Monday, January 18, 2010

Lefty Loosey, Righty Tighty: Sociologists Try To Explain The Political Orientation Of The Academy

In Professor Is A Label That Leans To The Left, New York Times reporter Patricia Cohen reports on a new study by sociologists Neil Gross and Ethan Fosse that reaffirms the liberalism of university faculties. However, says Cohen, "critics may have been asking the wrong question. Instead of looking at why most professors are liberal, they should ask why so many liberals — and so few conservatives — want to be professors."

Putting aside for now the issue of what might be the right question (like why most people read about scholarship in the newspaper rather than reading scholarship), Gross and Fosse point out that conservatives may not see university teaching as consonant with their image as conservatives; nor do conservatives see university careers as the best use of their time and ideas. Beginning with William F. Buckley's God and Man At Yale (1954), conservatives have consistently articulated their ideas as a critique of the university. Hence, when you look at two people who graduated in 1980 from Oligarch university, were part of the same circle of friends, and subsequently took Ph.D.s in history, the conservative chose to become a foreign policy advisor in the Reagan administration, a campaign advisor to John McCain, and a popular foreign policy writer and activist; the other became a tenured radical.

Which one do you think has had the most influence on the course of history? Hopefully, both of them will be attending the 30th reunion this June and they can debate that question.

Gross and Fosse's argument is, well, highly sociological: people tend to join the group that reflects their values. Choice and corporate identity, rather than institutional discrimination and liberal disdain for conservative ideas, play the most crucial roles in making the academy a bastion of liberalism. As Cohen characterizes their views:

Nearly half of the political lopsidedness in academia can be traced to four characteristics that liberals in general, and professors in particular, share: advanced degrees; a nonconservative religious theology (which includes liberal Protestants and Jews, and the nonreligious); an expressed tolerance for controversial ideas; and a disparity between education and income.

In other words, liberals are more interested in staying in school than in getting out there and doing something; are more secular; and don't correlate job satisfaction with the economic rewards attached to it. Because future college professors are more liberal, they seek out a workplace that supports a liberal praxis.

The only piece of this research that does not conform to well-known conservative stereotypes of your typical liberal college faculty member is the "expressed tolerance for controversial ideas." In fact, this strikes me as something that is more or less at odds with a form of intolerance that is implicit in the study's findings: a preference for laboring in a work place where actual conflict over those ideas is, with a few exceptions, characteristically muted. In fact, intolerance for religion, classical Western texts, and the core ideas cherished by movement conservatism is supposedly one of the hallmarks of the liberal college professor, a stereotype which is sometimes true. The original study would be well worth looking up to see if the authors have more to say about this.

One final comment: while Gross and Fosse may attach some hard data to an endless (and possibly pointless) debate about the political orientation of college faculties, their study appears to ignore numerous, and perhaps more interesting, questions. For example: what exactly do we mean when we say that university professors are liberal? If they are, why does it matter, given the fact that the United States has steered politically and culturally to the right over the course of the last four decades? Why is the analysis of race, class, gender and sexuality perceived as controversial half a century after the academy became marginally open to these fields of study, but topics like market-based reasoning, the Book of Leviticus and individualism are not perceived as controversial? Given the diversity of what constitutes conservative thought, and the serious conflicts within modern conservatism, what precisely are critics asking for when they claim to desire more "inclusion" for conservatives? And what exactly is not conservative about a profession where its aspirants are held to a model of professional development and workplace discipline that has not fundamentally changed sinced 1880?

For more bloggy buzz on this study, see Any Poorer Than Dead; Inside Higher Ed; and Mississippi Learning.


Sisyphus said...

Humph. Define "liberal." Are these people even looking at professors in the engineering departments? Economics?

We had one of those "academic freedom" groups trying to make trouble on campus, grumbling about how "everyone" on campus was a liberal, and when someone looked over the voter reg data they had collected they pointed out all our various engineering departments had more registered Republicans and Libertarians than any other party, the group basically decided "they didn't count." Harrumph.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that if "most people" encounter scholarship at all, it is on cable news shows who have digested and spun it from newspapers, who have already digested it from scholarship.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

After decades of open-minded inquiry into this pressing issue, I have come to the conclusion that it is because liberals are smart morally sound people, and conservatives are intellectually and morally bankrupt douchebags.

K said...

