Sociologists lost their public voice because of increasingly liberal political views?

Sociologist Stephen P. Turner makes a historical argument about how American sociologists lost their public voice. Here is the abstract:

Sociology once debated ‘the social’ and did so with a public readership. Even as late as the Second World War, sociologists commanded a wide public on questions about the nature of society, altruism and the direction of social evolution. As a result of several waves of professionalization, however, these issues have vanished from academic sociology and from the public writings of sociologists. From the 1960s onwards sociologists instead wrote for the public by supporting social movements. Discussion within sociology became constrained both by ‘professional’ expectations and political taboos. Yet the original motivating concerns of sociology and its public, such as the compatibility of socialism and Darwinism, the nature of society, and the process of social evolution, did not cease to be of public interest. With sociologists showing little interest in satisfying the demand, it was met by non-sociologists, with the result that sociology lost both its intellectual public, as distinct from affinity groups, and its claim on these topics.

And here is another paragraph excerpt with some interpretation as reported on a Smithsonian blog:

Basically, he’s wondering: what happened to sociologists? When did they give up questions of human nature, altruism, society? Well, Turner argues that a big problem is that sociologists started getting political. “It is evident that many of the most enthusiastic adherents of the new model of professionalization in the United States had roots in the left, and not infrequently in the Communist Party itself.” And that political slant limited the types of questions sociologists were allowed to ask. He writes:

“Sociology was once a place where intellectuals found freedom: Giddings, Sorokin, Alfred Schutz and many others who could have pursued careers in their original fields chose sociology because of this freedom. To some extent sociology still welcomes outsiders, though now it is likely to be outsiders with ties to the Women’s Movement. … But in general, the freedom of the past is in the past.”

Turner’s basic point is that sociology is now a joke because every sociologist is a liberal. That’s not untrue: over 85 percent of the members of the American Sociological Association (ASA) vote for either the Democratic or Green parties. One survey found the ratio of Democrats to Republicans in the ASA to be 47 to 1. Now, whether or not sociology is joked about because its researchers political leanings is another question. But that’s the argument Turner seems to be making here.

I wonder if social psychologist Jonathan Haidt would agree with this assessment in light of his look at the political leanings of the field of social psychology.

If sociology gave up this freedom, what other fields filled in academic vacuum? If I had to guess, economics generally provided some room for conservatives. Does this mean that some bright academic stars that once might have gone to sociology have instead pursued other fields?

Academics flock to research the Occupy movement

A New York Times article suggests a number of academics have seized the opportunity presented by the Occupy movement to not only teach about but also research the protests:

“This thing just erupted so quickly,” said Alex S. Vitale, a sociologist at Brooklyn College who studies the policing of demonstrations. “It’s almost overwhelming to deal with all the information that’s out there.”

Mr. Vitale is finishing a 10-city study of interactions between protesters and the police since last fall, which he said showed a lack of overall “militarization” in police response in major cities. (New York is an exception, said Mr. Vitale, who organized a demonstration against police tactics in Zuccotti Park last fall but said he did not consider himself part of the Occupy movement.) Other researchers are doing ethnographic studies, crunching survey data, recording oral histories and analyzing material by and about the movement, all at lightning speed compared with the usual pace of scholarship.

“Academics are used to taking forever, but we don’t have to,” said Theda Skocpol, a sociologist at Harvard and author, with Vanessa Williamson, of “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” a study of Occupy’s right-wing counterpart published in January…

Some researchers also say that the sympathy many academics feel for the movement risks undermining objective research.

It will be very interesting to see the research and then the resulting discussions.

This highlights a larger issue in academia: the common lag time between events and publishable research. This can often take a few years as researchers quickly draw up plans, collect data, analyze it, and then work through the review process. I imagine there will be some pressure to get some of this Occupy research going more quickly, perhaps with an interest in more quickly addressing and understanding this phenomenon and with the idea of capitalizing on political momentum. Could this change how research is presented and considered in the future? Work could be published in web or open source journals. What about books that are rushed into print or even more timely, e-books?

Sociologist Neil Gross counters Santorum’s charge about liberal colleges with research

Sociologist Neil Gross, whose work on this subject I have cited before, disagrees with Rick Santorum’s claim and argues that “college doesn’t make you liberal“:

But contrary to conservative rhetoric, studies show that going to college does not make students substantially more liberal. The political scientist Mack Mariani and the higher education researcher Gordon Hewitt analyzed changes in student political attitudes between their freshman and senior years at 38 colleges and universities from 1999 to 2003. They found that on average, students shifted somewhat to the left — but that these changes were in line with shifts experienced by most Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 during the same period of time. In addition, they found that students were no more likely to move left at schools with more liberal faculties.

Similarly, the political scientists M. Kent Jennings and Laura Stoker analyzed data from a survey that tracked the political attitudes of about 1,000 high school students through their college years and into middle age. Their research found that the tendency of college graduates to be more liberal reflects to a large extent the fact that more liberal students are more likely to go to college in the first place.

Studies also show that attending college does not make you less religious. The sociologists Jeremy Uecker, Mark Regnerus and Margaret Vaaler examined data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and found that Americans who pursued bachelor’s degrees were more likely to retain their faith than those who did not, perhaps because life at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder can be rough in ways that chip away at religious belief and participation. They report that students “who did not attend college and two-year college students are much more likely — 61 and 54 percent more, respectively — than four-year college students to relinquish their religious affiliations.”…

The main reason for this development is that attacking liberal professors as elitists serves a vital purpose. It helps position the conservative movement as a populist enterprise by identifying a predatory elite to which conservatism stands opposed — an otherwise difficult task for a movement strongly backed by holders of economic power.

