19 January 2012

"That's important." versus "That's cool!"

The epitome of cool.
There's a fundamental distinction between social scientists who study something because it's important and social scientists who do research because it's cool.

Like all overgeneralizations, that's an overly broad statement, but I want to push it a little. Without confessing too much to the Internet, I have to say that sometimes I find work published in political science journals tedious, even when I think that the substance is important. Conversely, sometimes I find work done in economics to be flat-out awesome, even when I think the substance is meaningless.

The difference is visceral. My response to work in the former category might be to dutifully file the article away if it's relevant to a project I'm working on, and then remember to put "(Author 2011)" in my lit review section. My response to work in the latter category is to email it to my friends, usually with a subject line like "Awesome!!!" and then a message like "Sweet identification strategy!!!!!" (Cf. evidence on educational sorting from the market for movie star marriages.)

So I'm pretty firmly in the awesome camp.
This research design is going
to be legend ... wait for it ...

Ideally, that means my projects would combine novel, exacting theory with testable implications that involved clear identification strategies and unique datasets or cases. And sometimes that happens! The converse is that in the worst-case scenario I could distracted by the awesome nature of a dataset and a case and try to back out a theory to justify spending time on it.

Fortunately, that really hasn't happened much since first year.

But it means that I really can't wake up in the morning determined to study something because it's important. It's the diamonds-water paradox of social science. Freakonomics (at least the early, peer-reviewed Levitt stuff) was awesome and often theoretically relevant; the reaction from the policymaking public (and often the disciplinary public too) was often "Who cares?" By contrast, another grinding, dull paper based on a novel dataset establishing some "important" and "worthy" fact is easier to justify to non-academics but leaves everyone except for your subfield stablemates bored to tears. (See all area studies journals, especially those below the first rank.)

I wish I were a guy motivated by importance. It seems like it would be more rewarding to talk about (say) nuclear nonproliferation if you thought your work could avert the deaths of millions. By contrast, I can't be the only guy (please say I'm not the only guy) to think that an accidental use of a WMD could be a really awesome treatment, since it would be at least as-if random. (I'm joking, mostly. But we all know that papers like Acemoglu and Robinson have used treatments that were fairly horrific to place in pretty good journals.)

So maybe it's a phase. But even if I grow out of it, I'm not sure that the discipline will.

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