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Split Brain
January 14, 2020+Musa al-Gharbi
+Viewpoint Diversity

Callosal Failure: One Hundred Years of Viewpoint Diversity Activism

Callosal disconnection syndrome, more colloquially known as ‘split brain syndrome’ occurs when the connections between the left and right hemispheres of the brain are disrupted or severed. The condition often makes it difficult for people to fully access and synthesize various flows of information or to properly coordinate their actions. This is, perhaps, a perfect metaphor for the viewpoint diversity movement up to now. In a previous essay, “Seizing the Means of Knowledge Production,” I demonstrated that despite the perceived novelty of the current moment in higher education, in fact there is little that is actually new: debates around ‘grievance studies’ ‘victimhood culture,’ ‘social justice,’ affirmative action, sensitivity training, safe spaces, institutional racism, microaggressions, social constructionism, cultural appropriation, critical race theory, intersectionality, words as violence, white privilege, trigger warnings – you name it – they all go back decades. These concepts and approaches were institutionalized gradually by a constellation of scholars, practitioners and activists who well-understood how colleges and universities operate, and executed a series of disciplined, grassroots – largely successful — campaigns to transform institutional policies, practices and culture. Interestingly, the viewpoint diversity movement dates back just as far as any of these concepts. Following the 1900 political firing of Stanford sociologist Edward A. Ross, the nascent AAUP and AACU helped establish robust protections for academic freedom. However, it quickly became clear that protecting faculty from outside political pressure was not enough: scholarship could also be censored or corrupted by the ideological and identity commitments of professors themselves. Indeed, as scholars gained increased power and autonomy with respect to things like hiring and promotion decisions, graduate admissions, what made it through institutional review boards, which work got published, curriculum design, etc. — they almost immediately began using their newfound clout to marginalize or suppress inconvenient findings and narratives (as well as the academics who produced them), and to push through work that flattered their worldview and perceived interests. In response, a growing number of scholars set out to document the ways that insufficient viewpoint diversity undermined research and teaching – and began lobbying for 1) a more heterogenous professoriate, and 2) richer engagement with a wider ranger of perspectives (in scholarship and pedagogy). Yet, this movement has been far less successful at institutionalizing up to now. Why? There are many reasons, but perhaps chief among them is that viewpoint diversity advocates quickly split into two camps – each hostile to the other. One focused on identity commitments (race, gender, sexuality, class), the other focused on ideological commitments per se (primarily political orientation and religion) and, to a lesser degree, social networks and relationships. One camp came to be associated primarily with the humanities, the other with the social sciences.
Note: Both branches of inquiry that follow are descendent of a common lineage. The so-called “Masters of Doubt” — Darwin (d. 1882), Marx (d. 1883), Nietzsche (d. 1900) and Freud (d. 1939) — revealed that much human thought and behavior seemed to be driven by pre-rational or otherwise unconscious biological, psychological and socio-historical processes, and that our justifications for various states of affairs were often false (and self-deceptive). This substantially undermined both the Enlightenment conception of rationality and many Western Judeo-Christian beliefs, norms and values. Their work led to the emergence of new fields of study, new methods of critique, and eventually to a radical reanalysis of scholarship itself — with much more attention drawn to questions about how knowledge was produced, by whom and toward what ends.
Identity Commitments Year Ideological Commitments, Social Relations
Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness 1923
1929 Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia
1942 Merton, The Sociology of Science
De Beauvoir, The Second Sex 1949
1951 Asch, “Effects of Group Pressure Upon the Modification and Distortion of Judgement.”
1952 Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science
1957 Popper, The Poverty of Historicism
Arendt, The Human Condition 1958 Lazarsfeld & Thielens, The Academic Mind (interviewed social scientists throughout the U.S. about the effects ‘Red Scare’ restrictions on opinions and speech had on them and their work); Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (explored the role personal commitments play in research, learning)
Fanon, Wretched of the Earth 1961
1962 Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Friedan, The Feminine Mystique 1963 Joyner, “Political Party Affiliation of University Administrative and Teaching Personnel” (early study looking at affiliations of admin and instructors at a single university).
1965 McClintok, Spaulding & Turner, “Political Orientations of Academically Affiliated Psychologists.” (early study of political affiliation of academics within a particular field)
Foucault, The Order of Things; 1969 The Archeology of Knowledge 1966
Derrida, Of Grammatology (Deconstruction); Theodore Allen, “White Blindspot” (foundation of ‘whiteness studies’) 1967
1968 Jencks & Riesman, The Academic Revolution (explores the rise to power of professional scholars and scientists — both within academia and society writ large)
Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (trans. English) 1970
Gramsci, Prison Notebooks (trans. English; hegemony, subaltern) 1971
1972 Janis, Victims of Groupthink (explores policymaking consequences of homogeneity)
Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures 1973
Smith, Women Look at Psychology (foundation of Standpoint Feminism); 1977 Feminism & Marxism 1975 Ladd & Lipset, The Divided Academy (studied political positions and identities of professors nationwide across various fields, and compared with one-another and general public) ; Abramowitz, Gomez & Abramowitz, “Publish or Politic: Referee Bias in Manuscript Review.” (a foundational peer review audit)
Said, Orientalism 1978
Ake, Social Sciences as Imperialism 1979
Zinn, A People’s History of the United States; Rich “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Existence” 1980
1981 Bradley, “Pernicious Publication Practices” (a foundational study on academics’ perceptions/ experiences about peer review); Cole, Cole & Simon, “Chance and Consensus in Peer Review” (a foundational audit study of NSF grants)
1982 Vernon, “The Importance of Intellectual Diversity to Educational Quality.”
1984 Jackman & Muha, “Education and Intergroup Attitudes: Moral Enlightenment, Superficial Democratic Commitment, or Ideological Refinement?”
1985 Ceci, Peters & Plotkin, “Human Subjects Review, Personal Values, and the Regulation of Social Science Research.” (a foundational IRB audit)
1986 Fisk & Shweder (eds.), Metatheory in Social Science
1987 Latour, Science in Action
1988 Abbott, The System of Professions
Butler, Gender Trouble; Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet; Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality 1990
De Lauretis, “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities” 1991
1992 Tetlock, “Political Psychology or Politicized Psychology: Is the Road to Scientific Hell Paved with Good Moral Intentions?” (important study highlighting how many psychological constructs seem to be biased against conservatives); Bromwich, Politics By Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking.
hooks, Teaching to Transgress 1994
1997 Wenneras & Wold, “Nepotism and Sexism in Peer Review” (a foundational audit study on postdoc assignments)
1999 Stark, “Atheism, Faith, and the Social Scientific Study of Religion.”
2001 Redding, “Sociopolitical Diversity in Psychology: The Case for Pluralism”
2006 Kelly-Woessner & Woessner, “My Professor is a Partisan Hack: How Perceptions of a Professor’s Political Views Affect Student Course Evaluations.”
2008 Smith, Mayer & Fritschler, Closed Minds?
2009 Gross & Simmons, “The Religiosity of American College and University Professors”; 2014 (ed.), Professors and their Politics
2010 Yancey, Compromising Scholarship: Religious and Political Bias in American Higher Education; Schrag, Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965-2009.
2011 Rothman, Kelly-Woessner & Woessner, The Still Divided Academy; Haidt, “The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology”

