dissertating on thin ice

(23 January 2010)

One Sunday of an unseasonably warm weekend, I hauled out the bicycle and decided to try my luck on the bike trail. Had it been warm enough, for long enough, for all the ice on the densely tree-shrouded path to melt?  No. I approached the first patch with determination, choosing the path of most visible pavement, where the tracks of others had contributed to wearing down the ice. That was a mistake. I did not fall, but the ruts and grooves grabbed the tires, forcing me along channels contrary to my desired direction, threatening to pitch me into the trees.

What to do?

I rode until the next patch of ice and dismounted, walking its expanse, struck by the parallels with writing the dissertation, and especially with the process of negotiating the action research follow-up.  There are so many typical paths of reaction and response, how can I avoid being sucked along a vortex of assumptions that winds up replicating dynamics that have played out before?DSCN0648

It is the dilemma of agency in the face of organization. There are many cross-cutting forces, occurring at nested levels of interaction….is it possible to retain awareness of an alternative chronotope at the crucial moments? Can one dissent from expected norms while maintaining not only personal integrity but also respect for the motivations of others who are doing their jobs as best they understand them? I decided to experiment. What if I ride where others haven’t?

It was tense! I could make headway on the snowy-ice mixture if I focused hard on relaxing. It seemed counter-intuitive, but I trusted what I’ve been learning about physics. The forward momentum had more inertia than the jerks to the front wheel if I could just manage to trust a casual grip on the handlebars, give a bit with each jolt and allow an intuitive sense of balance to keep me upright. As long as I didn’t overreact, or stop paying attention, I could ride over the slippery terrain without resorting to the established routes. But for how long can one avoid pre-grooved channels? It is much easier to manage the calibration when it was just me and the ground! As soon as I encountered other people I chose to dismount; the congestion was too risky – now a fall wouldn’t just hurt me, it could potentially injure others, too.

Call it a chance encounter….

Walking, I meet a physicist and his wife. We chat about bicycle-riding on ice. I’ve been puzzling over the relatively inaccurate diction of social theorists in describing social phenomena.  For instance, “tension.”  I’m guilty of using this word too, don’t we all?!  My suspicion is that the use of this term by engineers (for instance) is much more precise.  Tension involves at least two forces, not just one. What do social theorist mean when they use this term?  Do they have only elongation in mind?  Only compression?  The combination of the two? Have they located the position of either the strain (of elongation) or the stress (of compression)? Is there a particular conceptualization of the relationship, like engineers have with their stress-strain curves? Why are social theorists so sure that the imagery, the meaning, ascribed to labeling something a “tension” is uniformly shared by all readers and writers using it?  The possible variations seem to me quite significant!

“Why do they do that?” the physicist asked me. The only answer I have is that I think there is a general assume of understanding. English speakers, anyway, assume we all mean the same thing, that we are referring to a singular phenomenon with which we are all familiar and agree is unproblematic (in the sense of its labeling).  His wife, however, shared with me the real gem of the day.  Such are the signs by which I decide I’m on a useful investigation! 😉


The original Greek for tension is harmonia, and – get this! – the original definition is not “harmony” (although my quick googling gives this common sense)  but, rather, harmonia refers to the tuning of a lyre to get it to the right pitch. Calibration, baby! I’ll need to learn more about the mathematical application in geometry, particularly this application: “A famous one line argument shows that calibrated p-submanifolds minimize volume within their homology class.”  Part of the argument I’m developing (in my imagination, if not as much on paper, yet!) is that calibrating to timespace influences the use of space and maybe even the shape of place. I am referring directly to Bakhtin’s chronotope, of which I’m unsatisfied with current available explanations on the web but the notes by Taylor Atkins are a decent beginning if you’re unfamiliar with Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel.

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