Last semester my colleagues and I had a pretty great conversation about why we do what we do. Not all of us do the exact same thing, mind you, (something I point out a little too often, perhaps) but we’re all getting master’s degrees in “Human Biology,” which means most of us study bones, whether in forensic, archaeological or evolutionary contexts. So… we mostly work with dead things. And this has little measurable effect on society. New findings in paleontology or archaeology don’t really matter at all, in any scheme of things.
The conversation was prompted by a class some of us had on NAGPRA and repatriation and being sensitive to the cultural feelings of others. Our professor said something to the effect of “As soon as I feel like I’m not doing good to anybody, I’m going to quit.”
Most of us seemed to disagree with him:we do what we do because we think it is cool. And that any moderate increase in human knowledge produces some good effect across society. At least, that’s how we justify it to ourselves.
A dissenting voice emerged, however. This student felt that anthropology, and physical anthropology in particular was essentially navel-gazing bullshit. Sure, applied biological anthropology can help with forensic cases or something but most of it doesn’t have any real measurable effect on society. This wasn’t what I objected to. I objected to her contrasting this with “nobler” professions like medicine or engineering. Or, hell, even those scientists who are trying to cure cancer or AIDS or something. Sure, they have a direct (mostly) positive effect on society but I argued that that most likely isn’t the reason people do those kind of things. I argue that most of them are like us: they do it because it is cool – because for whatever reason the nitty-gritty activities of those professions appeal to them. Or, in the case of researchers trying to cure a disease or something, because it is an intellectual problem that they want to solve. Much like the way David Simon portrays the detectives in The Wire. The detectives solve crimes because they want to prove themselves as smarter than the criminals. I propose that cancer researchers want to ‘beat’ cancer in a similar way.
Of course I can’t deny that I, and many of us in academia (and particularly the non-helping-people sciences), have chips on our shoulders. If a character in a film or play wants to be portrayed as ambitious and successful in film or television, they are almost always medical doctors or lawyers or business people (I’m aware of the irony in me bitching about this, for ambitious is certainly not a word that anybody would use to describe me. But I know plenty of academics who are).
So, dear readers who surely number in the tens or so, why do you do whatever it is that you do?