Academic Specialization and the Cult of Irrelevance

Stephen Walt laments the hyper-specialization of the social sciences:

trust-me-social-scientist-mugOne 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.

Hat tip: Joshua Foust Image source:  Zazzle.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. I was hoping you’d pick that Tabarrok article up. I like it from the online education angle, as you might expect. I must still have some hope that we’ll leverage bandwidth into more, real, better, cheaper, continuing, education.

  2. James Joyner says:

    I was hoping you’d pick that Tabarrok article up. I like it from the online education angle, as you might expect. I must still have some hope that we’ll leverage bandwidth into more, real, better, cheaper, continuing, education.

    Having taught some online courses in years past, I have good reason to fear that they’re mostly degree mills.

    Yes, a great lecturer could tape his classes for the enjoyment of the masses. But he can’t interact with tens of thousands of students, much less give feedback on their tests and papers. And their will be little incentive for TAs to do a good job on those items, either.

  3. Alex T. writes:

    But how long can we expect the inability to measure to protect academia when there are big profits to be made?

    This is key. Schools are being ranked on proxies rather than on outputs. Actually, I just read a book that spends some time on this. The same story is told there.

    I’m not sure if the for-profits can organize some testing that will convince you, but perhaps some states, broken by their budget, will be forced into innovation.

  4. Again at MR, Tyler offers an amusing link:

    Lost University aims to help fans find the way

    Real university professors will teach short video courses on a variety of “Lost”-related subjects — and it’s not exactly a light curriculum either, with philosophy, physics and hieroglyphics, among others.