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Academia's Increasing Specialization


Murray Rothbard often quipped that he was immune from Rothbard's Law -- the tendency of scholars to specialize in what they're worst at -- because he didn't specialize in anything. Unfortunately, it's more and more difficult for a generalist to survive in today's academic climate, which encourages hyper-specialization by rewarding increasingly narrow, technical studies. Each sub-discipline and sub-sub-discipline has its own jargon, its own specialty journals, its own programs and workshops, and so on. Few scholars can follow, let alone master, the literature outside their own specialty.

A highly visible symbol of the increasing fragmentation of mainstream economics was the 1987 creation of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a peer-reviewed academic journal aimed at making the latest research in particular branches of economics accessible -- not to the practitioner or intelligent lay reader -- but to other economists! Sister disciplines quickly followed suit. The latest entry into this field is the Academy of Management Perspectives (a repackaged version of the former Academy of Management Executive), just out this month. The journal's mission is to "translate research findings for a non-expert audience," defined as "non-specialist academic reader[s], not practicing managers." Management science has apparently become as Balkanized as contemporary economics.

Is Perspectives on Austrian Economics around the corner? Not likely. Austrian economists, following the examples of Mises and Rothbard, tend to place a high value on the integration of the various branches of economics. While Austrian economists also specialize, they are usually literate in all the main currents of thought within Austrian economics. Rothbard's Law rarely applies here!

Peter G. Klein is Carl Menger Research Fellow of the Mises Institute and W. W. Caruth Chair and Professor of Entrepreneurship at Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business.

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