I am a PhD student, blogging my way through research and PostGrad life.
After a couple of false starts, this blog has become an autoethnography – essentially a diary of my research process. My posts feature typewriters because they are a written record – and typewriters are the most photogenic tool for committing thoughts to words (even though I don’t use one). I don’t know of any other biologists who use autoethnography as a research method, so this is unusual. We like to present ideas when they’re polished and publishable, and in a way that removes the observer as much as possible from the process of discovery. Because I am advocating a more reflexive way of doing science, I want to follow my own advice.
In my research, I am making an argument for an ontogenic and epistemological pluralism in biological research. That’s the overly academic and frankly pretentious way of describing it, but it’s also the most concise. One aspect, ontology, has to do with the inherent nature of reality. Currently in science we view reality as “thing” based, but I think there are sometimes advantages to seeing reality as process based instead. So, we should be able to do both – that’s pluralism. Epistemology concerns how we know what we know. Science is founded on realism, the idea that there is an external reality that is independent of how we perceive it. But we know that the same fact or event can be percieved differently by different people. Second-order Science is an idea based in a constructivist epistemology – which means that as observers we are actually constructing our reality. Second-order Science is in its infancy, and while most agree that it can be applied to any type of science, in practice it has been applied mostly to the social sciences or humanities. I think it would make a great addition to our functional repertoire in biology. And both of these ideas – process ontology and Second-order Science – overlap nicely with Systems Theory, which is how I first got interested in this subject. A lot of fuss has been made about the potential of a systems approach to biology, but in practice very little progress has been made except in one specific area (essentially computational modelling of biological systems). Several scholars have argued that there’s more to systems theory – and biology is missing out on it. I think the reason is that we haven’t figured out a way to practically make use of some quite abstract ideas – we haven’t figured out the how.
I think (and hope) that at the intersection of these three ideas – process ontology, Second-order science, and systems theory – I can find or build (probably a bit of both) another way of doing biological research that can complement and expand on what is already being done. And, because it’s a bit much to want to change the face of all biology in one doctoral dissertation, I am conducting my research in the context of immunology. Nevertheless, these ideas apply to biology in general.
I don’t quite fit in anywhere; my academic background is a jumbled grab-bag of whatever I found interesting, and I am not an expert in anything. This research doesn’t fit nicely along departmental lines either. I’m not an immunologist, or a philosopher, or a systems theorist – I’m also not a modeller or an experimentalist. But in the space between, there’s plenty of room to build some bridges.