Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

March 24, 2004. History and the art of vanagon maintenance (or Major Intellectualization).

Iím finally on the road Ė but I donít feel like Iím anywhere yet. I made it to Chapel Hill, where the van started giving off a terrible odor fifteen minutes before I arrived at Chrisí house. I need this? What will I do if Matilda isnít actually a viable vehicle for traveling the US, if the whole plan falls apart? Or if every week itís a different technical problem? Clutch, coolant, engine, brakes, electric! I want to learn about cars, but that may not suffice to keep her up and running - even if there were any way I could learn enough. Which there isnít, given where Iím starting from.

I hope Iím being too pessimistic.

On a more interesting note, Iím staying with Cris in Chapel Hill. Sheís been here for ten years, and is finishing a PhD in history Ė after starting one in city planning back when we were both at MIT. Two prospective grad students in her department are here as well, checking out UNC to see if they want to study here. Listening to them talk about their work and their choices of graduate schools is another world. Iíve never really talked to historians before, and Iíve never seen how history could shed much light on the present. Thatís my lack of vision Ė but listening to these folks talk had given me a better appreciation of the interest of what they do.

Cris works on issues that seem incredibly timely - how gender differences have changed over time, as a way of getting a handle on the extent to which differences in behavior and social roles are biologically or culturally determined. Crisí conclusion is that itís pretty much all cultural, because the changes she sees over time, with her historical knowledge, are overwhelming. Which is a pretty major conclusion to draw, if the historical data are robust enough to substantiate it.

Crisí work gives me a new perspective on the meaning of interdisciplinary work. Iíve been grappling with the concept of interdisciplinary research since I was twenty years old and working on habitat issues, after the conference in Vancouver (see my February 18th entry). Iíve looked at it largely in the intersection of biology, economics, demography, and public policy or urban planning. In those contexts the links among disciplines are like the links among modules of a computer program, or component systems in a car. Each system has a function and performs a specific task. They are separable to a large extent. But each system has inputs that it takes from the rest of the world and generates outputs used by the rest of the world. In economics those inputs are referred to as exogenous - that is, their value or nature is not affected by the system that uses them as input. Until recently, I thought that this handy word was used in other fields, but it seems to be particular to economics. Pity, itís a very useful concept.

Anyway, the best practical understanding Iíve come up with for interdisciplinary work involves linking a set of modules in a line or a web, each using as inputs the outputs of modules from other disciplines, and each generating outputs that are used as inputs by other disciplines. For example, consider this sequence:

  • Fisheries biologists develop models to estimate fish population based on fish catches and the level of effort invested in catching them (number, size, and technology of boats). They use the popoulation estimates to determine how many fish can safely be caught next year without harming the sustainability of the population.
  • Civil servants in the ministry responsible for fisheries management use that result to decide how much fishing quota to auction off next year.
  • Economists in turn use that to estimate what fishing quota may sell for and how the economies of fishing communities may be affected by the desire to maintain fish populations at sustainable levels.
  • Social service agencies may then use the results of the economic analysis to target their efforts for next year to communities most likely to feel the pinch.

So what does this all have to do with Crisí dissertation? Well, her work suggests a completely different method of interdisciplinary work. Our society is vitally concerned with whether the behavioral differences between men and women are biologically determined or the product of our culture Ė since if they are cultural, we can hope to change them, but if they are biological then significant change is not likely. Geneticists might approach this question by attempting to decipher the code of human DNA. Ethologists Ė animal behaviorists, that is Ė may look to sex role differences in other species close to ours, perhaps chimpanzees or baboons. Biochemists may look at differences in the molecular composition of the brains of men and women. (I have no idea if they really do Ė Iím guessing.) Anthropologists compare across cultures at a given point in time, while historians may compare across time for a given culture. All of these are different legitimate ways of developing data to shed light on the same question.

For the most part the disciplinarians donít know what constitutes data for each other, they only know what their own field considers legitimate. Interdisciplinary work, in this context, would call for each of them to decide that the question is the core of their work, and their disciplines merely alternate toolsets for addressing the question Ė instead of the tools being the core and the question merely an application of the central tools. If the question is the central core of the work, then an understanding of how other sets of tools go about answering it, and what they find, would be crucial for the work to be comprehensive.

I suppose that other people advocating interdisciplinary work have had this understanding all along, but it took Crisí dissertation for it to dawn on me!

There is even a link to auto mechanics here. One of the students considering study at UNC, hearing my attempts to diagnose Matildaís body odor, remarked that he couldnít begin to fathom how cars work. Well, I explained, I didnít think I could either, until I adopted Matilda and had to. Then I realized that if I could understand her as a set of systems with inputs and outputs that tie them together, then I might have a framework for holding onto the details of auto mechanics by seeing how they fit into the larger system. Kind of like studying trees by seeing how they fit into the overall ecology of the forest Ė to further mix metaphors here. Of course, I said, if I wrote on the vanagon list about interpreting auto mechanics as meta-level interpretation of the interactions among complex components of a system at several level of abstraction, they would likely think I was daft. But to a twenty-three year old budding historian hoping to spend his life reading and writing, that made sense as a good way to get a handle on a car.

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