Research-as-Identity

One of this week’s MGMT 590 Colloquium readings is Stinchcombe’s (1986/1966) essay about researchers getting “hung-up” during the course of the research process.

Stinchcombe’s core argument is that scholarly research is an identity project (pp. 274, 276, 278). As a result research struggles (i.e., “getting hung-up and other assorted illness” ) are really identity struggles (p. 278). For Stinchcombe the ultimate solution to this research-as-identity tension is an identity shift, from a self-absorbed perspective, to one which embraces “ultimate values” (pp. 276, 281). 

In the essay Stinchcombe conceives of researchers as producers of new knowledge, a process he describes as choosing an objective for oneself, and then motivating oneself by that objective alone. He sees these research decisions as “perfectly free choices” (p. 272). This freedom of choice produces an “identity problem,” as these choices are a reflection on the kind of person a researcher intends to be (p. 272).

Some specific examples of research struggles as identity struggles include:

  • “Publication shyness or refusal to finish is clearly related to the problem of putting one’s identity on the block” (p. 274).
  • Dissertations are particularly susceptible to such pitfalls because “graduate students are more often interested in their work for what it tells them about themselves… than for what it tells them about the world” (p. 276).
  • More than intellectual identities are at stake.  “Ethnic, national, and sex identities usually become involved in the choice of research topics,” often limiting “the vision of scholars” (p. 278).
  • The resulting identity “distortions” can even bring research to a complete stop when one’s identity “demands a kind of work which the environment will not accept” (p. 279).

Later in the essay Stinchcombe returns to the voluntaristic theme, “Many of us chose a research career because we wanted to choose our own intellectual identities, and would quit if we could not” (p. 279). He argues that the resulting credo of “academic freedom” implicates “sacred values,” invasions of which are vigorously resisted (p. 279-280). Here he finds another tension: the academic freedom scholars crave is simultaneously the source of the academic ambiguity they dread. The two are recursively linked. 

Stinchcombe also introduces, though leaves underdeveloped, “the relatively new role of the research entrepreneur,” defined as one who can keep research moving through the web of social-intellectual relations in which research projects are embedded (p. 276). These research entrepreneurs are managers “of promises and commitments, of emphasizing the different aspects of the product for different faculty and foundation clients” (p. 277).

Finally, while noting there are “various games one can play with oneself to alleviate some of the distress,” ultimately “the only solution to the problem… is to shift one’s basis of self-respect to ultimate values,” such as as scientific advancement, social justice, and artistic excellence (p. 281). 

In sum, Stinchcombe sees research-as-identity, a tension he proposes researchers may best resolve by finding their identity in ultimate values. 

Two comments:

  • While Stinchcombe takes a highly voluntaristic view of researchers, I wonder if it is accurate to conceive of researchers as free to choose their research questions. What if such choices are subject to institutional constraints, historical path dependencies, and social dynamics related to one’s habitus, field and capital (ala Bourdieu)? Even if such “choices” are more deterministic than suggested by Stinchcombe does that invalidate his argument about research-as-identity? How might we reconcile a more deterministic view with the proposition of research-as-identity?
  • What are the implications of research-as-identity for the very possibility of science? If research agendas are really about identity, what truth can researchers possibly hope to discover, other than truth about themselves? Might inconsistent findings between researchers signify competing identities rather than true scientific inconsistencies? What if research findings are really just an identity discourse, one which tells us more about the epistemology of the researcher than the ontology of the world?

Citation: Stinchcombe, A. L. 1986/1966. “On getting hung-up and other assorted illnesses,” in Stratification and organization: 271-281. New York: Cambridge University Press.