What Do You Research?

In all honesty, I should be meditating or falling asleep at the moment. I am writing this piece late on a Saturday evening. The only reason I am giving myself a ‘pass’ is because since this afternoon, writing has been the only thing on my mind. It is incorrect to say this afternoon, since the seedling for today’s frame of mind comes from earlier in this week. During a Law Research and Training programme, the Professor on the course recommended we set small writing targets ahead of every supervision meeting we have, and very nicely put my thoughts of reading forever, in “an attempt to do a literature review” aside. My conversation this afternoon, however, was centred around film-making. A good friend brought up how popular Western films and media follow a formulaic approach for success: setting-conflict-resolution. Instantly, I was taken back to my adventures watching Casey Neistat, and thinking about daily blogging as a phase of my life where I was motivated by the sheer passion Casey had for story-telling and film-making. It dawned on me then that I had not written on the blog for a while. Naturally, I had to write tonight.

What about, though? Where do the words come from when the world is spinning?

The past month has seen me settle into the PhD program. All at once, and then slowly. Some very good advice I have been following is to take things a lot slower than I have in the past; to allow me to enjoy and savour every moment of the program I have. As someone who is researching on an active project with a deadline (it is scary to label oneself a researcher, the adjective more frightening than the verb), a frequent question that has emerged in the last four weeks is: what do you research?

It is asked in all sorts of ways. There’s the “first-time-we’ve-met curiosity”, the “oh-someone-says-we-should-meet fascination”, the “why-do-you-teach-family-law-quizzicality” and the “so-why-are-we-talking-disappointment”, I suppose. I am, thankfully, yet to run into the latter. Then there is the internal question I ask myself each time there is a web profile to create. How do I describe what I am interested in? What language shall I use?

It would be unfaithful to say that my brain did not do a consequential analysis each time the question emerged. In what I now consider a commodification exercise, I found myself initially asking: what is the signal my language will give? What will people infer from the vocabulary I use to elaborate what it is I do? I suppose that is but natural with the market that academia and research is. It was, however, a pattern of thought that caused me deep irritating.

On the contrary, speaking about the project I work on to people who are outside the bubble and without a vested interest gave me the opportunity to use similar language without it being “coded” or having an “acquired/adopted meaning”. It has been those conversations that has allowed me to figure out what I do, really – and moved me a little bit away from my earlier habit. I am now of the opinion that with the open texture of language, people’s inferences about my work are not something I can control for – and the way I articulate the field I query is a sequence of words that I hold a precise definition for, but that definition will vary across people I speak to.

That realisation has brought a lot of freedom with it; a larger freedom to express.

These thoughts came up this evening again from a different trigger.

Chris Hilson has a piece in the Journal of Environmental Law, Trends in Environmental Law Scholarship: Marketisation, Globalisation, Polarisation, and Digitalisation, which I thought was really insightful in the way it presented a flaw with studying trends within the discipline by doing an empirical ‘language search’. I highly recommend the read, and I will pen my thoughts about the article more fully at a later time, but what stood out to me is how this pattern of query; and really reflecting on the language we use in response to “what do you research?” has emerged out of digitisation. One of my colleagues and I have frequently debated the harms and benefits that Twitter has brought into academia, but perhaps the thing it has done most in the context of the article is pushed us further into the pit of using “trending” language. The other interesting bit is on Impact (and I particularly appreciate the emphasis on the capital I, with the market definition taking centre-stage) – and I am left wondering – to what extent is Impact influenced by the language of our research? How much SEO should we be putting into academic writing in the modern market of consumption?

Among the web of buzzwords that now accompany me, hanging over my head as a protective cloud sheathing my work from some quarters of criticism by allowing me to seek refuge in ‘schools’ and ‘methods’ (ah, don’t we love the Humanities): “political economy”, “international law”, “the environment”, I sometimes wonder why my response to the question “what do you research?” isn’t “people” – since that, at it’s very core, is what I am investigating.