romantic science

I have just finished reading Purchasing Power by Elizabeth Chin, which was recommended to me recently as a fine example of an ethnographic study about children. Chin researched two years with black children in a poor neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut. And it is a good read, almost like a novel drawing you into a certain kind of world, which is foreign, at least to me, except that the author did ethnographic research. I have always found this interesting, books like that, which reach the borderline of genres.

Last year I read Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, because I wanted to understand more about football culture, something that is completely alien to me. It is an autobiography novel bordering on the ethnographic ‘thick description’, and I don’t think any serious study or cultural studies paper could have given me a better insight into the world of football fans.

Chin being an anthopologist and researcher, not a novelist, keeps one very emotional scene outside the actual study: In the afterword of the book she descibes the farewell between herself and a child she has been involved with closely for two years.

And she writes: “Love is mysterious knowledge. I knew Tionna as well as I did in part because I came to love her; this, I believe, is crucial to the practice of anthropology and there is no point in denying it. This kind of mysterious knowledge neither replaces objectivity nor renders it impossible, although they exist in tension with each other. Learning to manage love and science in relationships, as a fieldworker must, is a little like having two brains. Not always a comfortable experience.”

In science as well as in art, the work process is always accompanied or even driven by feelings, sometimes they are more in the foreground, and sometimes not; they may be curiosity, passion, ambition, fear, a liking for risk, or love. I have always thought that there is no reason, that love and science should not be able to be reconciled, because as Chin writes, love provides a particular and privileged kind of knowledge. Especially in researching children, I would find it impossible to keep love out of it. Just as loving children will not make you a lesser teacher, loving people should not make you a lesser researcher. It is really about reconciling the ‘two brains’ – the rational, analytical, logical and systematic on the one side and the holistic, emotional, aesthetic, spontaneous on the other.

It was Alexander Nuria, the great Russian neuropsychologist, who sought to reconcile the two, though “a methodology that combines theory and practice through deep involvement in the lives of individuals over time” (Cole 1997). Nuria found it not enough to conduct science in the traditional sense, arriving at a understanding of neurology derived through conventional scientific method, meant to focus on detail and to arrive at general conclusions. He also wanted to understand human beings as a whole, and as individuals, and wrote fascinating case studies of patients with neurological disorders, which tell us more about both the person and the relationship between researcher and researched. He called this “romantic science”.

As Oliver Sacks wrote here Luria was the founder of classical neuropsychology, “yet he also felt, from an early age, that no “classical” science, no reductive approach, could ever embrace the fullness, the reality of a life.” Romantic Science is “a science which embraced the fullness of what it means to be a unique individual”. Sacks himself followed Luria in his way of writing both from “the perspective of analytic, reductive science, and second, from that of a “romantic” narrative and an almost novelistic science”. He says, “Luria’s endeavour – combining classical and romantic, anatomy and art, science and narrative – has become my own.”

Luria’s novelistic case studies took 60 years to publish, Chin put some of her ‘romantic’ observations in the afterword of her work. I am glad they wrote them down.

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