Friday, 22 July 2011

A DREaM of consilience

It’s been said that intelligence is the ability to make connections: to see why one event leads to another; to see how ideas link to others; to understand the impact one’s actions have on the world and other people. Academic research is all about making connections whether in the form of combining ideas in Hegelian dialectic or discovering the correlations between discrete bits of data. On Tuesday, I attended the LIS DREaM Project (Developing Research Excellence and Methods) Launch Conference in London and discovered one of its key themes to be the idea of connections: connections between people in the form of academic collaboration and connections between subjects in the form of cross-disciplinary research and consilience.

Connections between people

Bringing people together
Connecting people and creating networks was the main purpose of the event. In her introduction, Hazel Hall explained that the DREaM Project’s aim is to build a formal UK-wide network of LIS researchers working together to improve LIS research. She used the word ‘cadre’ to describe this network of committed individuals (“professional revolutionaries”) and explained how DREaM and the LIS Research Coalition would bring this cadre together through events and online networks.

These intra-discipline connections are important but the real emphasis of the conference was on making connections outside of one’s comfort zone. In his brilliant keynote speech, Blaise Cronin defined the comfort zone of LIS research by presenting an overview of the current state of the field. One concern is the danger of ‘cookie-cutter research’: doing research for the sake of doing research. This results in unoriginal and redundant studies particularly in the United States where a condition of an academic librarian’s tenure is churning out a certain amount of research. Academic research can also be further hampered by the tendency to work exclusively with people that one is familiar with. This may seem oxymoronic (‘how could you work with someone who you aren’t familiar with?’) but Blaise framed it in terms of the Allen curve: the phenomenon whereby one is more likely to work with people to whom one is in close proximity which shows that ideological similarities, shared research interests, or intellectual compatibility are less important to likelihood of collaboration than sitting in the same office.

Collaborating with people across disciplinary boundaries is one way to escape the comfort zone as well as the ‘echo chamber’ of LIS research. A theme of the breakout sessions was building connections through cross-disciplinary collaboration. One session gave the benefits of cross-disciplinary collaboration – new ideas, wider dissemination, new outputs, the building of trust – while Gunilla Widén’s discussed the importance of bridging the gap between theoreticians and practitioners, in LIS and in other disciplines. Cross-disciplinary collaboration can lead to exciting, original projects like Gina Czarnecki and Sara Rankin’s Palaces project: they are an artist and scientist respectively who are building a palace out of milk-teeth to highlight the potential use of medical waste in stem cell research. Gina and Sara talked about how collaboration often starts from shared beliefs such as the two’s shared belief in stem cell research. When people discover beliefs and ideas that cross disciplinary boundaries, working together across boundaries makes sense.

Connections between subjects

Barriers to research?
This leads to the second kind of connection: connections between subjects. Exploring outside the intellectual bounds of a single discipline is as important in escaping the comfort zone as collaborating with other people. Research can be hampered by the drawing of boundaries and cultural divides between subjects. Blaise used Freud’s phrase “the narcissism of minor differences” to explain the tiny ideological differences that lead to the kind of perceived cultural chasms that C. P. Snow talked about it in The Two Cultures. Academic territoriality and what Dylan Evans called ‘serial monogamy of subject’ is a poor way to conduct research: intellectual freedom requires skirting across subject boundaries and following lines of enquiry wherever they may lead. Dr. Evans demonstrates this through his career as a ‘philosopher psychologist’ / ‘psychologist philosopher’. His career path through linguistics, psychology, philosophy, and robotics shows the importance of flirting across disciplines. He provided a wonderful example of the kind of experimental philosopher that I envisioned in my undergraduate dissertation and I’m pleased that this kind of cross-disciplinary work is being practiced.

I went to the LIS DREaM conference for several reasons: because I can’t resist a clever acronym; because I’m considering PhD research; and, most importantly, because of my interest in consilience. Both of my dissertations were meta-research investigating how research is done and both were framed around the idea of consilience. I’ve written about consilience before – here, here, and lately in this essay I wrote for the British Wittgenstein Society. Consilience is the thesis that everything is connected and that making connections across all disciplines is the best way of describing the universe. The map of all links between all subjects creates a rhizomatic web at the centre of which “the world will somehow come clearer and we will grasp the true strangeness of the universe. And the strangeness will all prove to be connected and make sense.” (E. O. Wilson, Consilience: the unity of knowledge) Consilience is thus the ultimate form of cross-disciplinary collaboration.

At one point during the breakout sessions, Biddy Fisher said that making lateral connections is the specialist skill of librarians. We make connections, we house materials spanning subjects, we classify, we create thesauri, and we use metadata to link items. Professor Cronin provides a good example. He may be the finest example I’ve ever met of the ‘librarian as polymath’: his talk drew on an astonishing breadth of knowledge and brought out dozens of fascinating interconnections between ideas. In order to provide a support service, librarians learn a little about a lot. I believe that support services like academic libraries and digital libraries have a great role to play in making these connections and fostering consilience (for more on this Consilience-Library Theory, please see Chapter 2 of my MA dissertation). Connections – between people and subjects – are important in academic research and therefore librarians with the ability to make connections are important to academic research. Hopefully as the DREaM Project continues, these connections will continue to reveal their importance.

Everything is connected


Jothelibrarian said...

I really enjoyed your write up. Thanks for taking the time to share your experience. Thought provoking stuff. I shall continue to ponder.

I have quoted you on my blog - hope you don't mind!

schammond said...

A far more erudite and full write-up than my effort, Simon. This post is really useful to refer back to, top notch job. Ta

Simon Barron said...

Thanks Sarah. Your write-up is great too. Interesting to read other people's perspectives.