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.
May 21, 2009; 11:34 AM ET
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