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Cross-posted from Cold Button Issues.

There’s a lot of academic disciplines out there. And sometimes new ones emerge. I have a semi-defensive philosopher friend who likes to explain how many of today’s independent academic disciplines are just offshoots of philosophy.

Sometimes a new discipline (like biochemistry) emerges out of old disciplines due to increases in knowledge and specialization. Sometimes individual departments or whole disciplines rebrand to seem more current or generally applicable- such as the transformation of many forestry schools into schools of the environment and sustainability studies. 

Other times, new disciplines are created due to political activism. And once created they can be a huge asset to the movements or ideologies that spawned them.

The Left and Its Disciplines

Sixty years ago there were no Women’s Studies departments in the United States. There were no Black Studies departments either. Now they’re commonplace. Other ethnic studies programs have flourished as has queer studies. While none of these are common majors, they’re entrenched in both red states and blue states.  

Looking at the political skew of today’s colleges maybe the spread of these disciplines doesn’t seem that impressive but this was not inevitable. The political climate of US campuses when such disciplines began was not as friendly to leftwing identity politics as campuses typically are today. And there are still some universities and colleges that have refused to grant these newer disciplines their own department. Harvard does not have an ethnic studies department.

How did this happen? A lot of activism. The Third World Liberation Front, at UC Berkeley, led a lengthy strike, occupied offices, and organized protests until the university acceded to their demands to establish ethnic studies at UC Berkeley. The establishment of the discipline of women’s studies was driven by the women’s liberation movement and the establishment of the first few programs depended on extensive activism, organization, and consciousness-raising. These disciplines didn’t just happen, they were fought for.

Once a discipline is closely affiliated or established by an ideology and that discipline is widely established across American academia, it nearly guarantees the representation of that ideology even at institutions that are hostile to it. Departments of that discipline become commonplace, even expected.

Take women’s studies or gender studies a field that is “inherently activist.”  There are women’s studies or gender studies at many Christian colleges that have a reputation for ideological and theological conservatism. Calvin University- Dutch Reformed- has a gender studies program. Wheaton College- evangelical- offers a certificate in gender studies. Baylor University- Baptist- has a program. This means that even at relatively conservative schools there are professors who receive institutional funding to conduct feminist scholarship. That seems like a big win for the left! 

 

The Right Just Has Centers

In American academia, there aren’t really right-wing disciplines, just less left-wing ones. At some colleges, conservative donors and activists have created academic centers designed to champion conservative beliefs, especially on economic issues. Sometimes they have names that don’t indicate a political affiliation, the Salem Center at UT-Austin. Sometimes their name makes their perspective pretty clear like the Bruce D. Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado.

I assume these centers do deliver some advantages for the right. Donors fund them- they must think they provide some benefit. And I can think of impressive academics and intellectuals who work at them- which implies they think those positions are of value. These centers do things like provide jobs for embattled conservative or libertarian academics, host panels and conferences, and sometimes offer courses to students.

But centers lack many of the advantages of full-fledged departments and disciplines. They offer relatively few, if any, tenure-track positions. They don’t educate a large share of students. They can’t gain entry to universities where the ideological opposition is intense. They don’t set the agenda for research or control prestigious peer-reviewed journals that can be cited by Wikipedia and so on. They can be derailed by hostile administrators.

I’m not trying to be mean to American conservatives. In addition to centers, they have had genuine success in organizing across at least one key discipline: law. The law and economics subfield encourages the application of economic analysis to legal decisions, was heavily influenced by neoclassical economics, and was funded by conservative donors and business interests. Conferences were organized to promote this type of analysis and judges  who attended these conferences subsequently became more conservative in their rulings on many economics issues. It’s definitely a win for the right.

An academic subfield no matter how prestigious lacks much of the autonomy of full-fledged disciplines and departments. Perhaps if the right had started decades ago, they could have achieved similar success as the left. Or maybe not. But today it seems like an impossible uphill battle.

Is there any plausible route for conservatives to establish their own academic discipline which would support conservative ideology and provide jobs and influence to sympathetic academics? Probably not. There isn’t a large student constituency willing to engage in activism including civil disobedience to pressure administrators to open such a department. There are quietly and in some cases openly conservative academics, but there aren’t many of them and they are scattered across disciplines so there’s not going to be legions of PhDs campaigning for this. 

