What does it take to create a sub-discipline?

This question pops up in my mind while reading an article in which the author, Frances Woolley, assesses the impact of Feminist economics on the economic profession after 10 years (http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a727695227~db=all~order=page).

According to the abstract: “This article provides a partial assessment through a consideration of citations of the journal Feminist Economics, describing its impact on mainstream economics, heterodox economics, and other disciplines.”

What I find interesting is the conclusion that, measured through citations of the journal in other economic journals, the impact of feminist economics has been marginal on the economic profession as a whole. On the other hand, I think that few would contest the fact that feminist economics has established itself as an emerging sub-discipline in the last 10 years. The explanation of this apparent paradox is that a few individuals deeply committed to the feminist economics research program (for example, most of them are or have been in the editing commitee of Feminist economics) were able to attract enough attention and interest to launch and sustain it. In this regard, one may say that it took very little to create a new sub-discipline.

One issue raised by the article is the fact that, since most of the works devoted to history of successful and unsuccessful economic sub-disciplines have insisted on the content rather than on the context, we know very little on the institutional process that leads a research program to emulate a new sub-discipline. It is a shame since, in the present situation of the history of economics, this kind of knowledge could be quite useful to better undestand our options and our likely institutional future if any…

Post-Scriptum: Frances Woolley’s article has prompted an interesting comment by Fred Lee in a later issue of the same journal (http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a788401976~db=all~order=page), who argued that Feminist economics was not so much a new sub-discipline but a specific research program integrated in an existing sub-discipline (heterodox economics).

5 thoughts on “What does it take to create a sub-discipline?

  1. I am about to start a two-years project on the history / social study of neuroeconomics. The issue of “how a sub-discipline comes to life” is one of those that I will explore. If you have any further reference on the topic of how subfields get build (including institutionally), I would be very interested.

  2. Jovanovic’s recent article in HOPE 40/2 attempts to answer such a question for the case of financial economics. Using Boursieu Jovanovic argues that it requires 1) the creation of gruops of researchers, 2) a common training, and 3) the affirmation of a speical method. Not very exciting and certainly rather Kuhnian, but nevertheless an interesting starting point.
    Clement, keep me updated on your project. I just HAVE to know what comes out.

  3. “We should do lunch.” I was in a weekly reading group in neuroeconomics at Duke. It included neuroscientists and a few economists, mostly from the business school, I was the only historian. I have also been filing a reading list on the sociology of brain mapping. What I lack is the time to sink my teeth into it and do the actual work. Happy that someone will.

  4. Thx for the reference, Floris. There is this conference in Rotterdam on “Neuroeconomics: Hype or Hope” in November, organized by the Department of Economics, with a strong presence from the methodology group from Amsterdam. Anybody has plans to attend? I’ll be in the audience anyway…
    By the way, I am now based in Rotterdam, officially starting next week, so yes let’s do lunch soon!

  5. I don’t know if anyone is still looking at this thread, but I share your interests, and copy two references, one recent (Turner on Philanthropic studies) and one from the 60s (Shermiss on Education) (at the end of this message).

    The synthesis of their positions (my words) is that to be a discipline one must:
    1) justify its contribution to the academy and to society at large;
    2) examine its social warrants and exploring its parameters relative to other fields;
    3) develop the tools and theories for answering the pressing questions contained within its brief;
    4) identify didactic approaches for cementing the discipline and fostering a community of scholars

    Have any of you written anything on this yet?


    Turner RC. Theorizing an Emerging Discipline: Philanthropic Studies. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. 2007;36:163S-8.

    Shermis SS. What Makes a Subject Respectable? On Becoming an Intellectual Discipline. The Phi Delta Kappan. 1962;44:84-6.

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