Two Cultures

When C. P. Snow talked about Two Cultures, he had in mind the two supposedly different ways of life. The sciences and the humanities. Snow tries to see the differences between the two cultures and makes it a point to show that the two are indeed different. Recently I read Stephen J Gould’s The Fox, The Hedgehog, and the Magister’s Pox. Gould tries to establish that the so-called divide between the sciences and the humanities never existed but was created unnecessarily.

In this article, I am also going to talk about two cultures, but not the ones that Snow choose. I am going to talk about academic and administrative cultures. Any research institute along with its academic staff has a `supporting’ administrative staff. Theoretically, if you ask, the tasks of the two are defined clearly. The academicians are supposed to do academics, that is, to do research, or at least what they consider research or worth doing. The outcome of academicians is to be measured by fellow academicians, in terms of the quality and the quantity of research or visible work done by them.

The academic life is usually one which is not-so-high paying. At least in India, this seems to be the case. A person who retires as the Director of an Institute hardly draws a salary as compared to the ones in the industry with their kind of experience. But that will take us into another discussion about Academics and Corporates, which I don’t want to enter into now. The perks of academic life are in many cases, if not in all, are the curiosity and the associated satisfaction that one derives from the problems that one tackles. When a person starts an academic career, the paths diverge sharply from their colleagues’ paths who have to choose a corporate way. When one enters academics, one of the things that are retained is a sense of freedom. Again this might not be true in all cases, I have seen juniors, especially the Graduate Students being ruled upon like a dictator by senior Professors. But this misses the point that I want to make. The point is that if you can, at least theoretically speaking, pursue your own research agendas, your research questions. For some people, it is the question that drives their academic lives.

Every now and then you hear examples of so-called `nerds’, who do weird things. They are the people who have `devoted’ themselves to their field. I am not trying to defend anyone here for doing all the weird things that they do, but just trying to illustrate the fact that the field that the researcher chooses, is what drives them on in life. It is just due to the handful of these people that makes the difference. Many times it is just sheer genius, many times it is hard work of years. They are the leaders of their field. Well not always, you may find a mediocre person leading the field, with all the proper political connections…

But this is not always the case; there are always misfits. I do know of people who do not have any commitment to the field that they are working in, per se. But they choose the research field as any other job, the enthusiasm is lacking. And they lament upon those who show some enthusiasm. And such people may be quite numerous. They are the followers. In many cases, it is not that they lack the enthusiasm, but it is entirely missing. What I mean by that is they just like workers in a stone quarry, just doing what the supervisor tells you to do, without much understanding. They are like academic coolies. Maybe the term sounds harsh, but that is what it is supposed to be. Whether you are like this or not will strongly depend on who is your reporting authority in the field. These people, if asked, will have no opinion themselves, and even if they do, it will be a carbon copy of somebody else’s.

The way one is moulded in academic life strongly depends upon one’s own capacity for independent thinking and the kind of support that one gets from the colleagues, including and most importantly from the supervisor. The graduate student years decide what kind of academic person you will become. If all your thoughts are nipped in the bud, at all the times, will you be able to think independently? This is also the question that the supervisor has to ask himself/herself: What my student should be like? I guess many of them would differ in the answer that they give and the thing that they actually practice.

Research Institutes are constituted so as to make an academic atmosphere. By this it is meant that the place should provide support for the activities that the researchers do, that is those activities apart from doing research per se. This support if necessary so that the researchers can concentrate on their work completely. Well isn’t that the idea of having a research institute. The researchers are paid for doing that, and many of them if not all do precisely this. They are not doing research as some part-time job, they are professionals, and at least some of them are committed to the field.

A Paradigm as variously defined by Thomas Kuhn would be a more proper term here for the field. As a philosopher, Kuhn redefined many of our existing understanding in the field of science, especially our understanding _about_ science as a field of human endeavour.

Researchers come and join a paradigm, most of them stay within the paradigm and solve puzzles. Only a few lucky of them come up with problems that are unsolvable within the paradigm, and then the revolutions follow. But let us not go further in this interlude. We
will talk about Kuhn some other time.

So coming back to research institutes, we can settle on one thing that a research institute is a place where research is done, and it is meant for that purpose. In a research institute, the agenda is to provide facilities for research. Various people form the infrastructure that is is thus required. Generally, any research institute has a few categories of people. The faculty, the graduate students and the scientific staff other than the previously mentioned ones. The other staff in the institute includes the technical, administrative
and the auxiliary staff, peons, cleaners etc.

The administrative staff is supposed to help the academic staff to lessen their burden from the non-academic work that they have to do. This `non-academic’ work includes managing the finance of the institute, maintaining the premises, handling at recruitments, and looking at various other facilities and services. But in some institute, the administrative staff becomes increasingly powerful, so much so that they dictate the terms to the academics. Promotions are stalled, so are new recruitments and procurements. All this by citing some obscure rules or just sitting on the files for months. This particularly happens when the incumbent person perceived to be “weak”. On the other hand when the incumbent person is perceived to be “strong”, the administration falls in line. The “strong” person at the helm, can ask the administration to bend the rules, or keep them on hold, or even circumvent at times. This makes the institutes grow. On the other hand, following the rules too strictly and with convenience denial makes it difficult for any growth.

Personal vendettas and fragile egos mark office politics. This is a power struggle, which decides the fate of the institute.

To be different

As they say in the United States: “to be different is to be indecent.” The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated. And it is clear, of course, that this “everybody” is not “everybody.” “Everybody” was normally the complex unity of the mass and the divergent, specialized minorities. Nowadays, “everybody” is the mass alone. Here we have the formidable fact of our times, described without any concealment of the brutality of its features.

– The Revolt of the Masses by José Ortega y Gasset.

Normal

“What should I do now?”

“I’m the prisoner,” the biologist said to him from her cot, facing the wall. “Why should I tell you anything?”

“Because I’m trying to help you.”

“Are you? Or are you just trying to help yourself?”

He had no answer to that.

“A normal person might give up. That would be very normal.”

“Would you?” he asked.

“No. But I’m not normal.”

“Neither am I.”

“Where does that leave us?”

“Where we’ve always been.”

from Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

 

What it is to be normal…

What does it mean to be normal? Normalcy as seen sociologically reflects the idea that majority of public have about things. But we have to keep in mind that the things that are considered normal now, once might be considered abnormal and vice versa.

So what we have here is evolution of some idea with time. These ideas are defined by the people and the contemporary society. But how do these ideas take shape? Is it really the decision of the majority? Or it is decision of some people in the society who really matter? When these people make a judgment the rest follow…

This seems plausible. With the given social structure we have ensured that more people have to think about two square meals than reflect about life and other things. So really only a very few people in any given society at any given time think. And it is these people who decide what is normal… They are the ones who formulate guidelines for being normal or abnormal…

And the rest of public will tend to follow them without reflecting about things themselves. This is true for all the social institutions that have existed for some time. Nobody questions the ideology, they only follow.

For example let us take an issue. It is not supposed to be good to be adulterous. Why? Who decides that adultery is not good? Many societies have the strongest punishment for the crime of adultery. But why it is considered a crime at all? By whose definition adultery is crime? Since our ancestors believed that it was a crime we also tend to think so. But has anybody tried to see the justification for this other than given by the ancestors. They just know it is not good. But why if somebody asks them, then what is the answer that they give? That its just not good thats all.