what comes out of it!

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  1. Ideas in virtual space through actor-network theory | science before breakfast says

    […] was an essay written for a course I took, continuing on the discussion of geography and […]