No, your field isn’t “broader” than mine

Photo: Railway tracks and vanishing point, by annymoamo via, CC0.

It happened again last week.

I was sitting in a meeting, and someone explained that our cell biology course is different from our other courses (like my ecology course) because cell biology “is such a broad field”.  This has been explained to me over the years about cell biology, molecular biology, physiology, earth science, and I’m sure a few more I’m not remembering.  It’s been explained in the context of undergraduate curriculum, faculty hiring priorities, funding levels for granting agencies, library journal budgets, and more.  Every time, it makes me see red.

Earlier in my career, I’d argue back that there’s no field broader than my own.  I’m an ecologist, and we deal with everything from two paramecia in a test tube to element cycling around the entire planet, with tools ranging from DNA sequencing to satellite imagery.  Fortunately, as I’ve aged, I’ve gotten smarter in at least a few ways.  Now I realize that this argument was just me falling into the same trap as the folks who annoy me about cell biology*.

People who think their own fields are broader than mine are just betraying their ignorance.  They don’t know much about my field – which is not surprising, as it’s mine, not theirs.  More strikingly, they don’t know much about grade-school geometry.  Those railway ties in the photo above are all the same size, but the one you’re standing on looks biggest.

I have a good friend who’s a Shakespearian**.  Shakespeare wrote or co-wrote around 40 plays, 154 sonnets, two long non-dramatic poems, and (with varying degrees of doubt) a few other things. That’s a decent-sized body of work, I guess, but Shakespearians have been studying them and writing about them for 400 years.  Earlier incarnations of me wondered (fortunately not out loud) how the world’s thousands of Shakespearians could possibly still be milking it.  Now I realize this was just me wondering how that tiny little railway tie in the distance could possibly support a train***.

Is it possible for one field to be broader than another?  Of course it is.  “Ecology” is a broader field than “population ecology”, and “cell biology” is a broader field than “cell-cell signalling”.  These nested fields are a trivial case, though.  Otherwise, while one field might be in theory be “broader” than another, I don’t have much idea how one would measure such a thing without circularity.  More importantly, if one somehow did, I don’t know what we’d do with the information.

There are legitimate reasons why a university might hire more faculty in one field than other, a department might teach more courses in one field than another, or a funding agency might allocate more money to one field than another.  But the supposed greater breadth of one field isn’t one of them, and people who make such pronouncements just manage to betray the fact that their own worldviews are narrow.  Don’t be one of those people.

© Stephen Heard ( November 17, 2016

Thanks to Randall Martin for comments on a draft version of this post, and for a decade of education in things Shakespearian.

*^I don’t want to pick on cell biology or cell biologists.  Cell biology is pretty cool and I know some cell biologists who rock.  But by happenstance, it was cell biology that set me off this time, so I’m going with it as my example.

**^This is a sentence that high-school me could never have imagined typing.  But then, there’s a lot of stuff high-school me didn’t see coming.

***^If you’re wondering: the largest part of my error was an assumption that what Shakespearians study is all in Shakespeare already, and is being continually unpacked by scholars. That’s a really myopic view of Shakespeare studies. Shakespeare’s plays are (of course) widely mounted, and each new production is contemporary performance art informed by changing cultural values. Directors, actors, and spectators bring to the plays new viewpoints and contexts that continually recreate the “content” and “Shakespeare.” And like all great art, Shakespeare’s imaginative openness and technical flexibility mean that his work can respond with fresh answers to the new questions we ask of it. Shakespeare is (I now understand) an inexhaustible resource (and of course this is true of the humanities more broadly).  A Shakespearian today might study how the plays – in both their original and contemporary stagings – reflect Elizabethan and continuing developments in human ecological impacts, private water rights, gendered language, or social roles.  They might examine technological developments in stagecraft or global variation in attitudes to class and political structure.  Or much, much more. The plays provide a lens, rather than defining a field of view.  The Shakespearian railway tie has little trouble supporting a train.

6 thoughts on “No, your field isn’t “broader” than mine

  1. jeffollerton

    “while one field might be in theory be “broader” than another, I don’t have much idea how one would measure such a thing without circularity.”

    How about size (weight or page or word length) of undergraduate text books? 🙂

    I’m only being half-serious. Intriguing post and I love the metaphor. I largely agree, though there’s always the question of what constitutes a “field”. I have geographer colleagues who delight in telling me that ecology is just subfield of geography. My response is usually not suitable for public broadcast…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

    Using textbook weight would involve circularity. Because the pans on balances are round. (Drum roll please). (But actually circular too – textbooks get big because people think fields are “broad”, so they put more grant funding into them, so more gets learned, so the textbook is bigger…)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. jeffollerton

      Hmmm, maybe, but I would have thought that “importance” rather than “breadth” would be the main factor here. Looking forward to your follow-up post “No, your field isn’t “more important” than mine” 🙂


  3. Elizabeth Moon

    Learning is fractal…the deeper in you go, the more detail you discover, and the more the intricacies you first noticed are repeated in the next scales down. The endless depths into which anyone, in any field, can fall–and the ways that the different fields interdigitate with one another the moment someone in them looks up and notices–are a continuing intellectual thrill. The same data set operates in more than one–in many–and fits into just as intricate a pattern–but with a different function, a different relationship.

    This was another great essay; I’m going to be recommending it to people who aren’t even biologists, but prone to argue about what issue/idea/etc. is “more broadly important” than another. Including me. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Tony Diamond

    Reminds me of a pub discussion I had with sociologists who said I was very narrow because I studied only birds. I responded that they study one species, Homo sapiens, while I study dozens; so who is “narrow”? Great essay, thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Friday links: admin vs. you, what makes for good exploratory research, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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