Friday, February 13, 2009

An economist in a world of non-economists

This afternoon and evening, I spent considerable time preparing to speak at a nursing research conference on Saturday. You may ask: what is an economist doing giving the closing plenary presentation at a nursing research conference? Well, the theme of the conference is "Interdisciplinary Research: A Road More or Less Traveled".

Let me take one brief tangent. The phrase after the colon in the theme has a number of possible meanings. It could mean that some people think that there is a lot of interdisciplinary research going on but there really is not. It also could mean that what is labeled as interdisciplinary research only sort of passes for the most productive way in which two academic disciplines could interact. And, it could lead one to think of the Robert Frost poem, "The Road Not Taken" in which Frost talked about taking the road less traveled by.

Good interdisciplinary research is in many ways "the road less traveled by". It is a challenge. It forces researchers to explain their world view to others and sometimes to rethink their world view. It forces researchers to bring together a variety of ideas and make sense of them in a new way. It is not easy.

Nevertheless, it is the type of work I truly enjoy. The open exchange of ideas. My colleagues' willingness to answer my questions about clinical or institutional situations I don't understand. My colleagues' willingness to ask questions about the economic lens for the world when they do not understand. When everyone engages in an exchange of ideas and used the opportunity to build new paradigms to explain the human and organizational behavior we observe in the world this type of research can be exhilarating.

A key barrier to doing this is that it takes a long time and a lot of effort to get the interdisciplinary aspect of the work right and not just to be two researchers from different disciplines working side by side, observing the same intervention, sharing data, but ultimately not taking in the world view and knowledge of the colleague. Readers may be impressed by each paper, but nothing will have been gained by having two collaborators from different disciplines. For the same of comparison, imagine two world class dancers. Dancing alone but side by side, onlookers might be amazed at the skill that each shows--but nothing is gained by dancing near each other rather than at separate ends of the stage. However, if the two dancers give a masterful performance dancing as a couple, the onlookers are likely to be truly amazed by the skill that is required to control one's own body and to interact. It is similar with interdisciplinary research.

Sometimes economists forget that our view of the world is not the only possible view of the world and may not even be the right view of the world. That does not describe all economists and may describe other disciplines. The point, however, is that if I am ever tempted to use an economic lens to view and explain the world without taking the time to explain it to others and be challenged by others, then what I think and learn is only relevant to a small group of other individuals who have spent years studying economics. The economic lens I use to view the world becomes very useful when I prove why it is important and am willing and able to help others understand that importance. The economic lens becomes most useful when that is combined with a sense of humility acknowledging that the economic lens is not the only way to view the world and that is may need to be "reground" on occasion to provide me with a clearer view of the world.

In that spirit, I share my thoughts and observations and look forward to feedback and challenges over time.

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