I was asked by a potential PhD student why departments that do similar things as my department have different names. For example, some of the researchers who work in research areas that are similar to my own are in departments with names such as:

  • Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering
  • Management Science and Engineering
  • Systems Engineering and Engineering Management
  • Technology and Operations Management
  • Decision Sciences
  • Business Statistics and Operations Management
  • Decision Sciences and Managerial Economics
  • Management Science and Operations

He claims that this is confusing, which indeed it is, given that as an "insider" I know that the people in these departments work in very similar research areas.

What is a good explanation for why departments doing similar research often in practice have very different sounding names?

  • 6
    Teaching common English use may not be your job. Things have name overlaps all time time. School, College, Institute, High Education Center etc all have overlapping usages. In town you buy your iceream from a grocer, a supermarket, a ice-creamery, a deli, ... its basically a normal part of the English language. Its only you have what is supposed to be unique taxidermy, that duplicated are interesting. (Eg in my field Natural Language Processing and Computation Linguistic cover very similar things, but are in totally different areas of the dewey decimal code). not sure if this is an answer. – Lyndon White Feb 20 '16 at 6:17
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    @Oxinabox A small note that I am afraid I could not resist: I believe you mean "unique taxonomy." A unique taxidermy is something entirely and unsettlingly different, as a Google image search may attest... – jakebeal Feb 20 '16 at 14:27
  • "People are complicated." – JeffE Feb 20 '16 at 14:29
  • @jakebeal ahaahah ahah ha, I always get my taxidermists and taxonomist confused. Here is me bagging on someones common English usage. – Lyndon White Feb 21 '16 at 0:47

I would say instead that it would be much more surprising if these departments all had the same names, particularly for relatively new and cross-disciplinary areas of work like in your example.

The domains of science are broad and overlapping, and there are many ways that the whole domain can end up being parsed into departments by different institutions, just like there are many different ways that the domain of colors are parsed into color names by different languages.

Given that there are many reasonable possible clusterings and names, the actual determinants tend to be very contingent and historical. Among these are:

  • Interdepartmental politics, including which part of a university wants to sponsor the new department, which faction of an old department wants to split away.
  • The viewpoint of the faculty forming the department
  • Popularity of subjects over time: small departments merge and large departments split.

There are many other possible causes as well. Thus, the question is not: "Why are they different?" but "Why would you expect them to be the same?"

  • As an extreme (but real example). Begin with the departments of Foreign Languages, Classics, Theology, Philosophy. Early on Theology becomes Religious Studies. Then the first two merge into Mod. Lang. & Classics. The latter two merge to Religion & Philosophy. For various reasons, one changes to Mod. & Classical Lang. & Lit. Then the college forcibly merges them all into Mod & Classical Lang. & Lit. & Religion & Philosophy. Finally, it's simplified to "Language and Thought". – user0721090601 Feb 20 '16 at 17:38

Names of departments are heavily tinted by history. So you'll find departments of Computer Science (often offshots from Mathematics), Computer Engineering (sprouted from Electrical Engineering), and even Information and Computer Sciences (quirkily enough, born in Library Science). Elsewhere they might be called Informatics.

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