Don’t just throw your keys in the bowl

The 1997 movie The Ice Storm (which I remember being rather depressing) depicts a 1970s ‘key party’. A key party, in case you missed this piece of 70s pop culture, was a way for suburban couples to engage in sexual experimentation, particularly swinging.

Stay with me here, because I think the swingers’ key party has a lot to tell us about why some research collaborations can go so terribly wrong.

The idea behind a key party is simple. Couples are invited to attend a party with a bunch of other couples. One of the partners leaves their car keys in a bowl. Later (presumably after large amounts of booze and whatever else), the other partner selects a random set of keys from the bowl and goes home with the person who owns them to…engage in certain activities.

Anyway, we’re all adults here so I don’t have to spell it out for you.

Moving along.

Why do I offer the key party as an analogy for research collaborations? We know that building good research collaborations is hard but, sometimes, I think we don’t give enough attention to how difficult it actually is, in an emotional sense.

There are many emotions involved in the way we work as scholars, whether we choose to acknowledge them or not. For instance, interest, curiosity, boredom and similar emotions help inform what and how we read. Emotions help us to work with other people – or not.

Emotions are key to being able to form ‘a theory of mind’. Theory of mind enables us to understand and predict how a person will react to us in literally split second increments. Theory of mind is based, in part, on the ability to experience empathy, a ‘fellow feeling’, where we feel in our body what we imagine others to be feeling in theirs. People with an impaired ability to form coherent theories of mind, and the emotional states that go with it, are called ‘autistic’ and considered to have a profound disability.

Academics are famous (or infamous) for being emotionally stunted. If this was ever true, I don’t think  it is anymore. Universities are just full of nerds. Nerdish excitement and the ability to focus is esssential to scholarship, but the behaviour which can result is easily misinterpreted as intense, abstract and strange, even by other nerds.

What I’m trying to say is that emotions are one way we manage to live together without hitting each other over the head with axes all the time. The other way we bumble along together is rules.

When rules and emotions are combined, you have all the ingredients you need for explosive situations. It’s the randomness of the key party and how it upsets the ‘rules’ of relationships that makes it so exciting for some. But, as the The Ice Storm shows, the consequences of toying with the rules AND  emotional bonds which hold marriages, families and, by extension, communities together, can be dangerous.

Marriages (and families) are generally held together by love, common interests and shared responsibilities. The key party is disruptive because it introduces other people into these existing relationships; people who do not necessarily have the same history, shared interests or dependencies.

Some relationships cope well with this disruption, but many can’t. Some of the protagonists of The Ice Storm take part in the key party under duress of one kind or another. They feel compelled to go along with what is happening, despite their misgivings, and suffer as a result of not standing up for themselves.

The Ice Storm shows how the key party messes around with powerful, complex emotions: love, lust, anger, jealousy, excitement…and all the funny emotions that lie between and among these recognisable ones.

This is what scholars of such things would call “the affective realm”. It’s the perils of the affective realm – its unpredictability – which I am trying to highlight. Unpredictability is countered by time. Relationships need time to develop and become stable.

We don’t always have such time on our hands.

In times past, research was a more leisurely activity; collaborations formed over years and could prove to be fruitful – or not. No one really cared that much. But now governments and private concerns put large amounts of money on the table to fund research. They expect results and transparency (to know where and why the money is spent). Many funding models encourage collaboration on the assumption this will result in more and better research. This has led to the development of a  ‘collaborative performance culture’ in research where people feel pressured to participate, even if they don’t feel like it.

Some researchers, desperate to get some ‘runs on the board’, approach collaborations with all the emotional nuance of a key party. They look up staff directories to find people with research expertise missing from a given project, and just ring them up or send off emails with little preamble. Then they wonder why it all goes horribly wrong – why the person who looked so great on paper is just… not. Hurt feelings, arguments over ‘stolen work’ or failure to get funding, bitter rivalries, professional jealousy are all commonplace and the result of people falling out over problems with collaboration.

Now, on the face of it this ‘cold calling’ approach is not wrong – you have to start somewhere. The mistake comes when people think they can just enlist other researchers’ expertise into their own research plans, forgetting that this expertise comes with a person, too. The collaborative performance culture of research funding increases the likelihood that people are in project relationships out of a sense of obligation, guilt, fear – just like the reluctant spouses in The Ice Storm. It’s problematic to approach research collaborations instrumentally because emotions get in the way.

There’s an emerging understanding of the importance of relationships in this researcher business. I’ve noticed the popularity of researcher ‘speed-dating’ at conferences and workshops, and have taken part in some of these sessions myself. I’m not saying they are terrible – it’s a start – but I wonder how many marriages ever result from speed-dating, let alone successful collaborations?

In the Regency period, people solved the ‘mating problem’ with ‘country house parties’, which threw young men and women of a certain station together over a period of weeks with the opportunity to socialise and get to know each other. Maybe they were onto something? People are not like Lego pieces. Working well together depends a lot on what are collectively termed ‘soft skills’, but mostly boil down to emotional temperament and what a friend of mine likes to call “sympatico”: a feeling of connection and ease of being with someone.

You have to date a lot of people before you find someone with whom you can be sympatico. So, give your research collaborations time. Don’t just throw your keys in the bowl.

About Thesis Whisperer
Dr Inger Mewburn is the director of research training at the Australian National University. She writes for and edits the Thesis Whisperer blog and coordinates research skills programs for research students. The rest of the time she listens to research students who want to tell her their problems and writes on the subject of research education.

2 Responses to Don’t just throw your keys in the bowl

  1. So timely, Inger! I gave a seminar on interviewing on Saturday, and when the question came up about getting access to ‘hard to access’ populations, I explained that I had to my research in collaboration with a service provider, but that this ONLY worked because I had pre-existing relationships in the field. I could not have simply started from scratch, developed these relationships, and had any hope of a timely submission – developing good relationships takes time, and once they are established, you must work to maintain them. I had fabulous collaborations that enabled and encouraged me, but this was because they’d developed organically, and we were all sensitive and aware of competing needs and interests. This is especially important when working with organisations outside of academia – rarely is it feasible to expect an NGO to prioritise your research given their already stressed workloads.

  2. Megan says:

    One strategy is to ask potential collaborators to do a stakeholder analysis on their role and the overall potential project. Done well, it can air assumptions and expectations about the project before proceeding too far. Done as a collaborate team building exercise, it’s the basis of the research agreement /contract. It identifies how people are networked (research can depend on personal connections) and power/ good will bases and how they can strategically support the project.
    Stakeholder analysis templates are ACE!

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