Where Are You From?

One of my mentors, Jack McLeod at the University of Wisconsin, told a crew of new doctoral students to dig deep into theory and understand its roots.

Jack’s longtime collaborator, Steven Chaffee, wrote a gem of a book on concept explication that advises theorists to get to the heart of a concept by examining all its parts and their origins. To understand what a term means you need to drill down. Deeply.

Jack had another piece of advice. He encouraged us to look at where the theorist came from: what is her background? Biases? And how do her origins temper her work?

Take for example the scholar Edward Said, whose book Orientalism focuses on Western hegemony and prejudice, and is required reading for anyone studying politics. Said reportedly grew up heavily conflicted: his father was a US citizen of Palestinian descent and his mother was from Lebanese origins. Born in Jerusalem (Palestine) and fluent in English and Arabic, Said lived in two worlds, never sure where he belonged and never “at home.”

This conflicted upbringing indelibly informed Said’s work.

Sometime it’s not obvious how your past informs your work, as scholars of Native Science know. Words like “science” cannot be found in most indigenous languages, perhaps because science isn’t segregated from the worldviews embraced by Native peoples. But that doesn’t mean indigenous people didn’t engage in scientific pursuits.

Knowing how your past informs your work can be a soothing tonic. Some Indians raised in boarding schools shunned all aspects of formal education, a sentiment shared by their children and grandchildren.

But others used this experience to create schools for their tribes, reinvigorate language instruction and continue cultural traditions.

Here’s my addition to Jack McLeod’s advice to examine the origins of the theorist (not just the theory): as you make your way through your studies, consider what is driving your pursuits. Knowing yourself helps you understand your work.

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
This entry was posted in authenticity, framing, Indian, Native Science, science, writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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