When a discipline begins it is not really recognized as an independent discipline at all

Saturday, July 27th, 2019

T. Greer has two hypotheses for why post-1960s strategic theorists seem far less brilliant than their predecessors. The first involves the social position of post-1960s theorists:

The thinkers and practitioners from 19th and early 20th century did not think of themselves as being part of a specific intellectual discipline. They were not experts in “strategic studies,” “activism,” or “business strategy.” Credentials in these fields did not exist. Indeed, they were not yet recognized as professional fields at all. There was no canon for potential strategists to master, no position for potential strategists to strive for, and no degrees to validate potential strategists’ pretensions. Those who theorized and strategized did so because of an irrepressible intellectual fascination with the topic or because their immediate responsibilities demanded it of them.

This changed in the latter half of the 20th century. By the turn of the millennium, these were fully professional fields with their own graduate degrees and industry hierarchies. Much of the intellectual work done over the last three generations was done for the sake of obtaining credentials or jumping through professional hoops. ‘Correct’ frames of thought had been ingrained into the relevant communities. What had once been an exciting, open-ended pursuit that defied existing categories had been nailed down into domains of licensed expertise.

There are some similarities between what I am describing here and what happened to the strategy-related blogosphere (the “strategy sphere”) c. 2008-2014. In the years before, online writing about war and strategic theory has been dominated by anonymous junior officers desperately debating paths to victory in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were complimented by a small host of (again, mostly anonymous) citizens nerdy enough to play along. What mattered most was the quality of one’s thinking. By the end of the era, however, blogging had become a prestige medium. People wrote to promote their careers. What they wrote could not compare to what had come before.

I often wonder if intellectual disciplines do not always work something like this. When a discipline begins it is not really recognized as an independent discipline at all. Its practitioners come from diverse backgrounds and they draw on ideas and research from a strange conglomeration of sources. They are in dialogue with the world. I would put the emerging discipline of “cultural evolution” (or “cultural epidemiology,” if you are from Paris) in this category right now; just about everything game-theory hit this stage in the ’50s. Move forward a decade or two and the field has an upswing in funding and prestige. It is no longer the work of isolated scholars. Professional associations, research centers, and grants have been founded to improve our knowledge of the field. In this stage the field is at its most productive—ideas and insights from earlier eras are built into more coherent models and used to explain an increasing number of otherwise mysterious social phenomenon. This is right about where I would place cognitive and evolutionary psychology and the current iteration of ‘global’ history today.

After this comes the decline. Now established as an independent discipline, new folks sign on because it is the sort of thing respectable scholars do. A canon of what experts in field x are supposed to study becomes the standard curriculum. New research continues, but few outside the field care about or understand it anymore. Links to research outside of the field dry up; debates are limited to insiders. There are clearly defined social markers (and if the people involved are modern academics, journals) that separate success from failure. Innovation in this stage mostly means spinning off new subfields. Things are more competitive than they used to be, yet a larger percentage of those who succeed in the field seem to do so by jumping through professional hoops. I would put a great deal of current IR theory in this bucket.

Where things go from here depends upon the social nature of the field in question. If the field is attached to a plane where there are real world consequences for mediocrity (say, a general staff), reality might crash in and force a reshuffling of the social deck. In academia few fear such exogenous shocks. There the field devolves into little more than an intellectual patronage network. Doyens of a past age act as king-makers. Scholarly disputes linger on, ossified remnants of ancient gang-wars. The old methods are applied to increasingly narrow problems. All of the institutions that were created in the field’s heyday still exist, and they continue on, funding and hiring long after their purpose has been fulfilled.

So that is my first guess. The skillset needed to obtain a set of credentials does not match the skillset needed to develop useful strategic theories. Or useful theories in general. Credentialism has ravaged American thought.


  1. Kirk says:

    “Credentialism has ravaged American thought.”

    Profound insight, that… And, what I’ve been saying for years.

    Same thing with MBA degrees. Everything the modern academy touches turns to shiite in short order, and it’s consistent enough that I’d term it a truism.

    You can observe the same syndromic life cycle in every institution out there–The early days are dynamic, effective, and manage to accomplish things. After a bit, dependent on the field and its significance, things are “systematized”, and start to attract the intellectual parasites and credential-happy careerists. Followed shortly thereafter by stagnation, utter BS, and a failure cycle that goes on until the field is discredited or something forces a renewal, whereupon someone revitalizes it and the same thing happens over and over again.

    The root of this problem isn’t the brilliant lights that initiate these things, it’s the careerist parasites that come after them. Those sorts are never there during the hard days of establishing a field, but as soon as they identify that this new field is a potential goldmine of influence and status, they glom onto it like the vampiric nightmares that they are.

    This is a universal truism, applicable to anything from the local knitting club to the Pentagon. It’s a glitch in human nature that we’re essentially unable to identify and deal with these inimical parasites among us who ruin everything they touch.

    This is also a reason why I say that human beings are really bad at organization. Every institution we’ve created goes through this life-cycle of initiation, decay, and renewal (if we’re lucky…), which we’ve somehow managed to make institutional in everything we do. It’s the bureaucratic impulse, the careerist path, and a seemingly unavoidable side-effect of what we do as human beings. Whole thing is insane, on the outside of it all, and avoiding it something we seem to be unable to accomplish.

  2. Aretae says:

    Is this under dispute?

  3. Kevin Baker says:

    This is a restatement of Pournell’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy. Well stated, too.

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