The ‘search’ in ‘research’

by Edurne de Wilde, PhD candidate at Scholarly Vices: A Longue Durée History

I recently came across an intriguing essay by Joost de Vries, titled Echte pretentie (‘True pretension’).[1] De Vries closely examines the notion of pretension by discussing a variety of contexts in which it can be encountered, ranging from wine to politics. While De Vries admits that pretension is mostly considered to be a reproach, he keeps an open mind and asks whether pretension deserves a revaluation. In his view, it does, for one crucial aspect of pretension is wrongfully ignored, namely that pretentious people truly care about the thing they are pretentious about. As De Vries puts it:

If you are called pretentious, you are blamed for exaggerating, for showing off. But you cannot show off about something that is not important to you. The form is too much, the goal is not. If pretension is lying, it is honest lying.[2]

It follows that to be called pretentious is not necessarily a terrible thing. But what if it is not someone else who calls you pretentious? What if you find yourself in a situation that makes you feel like you cannot but exaggerate and show off? Can you think of yourself as pretentious? Do you have control over your pretension? And what is worse: to be consciously pretentious or not to realise it when you are?

After reading the essay, these questions – mostly unaddressed by De Vries – continued to occupy my mind. They reminded me of an uncomfortable feeling I associate with academia, namely that of having to “sell” your research before you even really started it. In this case, ‘honest lying’ does not feel so honest.[3] This is where 21st-century academic virtues and vices come in.

What bothers me in these situations is not the fact that I have to make explicit why I care for my research and why others too should think it matters. I am happy to do so. It is the degree of certainty about the outcome that I feel is expected from me that gives me an uneasy feeling. There seems to be little room for doubt and no possibility of being open about what I do not know yet, but hope to find out. Indeed, I have learned to avoid the phrase “I hope to” altogether. The implicit encouragement of pretension by scholarly reward systems, I argue, is a 21st-century academic vice. It would be an improvement if scholars were not made to feel like being honest will diminish their opportunities.

Having to keep silent about these obvious uncertainties is problematic, because it paints an unrealistic and distorted picture of what the process of coming up with a research project is like. It puts you in a position in which you cannot avoid pretension. It makes you, who knows that you are making promises you may not be able to keep, feel unauthentic, and makes others, who suspect that you are presenting them with at least a few overstated claims, think of you as a pretentious scholar. Or, if they do not see your decisiveness for what it is, that is hyperbolic, scholars who suffer from impostor syndrome might take it as evidence of their own scholarly ineptitude. Either way, no one benefits.

If we all know from experience that there is a certain level of uncertainty in doing research, why do we not make this explicit? In other words, why do we not collectively stress the “search” in “research”? After all, is that not the most exciting part about conducting research? I do not have the answers and to think there is a quick fix would be naive, for as long as the rules of the game are not changed or at least broadly contested, the actions of individual scholars have little impact. Even so, maybe as a small act of rebellion, I will start using “I hope to” again.

[1] Joost De Vries, Echte pretentie: Waarom het zo irritant is en waarom we niet zonder kunnen (Amsterdam: Das Mag Uitgeverij, 2019).

[2] De Vries, 128–29.

[3] De Vries, 129.