Education, Gender, Universities

Disciplines and their Cultures

Tuesday, 23rd February 2021

Economics is, of course, far from the only discipline like this. Philosophy has often been like economics in that its public meetings can be gladiatorial, but I think it has started to recognize that there is a problem (not everyone, not everywhere, but a significant number of people), and started to try to find ways to change.

I do wonder, too, whether this model of knowledge dissemination is always the best. I mean, sure, shining a light on the limitations or errors of a study is important, but competition is not the only space where new ideas can emerge. And, sometimes it’s not even the best space for that to happen. It can be inherently conservative, insisting on the use of a disciplinary method or set of standards when that method or those standards obscure rather than illuminate a phenomenon.

And of course, these competitions can just be opportunities to look good in front of one’s peers. It’s harder to create than to destroy, and some of the critique is just destruction. Some of it is the introduction of red herrings, or grandstanding about one’s own paper that will be presented later in the day. Lots of gotcha moments. Lots of preening. I’ve walked out of sessions that get like this (not when I’m presenting, of course, but when I’ve been in the audience).

Listening is hard. The best kinds of critique assume the best version of a person’s position, and work towards a better version. It is different in Economics, I know, because the arguments in most of the papers tend to be about correlations and causations, or statistical regularities and connections. Did this phenomenon lead to that one or didn’t it, and does this tell us anything about the future? That kind of argument seems to cry out for a combative encounter. And yet, it need not, or at least, not exclusively. It doesn’t have to be like this.

So there seem to be a couple of issues at stake here – one is the fact that women and people of color are not often included, and the other is that when they are included the style of exchange is such that it is impossible for their perspective to be taken seriously. Just including people on a program does not solve the problem of how meetings happen. It may be that Zoom changes this – everyone can be muted until the end of a talk. That changes the dynamic, certainly, but might not make things better.

Anyway, I hope Economics takes seriously the studies reported here, and I hope that other disciplines, mine included, start seeing this data as relevant to themselves as well.

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