Is research fundamentally selfish?

In a recent discussion about research topics, a professor of mine commented to me that research is always fundamentally selfish. Perhaps we really are "fascinated" or "intrigued" by unknown history of far reaching parts of the world, and perhaps we really can't get enough of whatever strange topic picques our interest, be it Suffi inscriptions, diaries of an old 18th century Chinese intellectual, or (in my case) Chinese elementary school textbooks. But what my professor claimed is that whatever research interests pulls us in the most is that intriguing to us because it addresses a personal and existential crisis of our own, either directly or metaphorically.

An example of this actually presented itself today in one of my classes, ironically completely unrelated to aforementioned discussion. We were discussing Fernand Braudel's historie totale, his overwhelmingly large work on the history of the Mediterranean. While we didn't read all 1200 pages of this massive undertaking (truthfully, we only read introductions and reviews), from what we did read we caught a glimpse of his approach and from that, the reason he decided to take on this massive history of the Mediterranean sea. His approach was almost entirely structural; he talked at length in his introduction about the need to take away agency from individuals, and deemphasize the individual. Individuals do not make history, history makes the individual. Instead, he pointed to anthropomorphized structures such as economics, trade, and most importantly, geography. It is these structures that change history, not individuals, though it takes this "total history" approach to see structural cycles.

Braudel's personal history had a large influence upon his work. He studied at the Sorbonne, and there became immediately turned off by their emphasis on diplomatic history, individual history, and the history of the French Revolution. During WWII, he spent time in a Nazi prison camp, which is actually where he drafted much of what would become his history of the Mediterranean.

Our discussion led us to wonder his reasons for taking on this historie totale, and why he took the approach that he did. Clearly he was reacting against the traditional narrative approach that emphasizes individual agency. But we discussed that perhaps it was more than that. By shifting agency from the individual to non-living structures, we take away from individuals their legitimacy for holding immense amounts of power. In essence, through this kind of history writing, we demonstrate that really no one leader can fully change history. This clearly has political implications considering the time within which this was written. We posited that perhaps Braudel felt that diplomatic and individual history was in fact irresponsible. This way of thinking about history, that a few agents can change it, created disastrous results. We paved the way for people like Hitler and Mussolini to take the power that they did. By stripping those in power of their effective agency, we strip them of their total power. And sitting in a Nazi German prison camp, we can see why a "recreation" of historical thinking was so attractive and vital to Braudel.

So what about me? I never sat in a Chinese prison (thank goodness). This is really never something I have thought about. I've never needed to justify my interest in China; most people either point to China's growing economic hold over the world order or a personal (often) orientalized interest in the exotic. But thinking about it now, China is a very far away place. I have no vested interests in China, I have no relatives there; my personal identity is not directly tied to China in any way. So what existential crisis am I trying to solve in my own research.

Perhaps I should leave China for a moment and take a more thematic approach to this question. One area of history that my questions always seem to come back to is education, and more specifically, textbooks. I tried to think back about my own education, looking for answers there. The root of my interest in education, actually, comes back to a book I remember reading my freshman year of college called Lies My Teacher Told Me. The author came and spoke at our school, talking to us about the problems with American history textbooks (this lecture also made me very thankful for my American history textbook in high school, it did not have a lot of the problems Loewen outlined in his book). This book, and later on classes and discussions I had with others in Hong Kong, made me wonder how we come to believe what we do about our own countries. There was a specific moment when I had a huge wake up call and became self aware of my reflex-patriotism. A professor in a class about Japanese nationalism gave an introductory lecture about nationalist theory. He claimed, very bluntly, that the two most nationalistic countries in the world right now are America and China. To make his point about America (most people in the class, Europeans and Hong Kongers, did not need to be convinced of his argument about China) he asked me, the only American in the class, to stand and say the pledge of allegiance. Almost reflexively, without thought, I stood and said it at light speed, like I always did when I was a child, not even thinking that this would be strange to others in any way. The reaction from my peers shocked me; they looked at me wide eyed, and their shock and judgment was clear as day on their faces. I became suddenly embarrassed (and angry at the professor; it seemed like he knew the reaction I would incite). This got me thinking about my reflexive response. Why could I say the Pledge of Allegiance in my sleep? Why do I actually unconsciously believe that the US government is always a force of good? Why do I feel guilty if I don't immediately answer yes to the question "would you die for your country?" Where do these subconscious feelings come from?

Perhaps my existential crisis I want to solve by looking at education is my obsession with my own country and my subconscious patriotic spirit. The emotions I feel when people insult my country, the guilt I feel for not defending her, the fact that I automatically refer to America as a person (a woman, no less), all point to an instilled patriotism. More interestingly, if I were to study these emotive knee-jerk reactions in another time, I would probably subconsciously think of them as brainwashed (which, admittedly, I catch myself doing from time to time while researching China). Why, in my subconscious, is American history education objective and other countries' are not? The truth is, I couldn't imagine not feeling patriotic. So to be more specific, perhaps my existential crisis is related to my inability to see a world with no countries, and more importantly, an inability to see myself as anything other than an American patriot. And in some way or another, I want to find out why my subconscious automatically reverts back to this emotive patriotic reflex.

There is a very real possibility that this is not it at all. Similarly, I have a lot of interests, most recently in the province of Xinjiang (part of me wonders if this is just my travel bug yearning for Uzbekistan). But I hope to, throughout the year, take some time here and there to explore not only possible research interests, but also their connection to me. As my professor pointed out (and I agree), this can add a whole new dimension to my research, and allow me to see things I might otherwise not see.