Researchers should be free from constraints that prevent them from the pursuit of scientific truth – this is an idea that universities all over the world like to pride themselves on. However, even the purest, most basic research is subject to pressures that are never exclusively scientific. Researchers are subject to a number of social constraints as they compete for resources, pursue careers and network with others.
In a nutshell, research is a social practice, and academics often struggle with how they are categorised by others.
In my own career, I am often reminded of the social aspects of research when I interact with other researchers: I find it painful to be defined by a limited set of academic career parameters. I’m a sociologist who earned a PhD in France, was supervised by a linguist, and worked in German sociology departments for more than 10 years before being appointed in a linguistics department based in the UK. Therefore, whenever someone asks about my background, I never know exactly what to say.
I have tried to make up labels, such as “a social scientist from Europe working on language”, or “a British-French-German sociologist-linguist”, or “a hybrid multidisciplinary something”. Dealing with these categories can be stressful because it is difficult to appear credible if you are not seen as a member of a specific community.
So, what did I do? I did what researchers usually do when they come across a problem. I wrote a research proposal, asked for money and was lucky enough to obtain funding from the European Research Council.
With my research team, which is based at the University of Warwick (in the UK) and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS, in France), we now examine how researchers are socially positioned through academic categories in the social sciences and humanities. Depending on the social context, some academic categories (such as a unique profile or recognised experience in teaching and management) can be very important for researchers pursuing academic careers.
Often, academic categories are established spontaneously as researchers talk or write about one another. Other times, they are attributed in formal exams or procedures (such as certificates, titles and jobs). While some categories are specific to a person, such as expertise in a certain area or one’s position in social circles, other categories are applied to many researchers (such as institutional status: “associate professor”; or disciplinary field: “historian”). Academic categories are usually consolidated through publications and conference presentations.
Different categorisations are at work in various national contexts. Perhaps institutional differences between systems can explain why researchers sometimes value different types of knowledge.
A case in point is the phenomenon of “French Theory”, a body of theoretical texts of well-known French intellectuals such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes, who have observed considerable interest among US humanities scholars since the 1970s. In France, many of these intellectuals, holding positions on the margins of French universities, addressed a broader intellectual public inside and outside academia.
However, in the US, their theories were more well received by academic specialists, in which humanities departments at Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley played an important role. There are many other factors that can account for such a difference: the networks in which researchers are placed inside and outside academia; the book publishing system; and the role of mass media and politics.
The ways of attributing academic categories in decision-making practices (such as recruitment and promotions, for example) may explain some of these differences between academic cultures. For instance, when the deans of US departments decide to recruit or promote faculty and staff, they assess the value the applicants have in the disciplinary markets, which is why it is important to claim clear disciplinary labels in the US.
In France, by contrast, departments are somewhat less important for recruitment purposes. Academic researchers are more likely to be co-opted by networks that are organised across institutions. This may explain why, in comparison with their North American peers, social scientists and humanists in France, and possibly in other European countries, tend to privilege intellectual breadth over professional specialisation.
There is no such thing as a perfectly free researcher, as researchers are always involved in power struggles over how they are categorised by others. While every researcher is subject to social dynamics, not everybody has the same chance of participating and succeeding in the game of academic categorisations.
If this game keeps us from pursuing certain ideas, the opposite can be true as well: sometimes the need for meaningful social categories drives us to go into incredible lengths as researchers, to explore new areas.
As a leader of a British-French research team, I am still somebody who is difficult to pigeonhole. I am viewed as a linguist in the UK, as a sociologist in Germany, and as a mixture of both in France. Yet since I now can claim that I am a discourse analyst conducting research on academic researchers, my interlocutors no longer seem to stumble over my categories. After all, to get a conversation going, you need to know who you are dealing with, especially if you want to talk about ideas that you really care about.
Johannes Angermuller is professor of discourse and principal investigator of the ERC DISCONEX team at the University of Warwick/École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.