By Robert Lepenies

Among the many insights of Nobel prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling is his model of racial segregation. Observing urban dynamics in the United States in the late 1960s, Schelling modeled how individual preferences can lead to collectively unwanted outcomes. Schelling argued that, even if people do not mind living next to a person with a different skin color, a slight preference of individuals concerning the racial composition of their neighborhoods will result, after some “turns” of people moving, in areas that are completely segregated. A small preference for next-door neighbors of the same skin color leads to a stable equilibrium of complete segregation. In Schelling’s words, “collective results […] bear no close relation to individual intent” (1971:488).
Schelling’s model may be fruitfully applied to a completely different subject matter, namely, intellectual segregation in the social sciences.
Academics have a slight preference to cite, interact, and associate with colleagues that are like-minded, and who broadly belong to their own intellectual tradition. Yet they probably agree that social scientific inquiry is most rewarding if there is a diversity of thought. Schelling provides a justification for why even well-meaning individual action cannot bring about this diversity – institutional intervention is required to ensure intellectual diversity.


So what would be the solution here? Interdisciplinary education might help somewhat, but the peer-review process and tenure/hiring committees are still biased towards intellectual compartmentalization. I am wondering if anyone has ever run Schelling's model in reverse -- that is, instead of using the typical Cellular Automata rules, use rules that emphasize either local dissimilarity or mosaicism. since we are trying to map this to intellectual sub-communities, what would the rules that bind such communities look like? Would it resemble a modern interdisciplinary group (common but perhaps transient interests), or something else entirely?

Bradly Alicea · 20 Nov, 2016
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Robert Lepenies



Published: 22 Feb, 2015

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