For Its Own Sake

I don’t think the basic researcher has an obligation to apply what he or she discovers.

—Marshall Duke, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology


Vol. 7 No. 3
December 2004/January 2005

For Its Own Sake
When knowledge isn't for sale

How you package and promote your knowledge is equally as important as how to produce world-class knowledge. Jagdish Sheth, Charles H. Kellstadt Professor of Marketing

I don’t think the basic researcher has an obligation to apply what he or she discovers.
Marshall Duke, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology

The Negative Benefits of Historical Study
On not applying the lessons of the past
Patrick Allitt, Professor of History

Teaching the Teachers
Reinventing graduate and postdoctoral education
Pat Marsteller, Senior Lecturer in Biology and Director of
the Emory College Center for Science Education

Further reading

Poetry Happens
The power and popularization of an ancient art at Emory


Return to Contents

Academic Exchange: What obligation does a scholar have to conduct research that is mission driven, and what is the place for the creation of knowledge for its own sake?

Marshall Duke: Both basic research and applied research have important places in the realm of inquiry. I don’t think the basic researcher has an obligation to apply what he or she discovers. The obligation is to discover and to understand. The capacity to do these things is different from the capacity to translate basics into applications. More often than not, these skills don’t reside in the same scientists. Therefore, discovery and application occur within the same science, but not within the same scientist. The creation of knowledge for its own sake is clearly a worthy enterprise. One can never know what will become of a bit of new knowledge even if, when it is discovered, there is no apparent place for it. As Louis Pasteur said, “In the fields of observation chance favors the prepared mind.” The smarter you are, the luckier you are.

AE: How would you describe your approach to your work?

MD: I’m an academic clinical psychologist, which means I’m trained in the Boulder model of clinical psychology; I’m both a researcher and clinician. This model says that the clinician functions in the clinical setting with a researcher’s eye. If something in the clinical domain strikes me as researchable, I go back to the lab with the clinical questions or observations to see if I can understand it better, the expectation being that once I do
I will take that back to the clinical setting.

AE: What are you interested in right now?

MD: My work extends from clinical observation that arose over many years from my and others’ experience of noticing that if a child knows a lot about his family, his prognosis seems to be better than for children who are disconnected from their family’s past. So we’ve asked, What makes some people extremely resistant to the sturm and drang of life? What is it about this clinical observation regarding the effects of knowing one’s family history?

What I’m talking about is when families talk to one another in such a way to develop or maintain a story of their family that seems to fit together. If it’s Christmas and a family sees someone collecting money for the Salvation Army, the family narrative might be, “We’re people who give to others.” So that family would talk about giving and charity. It establishes an identity in children; it’s the ongoing telling of the story, processing the information, telling kids in Bogartian fashion, “You must remember this; we’re editing out a lot of garbage, but remember this.”

AE: How are family stories typically passed on?

MD: Sociologists call the storytellers “kin keepers,” who are responsible for maintaining the sense of family. Often the oldest woman in the family, such as the grandmother, tells the stories intergenerationally. Because most families don’t have a written history, it’s probably a defensible and logical assumption that what children know about their families is what they hear orally. There are also stories that carry a legend quality to them. There are more stories than you might imagine of the odd uncle or aunt—the person who didn’t marry or had unsuccessful marriages, but lived a sort of fringy life. Stories get told about them, usually heroic stories. Then there are the heroic stories about even more distant ancestors who did special things, like invented something or fought in a war. Veracity is secondary. The story is told over and over, and it changes each time.

AE: Are you comfortable telling families under your care to share stories more frequently?

MD: Yes. I feel confident that we can start saying that, and we should encourage that. It can’t hurt. That’s the clinician talking. The researcher in me says that we need to see what it is about the telling of stories—the knowing—that is necessary and sufficient. If we take families that don’t tell enough stories and get them to tell them, does the family get stronger? That’s where were going now with a new sample of families. In my practice I’ve observed that kids begin to ask more questions directed at improving their coping skills. Children may ask about how the family dealt with a house fire, and you know that they are questions for future use. Children like stories that have problems, a solution, and some awareness in the outcome. One of the most common stories is a parent saying, “When I was in school I had the exact same problem . . .” and relating how they solved it. We also know that stories engage people in ways that lectures don’t. Moral fables and religious fables have been going on for centuries, and stories have a magical quality. If you can tailor them to problems a child brings, they can actually make a difference.