Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Academics vs. Explorers

Last week explorer Mikael Strandberg published an interesting post on his blog about Academics vs. Explorers . The post described some of the tensions that exist between explorers and university professors on issues related to exploration.  I think that many of Mikael’s points ring true: academics are less than comfortable at times collaborating with travelers and explorers on matters of geography, science, anthropology, and exploration.

Mikael Strandberg

Why? I think there are a couple of reasons.

First, academics usually approach their subject matter from a specific viewpoint or research methodology. For example, anthropologists, field biologists, archeologists, and historians all have different frameworks for understanding the world and its peoples. Information obtained from explorers (or other fields) often doesn’t fit very well within these frameworks and, therefore, remains difficult to integrate. Most travelers and explorers, by necessity, need to approach new peoples and new regions with versatility, sensitivity, and creativity. They do not have the time to settle in one place the way an anthropologist does. They cannot carry thousands of pounds of equipment the way archeologists do. They cannot afford to set up their travels as controlled experiments.

Neil Armstrong: subject & expert

Second, academics often don’t know how to categorize explorers. For example, as a historian of exploration, I am interested in the culture, experience, activities, ideas, and biases of explorers. This is the subject of my research. Working with explorers is exciting for me because it sometimes gives me insight into the historical expeditions that I focus on in my work. But it can sometimes also be uncomfortable because I don’t know which hat to wear. Am I a colleague listening to a fellow expert in the field? Or am I an anthropologist, analyzing my subject for information about his or her ideas, beliefs, and behaviors?

Still I think that academics and explorers would benefit from closer contact.

One way explorers might help professionals in general (and academics in particular) is in thinking outside the disciplinary box. Sometimes my greatest insights come from sources far removed from my field of expertise in the history of science and exploration. As Will Thomas has pointed out at Ether Wave Propaganda, historians sometimes forget that their “subjects” are often sophisticated observers of events and their place within them.

One way that explorers might benefit from academics is in looking at exploration more critically. I often hear travelers and explorers speak about exploration in rather visionary terms: as a way of escaping overly commercialized and routinized life in order to find a “core” self….or as a deep-seated, instinctive behavior that humans express in order to achieve their full humanity. While these ideas are inspiring, they don’t really conform with data on the history of explorers and exploration.

Christopher Columbus, Robert Peary, and NASA astronauts all reached “new worlds” far away from the civilizations they knew. Yet all of them remained deeply invested in the practical and personal payoffs of exploration back home (eg. fame, glory, professional advancement). My research leads me to believe that the desire to explore flows as much from the influence of modern culture as it does from our innate drives or inner curiosity.

In the end, however, I am fine if academics and explorers don’t see eye-to-eye as long as they keep talking to each other face to face.

For other posts here on related subjects see:

The Myth of Pure Experience
The Problem of Human Missions to Mars
The Explorer Gene

About these ads

10 Comments»

  Phil Hatfield wrote @

Very interesting as always Michael. In particular it makes me think of the internal debate between the RGS and the IBG here in London last year.

One thing that has always intrigued me (but I’ve not looked into) is the similarities between explorer / traveller and missionary rhetorics. This is of particular interest as I think today there is often a real schism between the two.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Yes Phil, this intrigues me too. I’m starting a project on 19th East Africa’s exploration and — as you know — Livingstone looms large here. I’m just wading in so let me know if you find anything good. What was the RGS-IBG debate about?

  Phil Hatfield wrote @

He does indeed and I’ll look forward to seeing the outcomes of the project (my PhD supervisor is Felix Driver, so it’s always great to see more on Livingstone, Stanley, et al).

To fill you in on the RGS-IBG, last year a motion was brought at the AGM arguing that the society should move from an academic to an exploratory emphasis (although, the extent to which either is privileged is debatable). The debate itself got a little heated and ran along fissures similar to those described in your post. As I recall, there was a rather sardonic Times article by A A Gill about the debate that provided an interesting spin.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

I will go looking for the Gill article. Funny how this issue keeps coming round and round again. NASA’s going through its own version of this as well.

  Quick Links | A Blog Around The Clock wrote @

[...] Academics versus explorers and Academics vs. Explorers [...]

  Alastair Humphreys wrote @

I think you’ll find this post interesting on Digital Explorer – links to the point of this piece: http://digitalexplorer.com/2010/10/29/the-politics-of-exploration/

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Thanks Alastair – its an interesting post and a fascinating debate. I might try to write more about the RGS-IBG dust up soon. And thanks for all of your kind words about my blog lately. Much appreciated!

[...] Michael Robinson reviews a post by explorer Mikael Strandberg about Academics vs. Explorers : The post described some of the tensions that exist between explorers and university professors on issues related to exploration.  I think that many of Mikael’s points ring true: academics are less than comfortable at times collaborating with travelers and explorers on matters of geography, science, anthropology, and exploration. [...]

  isabel marant sale wrote @

Most people can be benefited from your writing. Cheers!

  kennyrayamajhi wrote @

Reblogged this on whatever.


Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,646 other followers

%d bloggers like this: