How Star Trek helps me when I “... boldly go where no one has gone before"

Star Trek can remind me of the small ways in which dominant cultural norms prevail in human encounters and relationships: the level at which qualitative research data is gathered in practice. Here's how.

How Star Trek helps me when I “... boldly go where no one has gone before"

WARNING This post contains Star Trek spoilers.

Like me, you might enjoy Star Trek [needs more on why you like it] for the science fiction and its entertainment value. Science fiction often plays out the age-old trope of good-vs-evil, good guy-vs-bad guy, but the people (human or otherwise) are not the only interesting characterisations in Star Trek; the presentation of different alien societies and cultures has been a feature from its earliest airings in the 1960s. It is this combination of the possibilities of science (hypo-sprays, tricorders, worm-holes), good-vs-evil, complex characters and the variation in societies and cultures that has kept me coming back for more Star Trek. Star Trek is possibly also the place where I was first introduced to philosophical ideas and invitations to consider the norms of dominant societies, without having to attend a lecture or grapple with a text-book. After-all I was a child when I first started watching. But now that I've reached adulthood and reached the dizzy intellectual status, has Star TR    

It is also surprisingly easy to easy to draw comparison between the othering of alien races and cultures in Star Trek, against the central norms of US cultures as white, male, anglo-phonic and heteronormative; the cultural hegemony, if you like. Having made that comparison it becomes easier to examine how those norms situate the ‘others’ in real life that do not conform to the hegemony, for example, distinct groups whose existence pre-exist the centralised norm, and/or have been pushed to the margins of acceptable society. At a very basic level Star Trek story-lines entertain us literally with the ‘normed’ central characters and the ‘othered’ alien species and at the same time invite us to make, if not examine, those comparisons figuratively. (Robinson, 2016)

While Star Trek makes conscious examinations of social attitudes and moral dilemmas it also reveals the attitudes of the makers. Star Trek is of course a product of its time, even though many consider it cutting edge in some of its social and scientific attitudes and innovations. However, those things that were ‘cutting-edge’ will be re-visited by programme makers and social commentators, so if you view them decades later, they can seem lacking in social awareness. The change to the iconic opening monologue from "... to boldly go where no man has gone before.", to "... boldly go where no-one has gone before."  is a high-profile example of this 1990s review of 1960s expression of attitude, through choice of language.

Research is very much like that. Whether it is stated or not, the assumptions and attitudes of the researcher are packaged up into the research methodology and the findings. Qualitative research especially requires that we consciously examine and acknowledge our positions and attitudes, and examine how we as social agents shape the research and our research encounters, for example our observations and interviews. Star Trek even has ethnographic research as a central plot device in a number of its episode e.g. Who Watches the Watchers

Understanding and reflecting on the limits of philosophical and other principles

A philosophical theme that is examined repeatedly across the entire Star Trek franchise is the utilitarian principle: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. (Littman 2016) It is part of the pivotal speech of one of Star Trek’s most widely known characters, Mr Spock, the Vulcan Science Officer, whose rational approach is a foil to Captain Kirk’s more intuitive approach. In the 1982 film, Star Trek- The Wrath of Khan, Spock declares that it is logical that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, before sacrificing himself to radiation poisoning whilst making-safe a device that will kill the entire crew of the Star Ship Enterprise. The punch line here that is often left out of basic utilitarian arguments around this philosophical one-liner is that Spock will die either way. The outcome is always going to be a zero sum-game for Spock himself. i.e. he will lose whichever choice he makes. But by choosing to sacrifice himself, he loses, but every-one else wins. It may indeed appear the only ‘logical’ choice if considered that way.

As researchers we are trained to understand a range of philosophical principles and, crucially, continue to examine and identify the limits of such propositions as 'the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few'. I don't consider myself to be stupid, but sometimes the time spend contemplating the meaning in Star Trek has elucidated the hours spent in lectures and in reading social philosophy texts. This reflexive cycle is also evident in Star Trek, not only in its revisions of language and stereotypes, but in the way it revisits its positions on moral principles. In later series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, the needs of the many outweigh the few moral principle is revisited and presented in more multi-dimensional ways.

