Should Academic Research be “Pure?”

In doing some reading about professionalization, and some research on the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, one of the forbears of the American Chemical Society), I came across the presidential address of J. Lawrence Smith, a chemist and president of AAAS in 1873.  The discussion covers several topics, but prior to reading Smith’s lecture, I was reading an article by Andrew Abbott, “Status and Strain in the Professions,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Jan., 1981), pp. 819-835 where Abbott states, “Over time, professional knowledge develops a system of such relative judgments of purity and impurity. . . the accretion of such judgments produces a social structure in which these judgments are loosely associated with positions in a division of labor” (p. 13).  In other words, professionals within a field eventually determine what is “pure” professional practice and what falls outside of that.  Overall, this is not a particularly controversial statement, what I found in my reading in AAAS though, is that it reflects a moment when the exact process Abbot describes happened.

The first part of Smith’s address is about the division between application of research (specifically inventors) and “pure science” (Smith’s words), meaning research without specific practical application.  Smith goes on to argue that such pure science is the basis for the inventions that follow.  Again, nothing particularly surprising here since such arguments were not unique to Smith.  He goes on to say though in a discussion of why science in America is less respected than that of Europe that “What can a physicist, a chemist or a naturalist, do who has three or four classes to teach, usually in the most elementary part of their studies ? This very labor unfits him for that free exercise of the mind which leads to new ideas and discoveries. He becomes an educational drudge instead of an intellectual scientist.”  Toward the end of the address, in a reflection about science and religion, Smith states that “any chemist who would quit his method of investigation, of marking every foot of his advance by some indelible imprint, and go back to the speculations of Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, and other alchemists of former ages, would soon be dropped from the list of chemists and ranked with dreamers and speculators.”  Overall, Smith seems to be arguing for two characteristics of a scientist.  First they should be free to do research and not be burdened with teaching.  Second, they should stay within a narrowly defined area and not move into philosophical speculations of previous eras.

From a modern viewpoint there is nothing controversial here.  Smith is basically arguing for what is more or less the current definition of a tenure track professor.  I am more interested in what the contrary view might have been.  It would seem that people like J. Lawrence Smith were arguing against a different viewpoint which, hypothetically, would state that teaching in universities should be more important and that philosophical speculations are a part of the job of a professor.  Clearly Smith here is reflecting the kinds of trends that Abbott identifies in which “purity” becomes an important part of professional identity.  Additionally, Smith himself went on to help found a professional society in which chemistry arguably became more pure because it was not mixed in with other sessions about the other sciences.

Why is all of this important?  Today debates about interdisciplinarity have become more important as we seek to understand issues such as climate change, social phenomena occurring on the internet, or the interdependencies between economics, politics, and culture in a global context.  Harvey Graff in his book Undisciplining Knowledge, however, suggests that “Throughout this history, and still today, efforts to understand interdisciplinary are marked by a signal failure to scrutinize definitions, disciplinary and interdisciplinary relationships, and the locations, organization, and institutionalization of declared or developing interdisciplines” (p. 215)  Furthermore, Graff argues that “What is at stake is nothing less than the framing of efforts to make progress on major intellectual and social problems; issues of public policy; expectations and anticipations; the allocation of resources, including the time and efforts of people and institutions; the articulation of organizations and structures; and professional careers and human lives” (p. 214).  Perhaps in light of modern debates it would be helpful to think about this earlier debate in which one side (that of creating a “pure” professional discipline) won.  The question is whether the forces that allowed them to triumph are similar today, and whether it might be time for a different framework (that of a less pure and less professionalized discipline) might be valuable in modern universities.


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