What is this study trying to find out? Perhaps I should spell it out in a separate post. This post basically fits into almost all categories on this blog… but that’s ok, I suppose it is because it’s actually a summary of the blog rationale.
So. (said with a German accent).
What careers and livelihoods do people have in mathematics? How are working lives shaped by working as a mathematician? What would have been different, if they weren’t mathematicians? What does it mean to be a mathematician? What does the lifecourse of a mathematician look like? What key stages, events, breaks, dis/continuities does it have? Why do mathematicians do maths, and what else do they (have to, enjoy to) do? How do others decide that you are ‘fit’ to be a mathematician? How, in practice, does one get to become a mathematician? How does one choose in what bit of mathematics to specialise? How does one learn to speak like a mathematician? I want to know in what terms mathematicians talk about their own lives, how they make sense of their profession. Who is a mathematician?
But I’m not only concerned with individuals. A sociologist cannot understand mathematical lives separated from the institutions that mathematicians ‘inhabit’. How do these institutions function, according to what rules, and who makes up those rules? It is all very good to say that mathematics is the ideal objective science, or at least as close to objective as any field of inquiry can be. But even so, the living and breathing and thinking mathematicians that create and use and explain mathematics also inhabit the same real imperfect world as everyone else; they also negotiate ‘mundane’ things such as finding jobs and writing down the stuff they have thought about; how do they square these two worlds, of ‘mathematics’ and of ‘everyday life’, and how do they translate between them? More importantly, how do they themselves see these two (or maybe just one?) world?
As someone who is not a mathematician, I am an outsider to the world of mathematics. A lot has been written about insider and outsider sociological research, so I won’t expand on this here just yet. I will, later. But I’ll also make sure I discuss this with others, some of whom will be sociologists, and some mathematicians (and maybe some will be neither!).
For now, I define “mathematician” narrowly: as a scientist working professionally in the field of mathematics (regardless of whether it is pure, applied, both, or somewhere in between, or whether the mathematician rejects the pure/applied divide). S/he is usually attached to a university or research institute. S/he may be involved in teaching and/or writing and/or research. At the moment I focus only on mathematicians who do research, although it would be interesting to see alternative pathways, e.g. mathematicians who have wanted to do research, and have ended up branching out in other activities, e.g. specialising in school teaching.
I’m starting this project with two very simple conjectures.
First, working in mathematics is just like any other job. It can be described in terms such as work, employment, career, labour, profession, livelihood, labour market, or vocation. It involves things that one does every day, and things one must (or must not) do, in order to qualify as a mathematician. It combines aspects of intellectual, physical, and emotional labour. It can involve mundane tasks, creativity, management, reading, writing, public speaking, publishing, editing, advising younger people or one’s peers, thinking, discussing, presenting ideas, experiments (physical or imagined), the need to organise people, things and ideas, travel, job-hunting, and much more. Mathematical research and teaching is organised into a sectoral ‘labour market’ with its own sub-labour markets – or at least can be analysed in labour market terms or as a “subsector” of science, as is common nowadays. The mathematical community has its internal formal and informal networks. It has rules and freedoms, and usually-taken-for-granted truths (or conventions, as Boltanski and Thevenot would put it). A sociologist can discover trends and compare mathematical (working) lives to ones in other careers and jobs.
Second, working in mathematics is different from all other jobs, in and out of science. It has specifics which make it special and distinct. Working as a mathematician affects your career, your life course, your options and choices, your difficulties, your social and spatial mobility, potential circles of friends or partners, the meaning you attach to work, the reasons and motivations that urge you to work, and the variety of typical and unique life-paths that you are likely to experience throughout the span of your working life. In other words, being a mathematician shapes your identity and your biography in a unique way, as well as just providing you with something to do and putting bread on the table (how easy it is to earn one’s livelihood as a mathematician, man or woman, is a related question).