Monday, August 28, 2017

What Structure Are Academic Researchers Building?

This week before Labor Day, news about economics tends to be scarce, while academics and teachers are looking ahead to the next term. In that spirit, I'm going to spend the week passing along some thoughts about academia and hyper-specialization.

Individual research papers can be elegant, in their own way. But do they add up to a cohesive structure of knowledge? Are academic researchers even trying to accomplish this broader goal? Gerald F. Davis finds an elegant way to pose this question in an "Editorial Essay: What is Organizational Research For?" which appeared two years ago in the Administrative Science Quarterly (2015: 60:2, pp. 179-188):
San Jose, California is home to one of the most peculiar structures ever built: the Winchester Mystery House, a 160-room Victorian mansion that includes 40 bedrooms, two ballrooms, 47 fireplaces, gold and silver chandeliers, parquet floors, and other high-end appointments. It features a number of architectural details that serve no purpose: doorways that open onto walls, labyrinthine hallways that lead nowhere, and stairways that rise only to a ceiling. 
According to legend, Sarah Winchester, the extremely wealthy widow of the founder of the Winchester rifle company, was told by a spiritual medium that she would be haunted by the ghosts of the people killed by her husband’s rifles unless she built a house to appease the spirits. Construction began in 1884 and by some accounts continued around the clock until her death in 1922. There was no blueprint or master plan and no consideration of what it would mean to reach completion. The point was simply to keep building, hence the sprawling and incoherent result. 
Is the Winchester Mystery House a good house? It’s certainly beautiful in its own way. Any given room might be well proportioned and full of appealing features. A stairway might be made of fine wood, nicely joined and varnished, and covered in a colorful carpet. Yet it ends in a ceiling and serves no useful purpose other than keeping its builders busy. In assessing whether a house is good, we have to ask, ‘‘Good for what? Good for whom?’’—the questions we would ask about other kinds of constructions. An airport is designed for a specific function, is built according to a blueprint, and is straightforward to evaluate, although evaluations might vary widely depending on people’s experience with the realized design. A cathedral has a plan that might take decades to realize, with adjustments along the way, guided by a shared vision for what its realization will be. But for the Winchester Mystery House, the act of building was an end in itself. It is a paradigmatic folly, according to one find on a Google search, ‘‘a costly ornamental building with no practical purpose.’’ 
The field of organization studies might be compared to a sprawling structure. There can be little doubt that a lot of activity goes into constructing the field: according to the Web of Knowledge, over 8,000 articles are published every year in the 170+ journals in the field of ‘‘Management,’’ adding more and more new rooms. The questions of good for what and good for whom are worth revisiting. There is reason to worry that the reward system in our field, particularly in the publication process, is misaligned with the goals of good science: we often reward novelty over truth. As a result, we may look more like a mystery house than a cathedral.
The general lesson here seems to me to apply to economics, and probably to a number of other fields as well, at least in the social sciences and humanities. As Davis goes on to note: "[S]cholars give different answers to the question ‘What is good for the advancement of our knowledge?’ versus ‘What is good for the advancement of a scholar’s career?' The misalignment between individual career incentives and the advancement of our science is the source of much mischief."