Vostal on Inquiring into Academic Timescapes
In this article Filip Vostal, author of Accelerating Academia, explores how different timescapes in knowledge production enter the very nature of knowledge
In 2016 I published Accelerating Academia, which, apart from constituting a psychological fulfilment of a completed work, represented a climax of a substantial period of my personal and intellectual life. Now the book lives its own life and functions for me as a canvass for critical reflections, both my own and that of the readership. The book stands for a backbone against which I can now position my research trajectory. Dwelling on Rosa’s (2013) concept of ‘social acceleration’, the book aims to both expand the conceptual terrain and ‘deflate’, to use Tom Osborne’s (2004) approach, the deeply entrenched modern sentiment that acceleration is everywhere, gluttonizing every bit and piece of social existence. At the same time, the book seeks to offer a fresh and innovative twist in the long intellectual and research trajectory of social scientific inquiries into social time(s), which reaches back to Durkheim. Relatedly, Accelerating Academia represents a commencement of my interest into academic ‘timescapes’, to use a term by introduced by Adam (1998), particularly then complementarities and clashes between and among various temporal logics, paces, rhythms and durations in academic research process. Specifically, in a project1 I am currently involved in, my colleagues and I focus on the question of how different timescapes in knowledge production enter the very nature of knowledge, in other words how different temporal logics inherent to diverse processes underpinning research process co-shape the research content i.e. the epistemic character of scientific outputs.
Whereas Accelerating Academia problematizes the prevailing one-dimensional negative connotation commonly attached to acceleration by introducing its unevenness and positive aspects, I currently look into the variability, complementarity and conflictuality of paces and rhythms indispensable of research process and production of knowledge. Three distinctive temporalities – or timescapes – stand out: temporality of research object, temporality of scientist, temporality of institution (for a cognate typology see Vostal et al 2018; for different typology see Smith 2015). What is then interesting is not a purification of such temporal layers as separated – yet relational – categories, but rather an inquiry into their interconnections, interminglings and mutual re-constitutions, and their modes of synchronisation. It has been shown, for example, that research evaluation systems – with their own distinctive temporalities – have considerable impact on the content of research (Glaser & Laudel 2016) and that the choice of research problem is often set in terms of secure, established paradigms and pathways, where there is some probability of securing funds and publications. Then there is other counter-approach targeting emerging research problems, which assumes dynamic and quickly-moving high-risk innovative mindset challenging established knowledge clusters (Foster et al. 2015). Such dichotomy is, however, complicated by all three aforementioned temporalities. If the research object – such as, for instance, a chemical and organic reaction that is expected to generate a finding – takes long time (perhaps months), subjective and institutional ‘clocks’ are expected – if results are to be produced – to be subordinate to the temporality of the organic process. Yet that would only be an ideal situation, which in a complex, and messy world of knowledge production barely exists: personal time as well as institutional routines and practices – with their own temporal logics – may affect the choice of a research strategy. Foster et al.’s analysis for instance confirms that institutional settings – and its temporal domination of often sluggish science bureaucracy and fundraising expectations that eat large chunks of researches’ time – sustained tradition and conservatism at the expense of progressive and disruptive innovation. Is it safe – career- and funding-wise – to wait and perhaps produce robust/substantial results or should researchers chose secure path and produce ‘some’ findings that would comply with institutional pressures, expectations and evaluation systems?
In experimental physics and associated disciplines that I am currently interested in, the critical resource for many researchers is beamtime or experimental time which essentially accounts for strictly limited periods of time (mostly in days) that researchers compete for in order to conduct their experiments. As Traweek (1988) found out decades ago, the more beamtime researchers have at their disposal the more epistemic power or capital they have in experimental physics. Here we encounter what Merton (1968) called Matthew effect in science. More beamtime equals more data, more data equals more publications, more publications bring more beamtime. Such cycle then accounts for a process that generates what I would call ‘epistemic capital’, that is knowledge capital that might be translated into paradigmatic findings that have a potential to represent an emerging research field and/or re-configure existing field(s) of inquiry. Beamtime therefore is an institutional unit that strictly demarcates time available for research experiments and data collection. According to several of experimental physicists I interviewed, preparation for experiment might take months, the experiment itself ranges from hours to several days – depending on configuration and setting of the experimental facility – and analysis and appraisal of results might take up to several years. Even if these phases are (often formally) clustered in terms of clock-time (hours, days, weeks, months), they often possess their own distinctive organic durations, which are non-linear, and often evolve in temporally unpredictable fashion. Juggling these diverse temporalities thus appears to be a central skill in science.
1. Supported by the Czech Science Foundation, grant no. 16-18371Y. Research team comprises Libor Benda, Tereza Virtová and me.
Adam B (1998). Timescapes of Modernity: The Environment and Invisible Hazards. London: Routledge.
Foster JG, Rzhetsky A and JA Evans (2015). Tradition and innovation in scientists’ research strategies. American Sociological Review 80(5): 875 – 908.
Glaser J and G Laudel (2016). Governing science: How science policy shapes research content. European Journal of Sociology 57(1): 117–168.
Osborne T (2004). On mediators: Intellectuals and the ideas trade in the knowledge society. Economy & Society 33(4): 430-447.
Merton R (1968). The Matthew effect in science. Science 159: 56-63.
Rosa H (2013). Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity (Translated by Trejo-Mathys). New York: Columbia University Press.
Smith S (2015). Multiple temporalities of knowing in academic research. Social Science Information 54(2): 149–176.
Traweek S (1988). Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Vostal F (2016). Accelerating Academia: The Changing Structure of Academic Time. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Vostal F, Benda L, T Virtová (2018, forthcoming). Against reductionism: On the complexity of scientific temporality. Time & Society.
Filip Vostal is a Researcher at the Centre for Science, Technology, and Society Studies at the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic.