Foxes and Hedgehogs

August 1, 2010

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.


9 Responses to “Foxes and Hedgehogs”

  1. GMP Says:

    Very nicely put.

  2. Thanks for the shout-out, Comrade.

    In defense of the hedgehog: there’s a depth of knowledge there that I do respect. Staying in one topic area does not necessarily mean that one has become calcified. The advisor I refer to in my post? I fucking revere that man. He demanded depth of knowledge. But he also respected innovative approaches that he wouldn’t necessarily use.

    On the other hand, I think that I, like you, was even a bit of a fox when I was a hedgehog, combining two fields of study that really didn’t go together. I think it worked; we’ll see what the reviewers say, no?

  3. Namnezia Says:

    What about the hedgehog wearing the fox’s outfit? This is someone who has developed a “hot new technique” which then collaborates with a gazillion people who want to take advantage of the technique in their studies. This makes the faux-fox seem like it is being interdisciplinary and collaborative, but all it can do is this one really good trick, without providing much intellectual content to the collaborative project. Would you consider this creature a fox or a hedgehog?

  4. drugmonkey Says:

    “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. ”

    You might want to re-read that a couple of times, homes.

  5. There’s a difference between pigeonholing foxes and dickslapping clueless fuckups who don’t know what the fuck they are talking about.

  6. Nat Says:

    You mean you’re not pigeonholing all hedgehogs as “clueless fuckups” that need dickslapping?

    Kinda sounds like you are.

  7. rehctaw Says:

    Don’t know from foxes and hedgehogs. I tagged them gunners and lizards “back in the day”.

    While the gunners were polishing apples, knobs and turds to garner favor, the lizards would lay back and just soak it all in.

    Fucking gunners would deliberately extend Q&A, planning and plotting Qs they knew would elicit long, involved blowhole responses in masturbutorial splendor.

    If this is not much the same as you’re describing, I don’t have a fucking clue what you’re saying.

  8. Batocchio Says:

    The fox-hedgehog distinction can be useful, but also terribly limiting and inane. I’m strongly into the interdisciplinary approach as well. I left a longer comment over at Notorious PhD’s on pigeonholing in the arts.

  9. Spiny Norman Says:

    @Namnezia — that can be a very reliable road to professional success, especially if it involves getting your institution to invest in preposterously expensive hardware that would be useless without you.

    Personally, of course, I’d rather draw a warm bath and open a vein…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: