Over at Mictlantecuhtli | Writing in Memory of Paulo Freire, Profacero has a very interesting post on the nature of our research and professions, and on those epiphanic moments when lightbulbs popped, and we knew this was what we’d want to do for the rest of our lives.
Of course, as she points out, the consequence of such epiphanies are shaped by our social contexts, and the norms and expectations governing our interests:
everywhere but in the United States, where speaking foreign languages leads to the study of literature, people take me for a qualitative social scientist.
Which neatly sums up the brief history of my own research.
When I was in middle school, I wrote an article about the riots and communal tension rife in my country. There was a lot of disillusionment, anger and bitter disappointment in that article, unleashed by the realisation that India, as I had been taught to imagine it, was a glossy, fragile myth. The land of my birth was too diverse, and too deeply mired in contesting histories and different ideological desires to be a nation, the way our Civics textbook defined ‘nation’.
At college, I wrote a paper on the structure of multicultural (and multispecies, naturally) fantasy worlds. It studied centres of commerce in a specific series, looking at the interactive behaviour of competing institutions from competing cultures, each with different motivations for complementary actions and widely disparate ideas of a desirable final goal. It went into identity, its construction, its varieties, and its role as an economic motivator. I couldn’t bring myself to stop — this was so incredibly real! It was the life I lived everyday, the life no one seemed willing to examine as a comprehensive whole, only as isolated bits and pieces.Why were people so stoopid?
In short, I was the quintessential undergrad — just-enough-read to set the brain fizzing, brimming with perfectly obvious ‘discoveries’, contemptuous of the world’s apparent blindness, and awed by my own brilliance.
Finally, knee-deep in secondary texts and nowhere in sight of an ending, I realised I had overshot the suggested upper-limit by twenty double-spaced pages. Immediate and ruthless editing followed.
Years later, on a different continent, I was told this episode was indexical of an unhealthy obsession with unsocial pursuits — to wit, reading science fiction and fantasy — but as someone whose unedited undergrad term paper got her into the sole doctoral programme she applied to, I was able to magnanimously rise above the implications of this genre-prejudice.
It was moving continents, however, that brought home the realisation that while I have a clearly-defined area of research, I don’t exactly have a discipline, especially not by the traditional standards of my blessed motherland. All my work always orients itself to political economy and institutional behaviour, sometimes against my express efforts. The qualitative/theoretical bits of the political economy part were well-served by my undergraduate department, the absolutely brilliant JUDE (which merits a post in itself). The other half, I tried to make up for by reading through undergraduate Economics and Sociology syllabi on my own.
On the one hand, my transcripts bear the bruises of my divided attention. On the other, I learnt a great deal more than I had ever expected out of any one honours degree.
This interdisciplinary variety in my initial years, however, is probably why I have shuttled between departments — brilliant and mediocre, flexible and rigid — since, and never been quite satisfied anywhere. It’s also why I have decided to take a break from completing my PhD, and focused my research in hands-on development practices (even if it is self-conscious ‘development’ with a capital ‘D’).
Despite its own institutional rigidities, Development is more accommodative of the syncretism I’ve been trained by my social context to practise. At Pratichi, I can connect cultural, gendered, religious, economic, linguistic and production patterns to health, nutrition, education or growth, and no one feels compelled to tell me my research would be ‘better’ if I eliminated the ‘unquantifiable’ and therefore unnecessary variables, or conversely, the ‘dead numbers’ and ‘cold science’.
This is not to say I’ve given up on academia. Quite the reverse. Universities and a doctoral programme are where I’d prefer to be. But that grail, I fear, will require considerable detective work and matching of research algorithms to find. And right now, I’m busy — as the lesser ivory-tower members might say — getting my hands dirty.