The Lifecycle of an Intellectual Fad

From its Birth To its Fading

19 April 2015


Fads are real, and they can carry with rather painful consequences. Some new exciting new technology comes into existence (the Hula Hoop), and everyone starts using it and pressures you to start using it too. You give in and buy a Hula Hoop…and then everyone gets bored and moves onto the next technology. You have just wasted your money.

Just like there can be “product fads” (such as the Hula Hoop), there can also be “intellectual fads”, where some field or subject area becomes extremely popular for a short period of time before people gets bored and move on. These “intellectual fads” can be even more damaging than “product fads”, as you have not only wasted resources, but also time trying to master the new subject area. By the time you are actually semi-good in the new subject, everyone moved on to the next fad.

As beginning programmers, we do not have the time or the money to be chasing fads. We want to specialize in the fields that (a) we like and/or (b) will be popular for a long time. Understanding these fads is important, simply so that we can spot them and avoid them.

Unfortunately, according to Yali Peng, a scholar who studied “intellectual fads”, “a fad is not known as a fad until it’s over”.

The good news is…Yali Peng did come up with a way to explain how “intellectual fads” come into existence, in his 1994 article, Intellectual Fads in Political Science: The Cases of Political Socialization and Community Power Studies. He admits that his study only focused on political science, but I think his methodology could still be applicable to computer science. In any event, Yali Peng’s ideas are interesting and should be stated.

The Life of an Intellectual Fad

“Intellectual fads” exist in political science because there is a demand for them by “new” academics entering political science. These “new” academics are not experts in a specific subject area, and thus are not respected. Journal editors, conference organizers, even non-academics are willing to respect the experts, while “new” academics still have to prove themselves. If a “new” academic tries to compete in an established field, he will be competiting against experts. Most likely, the experts will win.

First, someone invents a brand new field (“Community Power Studies”), after being inspired by current news events (in this case, a popular book called Community Power Structure). There are no experts in this brand new field. There is nobody at the “top”, because there is not enough time for anyone to be at the top. The field is ripe for the taking[1].

So a few “new” academics enter into Community Power Studies, and start speaking their minds. Of course, these academics can argue with each other, but nobody can confidently say which academic is incorrect…because there’s no way to know what is incorrect. The field is brand new, after all.

Let me use a real-life example to help illustrate what I mean. In Community Power Studies, there was a debate over how to measure “community power”. Floyd Hunter, the author of Community Power Structure, relied on measuring the ‘reputation’ of elite power brokers, while a rival author (Robert Dahl) instead argued for looking at who actually make decisions in society. Despite the fact that Floyd Hunter invented “Community Power Studies” in the first place, he could not convincingly refute Robert Dahl, simply because the field that Floyd Hunter invented was new, and neither Floyd nor Robert were considered “experts” in that field yet.

Maybe an “established” expert in a different field may decide to enter into Community Power Studies himself and try his luck in this field. When he does this, he “legitimizes” the field and encourages other academics to join in the field as well. However, this time, the expert will be competing on an even playing field with the new “academics”.

Soon the fad generates its own enthusiasm. New journals are created, new conferences are being organized. Critiques of the fad are written, as well as counter-critiques. All that dialogue and conversation that are taking place serves as free advertisement for the fad, encouraging more academics to join in the feeding frezny and grab their slice of the ‘respect pie’.

After the initial state of growth and interest, Community Power Studies consolidates and becomes an “established” field. Few academics are recognized as “experts” in the new field. This means all the other academics who participated in the new field ends up being classified as “non-experts” and are thus not given the respect they previously had before. All these academics participated in the field because they hoped to gain respect… and now that respect has been taken away by someone else?

The non-experts leave the field at once, and as a result, the intellectual fad reaches its closure. Most likely, the non-experts will chase after another “new field” and try to gain respect in that field. Meanwhile, the “lucky” “experts” of Community Power Studies are no longer listened to as much as they did before. (The only reason people even listened to them in the first place was to try and gain respect in that field. Now that it is impossible to gain respect, the people leave.)


Intellectual fads, such as Community Power Studies, don’t die though. They tend to just fade away in importance. The experts in Community Power Studies still end up publishing in journals, attending conferences, and publish books. But less and less people care. Even today, in the community colleges where I once worked, an overview of Community Power Studies is still being taught (after all, power is important in political science). However, we spend about 3 minutes on the field, before moving onto the next PowerPoint slide. This is a far cry from the ~29 peer-reviewed articles and ~8 books that were published in 1975, at the height of this intellectual fad.

Did this article help you? Can you identify any intellectual fads that matched this life cycle of birth and decay? Please let me know by tweeting about it!

[1]Nobody consciously start fads in the first place, but they do see opportunities to advance their own “self-interest”, and they will take them if necessary. If there is a chance to get famous, people will likely take said steps.

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