PhDiaries: The identity crisis

Firstly, apologies for the tangents and slight ranting. While I hope this post makes some sense, it also reflects the chaos that is currently in my head.

Working on an interdisciplinary PhD is proving difficult on levels which I hadn’t really thought about before. Yes, it’s challenging, as I had imagined, in the sense that I have to try to gain an understanding of a field of study (social science) of which I am relatively new to. But it also has started to make me think about my place as a scientist related to what I am studying and the terminology I use in a way which I never had to really worry about as a natural scientist. Perhaps this is me building a bridge between the natural scientist I was before and the half social/half natural scientist that I’m trying to be for my PhD. But to me, it surely feels like an identity crisis. And it is a little bit stressful.

A part of me is remorseful of making my life that bit more complicated (which I tend to do at every chance I have anyways, so I wonder why I’m not just getting used to it at this point). Perhaps I’m more kicking myself for having that tendency. Take the following as an example: when I’m studying as an ecologist whether butterfly populations are affected with changing levels of forest disturbance; I don’t have to worry about things like misrepresentation, or being an ‘eco-colonialist’ or the power relations at play. And that was comfortable.

Now I find myself frightened at my own naivety of the different ways in which I could unknowingly do ‘wrong’. I have to think twice about the words I use, because all of a sudden, words such as ‘sustainable development’ carry a weight previously unknown to me (TANGENT WARNING: especially the word ‘development’…for those non social scientists who are wondering what I am on about, it raises questions such as ‘what is development?’, according to the general western understanding of development, which has now been adopted elsewhere, development is the continued economic growth of a country, where industrialisation = modernisation = progress = better and healthier life for all…can this keep going infinitely, and should we still be using this definition of development? Does development have to have a negative relationship with the environment? Do indigenous communities need to experience the ‘development’ that we feel is so necessary? What should development really be? And so the questions continue….).

Can I use the terms ‘ecosystem services’ (which my thesis is technically meant to be studying) if the word ‘service’ has the, now obvious, connotations of the natural world being in service to humans, further propagating an anthropocentric view of humans as ‘dominators’ of the environment? A view which I find contrasts to my own? But then again, I find the acknowledgement through the ecosystem service discourse of our dependence on the natural world a very necessary and beneficial one.  My limited social science training has shown me that our language is key to shaping how we view and experience the world, so should I be using the terms ‘ecosystem services’?

Another set of uncomfortable questions I need to ask myself are what my own position is in my research. I am, very obviously, a white female who is well-educated. How does my background influence my research? How will I be viewed in Indonesian Borneo, and do I have any right to comment on how Indonesians live or even how they relate to their forests? Do I have a right to represent them? The word ‘colonialism’ scares me (and makes me Skype my sister in a terror of “I don’t want to be an eco-colonialist!!” or any type of colonialist for that matter…see here for a Wikipedia page on what I mean). Power roles (and my place in them) terrify me.

So, while I love the challenge of stepping outside my comfort zone, into a new area which I believe I, as well as my final thesis, will truly benefit from (i.e. bridging the worlds of natural sciences and social sciences…a bridge which I also believe is completely necessary for both worlds to make), I sometimes miss the easy-going butterflies in the forest.

butterfly 2

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2 responses to “PhDiaries: The identity crisis

  1. Pingback: Writing environment: uncomfortable journalism | EcoPost·

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