Importance of diversity in profiles of social science researchers

At this time of the year (December), World Bank's Development blog posts summaries of job market papers of fresh Ph.D graduates in economics. It gives a sneak peek into the latest in the field of development economics. One of the striking features of the research papers seems to be that all women related papers are written by female Ph.D students. Maybe male Ph.D students researching on women issues exist there exist but if the WB series is a proxy for top papers in empirical development economics, it doesn't seem to be so.

Why is that only (majority) female graduate students are researching on gender issues? It highlights the role of 'choice of questions for research'.

One's choice of questions is partly rooted in one's own experiences, beliefs and so on. Amartya Sen and Albert Hirschman are good examples. Sen's experience of Bengal's famine made him research on famines and guided much of his work. In recent times, work of Prof. Roland Fryer of Harvard University, on race and education illustrates this. From his experience, Prof. Fryer had an intuition that students of colour feel it uncool to excel academically. That intuition was behind his major work on race and education.

All of these illustrate the importance of diversity and the value it brings to academia. The fallout of lack of diversity in profiles of social science researchers is that certain themes go out of radar.

In the aftermath of Trump's victory, one of the after-shock reflections was that, why couldn't sociologists predict this? Responding to that question, a sociology professor pointed out that 'sociology discipline' is losing its diversity in the profile of candidates in its doctoral candidates. In the absence of such diversity, there's a narrow focus only on certain themes and some important themes are getting missed out.

On a broader note, can readily identify four reasons behind the phenomenon of under-researched themes or certain themes going out of radar.

1. Selection and Competition: In recent times, the top Ph.D programmes in social sciences have become extremely competitive. Getting into these universities needs recommendations from top notch professors and undergraduate degrees from top universities. It's well known that privilege plays a huge role in securing undergraduate admission in the top universities. It just gets carried into selection of Ph.D programmes too.

Essentially, you end up having a pool of candidates researching on issues of development who might have never experienced those issues of poverty, gender, hunger, oppression etc. It doesn't mean that one needs to experience these issues to be able to research them. It's just that it's also good to have people who have experienced them because they can bring new insights.

2. Obsession with mathematical rigour: Research has two elements, rigor and choice of the questions. Everyone in academia can be rigorous but if they are missing out asking certain questions due to lack of perspective, it reduces our understanding of the world. Ph.D programmes are actively assisting the process of narrowing down of research by placing disproportionate emphasis on rigour, neglecting the choice of questions.

Apparently, the famous behavioural economist Sendhil Mullainadhan was advised by his Ph.D adviser to include some mathematical equations in his Ph.D thesis. It's because Sendhil's adviser thought that people don't take it seriously, if papers don't have mathematical equations. Those were the days when behavioural economics was less known and was struggling to gain prominence.

3. Compartmentalisation of  knowledge: There's a tendency to look at 'economics', 'sociology', 'political science', 'anthropology', 'psychology separately. Such compartmentalisation narrows the perspective.

In an interview, Tyler Cowen asks Dani Rodrik (appreciating Dani Rodrik's ability to bring new perspectives),  "what should be done to Ph.D programmes to make more Dani Rodriks?". Rodrik says that economics schools these days are recruiting mathematicians and not economists and that a training and knowledge of other disciplines helps in understanding the world. In fact, Dani Rodrik argues that most of his ideas came from his interaction with non-economics friends and his early training in political science.

4. Method over question: There's is a recent trend of arguments over methods - quantitative vs. qualitative, RCT vs. Non RCT. People are first deciding to do RCTs and then they choose a question to do the RCT. As Angus Deaton says, the method is taking prominence over the question. When the method is pre-fixed, the range of questions that one can explore with it gets narrowed.

In summary, research is not just about rigour, it's also about the questions that are researched. Questions asked by researchers depend on their personal experiences and biases. It means that if the pool of researchers aren't diverse, the questions asked may also be narrow, leaving out crucial information about the world. It's time to think of making research diversified.

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