Like Crabs in a Bucket

The concerns that Heterodox Academy has raised are not new. As we’ve seen, the research HxA has done looking at ideological composition of the faculty, how they’ve changed over time, how they vary geographically, the consequences of the lack of viewpoint diversity with respect to the quality and impact of research and pedagogy – this work draws on, and builds upon, nearly a century of scholarship about scholarship and teaching.

Yet, at this point, it is worth asking what anyone has to show for all that ink spilled. The ideological diversity deficit has gradually grown even more pronounced over the intervening decades. With respect to demographic diversity, the professoriate remains overwhelmingly, and disproportionately, white and male – drawn primarily from those of relatively well-off backgrounds and a fairly narrow band of geographic regions and communities.

Indeed, other erstwhile education reformers have seen great success at institutionalizing, in large part due to their ecumenicism. Meanwhile, viewpoint diversity advocates squabble amongst themselves. Many within the ‘ideological commitments’ camp seem to believe that the people in the ‘identity commitments’ camp are *the* problem that has to be overcome, while many in the ‘identity commitments’ camp describe the ‘ideological commitments’ crowd as apologists, trojan horses or useful idiots for white supremacists, male chauvinists, and other reactionary agendas. Consequently, neither side has made much progress in their respective goals. As CP Snow put it back in 1959:

“Literary intellectuals a one pole – at the other scientists… between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension – sometimes hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted image of each other… this polarization is sheer loss to us all. To us as people, and to our society. It is at the same time a practical and intellectual and creative loss.”