Professor is a category of employement on the GSS - it is likely that the neocons that haunt the engineering labs don't necessarily consider themselves professors, considering their typically pithy teaching appointments. "Researcher" and "scientist" are also categories available.
Liberal/conservative is a standard scale of about 20 opinion questions and five self-identity questions. If you google "GSS code book" you can find them easily.
Basically what the researchers did was create a model that showed those who identified as professors were statistically more liberal than everyone else, and in thinking through why, came up with a factor model that explained 43% of the variance shown in the model. Which is to say that 43% of why professors are more liberal than others is explained through this model. Which is to say that not all professors are more liberal, just that on average, they are. There is a factor that explains liberal bents in general, says the researchers, and professors seem to have those variables clustered together. Having an advanced degree is highly correlated with liberal political views, but remember, correlation is not causation, and what these researchers are saying is that those with liberal outlooks are more likely to seek advanced education because it already matches with their self-concept.
Also note that this work is UNPUBLISHED. I skimmed it, but I am certianly not four other sociologists with expertise in the content or methods reviewing it for publication. I'm sure a closer reading of the actual article would lead me to critique it on assumptions and fallacies - hell they use Habermas and I don't take seriously anyone who uses that bastard - but their statistics seem sound. Remember, too, that they're at Harvard, which is not exactly known for its cutting edge liberal sociology.
FWIW, Republicans/conservatives make awful sociologists. To be a sociologist, you must accept as a premise that there are things as social categories that have real impacts on the lives of people who live them, and that these effects are social in nature. That is, the difference between men and women in society is a product of society, not nature or Gd or whatever else. If you think that these differences either aren't problematic or aren't social in nature, then there is no sociology there. Individualism is the ultimate in anti-intellectualism because it is fundementally anti-science, and individualism is the hallmark of the (neo)conservative movement.

K said...

Try this again, only this time, tiny urled.
The original article:

Katrina said...

ComradePhysioProf, given your choice of pejorative, I have come to the conclusion that you're a misogynist.

Anonymous said...

", given the fact that the United States has steered politically and culturally to the right over the course of the last four decades?"

Huh? What evidence is there of that? Who is in the White House? What party controls Congress? Hasn't a version of Obamacare passed both houses of Congress? How does the size of the Code of Federal Regulations compare to its size 40 years ago?

"Why is the analysis of race, class, gender and sexuality perceived as controversial half a century after the academy became marginally open to these fields of study,"

Because the analysis is often not analysis but indoctrination. And only"marginally open?" It's quite rampant. In fact it's now spreading into many phases of campus life. The recent problem with the U Delaware residence hall indoctrination program is just one example.

"but topics like market-based reasoning, the Book of Leviticus and individualism are not perceived as controversial"

Ah, the passive voice. You left out by whom are they not perceived as controversial. I would think many professors would find them controversial.

"Given the diversity of what constitutes conservative thought, and the serious conflicts within modern conservatism, what precisely are critics asking for when they claim to desire more "inclusion" for conservatives?"

Well, ComradePhysioProf's comment is one example of where the problem lies.

I don't see why you are having a problem with this. For example, if there's a panel disucssion on an academic topic, all the panelists shouldn't be left of center. If a list of readings is part of a syllabus, include some that take issue with a leftist approach. If a hiring committee looks at candidates, they should not automatically rule out someone with conservative credentials.

"And what exactly is not conservative about a profession where its aspirants are held to a model of professional development and workplace discipline that has not fundamentally changed sinced 1880?"

The profession might be conservative in the sense you are using it (assuming that what you're saying is true), while those who are employed in the profession may be leftist. The two things have little to do with each other.

Also many professions are conservative under the standard you apply. If reporters are held to the same standards they were held in 1880, that doesn't mean CNN isn't liberal. If lawyers are held to the same standards they were held in 1880, that doesn't mean the ABA isn't radical. The duration of similar idealized standards of the profession tells you little about the ideologies of those within the profession.


philosoraptor said...

(Anonymous at 7:10PM, TR used the "passive voice", as you call it, in both examples, yet you call her out for only one of them... Also, I really hope that there's still room in this discussion for humor and irony of the sort that Comrade PP displays, no?)

TR and others, I can't help thinking that some of your questions represent ways of avoiding rather than engaging particular criticisms of liberal arts faculties, though I'm not saying that that avoidance is necessarily a bad thing.

What I'd really like added to the conversation is broader contextualizing. For example: how old is the idea (which might ALSO be a reality; I'm leaving that possibility very much open) that American faculty are dangerously imbalanced politically? How old is the idea that American faculty are dangerously imbalanced to the left politically? How old is the idea that university faculty elsewhere, not just in the US, are imbalanced in that way? I'd appreciate whatever suggestions you and others have about where I should be looking for that sort of treatment.

rosmar said...

Since "douchebags" are harmful to women (douches being roundly proven to be unhealthy), I consider "douchebags" a feminist-friendly insult.

K said...

