Foxes and Hedgehogs

There is a very interesting discussion going on at Notorious PhD right now about the different approaches of “foxes” and “hedgehogs” to scholarly inquiry, with the former taking broad, diverse, and/or interdisciplinary conceptual and methodological tacks (over time or simultaneously), and with the latter maintaining a substantially more narrow focus. (There’s also kyoot pictures of foxes and hedgehogs!)

I just want to focus here on one particular aspect of this discussion, which is NPD’s expression of surprise that not everyone embraces the foxitude of other scholars:

But isn’t it odd how invested other people get in our scholarly identities, and how eager they — and we — are to fix them in place somehow?

It’s actually not odd at all. People do this because it’s threatening when others cannot be neatly pigeonholed as doing something that isn’t going to pose any threats to one’s own scholarly gravitas, and also because it is a common–but unfortunate–aspect of human nature to want to take others down a notch to protect one’s own ego. Those who are too unimaginative or fearful to engage in novel interdisciplinary pursuits or to stray from the comfort of their existing sphere of expertise get angry at others who do these things.

When I was a senior post-doc interviewing for a faculty position, there was this one washed-up old-fuck senior-faculty asshole interviewer who was a textbook example of this. Even as a grad student and post-doc–while not really a fox in the sense of having multiple approaches and topics going on simultaneously–I did switch from topic to topic (sort of like a serial hedgehog). And the last project I engaged as a post-doc–the one that was successful enough to provide the traction for my faculty job search–was actually quite interdisciplinary.

As a result of that history, I was (and remain) a member of a relatively disparate set of scientific societies, each reflecting one aspect or another of my scientific history or current interdisciplinary interests. So in the interview this fucken old-fuck asshole kept perseverating on why I was a member of a particular disciplinary society that this guy considered his own (boring and shoddy) research to be at the heart of. Like pestering the shit out of me and trying to get me to “justify” my membership in that society. I was all like “Whatever, asshole”, and couldn’t figure out what this douche’s fucken problem was.

Turns out that someone with a partially overlapping set of interdisciplinary interests and approaches to my own had twenty years earlier scooped the shit out of this asshole on a major discovery by applying the conceptual and methodological approaches from another field that I am very active in to successfully answering a very important question in the discipline that this douchebag considered “his field” and that he had been unimaginately and fruitlessly hammering at using only approaches drawn from within. And once he lost that race, his research program almost completely petered out, and he never published anything of significance again.

The fear of that kind of thing is why foxes are threatening to hedgehogs.