The Domain Trap

The domain trap, as I call it, is the view that any task which falls under a person’s area of expertise must be handled exclusively by that person. Any persuasive writing must be the exclusive product of the English major, while all technical problems must be handled exclusively by the engineer, market analysis by the business major, and so on. The corollary to this thought is that someone cannot make a meaningful contribution unless they are an expert.

Why is this bad? On the project-wide scale, the domain trap reduces the brainpower available to tackle any problem, but good solutions can come from anywhere and anyone. This extra inter-domain brainpower can give the group a natural tendency to approach a problem in many different ways. It is quite possible that the engineer will be most able to write the best marketing pitch or that the philosophy major will come up with the best technical idea. A person is not the sole product of their formal education. Knowledge, experience, background, ideas, perspectives; all are important to what someone can contribute. Even if the philosophy major never came up with the important idea, his questions may have sparked the idea in the mind of the engineer. On the personal level, a person can never learn or synthesize information if they simply leave everything to an expert.

Isn’t the “domain trap” just another name for specialization? Although a generalist is less likely to fall into the domain trap, no. Specialization is simply focusing your studies on one particular, narrow topic. The domain trap is the act of staying away from what you do not know. The former focuses on knowledge without mentioning actions while the latter actions without knowledge; a person in the domain trap need not have the knowledge of a specialist while a specialist need not keep themselves confined only to their discipline.

Indeed, the criticisms of specialization all stem from this one source. In a most obvious example of the domain trap, many Nazis efficiently carried out terrible orders from above because they only thought about the “how” and not the “why.” While a specialist would be an expert in the process, nothing prevents them from questioning the purpose.

When teaching or practicing interdisciplinary project work, how can we avoid the domain trap? The domain trap is a product of mindset. A person caught in the domain trap is not an expert in some other specific field, as implied by the definition. Obviously, then, a person with extensive prior knowledge would not fall under this category. Therefore, there are no prerequisites to overcoming the domain trap. One simply needs to be willing to attempt to come up with answers even though they may be wrong.

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3 thoughts on “The Domain Trap

  1. Don’t many individuals put themselves in the domain trap because they want it to be done “right” and get a good grade. Involving other team members who could have some unique insights, because it is not their specialty, takes time and intentionality. In the long run it’s likely to be a better outcome but it takes forethought and time.

    • Great point; I should probably include some reasons behind the mindset in the last section.

      The time and effort factor is definitely a big reason, and it probably will not go away. There’s a fairly high level of effort involved for the expert in explaining some concept to a novice and for the novice in trying to understand the concept well enough to produce coherent questions from a short description. There is also the communication barrier: an English major will not know the vocab of an behavioral economist, so the economist will have to explain and translate. I don’t see any way around this.

      However, like you mentioned, the extra time and effort put into clarifying the ideas should have payback. Even if the English major doesn’t produce any useful suggestions, the process will force the economist to rethink the basic assumptions and gain a deeper understanding of the point. Especially in the case of small groups and not-quite-experts (like undergraduates), it helps avoid unrealistic conclusions and decisions. It can be thought of as risk management; a (usually) small time input can help uncover unknown errors. It may not help often, but when it does, it could be critical.

      This is one of the things we want out of our program. We want students to be challenged on their understanding and to grow intellectually and as team members because of it. Like Einstein said, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t know it well enough.” The question, of course, is exactly how to accomplish that.

  2. Pingback: Teaching By Questioning Part 1: Aims and Questions « thinkaboutEDU

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