Why basic research matters II: John Sivell
John Sivell, Applied Linguistics, Brock University | December 11, 2013
Currently, we hear a lot about the value of research that focuses on a manifestly practical application. This argument seems to reflect the tradition of high-level technical education that began in the period of the Industrial Revolution, and plainly there is much to recommend it. But there is also a risk in presenting this perspective: we need to avoid underestimating the complex evolutionary development of core insights that can and do have a world-changing practical impact on daily life.
I work in Linguistics, a very interdisciplinary domain that is usually homed in the Humanities. This matters to me, because I sense a general undervaluation of Humanities research and education. I trust that that misperception will eventually fall back out of fashion.
I am concerned, however with a more lasting bias against encouraging the kind of non-linear, intellectually rich environment that can foster new ideas and discoveries and even lead to practical applications. New understandings emerge quite unexpectedly, and virtually never in a predictable way.
To get a sense of the value of pure intellectual exploration, consider the very old philosophical tradition to view the world in terms of contrasts. In the early part of the 20th Century, that underlying theme surfaced in the form of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s brilliantly simply concept that human language could be effectively explained as a system of contrasts, so that by focusing on langue (language as an abstract system) rather than parole (individual language codes) it would be possible to understand psycholinguistic and philosophical characteristics of communication that would not be remotely so apparent to scholars concentrating just on English, French, German, and so on. That leap forward has driven the development of thinking in Linguistics and in Communication Studies.
At about the middle of the century, American mathematician Claude Shannon advanced another type of system relying on opposites: this time, a mathematical theory of electronic communication in which patterns of contrast had the capacity to provide the redundancy necessary for overcoming interference from noise on the line. His work is one of the key foundations for the communications revolution that led to the digital world on which so many of us rely today.
Unquestionably, Shannon’s discovery is a veritable poster child for practically applicable research, and it might even be taken as a foil for Saussure’s fascinating but essentially impractical line of thinking.
Shannon himself does not mention Saussure, but he does refer admiringly to the work of Norbert Weiner on cybernetics. And semiotician N. Katherine Hayles links not only Weiner with Saussure, but also Saussure with Shannon. Of course, such a circuitous provenance definitely does not constitute a tightly-linked chain of direct influences, but perhaps this is exactly the point. While curiosity-based research, scholarly thinking, and education may or may not trigger any immediate practical outcome, the constant value of such efforts is that they flow into the exciting intellectual environment in which all sorts of thinkers and researchers operate.
It is evident that Saussure himself was simply curious about language; he clearly had no intention of presenting a theory that might be commercially profitable. But by the time Shannon – who did have commercial applications in mind – came onto the scene, Saussure’s theory was ‘in the air’: available to Shannon as a very useful concept. Shannon may not even have been aware of Saussure, but he surely was aware of Saussure’s ideas.
In fine, Shannon did not work in a bubble entirely isolated from other intellectuals. And that, surely, is the major take-away from this example. The distinction between what is or is not ‘useful’ or ‘practical’ research or education depends very much on how narrowly and superficially one decides to view the matter. Using a term from another perhaps ‘impractical’-looking linguist, Michael Halliday, it is a question of delicacy, the degree of finesse with which definitions are framed: too little delicacy, and everything flows into everything else and informative categorizations become impossible; but too much, and the sledgehammer of oversimplified precision fractures the very pattern one initially set out to clarify.
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Noreen Fagan | December 18, 2014Here’s a fun fact – Canadians eat more sushi than the Japanese. At least that’s what Mark Cleveland says, and he should know. Cleveland is a professor of marketing at Western University. His research focuses on the integration of cultures on a global scale and the effects of cosmopolitanism, which according to Cleveland is, “the cultural openness and the ability to successfully navigate between different cultural groups.” In other words, people who want to understand and experience other cultures do so by fully immersing themselves in that culture. “You want to live the life of cultural authenticity, by trying to understand the culture through that culture’s eyes,” he says. Cleveland’s interest in cultural openness started when he was a Master’s and then a Ph.D. student at Concordia University in Montreal. He started researching how new immigrants, primarily ethic minorities, adapted to Canadian culture by finding ways to combine their traditional identities, culture and values into mainstream society. “I have always believed that just because you learn another culture does not mean you give up the original culture. You can be bicultural or multicultural and the two can reinforce each other,” says Cleveland. “Not only are minorities affected by cultural exchange but the majority are as well.” Canada’s multiculturalism prompted Cleveland to extend his research into globalization, with a focus on how global cultures affect majority populations around the world. In the last decade Cleveland has conducted research in 15 to 20 countries exploring cultural exchange and cosmopolitanism. He says a person no longer has to travel abroad – although it helps – to become cosmopolitan. A person can experience different cultures in the comfort of their own home or neighbourhood, simply by watching TV, surfing the Internet, playing videos on You Tube or buying and consuming different products. “When we buy products, and types of brands and the reasons for buying them, they are like extensions of ourselves,” he says. So how do the sushi–eating Canadians fit into all of this? Cleveland believes if a person wants to experience cultural authenticity they will gear their shopping towards achieving that aim. In other words, a person is not going to go for the North American version of sushi (think Californian Roll), when they can get the real thing – think Unagi. He says there is probably a general global trend towards cultural openness as people become more educated and have more exposure to other cultures but he warns, there is another side. “A lot of people are really opposed to what is happening with Globalization and they see their culture as under threat,” says Cleveland adding that the threat is heightened when people feel insecure. If people are feeling secure in their surroundings (financially, emotionally and physically), the more open they are to cultural exchange and the more cosmopolitan they become. Being cosmopolitan however, does not mean buying local is a thing of the past; in fact what makes cosmopolitans stand out is that they strive for cultural authenticity. “The more cosmopolitan you are means you are not only interested in preserving differences but also interested in the environment, like getting the best locally,” says Cleveland. In terms of cosmopolitanism Cleveland thinks Canadians are more accepting of other cultures. “We are a new country, most of us go back two or three generations and have one or two grandparents born somewhere else. We have a more fluid identity,” he says, adding that as large cities go, Toronto is well integrated. “We are not just living in these areas dominated by our own ethic group, there are more opportunities to mix, and I think that allows us to become more open-minded.”