Disciplinary boundaries

by Henry on May 25, 2005

Eszter’s post on physicists, sociologists and network theory has given rise to some interesting responses, and the beginnings of a broader distributed discussion on what disciplinary boundaries mean. Maybe it’s time to tie these threads back into a knot, entangle them further with some arguments from Susanne Lohmann on the functions and problems of academic disciplines, and see how people choose to unravel it all. (warning – lengthy extracts below fold).

Cosma Shalizi I

So where does all this leave us? Obviously, I wish physicists would bother to master the existing literature in new areas, before we start building models there. It’s highly unlikely that all of the previous scholars who worked on the subject were idiotic or totally misguided — and even if they were, it’s important to be able to say so with a clean conscience. As a physicist working in non-traditional areas myself, I find it both acutely embarrassing and professionally harmful when others of my tribe make dreadful howlers, or re-enact elementary discoveries. (There is a reputational externality here.) At the same time, I think it would be a shame if the offenses many physicists commit against properly scholarly procedure and etiquette lead others — in this case, sociologists — to dismiss our efforts completely, partly because that would be unfair to individuals, and partly because very interesting results, which seem to me to be relevant to sociology, have come from individuals who I’ve heard express the most withering (and completely unjustified) contempt for that field and its practitioners. (I can’t, obviously, name names.)

After some thought, I am unable to come up with a flaw in the following simple plan (which means there are probably many): if you are a physicist and found you have written a paper on topic X, send it to a journal of X-ology. If X is, by tradition, a part of physics, by all means send it to Physical Review E. If, on the other hand, X is a topic in social science, then send it to a social science journal. Only if X isn’t physics, but also isn’t really, or isn’t just (say) an analysis of social structure, because it’s also an analysis of metabolic pathways, and says something new about nonequilibrium phase transitions, and says how to get a free pony, only then does it make sense again to send it to PRE — or Nature, especially if you have a good picture of the pony. (Even then, if we had successful complex systems journals, I’d say send it there.) As precedent, I would point to the way we helped invent molecular biology, publishing not in our own journals but in things like the Journal of Biological Chemistry. If you are worried about finding a social science journal which will not reject your contributions just because of your background and approach, let me take this opportunity to plug the new Structure and Dynamics: e-Journal of Anthropological and Related Sciences. As a recently co-opted member of the editorial board, I can promise that your manuscript will receive extensive criticism from referees from both mathematical-physical and social-scientific backgrounds — though whether the net effect is to make the review process unusually well-informed or completely blockheaded is obviously not for me to say.

Cosma Shalizi II

Aaron’s post, especially towards the end, touches on the question of why we have disciplines in the first place. Various deflating answers are possible — for instance, some combination of medieval university tradition and primate territoriality. But I think they do, in fact, have a useful function in the advancement of knowledge. Researchers face what are, in principle, insanely difficult decision-problems: what topics do I investigate? what methods do I use? what background knowledge do I need to have? to whom do I communicate my results, and how? which other investigations are most relevant to my work? The existence of a discipline — in the sense of both a body of knowledge and a community of inquirers — reduces the scope of these problems; so does that of more specialized sub-disciplinary fields, and so on all the way down to research communities of, perhaps, a few hundred people world-wide. It is at this point that things are sufficiently manageable that ordinary mortals can hope to make some progress, together, on learning about the world. Disciplines and smaller fields are never completely isolated from one another, but the interfaces are restricted — anything else would be self-defeating. As science expands, both intellectually and socially, the decision problems get harder, and so the pressure to specialize rises.

Timothy Burke

It seems to me that we learn best about fields which are new to us by trying to practice them, not by going into monkish seculsion and acquiring a comprehensive command of a full canon before we even dip our toes into a new hot tub. Complexity and emergence is old hat to some people, but it’s new to me, and judging from the reaction when I talk about it to colleagues in my own discipline, new to most historians. It’s best when we first try to practice in a new area that we acknowledge our limitations, I agree. It does annoy when someone tackles a topic that is deeply explored by a generation of scholars as if those scholars never existed. Stephen Wolfram got smacked for just such a sin, and appropriately so, whatever the virtues of his work in other respects might be. That humility isn’t just a performance: it’s a recognition of the collective, cumulative nature of scholarship. It needs to be met by a generosity on the other side of things, however. Part of how we learn by doing is the gentle amendations of others inside and outside our own disciplines once our work circulates or is published. Guiding people to well-formed bodies of knowledge is one thing; punishing them for having failed to find those bodies of knowledge, for failing to be us is another. The one seems to me the best possibility of a scholarly community; the other the worst realization of it.

