Who do you work with? – A reflection on pedigree and the relational in research

“Who do you work with?” The question was posed to me more than 20 years ago. It as asked just as I had sat down with a prominent male professor at a prestigious US university. I had got the appointment by emailing him, and was more than ready to talk about my PhD project and to get his insights into how I could to develop it. I had sent him a page outlining my work, to spare him the trouble to read through the full thesis proposal I had just completed before leaving for my 4 month stay in the US. And then this question. I had no idea what it meant, and answered that I had conceived of the project myself and that it had certainly not been handed down to me by some senior scholar. As a visiting PhD student I had just begun to sense that there actually might be a difference between being a Swedish PhD student, treated almost as faculty at home, and an American grad student.

It took more than a decade until I understood that I had given the wrong answer, and that I had completely misunderstood the question. He had asked for my pedigree, because that was a way to assess whether I was someone worthwhile spending time on. I had thought he asked about the provenance of the project. Hence, I had insisted that this was my project and not a project concocted by some professor for whom I worked. I guess that what he heard was that there were no one vouching. Hence, in hindsight, he must have pretty quickly concluded that I was not someone worth spending time on. I do not remember anything else from the meeting. He might actually have given me some suggestions for how to proceed with my work. Yet, what I remember was the feeling that he lost interest already when I answered his first question.

The pivotal moment for my understanding of this question came when I was in the US for a conference. In the lobby during a coffee break I overheard the same question. This time it was uttered by a US-based female professor and at the other end of the question was a PhD student who apparently had an appointment with her. Before the student had had time to answer, the professor had added: “I guess what I’m asking is, whose ‘kid’ are you?” This utterance flashed me back in time to that previous encounter and finally explained to me that the question was a not so subtle probing into a fledgling scholar’s pedigree.

I guess I must be considered to having been simple-minded. I had, at the very least, been incapable of a sufficient degree of reflexivity. I had, after all, already then been well exposed to ideas of networks and relationships. I was well familiar with notions such as the “strength of weak ties” and “structural holes” already before entering into this professor’s office. I had moreover read “Science in action” and other actor-network classics. Hence, the idea that actors and agency can be understood in terms of networks and relations was far from strange to me, at least as analytical concepts. Yet, it is clear that I had not been able to make any such a connections when asked that simple question. I had not been able to put any of the network paraphernalia to work when I took in and answered the question.

I am probably not much smarter now. Yet, I do now have a clearer opinion on what I think about this specific question. The short version is that I think it is an inappropriate question and that it directs attention in the wrong direction.

I firmly believe that research is a social activity. All we do as scholars is relational. To be meaningful, our research needs to tie to previous work by others as well as be related to in subsequent contributions. In short, work need to be part of ongoing conversations. Research is a relational endeavour. Yet, and this is crucial, I do think that the question “Who do you work with?” is very poor way to evoke research as a relational endeavour. It is poor because it uses relations for establishing status and worth rather than to engage with ideas and how these might relate to the ideas of others. To put it bluntly: It performs what we could call an “aristocratic” form of a relational view on research, that is, a form where the worth of ideas and people are seen as determined by their pedigree.