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Why Academics Specialize

As an academic brat, I've never quite understood why so many of my parents' friends seem to have dedicated their lives to almost comically esoteric subjects (the political implications of the migratory patterns of the Mongolian horsefly between 1972 and 1977, say. But I did enjoy the blurbs on those types of books. "An important and dazzling contribution!" -- Mike Smith, author of Not Quite a Horse, Not Yet a Fly: The Mongolian Horsefly Between 1966 and 1971). But this, from economist Robert Shiller's interview with the Atlantic's Conor Clarke, makes sense:

Animal Spirits, and I guess your book Subprime Solution have a fair amount of psychology in them. So do some other recent books like Nudge and Predictably Irrational. Why this sudden interest in psychology?

Well, we have a problem in the University in that we divide scholars up into departments. Then we are asked to be at "the frontier of research," which is really hard to do. How do you be at the frontier of research? Have you ever tried it?

Nope, I have never tried it.

I'll tell you: the problem is, there are so many millions of people doing things. And every time you get an idea, you find someone else has already done it. So the incentive is to specialize really narrowly and get to know some narrow field really well. And that's how you know you're on the frontier, because you know the field, everything that's been written in this field.

By Ezra Klein  |  May 21, 2009; 11:34 AM ET
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Yup. Of course I think you'd find that the Mongolian horse fly expert is exceptionally knowledgeable in a wider field as well; twentieth-century Mongolian politics, Asian entomology, whatever. But if you want to be *the* expert on something, you've got to create a micro-field that isn't already taken.

Posted by: shabadoo | May 21, 2009 11:56 AM | Report abuse

That's why my dissertation was on an obscure variation of graph colorings called "L(2,1) labellings." And even so, one of my results was superseded by the time I defended my dissertation.

Posted by: rt42 | May 21, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

To be fair, I will defend dissertations on obscure graphs. That is a field of knowledge we desperately need, and desperately need advanced.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | May 21, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

I would argue that the real "frontier of research" isn't just more precisely targeted studies of increasingly minute aspects of the world. The greatest advances in scientific research are the result of "paradigm shifts" in how we understand and interpret our findings.

A necessary prerequisite to this change in perspective is a broader knowledge of the world, integrating what are generally considered to be distantly related fields of study.

Which is a strong argument, I think, for encouraging researchers to have familiarity with a wide range subjects rather than maintaining a laser-like focus on a very narrowly defined set of questions.

Posted by: ctwinder | May 21, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse

And I have no plans to try it!

But one thing I found slightly depressing about Shiller's comment was that academia is often seen as a reasonably close substitute for journalism. And indeed one of the reasons I got into journalism (and I suspect you got into journalism) was to maintain some benefits of the academic lifestyle (freedom to learn new things and talk to smart people) without the drawback of hyper-specialization.

But if I want to leave the ship before it sinks, I'm going to have some trouble building enthusiasm for the horse fly!

Posted by: conorjclarke | May 21, 2009 12:32 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if there's more pressure for specialization early in academic careers, when assistant professors jockey for tenure and need to be seen as expert in something.

Then does the habit carry on, once you're already tenured? Some of my favorite academic work (Elaine Scarry and Luke Menand leap to mind here) is decidedly cross-disciplinary.

Posted by: gfkw917 | May 21, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

There are few things better than presenting a paper and receiving the comment from another academic, "I wish _I_ had thought of that." You have to realize that even within your narrow field of specialization, you're still competing with lots of other people.

The habit of specialization tends to carry on, post-tenure because the odds are that the reason you _got_ tenure in the first place was because you had an enthusiasm for that level of specialization. It's rare to find someone who's both successful and important in his area of specialized expertise who later on decides to do more cross disciplinary "big picture" work.

Plus, there just isn't a lot of work out there for people who aren't specialized. With all of the academics out there, if they were all "big picture" people, they'd all be more or less interchangeable, and there's room for only a few.

Posted by: constans | May 21, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

In the hard sciences, it's usually obvious where the specialization is happening, because of two things: the structure of study groups in labs (in terms of their leadership and composition), and the practice of publishing small, discrete, incremental findings on a frequent basis. There might be three or four labs doing the same kind of protein crystallography or superconductivity research, and if you're in one lab, you know who the others are, and you'll have a relationship of friendly competition and/or collaboration.

In the social sciences and humanities, publication is more sporadic and research happens in libraries and archives or through survey groups, and while there are incentives to submit articles or present working papers at conferences, or in the past couple of decades, to discuss topics on listservs, there's often a greater fear of being scooped, because you don't need a lab or access to a remote site to make a breakthrough. (You may need luck or a good nose for archives, but that's a bit different.)

I do think, though, that the best cross-disciplinary work either comes from academics who are very comfortably tenured, or from people who work outside the academy structure.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | May 21, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

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