Finally, it’s not even clear what discipline conservatives should try to start. I can imagine more conservative versions of existing disciplines- philosophers that laugh uproariously whenever somebody invokes Rawls or sociologists who just to love to talk about the negative effects of divorce or psychologists who spend all their time defending the validity of IQ- but I’m not sure of what new discipline conservatives should try to foster. 

The best I could come up with was home economics- now rebranded “Family and Consumer Sciences.” It seems to primarily be offered at purple or red state public colleges, or at Brigham Young University. Maybe these departments could be a beachhead of academics arguing that natalism, piety, and traditional gender roles are good but it seems unlikely. 

Conservatives are in a bad position for organizing within academia. While many state colleges are technically controlled by Republican state legislatures and governors, Republican politicians have tended to be relatively hands off in terms of college management. Any effort to start a discipline to help the political right would face immense opposition and a disproportionately small talent pool given the paucity of conservative academics.

Starting a discipline would be easier for a movement that ,in contrast, is overrepresented among academics and is not directly opposed to the progressivism that dominates American academia.

I know just the movement.

Effective Altruists Love Welfare Economics

The effective altruist has a strange relationship with academia. On one hand it was more obviously birthed out of specific academic philosophies than most other social movements. Many effective altruists can name an analytical philosopher. Many effective altruists have a favorite philosopher or can name a specific philosophical argument that changed their life goals.

Effective altruists are disproportionately located at elite universities and 16% of the community has a doctorate.

On the other hand, many effective altruists view academic norms as pathological, think important disciplines and norms are effectively broken, and are more impressed with a well-written forum post than an article in a high-impact journal. There’s a general “vibe” that if effective altruists ran a school, it would be much better.

The movement also has at least one major funder who’s expressed interest in funding a new university. I think a better approach would be for effective altruist funders to fund a new academic discipline: welfare economics, the use of economic tools to evaluate aggregate well-being.

Welfare economics isn’t new of course. Specific welfare economists, such as Yew-Kwang Ng, contributed to the development of effective altruism. But it’s not its own discipline. I’ve looked and haven’t found a single independent academic department.

Why should effective altruists think it would be valuable for welfare economics to be its own discipline, with its own professional association, disciplinary norms, and independent academic departments? First, there is the shared intellectual orientation, the belief that the welfare of other beings matters- a lot. Encouraging research on better measuring welfare, making interpersonal welfare comparisons, and applied research on improving welfare seems like a pretty good idea. Second, many of the intellectual concerns of effective altruists are interdisciplinary- drawing on computer science, economics, politics, philosophy, and so forth. Interdisciplinary work can be risky for academics and graduate students who might think it's valuable but professionally costly to pursue research that doesn’t help advance their academic career. Giving these topics a disciplinary home would make working on these topics more attractive.

The field of economics is big in American academia, awarding almost 50,000 degrees in 2020. It’s big enough that in addition to there being many schools with economics departments, there’s a fair number of schools with agricultural economics departments, including UC BerkeleyPurdue, and Michigan State University.

The existence of agriculture economics as its own field and department, at least at some institutions, owes to separate federal funding streams for agricultural research. Most subfields don’t have the funding to justify their independent existence. But if a major funder wanted to kickstart independent welfare economics departments, they might be able to pull it off.

 Another limiting factor for a would-be discipline is the existence of students who would want to take courses in it. Here, I think welfare economics would shine. Not only is economics a popular major, degree programs that combine economics with other disciplines like politics and philosophy are increasingly being added by American universities.

Free-standing welfare economics departments could focus on researching the most important topics, encourage their students to write their theses on the most important topics, and provide a home for academics who want to dedicate their scholarship and their careers to the well-being of others.


 

Comments18
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:36 AM

As a PhD student in economics, I'm skeptical that funding a "welfare economics" department would actually change the research outputs of universities:

  1. Pretty much all economic research could be called "welfare economics", so (without further stipulations) a funder couldn't point to a specific project and say "Umm that's not the sort of thing we want".
  2. Economists are fairly insular, and I can't see a department ran by economists hiring (e.g.) crop scientists or AI engineers (I'm an economist so I'm allowed to say that). Rather, I think economists would hire economists, who would probably do the economics they would have done in other jobs.
  3. While I'm not 100% sure how universally true this is, my sense is that funders (rightly) have limited control over the departments they fund. That's been my experience as both a predoc in a well-funded lab and as a PhD student.

I agree with other commenters that "wellbeing science" is maybe a better fit. I guess "environmental science/studies" departments are probably the best model here.