Susanne Lohmann

the function of the university is to enable deep specialization. The structures of the university emerged to solve several problems: how to nurse deeply specialized scholars, how to protect them from each other and the outside world, and how to pool the results of their distributed inquiries. The problems to which the university is a response are hard problems, and there is no free lunch. Institutional solutions are generally second-best in the sense that they constitute the best solution that is feasible in the light of environmental constraints (in which case they are a defense), or they are less than second-best (in which case they are defective). …
Deep specialization and the disciplines emerged in tandem, and for a reason. Because the world is complex and the individual brain is limited in its cognitive grasp, the task of figuring out how the world works needs to be split up into manageable pieces, but then the results of all the distributed inquiries need to be pulled together to form a synoptic picture—the ultimate goal, after all, is to help the human race gain control over harsh and capricious Nature (including human nature). To this end, the university slices the world into a hierarchically ordered set of disciplines and fields-within-disciplines and subfields-within-fields. A deeply specialized scholar will spend his life tending to some obscure question which, taken in isolation, is completely pointless. His research gains meaning and impact only by being pooled with research of other scholars who are working on the same, or closely related, questions, and the research of a group of scholars gains meaning and impact only if it connects and cumulates within the larger discipline.
… the history of the university … is largely a history of ossification punctuated by bursts of intellectual vibrancy and structural innovation. … When institutional change occurs, it is typically in response to the political or economic threat posed by entrants. … The multi-year process of enculteration by which a student becomes a scholar generates an emotional and cognitive lock-in. … The Fachidiot is nothing by himself—he is necessarily part of a group consisting of like-minded individuals competing with other groups. … The clusters that form the backbone of scientific networks typically count about 150 members … Scholars are energized not only by within-group approval but also by the between-group competition. … The university is a cruel institution. It takes the best and the brightest, promises them the world, and then it throws most of them to the dogs. … And if the department hires one of Them by accident, the outsider will do less well come promotion time because departmental resources are allocated by subfield and the political support structures are tied to the subfields. Thus, there is a seminar series in labor economics and in macroeconomics, and not in political economy or experimental economics, and so the scholarly misfit will have relatively less opportunity to connect with his peer group. External labor economists and macroeconomists are asked to write tenure letters, and not political economists or experimental economists, and so the scholar who is neither fish nor flesh will end up looking weaker than he really is—on paper, which is what matters in a bureaucratic promotion system.
…But let us not kill the departments and disciplines all too quickly. They have evolved to protect scholars from each other and from the outside world, and their protection function is all too easily overlooked. Structures that mute conflict tend to be underappreciated when they do an excellent job because little if any conflict is observed in equilibrium— and so people forget about the problem that is being solved by the structures and “see” only the patholological implications of the structures. …Consider, for a moment, an economist and a historian who are coming up for tenure. They have very different takes on the issue of globalization. The economist thinks “more is better,” and he has money and material goods in mind. … In comparison, the historian looks through the glass, darkly, and sees globalization as the direct descendant of colonialism and imperialism. …Now imagine the two (or their friends in their respective departments) could vote on each others’ tenure cases. It would be a disaster. Neither of them would survive. And yet it is arguably useful for the university to have both (or even more than two) sides of the globalization debate represented in its walls. And it does—because the tenure process neatly separates faculty who can’t possibly get along: economists vote on economists, and historians vote on historians. … Deeply specialized scholars and discipline-based departments are the way they are for good reason. …
So what’s a reform-minded university leader supposed to do? … What the president can do is put into place structures that promote internal competition and thereby exert pressure on the departments to become more flexible and nimble-minded. Internal competition can be achieved by piling cross-cutting structures on top of the departmental structures. For example, an interdisciplinary program might draw on the discipline-based departments to staff its courses. Internal competition can also be put into place by linking units of the university that naturally have something in common even while they pander to different constituencies. For example, there is an overlap in the research and teaching of the economics department and the business school.

