Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Too Clever for Their Own Good?

In retrospect, I have come to see this as the moment I realized economics had a cleverness problem. How was it that these students, who had arrived at the country's premier economics department intending to solve the world's most intractable problems--poverty, inequality, unemployment--had ended up facing off in what sometimes felt like an academic parlor game?
Noam Scheiber has kicked off a bit of a kerfuffle by attacking Freakonomics a la Steven Levitt (Levitt's response is here). The question is: "What if, somewhere along the road from Angrist to Levitt to Levitt's growing list of imitators, all the cleverness has crowded out some of the truly deep questions we rely on economists to answer?"

When I raise this issue with Levitt, he is almost apologetic: "There needs to be a core for work on the periphery to make any sense. I don’t think we would want to have a whole profession with dilettantes like me out doing what I do." But, in nearly the same breath, he adds: "The simple fact is that it's hard to do good research. ... To the extent that you can do interesting research that teaches us something about the world, and entertains along the way, that's not so bad."
I don't know much about current economic research, but some have suggested that this is also a problem for political science. Certainly, an obsession with tools (quantitative or formal modeling) was a problem a decade ago, but I would hazard a guess that this is not so much a problem today.

What kind of data can we use to assess what is valued in Political Science? I would suggest that we take a look at what kinds of work have played well on the job market to discern that which is valued by the discipline. I don't follow the American or Theory fields, but it seems to be the case that the kind of work that has tended attract lots of interest in IR/Comparative (again, my knowledge of the job market is anecdotal rather than systematic) has been work that has been asking important questions and executing systematic research designs, using whatever methods that may be appropriate.

There has been an increased interest in the quasi-experiments highlighted in the Sheiber/Levitt exchange, so that a person who is able to draw up the monitoring scheme for a national election and then use that as part of her work is likely to do well on the job market (Susan Hyde, a UCSD product and now at Yale). But the question of how to properly monitor elections is not an irrelevant question, but an important one for policy and for developing democratic institutions.

As I discussed the other day, Political Science is an incredibly big tent with all kinds of work getting attention from big questions to small. The only real trend I have detected is that the current generation of young scholars are being asked to be far more careful about figuring out how to do their research and they are engaging in far more work to get to their conclusions--researching in multiple countries, interviewing heaps of dangerous folks, etc.

While I often rue coming out on the job market during a recession (1992-93) and other bits of bad timing, I have to say I am glad I don't have to compete with this generation--they are better trained in multi-methods, they have incredibly ambitious projects, and are executing them quite well. And supervising them is, well, a challenge as well.

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