That said, my sense is that this would be a low priority either way. Universities have pretty high overheads and are pretty inefficiently run. It would probably be easier to set up independent think tanks. If you wanted to influence curricula / academic conversations you could perhaps do so by giving part-time fellowships to individual professors.

The Santa Fe Institute is an example of what I'm suggesting at the end of this comment. https://www.santafe.edu/

I like this idea. But why not set up welfare science, an interdisciplinary field including welfare economics, welfare biology, and positive psychology?

Or “wellbeing science”. Either would be better than welfare economics. We’re more than economists.

I think it's right to think outside econ, but this name doesn't quite sound right to me - things that call themselves "X science" often aren't, e.g. Christian science. And there already is an emerging field around "global priorities research", which seems to me to get closer to the pivotal questions in EA than a narrow focus on econ/bio/psych would.

Yeah, imo the most natural thing is to make "global priorities research" a discipline. Maybe there should also be other (sub)disciplines that are more cause specific, ie related to (human) wellbeing, existential risks, etc.

Or maybe just "priorities research". You could have different researchers focusing on different levels, some on global problems and some on local ones.

Pros:

  • Easier to digest for most people, who also value solving local issues
  • We do want prioritisation to also happen at national/municipal levels and not just globally
    • Perhaps this could even free up budget for more foreign aid, although I'm a bit doubtful

Cons:

  • Maybe national level research would be much more popular, and thus we'd lose an important part of what we want this to achieve
  • National interests often conflict with global ones

Thanks for writing this. I think about these sorts of things a lot. Given the title, do you know of examples of movements that did not start academic disciplines and appear to have suffered as a result?

The Global Priorities Institute and clusters of work around that do work in economics, including welfare economics. I'd also be curious to hear what you think they should do differently.

Not quite a discipline, but I think American Christianity lost cultural influence by denominations ceding control of their colleges (based off this book).

Had the men's right movement established men's studies as more distinct from women's studies maybe they would have benefited (hard to believe they ever had the political power to achieve this.)

I can imagine a world where sociobiology became its own discipline. It did not.

I think the establishment of chiropractic schools legitimized the practice in the United States compared to other alternative medicines. Also, allowed the practice to survive despite opposition to physicians.

I don't have any criticisms of the GPI. Having a center seems to really free up the time of important researchers and gives them a lot more flexibility. But trying to create dozens of EA centers around the country/world would be less promising to me than trying to foster a discipline.

UNC Chapel Hill, a prestigious state school in the US, lets you endow a distinguished professorship for $2M. A major donor could endow several departments worth of professorships. The  Agricultural and Applied Association has annual revenue less than $2M.  The money to kickstart this discipline seems high but not outrageous.

But wouldn’t this be hampered by welfare economics already being (seen as) an existing field of economics?

Also the name “welfare economic” seems like one that students might see as dry or impractical. Micro anecdata point is that when I taught microeconomics and had the students vote on which topics they were interested in “social welfare functions” got among the fewest votes.

The anecdata point is pretty interesting to me- I'm not an economist. Do you think if the field combined things like DALYs vs QUALYS or debates about subjective life expectation or stuff like that would be interesting to students?

I don't think it would be harmed by existing within normal econ departments- some normal econ depts. have ag economics within them and other places Ag Econ is independent.

Yes, it's true that Ag Economics (e.g., at Berkeley) presents a pretty good example of the coexistence of separate departments for two very much overlapping fields. Might be worth looking into more detail about how the Ag Econ departments managed to set that arrangement up.

By the way, the stuff is all potentially interesting to idealistic students. I fear I was largely teaching a group of personal-financially-motivated students.

But still, I'm not sure the term "Welfare economics" will bring them in. Worth doing some surveying on, perhaps

Fai
2y14
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Thank you for writing this! I strong upvoted it.

One potential new academic field that can be set up and is now an EA cause area is wild animal welfare. While we call it wild animal welfare or wild animal suffering, Yew-Kwang Ng proposed the name "welfare biology" for the field, and some conservationists are calling for "compassionate conservation". Maybe none of these names is perfect, but you get the idea.

I think another example is neoliberals, who did not "establish" a discipline, but took over much of the existing discipline of economics, and it helped them gain very wide influence.

“Family and Computer Sciences” sounded peculiar. Clicking the link revealed it was “Family and Consumer Sciences.”

Hasn't EA already greatly contributed to establishing existential risk studies, AI safety, welfare biology and cellular agriculture as (small) academic disciplines? 

I think we should seek to solidify these disciplines

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