A Holistic Approach

Those deeply concerned with partisan / liberal/ conservative issues are often neglectful or disdainful with regards to how other identity commitments may affect scholarship. Meanwhile, those focused on race, gender, class, sexuality, etc. often see little value in ideological diversity – and take the rightness of their own normative and political commitments largely for granted.

But of course, it is absurd to think that most other identity commitments shape/ distort research except for one’s preferred political and moral positions (which are just, I guess, objectively correct?). And it is equally absurd to recognize and express deep concern about the ways ideological commitments may color research while downplaying the extent to which other identity commitments may do the same.

Indeed, both lines of work are fundamentally oriented towards the same basic goal: exploring how positionality and homogeneity affect knowledge production – and what can be done to improve the process. Yet if these scholars want to achieve their objectives, they will have to heed Bruno Latour’s call for analytical symmetry.

Some key premises that would undergird such an endeavor – uniting the work on identity and ideological commitments – include:

  1. One’s life experiences, perceived (material, social, financial) interests, identity commitments, etc. shape knowledge production in important ways. They significantly inform which objects of inquiry we find worthy of study. They shape how we define things (i.e. is inequality a social problem or simply a social phenomenon? What about out-of-wedlock childbearing?). They affect the questions we ask, influence the methods we use to explore those questions and how we interpret any eventual data. They help inform where and how we choose to convey our findings, etc.
  2. These factors influence us in subtle ways that are not amenable to us simply being made aware of them and willfully correcting them. We must be as vigilant as we can be, as rigorous as we can be, as intellectually humble as we can be. But our perspectives must also be put into conversation with others who don’t share the same priors and commitments. And we need robust institutional processes to help catch and correct these errors when they inevitably occur.
  3. Institutional homogeneity exacerbates tendencies towards motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, etc. Indeed, processes like peer review and decision-by-committee can deepen rather than mitigate prejudices in a context where virtually all participants share the same biases and commitments. This is why individual professionalism and robust institutional checks are not enough – substantive diversity is also needed. Homogeneity is itself a problem for knowledge production.
  4. The challenges institutions of higher learning face with respect to ideological and demographic diversity are intimately interrelated and best addressed in tandem. Pursuing one dimension to the exclusion (or at the expense) of the other tends to be ineffective or even counterproductive.
  5. One of ways those in the dominant position exercise their dominance is to position their way of looking at the world as obvious, natural, objective, inevitable. Hence, a key tactic for those who are not in the dominant position will be to de-naturalize things that the dominant group takes for granted. Those concerned about political diversity may start by questioning naturalness of assumption that Trump voters must be motivated by some negative trait. Those concerned about racial or socioeconomic diversity might challenge the extent to which narratives about meritocracy are justified by the realities of how people act and interact in the world – and the ways that opportunities and capital are distributed therein.
  6. Both the dominant and subaltern positions are distorted by positionality. It is not the case that the dominant position is riddled with biases and blindspots while the subaltern position represents objective truth. Put another way, it is NOT the case that female perspectives on gender are de facto ‘truer’ than male perspectives. Ditto with LGBTQ people with respect to sexuality, minorities with respect to race, lower SES people with respect to class, or conservative scholars with respect to politics. Those perspectives are also limited. Work by these scholars is also often self-serving. Critics often (rightfully) highlight motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, the cherry-picking of facts, etc. with respect to the dominant perspective. Yet subaltern scholars also selectively focus on some things over others in order to reach particular conclusions — in the service of affirming their identity or advancing their interests. Indeed, many of projects of subaltern scholarship are explicitly and unabashedly aimed at empowering those at the institutional margins; the facts and arguments are constructed so as to suit those ends. Hence, it is simply not the case that the subaltern perspective is intrinsically more objective, dispassionate or removed from material and political interests. Instead, thinking across the board is informed by one’s positionality and one’s objectives. Each perspective, independent of others, will tend to give an incomplete and often inaccurate account of any given phenomenon.
  7. The solution, then, is NOT to simply replace the dominant institutional perspective with a subaltern perspective – to swap one identity or ideologically-based orthodoxy with another. In a world where white scholars simply deferred to, say, black people on racial issues, or where men simply deferred to women, heterosexuals to queer scholars, progressives to conservatives – certain kinds of distortions, errors, omissions and injustices would be significantly reduced, but others would likely be greatly exacerbated. This is why conflicting viewpoints must brought into conversation with one another in a constructive way — to form a picture that is more complete and reliable than we would have were we to look at only the dominant perspective or only at subaltern perspectives. In a word, then, what is needed is heterodoxy.