{ 11 comments }

1

pedro 05.25.05 at 7:41 pm

Infringing disciplinary boundaries is one thing, and making bold and relatively uninformed judgments about the state of affairs of a discipline is another thing entirely (the latter seems to be a widely popular sport when it comes to literary scholarship, about which just about anyone feels like an expert). I’m all for transgressing boundaries (even if it sometimes means rediscovering the wheel), but I do believe that academics have the responsibility to make a reasonable attempt to examine the relevant literature before publishing on a topic.

2

Peter McB. 05.26.05 at 3:58 am

A sociologist would ask why, and why now, are physicists attempting to muscle in on the social sciences. Is this perhaps due to the end of the Cold War, and the subsequent dramatic decline in research funding for physics in most western countries? Lots of wheel-reinvention by physicists is also taking place with the so-called GRID, which is another attempt by the physics community to garner research funds earmarked for others, in this case for computer science.

3

Mark Bahnisch 05.26.05 at 7:06 am

A thesis, dissertation or paper which takes no account of significant previous work on the topic would surely be regarded as unacceptable within any discipline. I see no reason why the same ought not to be the case when doing research already extant within another discipline.

4

Josh Friess 05.26.05 at 8:32 am

Full disclosure: I’m a grad student in physics.

Physicists reinventing the wheel isn’t terribly novel. I believe it was Gell-Mann (though I’m not sure…) who basically reinvented some aspects of group theory to describe the quark model, not knowing that group theory was something that mathematicians had been working on for a long time already.

I’m not sure this problem is unique to physicists though. It seems as though there isn’t much cross-disciplinary discussion in academia, particularly when you start crossing between different “categories” of study, from natural sciences to social sciences to humanities, etc.

5

Jack Lake 05.26.05 at 9:25 am

Inetrdisciplinary research is here to stay. The traditional boundaries are declining repeatedly. Not being a sociologist makes my comment a little confined. Still, one can find computational agents, game theory, graph/network theory, etc. in papers in sociology, anthropology and even political science. It is not a matter of choice anymore. Granted some work by physicist in sociology may be reinventing the wheel, but the same is true about a substantial part of research work in many other fields either by insiders or outsiders.

6

Fabio Rojas 05.26.05 at 11:09 am

On SOCNET, the issue was sumamrized quite well: the issue is credit. Abstractly, we are all working to further science. It doesn’t matter who comes up with an idea.

However, in the real world of careers and financial rewards, the importance of a scientist’s work is measured by citations. Do other scholars recognize this work as valuable?

By completely ignoring prior work, physicists who reinvent the wheel are essentially failing to pay rather modest dues. Not recognizing earlier work sends the message “your work is not worth reading nor discussing. You will not be recognized for your years of hard labor in this topic.” Unless the work in incredibly poor and uninformative, you should always recognize prior work, even if you intend to criticize it and move beyond it.

A related issue is the double standard. Are physicists held to the same standard as sociologists?

Let me give you an example. I recently wrote a paper on a mathematical topic in network theory. I had read about a certain network model in sociology journals, came up with an idea and wrote a short paper explaining the idea, which was not covered in the sociological literature. The reviewers politely pointed out that the result was shown in the 1980s in a probability journal. Fair enough.

Now, let me ask – how many physicists have *ever* gotten a review that says: these are interesting results, but they seem to tread the same ground as Harari, Lin Freeman or Doug White? Well… (silence). Didn’t think so. That’s why the issue rubs sociologists the wrong way – there is a double standard at work.

Overall, I am extremely happy that physicists are working on network theory. It’s a wonderful thing, but this whole non-citation of sociology is really annoying.

7

Jack Lake 05.26.05 at 11:22 am

Reinventing the wheel is commonplace in research. Complaints about reinvention are way less frequent. Credit is important, even crucial, for most researchers, but not all. An architect is the father of software architecture; he is seldom mentioned and almost never cited. What do we do with such cases?

8

A. 05.26.05 at 12:14 pm

The ones who really lose here are the honest physicists. How can you be sure the non-acknowledging-physicist was not secretly scanning sociological journals for ideas to steal, knowing that given past practice, she would never be caught? A clever non-acknowledger could just “reinvent” the last thirty years of work in three years, publishing wildly and very lucratively, to the detriment of those competing directly with her for jobs &c.

