heterodox: the blog
How Ideology Has Hindered Sociological Insight, Summarized
Earlier this year, I published a paper on the problems that sociology faces because of ideological homogeneity. You can read the full paper at The American Sociologist or get an ungated copy here. Here’s a summary of the some points that I make.
To begin, people have ideologies because they are concerned about certain kinds of moral harm:
Although no perfect definition of ideology exists, an ideology typically represents an institutionalized vigilance for transgressions of certain values. Often, ideologues are also vigilant to opportunities for moral progress, but taboos retain primacy. Feminism is an ideology vigilant to unjust treatment of women, environmentalism is an ideology vigilant to ecological harm, fascism is an ideology vigilant to disruptions of “proper” political and economic hierarchy, and so on.
Moral harm actually occurs in the world. Unlike the philosopher and academic Bas van der Roosen I don’t advocate that professors detach themselves from ideological commitments. However, I do see one problematic outcome that occurs when there’s no variation in the ideological commitments of social-science and behavioral-science professors–the scientific progress of the discipline is hindered.
There are three paths leading from ideological homogeneity to disciplinary stagnation. First, ideologically similar people have similar taboos:
Among the taboos in the social sciences are the ideas that “victims” are sometimes blameworthy, that sexes and races biologically differ from one another, that social beliefs are inborn rather than constructed, and that stereotypes sometimes match average group attributes (Haidt 2011; see also Felson 2001; Jussim 2012b; Pinker 2002). (By “stereotype,” I mean any belief about a person based on social-group membership, and I do not limit its usage to inaccurate and invidious beliefs.) What holders of these taboos share is a concern with self-determination and individual dignity (cf. Smith 2014). A person’s biological nature and conferred social status are construed as oppressive chains from which the individual should be liberated. Such chains are an affront to the dignity of the individual and his or her right to self-determination. This is indeed a laudable moral platform, since people do benefit from perceived autonomy (Ryan and Deci 2000). Nevertheless, a sociological claim may increase perceived autonomy and still be factually untrue.
Second, people rely on limited data for their scientific conclusions, because ideologically inclined people are more likely to collect and recall evidence that support their position. Consider the issue of White privilege. There are undoubtedly some privileges that come with being White rather than African-American in the U.S. Nevertheless, the White privilege has stretched to the point where people believe there is a hierarchy and Whites are the top. People tend to collect evidence that comports with this paradigm, but neglect inconvenient facts:
[E]xamples of inconvenient facts abound. Blacks (and Asians) have better mental health than Whites, an effect labeled the Black–White paradox (Keyes 2009). Hispanics have better physical health and lower mortality than Whites, an effect known as the Hispanic paradox (Markides and Eschbach 2005). And Asians have a higher average education level than Whites (Sakamoto et al. 2009), an effect which is as yet unnamed. The use of “paradox” rather than “falsification” for these effects is telling, given that a robust theory should have no paradoxes. In other cases, no clear ranking can be made. Although Asians have the highest median household income, Whites have the highest median net worth (Kochhar, Taylor, and Fry 2011). Black men are perceived as both highly attractive and highly dangerous (Lewis 2011; Sadler et al. 2012). And Blacks have the highest risk of being a victim of a hate crime, but Blacks also commit hate crimes at the highest per capita rate (Chorba 2001; Rubenstein 2003). Meanwhile, Jews and Asians and are almost exclusively victims rather than perpetrators of hate crimes (Chorba 2001; Rubenstein 2003), which seems to put them at bottom of a racial hierarchy, but their education and income put them at the top of the racial hierarchy.
To my knowledge, only one sociologist–Arthur Sakamoto–has tried to call attention to these inconsistencies. In Sakamoto’s account, which diverges from mine, the continued emphasis on White privilege and race in general derives from a desire to avoid discussing class in academia, an uncomfortable issue for middle- and upper-class academics.
Third, there is limited empathic understanding of the ideological outgroup. Conservatives and liberals are both pretty bad at understanding each other. They tend to caricature their ideological opponents, rather than comprehend them. In the case of liberals in academia:
This assumptive understanding without true understanding is also found in the sociological and social psychological literature. Several scholars have chosen to define conservatives as people who have a preference for the status quo and a willingness to tolerate inequality (e.g., Benforado and Hanson 2012). However, conservatives may not think in terms of the status quo, and the purported evidence that conservatives directly prefer the status quo may be specious. Conservatives have great respect for authority, and their respect for the status quo likely derives from their respect for the social norms that prior generations have created, not respect for the status quo itself. Their ostensible preference for the status quo is an epiphenomenon, egocentrically described as the opposite of what liberals prefer, which is a change in the status quo. Similarly, there is little evidence that conservatives are indifferent to inequality, but rather that they prefer goods and services be withheld from people who haven’t earned
them (Haidt 2013). One must engage in mind reading to infer that they are troubled by inequality and then tolerate it….
The choice of “status quo” as the term to denote social problems is also self-flattering. There are many elements of the status quo that American liberals support: the Bill of Rights, the democratic elections held to elect governing bodies, the provision of public libraries and schools, and the subsidized healthcare provided to the poor and elderly. When the term “status quo” appears, it only denotes elements of the status quo that trouble the author. Yet anyone can name some elements of the status quo they find problematic. Does this mean everyone is against the status quo? It seems more likely that saying one is against the “status quo” is a form of self-labeling that frames oneself as positive agent of change. Not surprisingly, members of the right-wing Tea Party also claim to be against the status quo (NBC News 2010)
In an age of political polarization, academics have a special obligation to avoid distancing themselves too much from their opponent. This does not oblige academics to have sympathy for their opponents’ views, but it does oblige them to perceive the opposition accurately.
Here is the solution that I propose:
I would argue for another more inclusive option, namely, to make sociology public by ensuring that people from every major ideology are represented in sociological work. Such diversity cannot be achieved immediately, but sociologists can certainly begin by creating policies to attract ideological outsiders to the field. Such policies would not only connect a larger segment of the public to the science of sociology, but they would also attenuate ideological bias and accelerate sociological science.
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