Boundary, Scale, Object (Reading Groups)

The object of this blog entry is science and the humanities.  Approaching this object in such a broadly bounded way, such that I do not treat science/humanities as mutually exclusive separate entities, immediately defines the scale of my undertaking which is much too large to do justice in the space of 1000 words.

I am writing in response to Julian’s thought provoking piece on interdisciplinary work: http://blogs.mcgill.ca/gradlife/2010/10/19/interdisciplinary-work/

Our exchange revolves around a weekly lab discussion.  Each week our reading group, consisting of anthropologists, geographers and archaeologists, discusses a new topic led by a different person from the lab each week.  Last week we discussed complexity.

The discussion very quickly exploded into a messy philosophical investigation of the universe, of life and of human society; how these vast entities evolve, separately or together; and of which is more complex (the earth or a cell; a lifeless universe or the earth; bacteria or a human being; etc.)

I don’t mind mess as long as there is some kind of method behind the mess (see for instance Law, 2004, After Method: Mess in Social Science Research, Routledge: London and New York).

The point of all this is that I don’t think it does complexity any justice to see it as inherently messy.  To see complexity as inherently messy would be to conflate complexity with complicatedness.

This is why, regardless of the phenomenon one is exploring, it is crucial to define three things.   Boundary, scale and object are three tools geographers (whether on the social or the physical side of geography) use to do rigorous and methodologically robust research.   Furthermore, these three categories are not mutually exclusive.

For instance, you can study deserts from the perspective of the sand particle or from the perspective of the sand dune.  Both are complex, but in very different mathematical and qualitative ways.  The same could be said of snow storms, studied at either the snowflake or the snow ‘dune’ level.  In either case the researcher is studying whole objects (particles or dunes) at clearly defined spatial and temporal scales that are nested hierarchically (see Sand, 2010, Sand: The Never-Ending Story, University of California Press). (The tricky part is to explain how the two scales link up and interact)

There is a trap here, namely, that the closer one looks the more detail emerges.  Mandelbrot talked about this with regard to shorelines.  How long is a shoreline?  It depends on the scale at which you examine and measure that shoreline.  (For a discussion of this see Jacob, 2006, The Sovereign Map, Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Speaking very generally, in the humanities we sometimes shy away from overtly hierarchical nesting  of scales, from positive, a priori demarcations of boundaries that strictly define our objects of discourse.  We often speak of overlapping phenomena with permeable boundaries and variable scales of interaction.

But these tools are just as important in the humanities (or human geography).  And we can fall into the same traps: we can get too involved in the details of the workings of everyday life in society in our attempts to capture the postmodern essence of daily existence (not that I’ve ever done this!)  We can evoke the power of discourse to define the relational (and unbounded) nature of human interaction.

Binaries are powerful devices the ‘hard’ sciences use to test hypotheses, to winnow knowledge down to positively defined and irrefutable kernels.   But that is just one way of doing science.  A strength of human geographical inquiry is its emphasis on challenging binaries (or more properly, dichotomies) as applied to society and to individuals.  You must be either this or that (straight or gay for instance).

We argue that it is a legacy of positivism in the human sciences that is largely responsible for such misguided adventures as maintaining strict gender categories (or assigning an unambiguous sex to ambiguously sexed babies); of categorizing as ‘abnormal’ individuals who do not sit at the top of some bell curve in terms of their physical and mental traits.  (For a discussion of this with regard to race see Gould, 1981,  The Mismeasure of Man, New York: Norton).

The moral of my story here is: if you are going to make a mess, at least do it in a responsible way.  More important than that: attend lab meetings and reading groups, and if you don’t know of any, start your own!  Reading groups are another favourite aspect of my doctoral work here at McGill.  I have been involved in a few, and I always welcome the opportunity to test my most cherished pet theories to the point where I can either continue to accept them, or accept the fact that I need to let go, to listen, and to move on.

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