9

Economist 05.27.05 at 7:44 am

I posted two postings (shown below) more than a week ago on the Crooked Timber page which complained about the physicists’ paper. And I challenged everyone to show exactly *where* they have re-invented the wheel. Everyone *assumes* they have since this was Eszter’s original suggestion — but it seems that noone has actually checked. (Maybe we are happier discussing the concept of re-inventing the wheel rather than looking closely at the details of whether this is actually correct or not. Sad if that is true…)
In more than one week, noone has posted any evidence to back up the original re-invention claim for this particular paper. So based on this, I conclude that we are all wrong to criticize the particular paper cited, i.e. the physicists’ paper on Eurovision Song Contest.
For everyone who hasn’t read my posts, I enclose a summary of my two earlier postings below.
My May 20th posting:
If all this really just centers on one Physica A paper, then can someone actually show that all (or in fact any) of the results reported in the Physica A paper, have indeed actually appeared elsewhere in the social science network literature? Or indeed on any website posting such as Kieran’s? And I mean exactly the Physica A results not just saying ‘someone else has used a dendogram’. There is no law against the use of a dendogram in other fields. And the Physica A dendogram (which is just one of the introductory results in their Physica A paper) is way more complete (and seemingly correct) than Kieran’s—plus better explained as to how they got it etc.
So thats the challenge—please cite exactly the source, page and which figure/result in Physica A paper has appeared before
In addition, please state which of the Physica A results is wrong. This will help me understand the physicists ‘mistake’ (if any).
I started off as neutral in all this, neither being a physicist or social network scientist—but I’m afraid all the whining and lack of substance in the arguments has made me end up feeling like standing up for the physicists!

My May 21st posting:
While I agree that arguing about who did what first is pointless, we should remember that this whole discussion started with the post by Eszter claiming: ‘Some physicists have come out with a paper on the Eurovision song contest. Kieran… reported similar findings over a year ago. So much for this being “new research”.’
In my limited view of the world, this is a public accusation i.e. that the Physica A paper by the physicists is work that has been done a year ago, and hence challenging the claim of ‘new research’.
I go back to my earlier challenge: (and I quote):
‘..can someone actually show that all (or in fact any) of the results reported in the Physica A paper, have indeed actually appeared elsewhere in the social science network literature? Or indeed on any website posting such as Kieran’s? And I mean exactly the Physica A results not just saying ‘someone else has used a dendogram’. There is no law against the use of a dendogram in other fields. And the Physica A dendogram (which is just one of the introductory results in their Physica A paper) is way more complete (and seemingly correct) than Kieran’s—plus better explained as to how they got it etc.
So thats the challenge—please cite exactly the source, page and which figure/result in Physica A paper has appeared before
In addition, please state which of the Physica A results is wrong.’

You/we cannot make accusations without being able to back it up—it makes the exchange on this website meaningless otherwise. It is also probably illegal.

So if the accusation isn’t completely true, I would have thought the right thing to do is for the accusers to apologize on the website. That is what would happen in a court of law, if this were a libel case!
Then we can all get on with doing far more important things than whinging without proper justification.

10

Peter McB. 05.28.05 at 8:44 am

Here’s an example of physicists reinventing wheels: My University administration gave our Physics Department some millions of dollars to build a 900-node cluster computer. The Physics Department, apparently unaware of the thousands of person-years of effort expended over the last half-century by commercial and academic computer scientists on the topic of parallel computation, decided to design their own, unique, operating system for this cluster. Not only was this immensely wasteful, its effect was to preclude others using the machine without first learning a non-standard operating system. This is wheel re-invention with attitude!

11

paul 05.29.05 at 8:58 am

As ex-physicist who’s still relatively proud of the first-principles nature of his discipline, I think the “read the existing literature and credit the people who already did the work” line is definitely important, but that it should come after you do at least one session of wheel-reinventing. The point (or a point) of doing cross-disciplinary work is to take approaches, tools and methods from one field to attack problems in another, and if you start by knowing how everyone else already did things, a lot of that is going to be blunted.

Physics itself has an extraordinarily fruitful history of people reinventing the wheel and getting great mileage out of the contrast and synthesis of many methods for doing the same thing. How many different representations do we have for quantum-mechanical systems? For classical ones? The fact that you can get to the same result along any of half a dozen different paths of derivation is one the the great strengths of physics (and helps a good bit when applying the theory to the real world, when the simplifying assumptions of one path or another may be spectacularly suited or unsuited to what’s actually going on).

Of course, physicists are not the only people who do this kind of re-derivation of existing results — economist come to mind for very much the same kind of blundering disciplinary imperialism.

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