Good essays on the diversity of research “cultures” within scholarly fields?

Mathematician W. Timothy Gowers has a great essay called “The two cultures of mathematics“. He identifies two kinds of mathematicians (“theory builders” and “problems solvers”), shows that one kind tends to misunderstand and look down on the other, and explains in concrete detail why mathematics needs both cultures.

Question: are there good essays or books like this for other scholarly fields? Essays or books providing a taxonomy of two (or more) research “cultures” within the field, showing that those cultures often misunderstand/dislike/devalue one another, and arguing that the field actually needs all those cultures in order to reach its full potential?

I’ll also accept nominations of essays and books bemoaning a lack of diversity of research “cultures” within a scholarly field. For instance, Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics, arguing that it’s been bad for fundamental physics to put all of its eggs in the basket of a single theoretical approach (string theory).

12 thoughts on “Good essays on the diversity of research “cultures” within scholarly fields?

  1. Sharon Kingsland has to be read as a book length treatment of the cultural gap between the theoretical modellers and field ecologists as much as it is a history of ecology.

    Otherwise, in ecology I think “my way is the right way to do ecology” is a much more common essay than “here’s two ways, we need both”. I can’t think of an example of the inclusive sort (Kingsland is a historian so hers doesn’t count against this comment) in ecology but plenty for the one best way (=my way). Don’t know what that says about the field of ecology, but I think its a consistent pattern.

    • “Otherwise, in ecology I think “my way is the right way to do ecology” is a much more common essay than “here’s two ways, we need both”. ”

      Agree. That’s why I’m hoping to be pointed to essays from other fields. I want some examples to point ecologists towards.

      (Though on the other hand, maybe every field has lots of “my way is the Right Way” essays? But it’s only the rare Gowers-type essays that get any traction inside or outside the field?)

      • I had a roommate who was a physics grad student. It seemed to me like the theoreticians and the empiricists poked fun at each other a lot, but actually knew pretty darn well that they needed each other.

  2. About the closest I can think of in ecology is the different approaches to modelling (and a somewhat similar version of May’s strategic vs tactical modelling, although I think it is clear he thinks strategic is superior). But these are recognizing and approving of fairly small differences to my mind.

    And John Maynard Smith has a great video on reductionist vs emergent approaches to science in general (with application to the difference between himself and George Price). Honestly, I think every ecologist should watch this video. Its a spectacular example of “I can’t possible think differently but I know other people do and that is really important too”.

    • Oops – should have said “About the closest I can think of in ecology is the different approaches to modelling described by Levin’s triangle (and a somewhat …”

  3. It’s not an essay, but in my book I contrast the (i) process-first vs. (ii) pattern-first approaches to community ecology. (i) Build some models that indicate how communities ought to look or behave if this or that process is important, then go see if they look or behave that way. (ii) Characterize patterns in community composition or diversity (e.g., latitudinal gradients) and then figure out why that pattern migh have come to be. There’s a more general treatment of different approaches (more than 2), not arguing that any are better, but that they can all be viewed through a different lens.

  4. In agriculture, there is The Wizard and the Prophet, by Mann. I think he gets most of it right, but does not include some groups under Prophet that should be there (agroecologists). I may write a blog post on this now. Thanks for the post.

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