Is this enough research to satisfy critics or do the studies not really matter in the face of political concerns?

While these studies might show that students are not all being pushed into liberalism, I imagine conservatives might bring up other arguments. For example, professors have a certain level of prestige in society and so if a majority are proponents of liberal opinions, then society could be swayed in certain directions. Policy decisions might be made. Public opinion could be influenced (though this might require suggesting that Americans are easily swayed). Or another issue: colleges and universities receive federal funding and so liberal professors can access taxpayer money to promote their causes.

Academics tend to brush aside these arguments by suggesting they can still be objective researchers (and I tend to agree) regardless of their own political or personal opinions. But there is still a perception issue here that academics could work harder to dispel. At times, I think it wouldn’t take much: show some respect for religion, stop suggesting that people with traditional or conservative ideas are all ill-intentioned, hint that popular culture and the suburbs aren’t a complete wasteland, and don’t be condescending.

A quick overview of the liberal world of academia from a sociological study

As a writer looks at the political leanings of academia, much of the factual basis of the story is derived from a sociological study:

That faculties are liberal is beyond dispute. In a rigorous survey, University of British Columbia sociology Prof. Neil Gross concluded, “professors currently compose the most liberal major occupational group in American society.”

Gross got interested in this issue in 2005, when he was at Harvard, where president Lawrence Summers suggested that the underrepresentation of women at the highest levels of math and science might be due to “different availability of aptitude at the high end.”…

So Gross and Solon Simmons of George Mason University surveyed more than 1,400 full-time professors at more than 900 American institutions. Only 19.7 percent of professors identified themselves as “any shade of conservative” (compared with 31.9 percent of the general population), while 62.2 percent identified themselves as some flavor of liberal (compared with 23.3 percent of Americans overall).

Gross found variation between disciplines. Social sciences and humanities contained the highest concentration of liberals. Conservatives were as numerous as liberals in business, health sciences, computer science and engineering.

I’ve noted before where sociological studies plus social psychologist Stephen Haidt, who is cited in this article, have discussed this topic. I still think it is a bit odd that Newt Gingrich has so much popularity with Republicans even though he is a former academic (see previous posts here and here).

Of course, the question regarding the politics of academia is “so what?” – how does it matter in the long run? The author of the piece cited above offers this conclusion:

Unfortunately, the estrangement will serve only to reinforce the lopsidedness of university politics, undermine the confidence of a large share of the public in expert opinion, and jeopardize the role of the university in public life whenever conservatives are in power.

These are not small matters, particularly as college costs continue to rise and students are told they must go to college in order to succeed in a changed world. In a world where we are told that everything is or could be considered political, this affects how researchers go about finding about and reporting on the truths they are discovering about the social and natural world. And this also must have an effect on how students view the learning process and the purposes of a college education. Does it simply reduce everything, from the perspective of all sides, to a naked struggle for power?

Two sociological studies on politicial self-selection in academia

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.

Social psychologists respond to claim of liberal bias in their field

The New York Times describes a recent speech by a social psychologist arguing that liberals are underrepresented in academia. While this argument is not new to academia (the article cites several studies of recent years saying similar things), it is interesting to note how the social psychologists responded:

The fields of psychology, sociology and anthropology have long attracted liberals, but they became more exclusive after the 1960s, according to Dr. Haidt. “The fight for civil rights and against racism became the sacred cause unifying the left throughout American society, and within the academy,” he said, arguing that this shared morality both “binds and blinds.”

“If a group circles around sacred values, they will evolve into a tribal-moral community,” he said. “They’ll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value.” It’s easy for social scientists to observe this process in other communities, like the fundamentalist Christians who embrace “intelligent design” while rejecting Darwinism. But academics can be selective, too, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan found in 1965 when he warned about the rise of unmarried parenthood and welfare dependency among blacks — violating the taboo against criticizing victims of racism…

Can social scientists open up to outsiders’ ideas? Dr. Haidt was optimistic enough to title his speech “The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology,” urging his colleagues to focus on shared science rather than shared moral values. To overcome taboos, he advised them to subscribe to National Review and to read Thomas Sowell’s “A Conflict of Visions.”

For a tribal-moral community, the social psychologists in Dr. Haidt’s audience seemed refreshingly receptive to his argument. Some said he overstated how liberal the field is, but many agreed it should welcome more ideological diversity. A few even endorsed his call for a new affirmative-action goal: a membership that’s 10 percent conservative by 2020. The society’s executive committee didn’t endorse Dr. Haidt’s numerical goal, but it did vote to put a statement on the group’s home page welcoming psychologists with “diverse perspectives.” It also made a change on the “Diversity Initiatives” page — a two-letter correction of what it called a grammatical glitch, although others might see it as more of a Freudian slip.

In the old version, the society announced that special funds to pay for travel to the annual meeting were available to students belonging to “underrepresented groups (i.e., ethnic or racial minorities, first-generation college students, individuals with a physical disability, and/or lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered students).”

As Dr. Haidt noted in his speech, the “i.e.” implied that this was the exclusive, sacred list of “underrepresented groups.” The society took his suggestion to substitute “e.g.” — a change that leaves it open to other groups, too. Maybe, someday, even to conservatives.

Several questions come to mind:

1. What will social psychologists do about this in the long run? It’s not surprising that the executive committee didn’t support the 10% by 2020 plan but what will they actively do to promote conservative involvement in this discipline?

2. How will the response to this within academia differ from the response outside of academia, particularly among groups who consistently already make noise about academics being too liberal?

3. In the long run, does this liberal bias mean that all or most of research within this field (and others) is not objective or true?