On Twitter, GMU historian Dan Cohen (@dancohen) writes:

Twice today I have read that scholars only want to read comments on their work by other scholars. Why?

Let’s presume that this is true, and that there is a tendency in the social sciences to prefer comments from fellow academics to interaction with non-academics.  Here are four (pretty obvious) reasons that spring to mind for me:

1)  Professional socialization:  The hiring, promotion, and tenure processes reward academics for being held in high esteem by other academics.  Occasionally there are rewards for sharing one’s expertise more broadly (teaching, consulting, press interviews), but there are few incentives I can think of that reward seeking feedback on one’s work from outside the academy. 

2)  Specialization:  For a number of reasons, narrow specialization is productive for scholars.  However, non-academics’ interests aren’t tidily confined to a tiny corner of a specialized sub-discipline.  This makes answering their questions harder, in many ways.

3)  A fetish for methods:  For all sorts of reasons, social sciences have become increasingly oriented around sophisticated analytical methods.  Methodological rigour and analytical precision have become particularly important.  The questions academics are used to and are comfortable fielding often have a methodological character to them.  Non-academics don’t share this methodological fetishism, and thus ask very different, unfamiliar, uncomfortable questions (often having to do with, gulp, practice.)  Though these types of questions might be very much valid and valuable, they are unlikely to be “useful” in the twisted sense of helping the researcher to narrow their focus, improve their methodological rigour, and gain them the esteem of reviewers, editors, and RP&T committees.

4)  The research-practice divide: A catch-22 if there ever was one.  Academics aren’t good at (or rewarded for) sharing their research outside academia, so the practice of policy, management, etc. tends to bear very little relation to the findings from research.  Researchers, looking at the fads, mimicry, intuition and other non-science that shapes practice, think of practice and practitioners with disdain.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

So, there’s the challenge:  Four reasons that many academics might shrink away from having to actually get the feedback of non-academics on their work.  And, four reasons that academics relegate themselves to irrelevance by not talking with non-academics about their work.

Photo of noted public academic The Professor (of McDonaldland fame), via Flickr.

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