In Force of Nature, for the scientist, Serova, who sacrifices herself to prove her scientific calculations are correct, it is not in a simple zero-sum game, as was for Mr Spock. The planet Hekai is being damaged, possibly fatally, by star-ships transiting their planet using warp technology. This is the means of all rapid space travel, the possession of which is also a defining marker of whether a culture is technologically advanced or not. This need of the few Hekai to avoid probable annihilation is balanced against the economic and political needs of the many to continue using a technology that benefits dominant cultures and maintains the status quo. The obvious comparisons with fuel and other extraction industries, nuclear weapons possession, and competing dominant powers that seek to maintain their competitiveness is relevant to social researchers. Star Trek keeps

I happened to be reading Decolonizing Methodologies (Linda Tuhiwi Smith, 2022) when I saw this episode again. The parallels with the experience of indigenous people in claiming a right to even a fragile continued existence are striking. The dominant culture refuses to be moved. Treaties that continue to favour the powerful are held up as adequate protection. The possibility of any damage to the minority group is a price worth paying for the powerful – as they won’t be paying it. The nature of what constitutes adequate proof is constantly re-defined, not by the those most affected, nor by any disinterested third party, but by the dominant power; in the case of Star Trek, the United Federation of Planets. In the case of indigenous people here in reality, it is the governmental and societal powers that are rooted in white, largely European, colonial norms that decides. [Ed: What, no discussion of the Prime Directive?]

When Serova’s lab models fail to prove her science to the satisfaction of The Federation, she takes her science into the field, knowing that if she is correct, she will - and does - die. Perhaps we don’t need to see a Star Trek episode to understand that kind of injustice. Nor to help us understand the level of frustration and lengths that people feel driven to, in order to be heard, prove a point, or get people to listen. However what Force of Nature did was to remind me of the small ways in which dominant cultural norms prevail in human encounters and relationships at individual and small-group level: the level at which qualitative research data is gathered in practice. Here's how.

In the same episode, in a plot line that seems to be added for the development of the characters’ relationship arc, we see Lieutenant Commander Data (an Android, who aspires to be as human-like as possible) ask his friend, Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge (the star ship’s Chief Engineer) to look after his cat, Spot, for a few days. Having lived with Spot and studied her ways, Data knows what Spot likes, dislikes and generally what her needs are. When he begins to outline this care list, Jordi dismisses Data, as simply attempting to mimic paranoid human pet-owners. Jordi is utterly unaware of the limits of his knowledge. This is emphasised when he expresses surprise that Spot does not come when called. Data matches his surprise with “But, Jordi, Spot is a cat”. When Data returns, he finds a distressed Spot and an angry Jordi. Jordi still fails to realise the limits of his knowledge and tells data that he should train Spot. These humorous scenes are followed by more comedic scenes as Data attempts to train Spot, of course, without success. Jordi, the powerful figure of the normative condition to which Data aspires, is wrong and doesn’t even realise it. He ignores Data. What’s more, he flaunts his ignorance and his dominance by demanding that Data train a cat.

For qualitative researchers, this human scale is the scale at which we operate in practice. This is where we are in danger of perpetuating colonial norms and power imbalances when we work with marginalised people and cultural groups. Much like Star Trek, the messages are there [Ed. I'd argue the opposite], but only if you take the time to understand your own assumptions and subjectivities, and, when to set them aside to really look and see, listen and hear, the people who have agreed to work with you. Jordi and Data are friends. Jordi wasn't deliberately trying to dominate or patronise Data, he simply did not take the time to consider the limits of his knowledge or listen to the cues that Data was giving him. Data has no emotions, so his feelings can't be hurt, and he always responds rationally. Humans of course are not androids, and of course that's the challenge and reward of qualitative research. When we are invited into people's living rooms, communities, lives, spaces and ways of being; to go where no-one has gone before, we need to truly listen and set aside our own egos.

Live Long and Prosper!

References and Resources

Eberl, Jason T.  and Decker, Kevin S.  (Eds.) (2008) Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant. Open Court Publishing.

Littman, Greg (2016) “The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few”: Utilitarianism and Star Trek. in The Ultimate Star Trek and Philosophy: The Search for Socrates. The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series. Kevin S. Decker (Eds.), William Irwin (Series Ed.)  John Wiley & Sons. 127-137.

Nicholas Meyer & James Horner (Dir). (1982) Star Trek II The Wrath Of Khan. Film. USA.

Robinson, Walter (2016) Vision Quest into Indigenous Space. in The Ultimate Star Trek and Philosophy: The Search for Socrates. The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series. Kevin S. Decker (Eds.), William Irwin (Series Ed.)  John Wiley & Sons. 199-210.

Star Trek: The Next Generation. Who Watches the Watchers. S3. E4.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: Force of Nature. S7. E9. Mar 6, 1996.[Accessed 10 July 2023]

Smith, Linda Tuhiwi. (2022). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (3rd ed.). Bloomsbury.

Where no man has gone before.[Accessed 11 July 2023]

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Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant. (2008) Eds. Kevin Decker & Jason Erberl.

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