Charles Darwin had it right, long before Captain Kirk stole his words:
There’s nothing more exciting than exploring
landscapes “where no man has trod before.”
My favorite way of discovering new territory is to bring together facts and ideas that don’t usually go together. That’s what was behind my first real journal article, “The Theory and Practice of Ability Testing in Ancient Greece.” I wrote that paper for Professor Dunnette in Psychology of Human Differences before I really knew what a research journal was. Nobody was more surprised than I when Professor Dunnette read it out loud in class, and when the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences printed it pretty much untouched by editorial fingers.
It was the same with my first book, Interaction: Readings in Human Psychology, also published while I was in graduate school. In it I presented articles on the biological, psychological, and sociological aspects of each of the usual topics in a beginning psychology course – perception, motivation, learning, personality, and so forth -- emphasizing the “interaction” of those three forces in each arena of human behavior.
My thirst for novelty and my juxtaposition of disparate things is also what was behind my early interest in evaluating college and university teaching. Scarcely a soul was working on that topic at the time, and, for better or for worse, I was able to bring it some measure of national attention… or notoriety. I take wry satisfaction in the fact that many of the dangers I warned about way back then have become common practices in American higher education. Sigh.
Those same drives also explain my interest in outlying groups -- American Indians, Bangladeshi villagers, and just plain people in many countries particularly in the Developing World.
Finally, those drives underlie my on-going fascination with “the psychology of money and property,” the study of why different kinds of people do what they do with what they own or hope to own. After my original tenure home was shut down for “financial exigency,” I did the only thing a former monk and Minnesota-trained differential psychologist could do – I took a sabbatical and opened a practice in financial planning and investment advising! Day after day I watched couples and business associates struggle over money -- the absence of it, the excess of it, the meaning of it, the roles it plays in their lives. Although I really enjoyed my financial work, eventually I simply had to go back to the Academy full time and try to figure out what money is all about.
My best answer to that question appears in The Social Meanings of Money and Property: In Search of a Talisman (Sage, 1999). I sat down to write a simple little book on what money means to different people. By the time I was finished, I had spent innumerable hours in the university libraries, trying to synthesize what psychoanalysis, psychometrics, social science, and brain science had to say about meanings, and exploring those ideas in the history of religion, law, and philosophy, as well as the history of money. My mother, my colleagues in consumer psychology and business, and most of the reviewers liked it; my colleagues in critical and cultural studies despised it. Always trust your mother.
Now I’m trying to test out my theories in the real world. For example, I spend a large amount of time traveling to new and different parts of the world, watching how people relate to and through money and property, and talking in depth with as many of them as I can. Recently I’ve talked with people in Bhutan, Bangladesh, and northern India, before that in Siberia, Mongolia, and the People’s Republic of China, fifty countries in all. As Frank White said in King of New York, “It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.”
Initially my research was in applied measurement, centering in survey research and the evaluation of college and university teaching. Frustration with those approaches begat a preference for multi-method work, employing both quantitative and qualitative approaches in ways that capitalize on the strengths of each, and cancel out the weaknesses. More recently, I've become intrigued by the application of traditional humanities and social science methods to cross-cultural questions. Blending these approaches with as much as I can learn about brain science -- neuroanatomy, neurochemistry, as well as neuroendochrinology -- I'm trying to discover what meanings people in different cultures around the world attribute to money and property. Eventually I hope to apply these same methods to understanding the meaning of sex and religion.