AYY's comments are exactly why the social sciences, with the glaring exception of economics, are typically hostile to a conservative view point, or rather, a conservative view point is fundementally and essentially hostile to the social sciences. It is not indoctrination to state that race exists as a social category, that it is an important social category, and that racism exists and is a problem. It is empircally demonstrated repeatedly. It is not indoctrination to state that gay people are a lot more like straight people than they are different and have better psycho-emotional outcomes when treated with respect. Again, empircally demonstrable. It is not indoctrination to state that the reasons people are poor are due to large-scale structural inequalities that keep people poor in order to exploit the maximum amount of profit off of labor - the Wal-Mart effect is a demonstrable example of how this works. However, as these sociological examples of how social categories impact peoples lives in real and empirically demonstrable ways are at odds with a conservative viewpoint that locates moral failings within the individual, and any attempts at locating social problems or issues within social constructs as indoctrination, then yes, with pride I admit that sociology as a discipline is left-leaning.
I have met sociologists and other social scientists who agree with the notion of social construction and social problems, but who see vastly different priorities and solutions to said problems; they often fall as moderates to slightly conservative. But the neoconservative, anti-intellectual, and anti-science folks out there would not find sociology or pretty much any other social science (minus econ) antithetical to their views.

I should also point out that when I grade students, it is on their execution of an argument, not the content of that argument per se. So long as it is logical and based upon empirical evidence. So why does it matter that I'm a flaming pinko? That they might actually become an intellectual instead of an anti-intellectual?

Plus, Claire isn't correct about the American slide towards conservativism. What has happened is that the political spectrum has become more kurtotic, which is fancy statistical speak for less predictable or consistent.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Shorter Kate: Conservatives are objectively, demonstrably wrong about everyfuckingthing.

The corollary to this is that they either lie to themselves and/or others for their own perceived gain--think David Brooks, Bill Kristol, and the like--or are complete dumbasses--think teabagger "morans".

The single most severe political problems of our time is that the mass media--for a variety of reasons--simply refuses to point this out, and rather fetishizes "balance" and false equivalence. The reason that academia "leans left" is that fewer liars and dumbfucks are attracted to academia than they are to other professions, because they correctly intuit that a human enterprise aimed at (while certainly not always achieving) figuring out the nature of reality is not as conducive to their lies and dumbfuckery as are professions like law, business, "journalism", and the like.

Paul said...

Of course, one of the presumptions in arguing that the academy is rife with liberals and leftists is that these positions are somehow transferred to students. If only! I teach at a school in the south and I’d say at least 80% of my students come from very conservative, evangelical families. They sometimes sit on the edge of their seats, wait for me to even suggest some liberal position, so they can pounce and defend their sacred and maligned views. As I’m fond of telling colleagues, I’d be thrilled to have most of them consider – forget appreciate – how deeply their social location has influenced their world-view(s). The notion that I can somehow indoctrinate these students with my own political positions is laughable, at best.

Anonymous said...


You said my comments show why a conservative point of view is hostile to the social sciences. But instead of explaining why, you mix empirical findings with value judgments.

A conservative point of view is not hostile to the social sciences as long as the social sciences stick to empirical findings. What it's hostile to is the use of empircal findings to draw specious conclusions that are used to justify an expansion of governmental power, as though the "remedy" flowed from the findings when it doesn't. So what we're hostile to is an abuse of the social sciences.

And besides, much of what's taught as race, class, gender and sexuality isn't limited to social science classes. They're taught in oppression studies courses that make no pretense of objectivity.


Well if you think David Brooks is a conservative, then I can understand why you feel the way you do about conservatives. And while I don't quite follow the reason for your objection to teabagging, I assume the "a" in "moran" was a typo, right?

You seem to assume that the students defend conservative views not because of the validity of the views but because they are programmed to do so. Some of them might be programmed in that way, but have you considered whether maybe some of them can do a creditable job of defending their views?


Comrade PhysioProf said...

Well if you think David Brooks is a conservative, then I can understand why you feel the way you do about conservatives. And while I don't quite follow the reason for your objection to teabagging, I assume the "a" in "moran" was a typo, right?

AHAHAHAHAHAHAH! Right-wing dipshits make me laugh!

Anonymous said...

If Comrade PhysioProf was writing from the opposite side of the political spectrum, he (or she) would not only be denounced for "hate" speech but would be banned from posting. Perhaps his demented idiocy is the kind of pap that appeals to others of his ilk. Let him stew in his own juices, he seems to find it enjoyable. Obviously he assumes most readers agree with his moronic ranting.

P said...

This is for the anonymous troll:

Not a typo at all.

Joseph O'Mahoney said...

