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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/4782/academias-increasing-specialization/

Academia’s Increasing Specialization

March 10, 2006 by

Murray Rothbard often quipped that he was immune from Rothbard’s Law — the tendency of scholars to specialize in what they’re worst at — because he didn’t specialize in anything. Unfortunately, it’s more and more difficult for a generalist to survive in today’s academic climate, which encourages hyper-specialization by rewarding increasingly narrow, technical studies. Each sub-discipline and sub-sub-discipline has its own jargon, its own specialty journals, its own programs and workshops, and so on. Few scholars can follow, let alone master, the literature outside their own specialty.

A highly visible symbol of the increasing fragmentation of mainstream economics was the 1987 creation of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a peer-reviewed academic journal aimed at making the latest research in particular branches of economics accessible — not to the practitioner or intelligent lay reader — but to other economists! Sister disciplines quickly followed suit. The latest entry into this field is the Academy of Management Perspectives (a repackaged version of the former Academy of Management Executive), just out this month. The journal’s mission is to “translate research findings for a non-expert audience,” defined as “non-specialist academic reader[s], not practicing managers.” Management science has apparently become as Balkanized as contemporary economics.

Is Perspectives on Austrian Economics around the corner? Not likely. Austrian economists, following the examples of Mises and Rothbard, tend to place a high value on the integration of the various branches of economics. While Austrian economists also specialize, they are usually literate in all the main currents of thought within Austrian economics. Rothbard’s Law rarely applies here!

{ 16 comments }

quincunx March 11, 2006 at 1:51 am

” Each sub-discipline and sub-sub-discipline has its own jargon, its own specialty journals, its own programs and workshops, and so on. Few scholars can follow, let alone master, the literature outside their own specialty.”

So in other words the division of labor perpetuates more division of labor. The market works!

Kristian Joensen March 11, 2006 at 9:37 am

Exactly, the Austrians should take this been proven correct about the division of labor.

I find this bit at the end a bit ironic coming from an Austrian:

“While Austrian economists also specialize, they are usually literate in all the main currents of thought within Austrian economics.”

Geoffrey Allan Plauche March 11, 2006 at 9:54 am

Perhaps not everything is made more productive by dividing it ever more narrowly among increasing numbers of specialists who have no knowledge of anything outside of their specialty.

It’s one thing to divide labor in economic science such that one person specializes in this and another specializes in that while still having a sound grasp of the whole body of economic thought, it is quite another to divide up the field in such a way that specialists don’t even understand the general subject anymore and no one but a specialist understands his specialty. Economic science can’t be done in the latter mode.

Peter G. Klein March 11, 2006 at 1:43 pm

Right. The praxeological truth that the division of labor brings benefits doesn’t answer the purely technological question of the optimum degree of specialization for any particular task. Even specialized functions require some general, foundational or base knowledge. Would you want to ride in a taxi with a driver who can turn left, but not right? Or fly with a pilot who knows how to take off but not land?

To be a competent economist, one needs some general economic knowledge, beyond one’s own area of expertise. How much specialization is too much? That’s a judgment call. The trend is certainly toward greater specialization, and many observers (myself included) think the typical mainstream economist is too specialized. Anyway, I’m not saying anything above about the general advantages of specialization and the division of labor.

Roy W. Wright March 11, 2006 at 8:46 pm

I don’t know about specialization in economic studies, but as a grad student in another field I can attest that mathematics is highly specialized. Thank goodness. There are large areas of mathematics (just about all of modern algebra, for instance) that I’d sooner jam a mechanical pencil in my eye than learn.

The Economist March 11, 2006 at 9:10 pm

This raises an important issue about academic institutions. If research has become so specialized that only the researchers can understand the research, how is that useful to the regular people?

Phillip Conti March 12, 2006 at 11:00 am

Well the development of products and services certainly depends on the division of labor, Im not really sure what your question is The Economist.

Roy W. Wright March 12, 2006 at 3:04 pm

Yeah, I don’t understand organic chemistry, but it’s certainly useful to me…

Roy W. Wright March 12, 2006 at 3:13 pm

But The Economist does have a point. Many fields of study at academic institutions today have no usefulness beyond their accessibility to regular people. The arts, the humanities, and ethnic studies, for example. So to the extent that they become specialized and jargonized, they lose whatever worth they had (if any). I don’t think economics is entirely in this class of studies, but it’s close.

quincunx March 13, 2006 at 12:14 am

I would like to point out that being a generalist, IS a specialty as well.

Ryan Fuller March 13, 2006 at 12:18 am

It takes some pretty impressive semantic contortions to come to that conclusion, Quincunx. A generalist is one who does not specialize in anything.

Rob March 13, 2006 at 9:48 am

One thing seems to have been missed here. Market needs are being met by this increasing discipline specialization. The market is calling for more knowledge in more specific areas. The point to lament, in my view, is not the specialization itself but rather where the demand is comming from. In both cases (econ and management) this comes mostly from the state. Ever increasing economic policy management is a hallmark of modern democracies as is increasing regulation of business. I would wager a years pay that if the gubmnt got out of these two spheres, the demand for many specialties would evaporate.

quincunx March 13, 2006 at 2:55 pm

“It takes some pretty impressive semantic contortions to come to that conclusion, Quincunx. A generalist is one who does not specialize in anything.”

It’s not that big of a logic leap to see that a generalist is one who specializes in seeing the bigger picture. This specifically applies to Rothbard, who in my opinion saw the whole picture clearly. I’m not trying to say that one who is a “jack of all trades, master of none” is a specialist at being a jack of all trades. But if he is a professional that studies groups of people of this sort, you can call him a specialist in generalists.

Would you consider Praxeology to be generic? Would you consider people who study it to be generalists or specialists? It would be nice if it was general knowledge – that would be a great world to live in, sadly it is a specialty.

” I would wager a years pay that if the gubmnt got out of these two spheres, the demand for many specialties would evaporate.”

Indeed, the compulsion and coercion industry would virtually disappear.

gene berman March 16, 2006 at 12:08 pm

I could write a bunch about the subject but all you specialists would find it too broadly general and you generalists would complain about it being too narrowly specialized.

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gmlk September 24, 2006 at 5:14 pm

Could this drive towards jargon be a symptom of the fact that this sub-sub-…-field has failed to find a wider audience?

I ask this because knowledge which is shared with a wider audience can not develop such jargon to begin with.

How useful is science which can not be shared? Is this science or is this a modern kind of mysticism, only understandable for the initiated?

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