My ongoing research is about science as work and, in particular, mathematics as work (or play).
You can read a brief official description at the project’s archived webpage at the University of Warwick where I was based between 2013 and 2016; and a more fun description at my research blog, Matters Mathematical.
This research grew out of my long-standing personal fascination with mathematics and the sociology of science, and came to fruition thanks to a three-year Leverhulme Early Career fellowship which allowed me to conduct extensive research with and about mathematicians, exploring various aspects of mathematical labour, employment and work.
This research asks two main different but interrelated questions:
(1) What are the career trajectories of research mathematicians employed in UK and German institutions, in the context of the ongoing transformations of higher education and research? More specifically, I focus predominantly on the early stages of the scientific career (PhD and postdoc). To date, I have focused mostly on academic mathematicians, but looking at the careers of industry mathematicians is a necessary next step. This question encompasses several key topics:
- the marketisation and neoliberalisation of the academic field in the UK, and the concominant reforms of German higher education, both in the context of a global job market for scientists;
- the negotiation of scientific careers and gendered personal biographies, including issues such as the “two-body problem”, work-life balance, and academic migration;
- the interrelationship between academic institutions and research practices, e.g. the effects of metrics, research assessments or government funding priorities on publication practices, career strategies or other aspects of academic labour in different subfields of the mathematical sciences.
(2) What do mathematicians do when they work? How are theorems really made from all that coffee? I must admit that, both as an ethnographer, and as a non-mathematician who has spent many years observing mathematicians first as a friend and now as a researcher, I find this second question more fascinating than the first one. I can talk for hours about the things mathematicians do in their workplace.
However, one of the important findings of this research has been that in fact the two questions (mathematicians’ careers, and mathematical labour) are strongly linked – more than the traditional sociology of science and STS like to acknowledge. Having observed the same mathematicians at work and building their careers has convinced me that (contrarily to what what Latour and Woolgar argued) sociological studies of scientific practices must at least being aware of the sociology of scientists and scientific institutions. This “scientific scaffolding”, as I like to call it, may not affect the content of theorems, but it certainly influences the bigger picture of mathematics, namely: which scientific subfields flourish, which PhD students continue their research careers, which open problems get tackled, who gets published in the best journals, who in a family of scientists stays at home with the children, which “buzz-words” circulate in the field, or which research methods are preferred.