Where is the soul of research?

I recently finished reading “Shop Class as Soul Craft,” by Matthew Crawford (see my review). He argues for the merits of trade or craft worker, such as that of plumbers and mechanics and (some) doctors and carpenters and so on. These occupations share a fundamental connection to the real world and a dedication to improving it in some particular way. (Crawford has an odd tendency to also refer to these jobs as the “stochastic arts”. Here he seems to use “stochastic” to mean “trying to fix a system that you didn’t design and therefore cannot fully control”, which is rather a departure from the typical meaning of the word.)

In Crawford’s view, the opposite of a trade worker is a “knowledge worker,” someone who manipulates abstract bits of knowledge, often using a computer. This is the occupation family to which many are urged these days, freeing workers from a specific place of business (“work from home!”) and often from specific tangible output (“I developed a template for a work process for the development of websites to stimulate creativity!”).

Knowledge work gets a bad rap in this book. As a knowledge worker myself, I can see and agree with the problems Crawford points out. Number one is the lack of a specific result, or at least a meaningful specific result. A mechanic can point at a car that now runs. There’s no obvious way for me to measure productivity and success in my job that translates so directly into helping others, or reducing entropy, or any other self-evident good. Instead my productivity, at the rare times when any attempt is made to quantify it, is measured via indirect quantities like the number of papers published or the number of grant dollars won. These are so far removed from actual significance or impact that it’s hard to feel genuine pride or accomplishment if they go up, or genuine lack if they go down. I think this is why I find volunteering at the library ultimately more satisfying; although I’m engaged at a “lower” or more “simplistic” level, in the end I can actually count how many books I’ve shelved or patrons I’ve helped or donations I’ve sorted. The result of my work is self-evident. I agree with Crawford that there’s something good for the soul in being able to see the fruits of your labor like this.

Crawford also argues that a benefit of craft or trade work is that it forces us to submit ourselves to an external order. Either the plumbing leaks or it doesn’t. This is dictated by the constraints of physics, in terms of how water flows and whether there’s a gap in the fittings. You can’t redefine the rules or wish the problem away; instead, you work within those constraints to fix the problem. He sees this as a good prescription for avoiding narcissism. I can definitely see this, too. In research, it is easy to redefine the evaluation metric, or experimental methodology, and totally change the outcome, because you have control over the rules of the world.

For these two reasons (lack of meaningful metrics, and the ability to redefine the constraints at will), it is supremely hard to know whether you are actually good at such a job, and whether you ever improve. In a statement that perhaps stuck with me the most, Crawford writes, “To be capable of sustaining our interest, a job has to have room for progress in excellence.” Stated that way, it seems obvious that a job with nebulous and shifting measurements of output would ultimately lack motivation. And so the question arises, for me personally: Where is the “soul” in research? How can I find concrete ways that the work to which I devote most of my waking hours actually matters? How will I ever know whether I’m getting better at what I do? Is this gap due to a lack of imagination on my part, or a fundamental problem with the type of work itself? Would my energies be better spent doing something else?

I recommend the book to anyone interested in these same questions.