Finding playmates

by Eszter Hargittai on March 28, 2004

Seth Finkelstein comments on Ed Felten’s blog that perhaps one reason why we don’t see much mixing of people from legal and technical backgrounds at conferences is that neither lawyers nor technologists get points within their own communities for attending conferences with experts from other fields. I can’t tell if Seth agrees with this point or is merely raising it, but it’s worth considering either way. My reaction to the above approach is that it seems short-sighted to assume that you cannot gain something valuable – something that could eventually score you points in your own community – from attending a conference that isn’t solely made up of people from your own field.

At conferences, we have the opportunity to meet new people, hear new ideas, be exposed to new arguments. These all have the potential to shape our work and thereby improve the contributions we can make. Maybe this all sounds too optimistic or idealistic. Nonetheless, I have rarely been to a conference where I did not hear at least one thought that made me see something in a new light or did not meet at least one person whose acquaintance or eventual friendship made my attendance worthwhile. Meeting new people with different perspectives is more likely to happen when the meeting is for people from more than one discipline so that would seem to favor attending such events.

This got me thinking about collaborations among people in various disciplines. I have noticed that interdisciplinary collaboration is less common for people in some fields than in others. I think sociologists, political scientists, communication scholars and demographers find themselves on research teams with people from other fields. In contrast, it seems less common among economists (yes, I do know exceptions to this) and from the post on Ed’s blog and my own limited experience it also seems like legal scholars may not engage in much cross-disciplinary collaboration either [see update below]. Why is that?

It is interesting that this would come up on Ed’s blog of all places. Ed Felten has done a great job of communicating with the legal community while being a top-notch technologist. Of course I have no idea how all this played out in his tenure review (and I guess if I recall, he may have done most of it post-tenure), but I doubt at this point he gets no benefit from speaking across disciplinary boundaries. In fact, his blog is so insightful precisely because he considers more than the technical aspects of technologies putting much weight on the legal implications as well.

Perhaps the dividing line is between junior and senior status, not so much field of study. Maybe it is too risky to cross disciplinary boundaries before tenure. But post-tenure one would hope one could either “get points within one’s own community” for communicating with those whose work relates to one’s interests or one would be less concerned about this issue.

Of course, there are some areas of work that are less prone to collaboration, period, regardless of whether that collaboration is interdisciplinary or not. But overall, would people agree that scholars in some fields tend to collaborate less than others or are my observations incorrect? Is it more a question of seniority (which then doesn’t quite justify the overarching concerns stemming from the need to gain points in one’s own community noted above)? Can anyone point to studies on this? I am just curious.

1. Sorry, the links were broken, I’ve fixed them.
2. My comment about legal scholars not collaborating was silly (probably tainted by the post about lawyers and technologists). As Tom T points out in the comments, legal scholars and economists do collaborate quite a bit. In fact, they even have it institutionalized to the point of having an organization: the American Law and Economics Association. I don’t know why I didn’t remember that especially since I knew that their annual meeting is being held at my univ in a few weeks. There’s also the Law and Society Association.

The question remains: is there any pattern to who collaborates and who does not, and if yes, what explains it? Is it perhaps more related to the type of research interests one has and less to one’s disciplinary affiliation? And what implications does that have for “gaining points in one’s community” as per the issue raised by Seth?



bryan 03.28.04 at 8:01 pm

maybe there’s a correlation between how conceited about the importance of their own skillset the members of a particular group are and their inability to work with other groups.


Mithras 03.28.04 at 8:08 pm

The link to Ed Felten’s blog doesn’t seem to work. It should be, I think.


Tom T. 03.28.04 at 8:18 pm

I think there’s truth in what Eszter’s written, but I would point out that legal scholarship has collaborated extensively with economics over the last few decades. Indeed, several law schools (and certain judges) are routinely criticized for relying too heavily upon this school of thought.

Many practicing trial lawyers work with communication professionals and demographers in the field of jury analysis, but I don’t know whether that sort of thing yields much scholarship.

Also, I’m not the right person to discuss Critical Legal Theory, but I suspect that it draws upon postmodern scholarship developed in other fields.


Ed Felten 03.29.04 at 12:54 am

Since you’re speculating about why I got promoted, let me insert my own guess. And it’s only a guess, of course, because the process is confidential.

My guess is that my cross-disciplinary work with lawyers did help me get promoted. It’s very likely that some of my outside promotion letters were written by lawyers.

That said, it’s certainly true that extensive collaboration with lawyers is risky for a tenure-seeking computer scientist. Post-tenure, such calculations matter less.


jam 03.29.04 at 1:45 am

As it happens I just got back from the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies conference in Boston. (By the way, it featured a panel with CT’s own Chris Bertram and The Virtual Stoa’s Chris Brooke, both on Rousseau and the General Will, which prompted a question from the floor: “To what extent do the two Chrises agree?” Brooke started to answer and Bertram interjected-jokingly, I hasten to add–“Nonsense.”) ASECS is more or less naturally interdisciplinary: musicologists, art historians, philosophers, historians, literatteurs, as long as they can relate to the (fairly broadly defined) 18th C, are all welcome. But there were some panels which were intentionally interdisciplinary.

One of them was a panel put together (not just chaired) by Margaret Doody, which was originally to have been three practicing lawyers talking about legal issues in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. There are a lot of them: Clarissa’s will, her grandfather’s will, the nature of the Harlowe family settlement, to name just three. They all matter terribly in the novel. And for Richardson scholars to discuss them with lawyers proved useful. Eszter’s point about different perspectives.


paperwight 03.29.04 at 4:53 am

I find this a bit surprising, as I was an attorney in Silicon Valley for a long time, and in fact, attorneys were encouraged to attend the technical conferences in the fields in which their clients operated, or in which they were interested.

The law firms actively supported attendance at such conferences, certainly more than they would have their attorneys paying to attend some conference where other lawyers would tell them things that (a) they already knew, or (b) they could learn easily enough by keeping up with their reading.


Jeffrey Atkinson 03.29.04 at 5:29 pm

Collaboration in the physical/natural sciences can be a boon or a poison, but the relative effect of both has been changing for some time.

When a newly minted PhD/post-doc gets their first faculty research position they were likely hired with an emphasis on their “promise” and how that individual will distinguish themselves as different from their mentors and supervisors. This has always been true. The trick more recently has been how to do this in a very competitive sub-discipline. Exciting areas of research are now often cross-disciplinary and require collaborations. No single researcher can muster the resources to effecetively attack interesting recalcitrant problems.

So…when it comes time to assess how successful a new researcher is (say at tenure application) examiners are left to consdier just who did what. Is the newby running on the efforts of others or has he really distinguished his own work and intellectual effort. Once this hurdle is cleared then collaborations are common, desired, and (usually) productive.

In the sciences, collaborations outside the discipline are quite rare in my experience and are often the hobby of senior people or emeriti.


Tom Morris 03.30.04 at 7:48 pm

“Also, I’m not the right person to discuss Critical Legal Theory, but I suspect that it draws upon postmodern scholarship developed in other fields.”

CLS has a fair share of different theory bases, feminism being relevant at the moment (in Britain anyway with the Ahluwahlia/Thornton cases).

I attended the Critical Legal Conference at the University of Kent this year, and have a layman’s perspective here:

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