Time to Get Real

There are some people in the viewpoint diversity movement who enthusiastically argue that political and religious views shape our understanding of social phenomenon – and therefore ideological diversity is important, as is engaging the work of people from various ideological backgrounds. Many of these will even concede that geography makes a difference – for instance, whether a scholar is from (or resides in) the elite beltways v. the heartland can shape how people look at the world. Some take it a step further and argue that socioeconomic background also matters – that people who were born relatively well-off probably have a different set of experiences and priors than someone who came from a humbler background. On this basis, they may support initiatives to better integrate perspectives of small-town, rural or lower-income Americans into the academy alongside lobbying for more engagement with conservative and religious views.

Yet many who recognize the importance of all of the aforementioned factors then arbitrarily draw a line with respect to the ways race and gender may inform scholarly work — as though it makes no difference in shaping one’s perspective and interpretation of facts should one go through life white, as compared to a minority, or as a man as compared to a woman. Although all of the other aforementioned factors can be acknowledged as influencing thought and scholarship, these two factors, they hold, are irrelevant. Indeed, they often bristle when considerations of race or gender are brought into conversations about viewpoint diversity.

Now, I will decline to describe the demographic characteristics of the people who, in my experience, are most likely to strike this position. And I will refuse to engage in psychologized speculation as to how they could arrive at such a dubious conclusion given the premises they already accept. But I will say that it has been well-established empirically that scholars’ race and gender often significantly influence how they go about their scholarship and the conclusions they reach. Indeed, major sociological distance between the people carrying out social research and those being studied often leads to great harm — particularly when policymakers, NGOs, activists, et al. conduct interventions based on this unreliable knowledge (e.g. here, here, here, here, here, here). Consequently, if you happen to be among those who believe that HxA should be focused *only* on ideological diversity, and you chafe when some representative of the organization evokes the ways other aspects of a person’s background or identity might inform how one looks at the world, analyzes phenomena, etc. – how other forms of homogeneity might distort scholarship — then I encourage you to earnestly consider how your own background or identity commitments may be informing these judgments and reactions.

Just as forcefully, if you are someone who recognizes that class, race, gender, sexuality, etc. can influence scholarship but you refuse to consider the ways your own moral and political views may be undermining research, then you are not serious about understanding and correcting for distortions at all. Indeed, you probably aren’t even taking your own starting premises seriously. Consider the intersection of race, class and politics: given that elites are the ones most likely to hold ‘woke’ views, if one subscribes to such opinions, one should grapple with the possibility these attitudes may be an expression of one’s (elite) class position — and may serve to further elite interests — rather than meaningfully advancing the will or interests of those from historically marginalized or disadvantaged groups.

Indeed, if you don’t have any patience for socially conservative or religious views, then you simply aren’t serious about listening to and empowering minorities, lower-income people, et al. – because these groups tend to be significantly more socially conservative and religious than relatively well-off whites. What’s more, for those scholars who aspire to ‘make a difference’ with their work, if you can’t understand and productively engage with people whose ideological positions diverge from your own, then you aren’t likely to realize any kind of meaningful and positive social change. Trying to solve practical problems, with actual people, in the real world – this requires that one be able to be able to build coalitions with others who hold different backgrounds, values and interests (in pursuit of superordinate goals), to compromise as needed, and to adjust one’s aims, methods and priorities in light of evolving circumstances ‘on the ground.’

Put simply, if you can’t be bothered to understand, constructively engage — and learn from — those whose priors and commitments run against your own, then you are not serious about social justice. Full stop. This kind of parochialism is not the sign of someone who is truly committed, but instead of a virtue-signaler who doesn’t have any actual ‘skin in the game’ and can afford to watch things continue to grow worse while they write sterile and self-righteous tracts about it from their perch within the ivory tower (or at some media organization).

Bottom line: ideological commitments (political, moral, metaphysical views) influence and often distort scholarship. Identity commitments (race, gender, class, sexuality – and the experiences and perceived interests that arise therefrom) influence and often distort scholarship. Moreover, these two phenomena are related: ideological and identity commitments are often bound together within individuals (and at times, across groups) in a variety of profound ways.

Consequently, those concerned with the ways positionality and homogeneity affect knowledge production must recognize and account for the influence of both identity and ideological commitments, or they are not going to be very successful in improving the quality and impact of research or teaching. If nine decades of work with little to show cannot drive this lesson home, it is not clear what could.


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