One thing I would like so-called conservatives (attempts to radically reform society in accordance with either libertarian or christian fundamentalist views can hardly be seen as conserving the US secular state) to do is to state exactly what these views that are being excluded are. Apart from some vague references to Edmund Burke and Friedrich von Hayek, I'm not sure what they want included. If the issue is really about moral or political positions, then why do they not just come out and say they want racist, sexist, and other intolerant views propagated.

If we take a previous commenter's position, it looks like quotas for people who are registered republican in academic journals, panels and jobs is the real issue. This sort of thing would violate any pretense academia has towards a meritocratic approach.

Plus, the political variation encapsulated by the 'liberal-conservative' distinction does not capture the huge potential and actual variation in the political views of people in (at least) political science. It seems to me that this whole fuss is a way for some really stupid people to feel that their ideas are being rejected because of some conspiracy, rather than because they are either wrong or distasteful.

Anonymous said...

To Pocha
Thanks for making my point so clearly. You and Comrade PhysioProf are obviously intellectual soul-mates.

By the way, in what way are screen names like Pocha and Comrade PhysioProf not anonymous? If what you have to say is so trenchant and insightful, use your real name and affiliation, or would you prefer your colleagues not see what a vapid low brow you are.

Tenured Radical said...

Anonymous 10:49 --

Why are you putting them down for being anonymous?

Anonymous said...

I'm not. I'm merely replying to Pocha's comment, "This is for the anonymous troll," By which he suggests that anonymity is a disguise for trolls. My response is that screen names are just as anonymous.
We all have reasons for anonymity, and given the nature of some of the comments here, it seems a wise precaution.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Comrade PhysioProf is far from anonymous. Maybe the difference between anonymity and pseudonymity is too difficult for your impaired right-wing mind to grasp?

Anonymous said...

A few points:

1. There's more than one "anonymous" commenter on this thread. I'm the anon at 7:10 p.m. and 2:00 a.m.

2. ComradePhysioProf has had made 4 comments so far and with the possible exception of his (debatable) point about the difference between pseudo and anon, all he's done is engage in name calling. So one has to wonder whether he has any basis for his views other than the indoctrination that the (at least two) anonymous commenters have mentioned. His talents appear to lie elsewhere than as a spokesman for the liberal cause.

3. Talleyrand, You ask why conservatives don't come out and say they want racist, sexist and other intolerant views propagated. I'm glad you asked that question.
To even suggest that's what conservatives want shows the level of your indoctrination. To a liberal if you don't support Obama you're a racist. If you didn't vote for Coakley you're a sexist. If you make judgments you're intolerant. Conservatives would say there are good reasons to oppose Obama, to vote against Coakley, and to make judgments, and would like an opportunity to express those reasons.

And just because we'd like to have our views included doesn't mean we're trying to have our views "propagated." We simply want people to have a reasonable opportunity to consider them on the merits, so that they can understand that maybe there are reasons to question the liberal narrative that we get in academia and in the media.

Just because you find conservative ideas distasteful is not a reason to suppress them. I also wonder how one can argue that the ideas are stupid if he hasn't been exposed to them.


Joseph O'Mahoney said...

@Anonymous 12:08

I repeat: What ideas? You mention voting for Obama and Coakley - I know plenty of people in academia who didn't vote for either, nor have I ever encountered anybody advocating voting for anyone in public, let alone in the classroom.

Your problem is that you have no ideas. If you did you might have been able to describe in broad terms what "views" you want considered in university classrooms. There are some political theorists that are on fewer syllabi than others; although this seems to me in my limited experience to apply to Marx more often than Hayek or Schmitt.

You clearly have no idea what actually goes on inside a university.

Aaron said...

Kate said: "Individualism is the ultimate in anti-intellectualism because it is fundementally anti-science, and individualism is the hallmark of the (neo)conservative movement."

Individualism is fundamentally anti-science? Only someone with an advanced liberal arts degree could possibly come up with a statement that stupid.

• noun
1 independence and self-reliance. 2 a social theory favouring freedom of action for individuals.

-- Compact Oxford English Dictionary

Please, please, please defend your assertion. Maybe we're working off of different definitions of Individualism here, but last time I checked, collectivism was the philosophy that tended to stifle creative thought, argument, and scientific discourse. How many ground-breaking scientific discoveries came out of China during the Cultural Revolution? I mean HARD SCIENCE, btw, so don't go spouting Maoisms at me and claiming they're scientific breakthroughs. A social theory favoring freedom of action for individuals would be one in which a scientist would be free to express his or her creative instincts through research, no? They might even be incentivized to do so by the monetary rewards to be gained from a ground-breaking invention, yes?

This one is definitely going down on my list of "Top 10 dumbest things I've ever heard an educated person say".