Embracing the I: science as emotional work

Often when someone asks about why I chose to become a researcher I recall a collection of only partially satirical stories about one of the most critical pieces of equipment common across the sciences. This piece of technology, modified thousands of times in a myriad of ways defines how science is conducted in both its presence and its absence. The device of course is the table.

Tables, desks, benches, shelves… these mundane devices define how we live, work and die. They work alongside another unrecognised piece of technology: ourselves. Our smelly, grumpy, sweaty selves that sit or stand at tables trying to solve, or more often discover, new problems.

Science reflects scientists

In my own work I look at how families use global space and the political, economic and physical borders that surround them to grow and develop. When I talk with these families, I often forget for a moment that I am there in the room, café, or park with them as my imagination fuelled by their vivid descriptions takes over. More often than not we are sharing our lives with each other with the help of a sturdy table supporting my tape recorder. I have to constantly check that my body is behaving itself, working in the gap between my thoughts and my expressions.

Research is emotional work. We are trained, intentionally or not, to present ourselves through our bodies and voices as scientists. This is one of the many strands of my research, the role of the researcher's body and individual history in the collecting and analysis of scientific data. How our bodies get between us, and the phenomenon we seek to study, our “embodiment.” We as smaller or larger groups do research and that research reflects our own backgrounds, tastes and life experiences.

We also devote a considerable amount of effort to hiding this. I argue we should see this as a forgotten strength instead of a flaw or limitation we have to hide. A species without enough genetic diversity soon dies out. The challenge is to find the balance between flaunting our diversity while maintaining our curiosity for others’ diversity. To see the table as both enabling and limiting.

Scientific attitude is challenged
The table makes us all scientists. It takes years of trial and error and requires developing theories and strategies for addressing others across the table. We collect information, arrange it into categories and analyse it. Toddlers are by far the most skilled scientists, addressing their parents with a constant battery of experiments as to what particular action makes an adult reach for the cookie jar.

There is an inevitable critic of my broad definition of science. If we are all scientists, why do we need elaborate institutions with fancy ‘spectrometers’ and small stashes of uranium? Science, I would remind them, is a cumulative project. By calling up different complex lexicons built over centuries of trial, error and repetition, my two-year-old daughter discovered she could more efficiently gain access to her treasured tin of Moomin cookies. She climbed on top of a linguistic “table.”

Moomin cookies are no longer the target of her scientific enquiry, she has moved onto more complex puzzles. However, she has maintained her scientific attitude to her emotions. With each new experiment, she shrugs off failure with the confidence brought by her tender age and supportive teachers. She is able to preserve her scientific attitude. It is this scientific attitude that ties her ecstatic actions to my research. The wider we spread our net, both geographically and across time the quicker we lose confidence in our attitude. The future always provokes anxiety in the historian since history provides a reliable supply of tragic examples of failure.

The I is multiple

However, it is here in failure that we can embrace the I. Our bodies, our I, remind us that we are not always the same person all the time. We get angry and we pretend we are not angry. We constantly undertake emotional work to make our outside selves different than our inside selves. We work to acknowledge the table as both enabling and limiting.

But we also fail, we forget the multiple ‘I’ we all possess and it becomes us versus them – facts versus fiction. Emotional work becomes emotional labour: we are alienated from the pleasure of admiring the table. Scientific labour, like all labour, can be alienating. We can cease to feel pleasure and satisfaction from our scientific work.  The tingling sensation of success in securing a cookie from a loved one can become a coerced smile of thanks for something we believe is rightfully ours.

In the course of my studies I have detected, completed and failed in many acts of emotional labour. I have been guilty of forgetting to embrace the I. Guilty of being alienated from my various roles and labouring overtime to hold others’ emotional worlds together. Therefore, when someone asks me how I separate my everyday life from my work, I think about the table and remind them who separating life from work benefits.


Last updated: 6.7.2017

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