Learning a new language

Rewind to five years ago. I am entering a bar in Helsinki with some friends and we spot a bunch of students in the corner. Come join us, Laura! We are discussing humanism. I freeze because that is a term I do not know well and I think I will have nothing to say. Those at the table were social scientists and I was a natural scientist, and I am sure many fellow natural scientists could have related to that brief moment of freezing and isolation. Of course I would have had stuff to say, but not necessarily in their language.

The division of sciences into “hard” and “soft” sciences is still very much alive. As branches of sciences we are torn apart, mainly because we do not speak the same language.

We also view the world differently.

For natural scientists, the world looks real and measurable. The work of a scientist is to examine it and make empirically generalisable observations. Whatever does not exist as a measurable unit is not that important.

For social scientists, numbers are only one part of the story. There are many aspects in societies, environments and individuals which cannot be quantified. The work of a scientist is to detect these things and make theoretically generalisable observations.

So here I am on my academic bootcamp in the transition towards social sciences, filling my mind with concepts like marxism, functionalism, structuralism, interpretivist, objective, subjectivist, relativist, realist, symbolic, interpretivist.

Who cares? That is the question posed by the deeply rooted natural scientist in me.

Everybody should care is the answer of the newly born social scientist.

To be honest, this is the first time in my intellectual life that I have ever questioned my own thought process. Why do I think of the world as I do? What has influenced my thinking? Which historical events have shaped this view of mine? What things in the world do I take for given? What are my assumptions about human beings, about societies, nature, progress?

This thought process is an excruciatingly difficult, frustrating and yet the most rewarding thing to do.

It is something I think all scientists should be required to do because these philosophical assumptions affect everything we do in our careers. These assumptions underlie the methods we use as well as the research results we produce. They also impact whatever is thought of being worthy of funding in any given scientific environment.

Anthropology provides me with the best possible framework for embracing both the natural and social scientist in me. I feel at home here.

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