The topic of political bias in academia comes up now and again – it was in the news earlier this year after when a social psychologist made a presentation at a professional meeting. In bringing up the topic again, two sociological studies about self-selection in academia are briefly discussed:
Tierney describes the research of George Yancey, professor of sociology at the University of North Texas, who found that more than a quarter of sociologists he surveyed would be favorable toward a Democrat or an ACLU member and unfavorable toward a Republican; about 40 percent said they would have an unfavorable attitude toward a member of the NRA or an evangelical. “If you were a conservative undergraduate,” Tierney asks, “would you risk spending at least four years in graduate school in the hope of getting a job offer from a committee dominated by people who don’t share your views?”
Tierney also mentions a field experiment, conducted by Neil Gross, professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, in which researchers posing as potential graduate students sent emails to various humanities departments — including literature, history, sociology, political science, and economics — describing their interests and credentials and asking if the department might be a good fit for them. Some of the mock applicants mentioned working for the McCain campaign and some for Obama. There was no discernible difference in the promptness of the reply or the enthusiasm expressed in the replies. This was taken as proof that discrimination is not a serious factor. But couldn’t it be that a feeler e-mail is not the same thing as an actual application, and it costs nothing to respond positively to something that is only potential? (Alternatively, could it be that many humanities departments are so aching for good students that they can’t afford to discourage potential applicants who at least exhibit signs of life? By the way, isn’t there something dishonest in this kind of research?)
Several quick thoughts:
1. Gross’ study doesn’t sound like dishonest research to me: it might include a little deception (suggesting there is a student behind the email) but ultimately it is just an email.
2. There may indeed be a different response for graduate students who are needed (to some degree – some programs can be pickier than others) may still be moldable versus other academics or people outside the academic realm. If graduate departments showed overt biases, they may find themselves with fewer applications, decreasing their pool.
3. Yancey’s research sounds like it found disapproval of conservatives but these numbers are still minorities among sociologists. Perhaps sociologists were unwilling to reveal their true feelings but it suggests there is still room for alternative viewpoints.
On the whole, I’m glad we have some studies about this rather than just having to rely on sweeping generalizations and anecdotes.