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The Space Between with Elina Mäkinen

Aleka Gurel

03 October, 2017

In this series of Backchannels posts, we’ll be highlighting new research in the 4S journals, ST&HV and ESTS. Here, Backchannels interviews Elina Mäkinen, author of the recent ST&HV paper, "Action in the Space Between: From Latent to Active Boundaries." Dr. Mäkinen is an organizational sociologist specializing in innovation, collaboration, and teamwork in the life sciences. She received her Ph.D. at Stanford University’s organization studies doctoral program and is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Social Research at the University of Tampere, Finland. A major part of Dr. Mäkinen’s research focuses on understanding the varied challenges for translational research collaboration. She is particularly interested in how the challenges for collaboration vary at different developmental stages in the translational research process.

Backchannels: What brought you to this research topic?

EM: I was initially interested in different cases of how and why established academic departments split into smaller units. An example of a departmental split could be a sociology department suddenly being divided into a qualitative and a quantitative unit based on the research methodologies the scholars use. At the time, I had the opportunity to analyze different departmental splits from the perspective of network data that showed what kind of activities (e.g., publishing, applying for grants, co-teaching, serving on dissertation committees, etc.) faculty members conducted together. I wanted to see what those collaborative ties looked like before and after a departmental split.

While going through this data, I became intrigued by departmental splits in the discipline of anthropology, because these events had been surprisingly common across universities in the US. The dividing line in anthropology was concerned with the different theories that anthropologists use to explain culture (humanistic or evolutionary framework). However, the network data only showed whether or not faculty members conducted particular activities together. The data didn’t reveal what was behind a particular case of departmental splitting and its related social dynamics.

In addition, since anthropology is divided into four subfields, it wasn’t surprising that faculty from, for example, biological anthropology and social and cultural anthropology didn’t write grants or publish papers together. So, I wanted to collect data that would help me tell a more nuanced story about what caused an anthropology department to split into two smaller units. I began to contact current and past faculty members of one department and asked if I could interview them.

Backchannels: What challenges did you overcome to complete the study?

EM: The main challenge was to find interviewees who were willing to share their experiences of the departmental split. The years before and after the split had been difficult and the faculty members had had a hard time interacting with each other inside and outside of faculty meetings. Many of those whom I contacted said that they didn’t want to revisit the painful memories and thus refused to be interviewed. Collecting data for this study was a lesson about how to be respectful and considerate of informants who had mixed feelings about sharing their experiences. Importantly, there were also those who saw value in my effort to shed light on intellectual differences and the role they play in academic departments.

Backchannels: What lesson would you like people to take away from the paper you’ve just published?

EM: As academics, we tend to take our fields of research, or memberships to disciplinary communities, very seriously. We tend to be defensive when faced with critique or differing ways of creating knowledge. We tend to spend time in academic communities that support our research and where we find scholars who are similar to ourselves.

At the same time, our work is much more than the theories we read and the data we collect. We are also members of departments and universities where we need to get along with different kinds of people, get administrative stuff done, be able to teach students about different kinds of research traditions, and participate in creating a culture that enables critical conversation in a respectful manner.

The lesson I hope readers to take away from this paper is that we are members of both disciplinary and departmental communities and we have responsibilities to both. In some cases it may be useful to draw a boundary between the two as it can help us in getting good work done in each context.

Backchannels: What is next on your research agenda?

EM: I continue to study intellectual ideologies and disciplinary boundaries, but now in the context of the natural sciences and the field of medicine. I am interested in translational science: how scientific discoveries are being translated to new medicines or healthcare practices. I previously conducted a longitudinal ethnographic study of a new transdisciplinary research center focusing on premature birth and seeking to develop new solutions to the health problem. This study revealed what the challenges to collaboration during the first stages of translational science can look like. In my next project I want to explore the last stages in the translational research process by examining how different experts collaborate on implementation projects in healthcare.

Backchannels / Reflections

Commentary on the current and future state of the field or subfields within science and technology studies. Can include interviews, meditations on particular concepts or methods, biography / autobiography, essays, and other more personal and less formal writings.