Academic Specialization and the Cult of Irrelevance
Stephen Walt laments the hyper-specialization of the social sciences:
One of the more unfortunate trends on contemporary social science has been a growing “cult of irrelevance,” a set of implicit standards that encourages smart young scholars to write more and more about less and less for fewer and fewer readers. The principle of academic freedom and the granting of lifetime tenure are supposed to free academics to tackle controversial subjects or ambitious research projects, but all-too-many social scientists choose to devote their efforts to meaningless displays of methodological firepower and to attack questions that are only of interest to a small group of like-minded scholars. Even when they do stumble on to a topic that is of general interest, they will present their results in a manner designed to make it incomprehensible to even a well-educated educated lay-person.
The road to prestige in social science has long been publishing articles in very specialized journals — which generally requires long reviews of the literature, pedantic outlining of methodology, and the use of statistical modeling — and selection for large grants. Alex Tabarrok points to some evidence that “great teaching” is now being heavily rewarded in some circles, too, which is a surprising and welcome trend.
But public intellectuals and popularizers are simply not highly regarded by the academy. Almost by definition, their work isn’t cutting edge or “serious.” The most cutting insult is to call a political scientist’s work “journalism.” The fact that, as I infamously pointed out in a grad seminar years ago, that people actually read journalism is seen as a bug, not a feature.