Why researchers need a good hinterland

CountrysideThe term hinterland was used by the British Politician Dennis Healy to describe somebody who had a life, interests, and knowledge that extended beyond their field of employment/speciality. Denis Healey was a leading Labour Politician from the 1950s to the start of the 1990s – and his hinterland included being Beach Master at Anzio during the Second World War, a degree from Oxford in the Classics (Greek and Latin), loved Opera, spoke French, German and Italian, passionate (and skilled) photographer, and would frequently enliven gatherings by sitting at the piano and dashing out a variety of music hall songs.

Healey’s point was that politicians need to know about more than just politics, firstly because they won’t always be politicians and secondly to help them understand people. Researchers need a hinterland too, for the same two reasons.

In particular a hinterland helps researchers in the following ways:

  • In research, most of the people you will interact with, as clients, colleagues and friends, will be people like you. They will tend to be graduates, they will tend to be similar ages (in research 25 to 45 seems to be by far the most common), urban living, and with a belief that decision should be based on information and evidence. But, many of the people you research will not be like you, the wider your range of experiences, the better your chances of understanding people who are not like you.
  • Anybody can solve straightforward problems; the interesting ones are those that require insight, intuition, or a new perspective. Your hinterland will help you draw on other sources to solve problems and to provide new innovations in your field. They will help you to avoid repeating the same, failed, steps that other researchers have tried and failed with.
  • A hinterland is essential to storytelling. In order to communicate results we often want to employ storytelling, but the creation of those stories often depends on having the right balance of shared and non-shared experiences and interests to come up with engaging and interesting stories.

So, my recommendation is that you should always be seeking to expand your hinterland. Depending on your interests, that might mean learning an instrument, studying a language, watching more movies, reading more books, play a new genre of games, visiting more museums, joining a sports club, being involved in a charity etc. However, to benefit from your hinterland you also need to avoid silo thinking. Always be seeking to connect your different interests so that each can enrich the other.

My feeling is “Your future does not depend on you dropping your other interests, it depends on you harnessing your other interests.”

BTW, hinterland comes from German, hinter=behind and land. Its more general usage is to describe land that is not near the coast or major rivers.