I heard for the second time today that a discipline is "superfluous". This comment was made by a young assistant professor, who does not do research in this discipline. Just to be fair to the commenter, that was not a serious comment, but just a casual remark.

However, I think deep in his mind he believes that this discipline is "superfluous". And deep in my mind I have the same doubt from time to time. Can a discipline be superfluous? How do you know whether a discipline is worth researching or not?

PS: In this case this discipline is HCI (human computer interaction), but you could replace it with any other discipline.

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    This is subjective / argumentative and therefore is inappropriate for an SE site. – Zev Chonoles Feb 27 '13 at 3:42
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    I think it is an intellectual (and rather philosophical) question to ask about the general criteria to determine whether a discipline is superfluous or not. – user4511 Feb 27 '13 at 4:06
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    @ZevChonoles: Many of the questions on Academia.SE are "advisory" and "philosophical" in nature. If you believe the question is inappropriate, you can cast a close vote accordingly. I believe the question of asking "is a topic worth investigating" is appropriate, albeit somewhat philosophical. – aeismail Feb 27 '13 at 4:27
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    @aeismail: Well, I suppose I initially read it and worried about people debating whether "HCI" (or various other specific fields) are superfluous. Even the philosophical interpretation seems like it would generate more heat than light if person A's abstract criteria for when disciplines are superfluous turns out to apply to person B's own field. But I'm not a very active user of this SE yet, so I'm not as familiar with the norms here, and at any rate don't have the ability to vote to close, so I defer to your judgment. – Zev Chonoles Feb 27 '13 at 4:42
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    What disciplines are not superfluous? After all, in the long run, we're all dead. – JeffE Feb 27 '13 at 5:32

Superfluous usually means unnecessary. So the person is claiming that a discipline is unnecessary. Presumably, this is a claim that can be investigated further: does research in that discipline have any kind of external impact ? does it affect other related disciplines ? Is there at least a path from the questions being asked to some future impact ?

In fact these are all good questions to ask about any discipline, whether it's deemed superfluous or not. And these are good questions to ask about one's own research in a discipline.

p.s While this is off topic, there's a common feeling among CS folks that HCI is either fluffy or superfluous. All of these people are also forbidden from using a Kinect, any video game console, a tablet interface, or even a smartphone.

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    ...or any post-1990 version of Linux. – JeffE Feb 27 '13 at 5:33
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    one might argue that HCI hasn't really had any role in Linux at all, and one might argue that rather proudly :) – Suresh Feb 27 '13 at 6:05
  • @Suresh I assume you mean POSITIVE role ... – StrongBad Feb 27 '13 at 13:55
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    @Suresh. Of course one might argue that. But then one would be wrong. – JeffE Feb 27 '13 at 14:53
  • One might say that. But I couldn't possibly confirm it. :) – Suresh Feb 27 '13 at 20:04

The first question is open to the typical mathematician's answer: Can a discipline be superfluous? Yes, of course it can. More usefully however, I think there's a more nuanced version which is also interesting: can a discipline as an academic research area be superfluous? This is a different (though not completely disjoint question): an area can be very important, but conducting research "in it" is unnecessary.

Using your HCI example, it's clearly not superfluous in the general sense, but is it necessary to devote academics to it when there's plenty of corporations who are going to perhaps do the work anyway? (I do have an opinion here, but the phrasing here doesn't necessarily indicate it, and it's not really worth discussing in this forum.)

The second question is much, much harder though (in the general case). If you can tell, reliably, if a discipline is superfluous, you are worth a lot of money in many, many fields. The obvious example is large swathes of mathematics, sometimes the uses that make them relevant don't appear for centuries. Other areas seem really important, but produce nothing that ever proves relevant (or to really emphasise the point, hasn't yet proven relevant).

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  • As a concrete example, the mathematics being used today by theoretical physicists was probably considered little more than a curiosity when it was developed decades earlier. Theoretical physics itself has far outpaced our ability to do experiments, but continues to operate under the assumption that experimental physics will catch up (and it is). – Ben Norris Feb 27 '13 at 12:27
  • I think your comments about fine art research is offensive (especially to a group that is under/UN-represented on AC.SE). Academics in the fine arts may not use scientific method or hermeneutics, but they are still doing research. – StrongBad Feb 27 '13 at 14:09
  • @DanielE.Shub: I also didn't really like the comments about fine art research, but I also didn't really know what academics in fine arts would be doing other than art criticism or art history, which the OP specifically excluded. – Tara B Feb 27 '13 at 18:15
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    This kind of debate is what I was afraid of with this question... – Zev Chonoles Feb 27 '13 at 20:39
  • @DanielE.Shub, my comments certainly weren't meant to be offensive in any way (and as someone found them so, I'm more than happy with your edit), but I think there is a valid point to be made about the applicability of academic research to a given discipline, some disciplines are amenable to it, others are stifled and damaged by it (note that this is not a judgement in any way as to the value of the discipline - academia is not the pinnacle of society, merely a specialised part of it). Then in this sense, a discipline can be relevant but academically superfluous. – Luke Mathieson Feb 28 '13 at 0:08

It's a tricky subject really... The questions are clearly very subjective, or rather any possible answer to these questions would be subjective.

For what it's worth, I do think that a field can be superfluous, in the meaning that a field might get outdated, or "deprecated", based on the assumption that more money (and time) invested in that field will most likely not yield any significant results. One such example I can think of is, anatomy. It used to be a critical area of research within medical faculties, but during the second half of the 1900s anatomy research has shrunk and eventually died out in many, if not all, medical research institutes.

Whether or not a field is worth researching is a HUGE question, in my humble opinion. Even deciding on whether or not a specific idea within a field is worth the trouble is tricky, and I believe it's a quality that a few of us may have, or develop after many years in research.

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