“What would you say if I told you I own a gun?”
This is how I began a lecture called “The Soap Operas of Sociology” for my Introduction to Sociology course. After a brief pause, I was met with a variety of responses. Some students say, “Good for you!” Others look in disbelief.
Then, I ask the following questions: “What if I told you that I participate in sharp shooting competitions? Or that my brother-in-law is a gunsmith and we bond by going to a shooting range? Or that I was a victim of crime and simply felt safer having a gun? Would any of those reasons make you feel less shocked or better about why I own a gun?” Some students nodded yes, while others indicated the opposite.
After some more silence, I ask, “Do you want to know if it’s true?” All heads nod yes. “I’m not going to tell you,” I explain, “Because it doesn’t matter. Whether or not I own a gun has absolutely no bearing in my ability to teach.” At this point they groan in despair because they desperately want to know.
I teach at a small, private university in Atlanta, Georgia that draws a diverse group of students representing different races, classes, genders and (of course) political views. My goal that day was not simply to shock the students but to inform them of the research regarding “viewpoint diversity” and to encourage them to consider their own partiality.
There are a number of controversies in sociology. From p-values to politics, we wrestle with how to study, measure, and deliver findings regarding social phenomena. Our profession requires controversy- in fact we welcome it. However, this open-minded spirit falls short in one very interesting area: politics.
For this lecture, I assign this article from The New York Times featuring Jonathan Haidt and his research on institutional bias against conservatives (Tierney 2011). I also present the economic, political science, and sociological research on the ratios of Democrats to Republicans among faculty at elite universities, non-elite universities, psychology departments, and sociology departments (Cardiff & Klein 2005; Gross & Simmons 2014); partisan discrimination in faculty hiring (Iyengar & Westwood 2015); and awarding of hypothetical scholarships to Republican students (Shields & Dunn 2016). I also assign an interview with sociologist and evangelical Christian George Yancey who writes, “Outside of academia I faced more problems as a black [person],” he explains. “But inside academia I face more problems as a Christian, and it is not even close (Kristof 2016).” Once again, I summarize research regarding whether or not faculty would hire an applicant who identified as evangelical (Yancey 2011).
Haidt, in his interview, describes a graduate student who uses the “coming out of the closet” metaphor to describe what it feels like to identify as a conservative or Republican in academia. I should note that I vehemently disagree with using this analogy. Nonetheless, I believe the graduate student was referring to the fear of rejection. The story does reveal an interesting aspect of identity politics that sociologist should, at the very least, be interested in studying.
Exploring these issues, for example, would be similar to the shift in race scholarship to not only examine underrepresented populations but also the construction of whiteness. If this is something worthy of study, then we should employ the same rigorous inquiry that we give to the topics that are near and dear to “liberal” sociology.
In my former law career, I learned that every lawyer should understand their own legal argument as well as their opponent’s argument. It is not to say that conservative or evangelical scholars are my opponents. Quite the contrary, I welcome their points of view. It is the same reason I watch both CNN and Fox News. It is important for me to understand both sides of an issue and the evidence and theory they use to support their arguments.
This, I believe, should also apply to sociological investigations. As a race scholar, I understand that this political divide has always existed. There is W. E. B. DuBois versus Booker T. Washington, Claude Steele versus Shelby Steele, and William Julius Wilson versus, well, everyone else. These political debates help us understand the complexity of race relations in the United States. Corey D. Fields’ (2016) recently published Black Elephants in the Room: The Unexpected Politics of African American Republicans captures this complexity. I am eager to include this research the next time I teach Race & Ethnic Relations because Black Republicans are a group that evokes the most eye rolls, sighs and groans from my students. It is my job to challenge them to explore, not dismiss, groups they do not understand or to whom they have yet to be exposed.
Including political diversity in my syllabus accomplishes three very important objectives.
- First, it demonstrates my personal and academic commitment to rigorous, intentional inclusivity.
- Second, it insulates me from allegations of excluding or silencing conservative and evangelical points of view in my classroom.
- Most importantly, it allows me to model what it means to be a colleague who can, in a civil manner, agree to disagree.
As a result, I encourage my conservative and evangelical students to speak their minds and discuss their understanding of sociological phenomena. In doing so, I explain, they must engage scholarship and one another with civility, evidence and theory. It is what I expect of all my students. I also provide a link to Heterodox Academy to connect them with the evidence and theory used by like-minded scholars.
So why did I choose guns? Because there are so many ideas of who and what comprise American gun owners. To illustrate my point, I Googled the phrase “gun owners” and clicked on images. The images included highly sexualized advertisements of women with guns, political cartoons of men armed to the teeth, and even a man holding a gun in one hand and a baby in the other. I explained that whether or not we want to admit it, there are a number of labels attached to owning a gun. Such labels can cloud our judgment as scholars and impede our ability to study controversial topics or manage uncomfortable findings in an unbiased manner.
Finally, I provide the students an example of research that I believe misses the mark. In Reflexivity and Voice, Charmaz and Mitchell, Jr. (1997) recount Mitchell’s ethnographic study of survivalists in a small Illinois town. I remember being struck by two excerpts on survivalist training. In the first, the researcher describes his interaction with a survivalist who covers himself in mud:
“The rest was transformed into a kind of filth-covered, primitive man-thing. I stared at it. It stared back. The thing fastidiously wiped its hands on a patch of grass, rose from its haunches, stepped around the fire and stood in front of me. It extended one hand and, almost to my surprise, spoke. “Hello,” it said, “I’m Henry [p. 198, emphasis mine].”
In a second account, he describes survivalist attire as “ludicrous costumes” and refers to the subjects as “play-acting weekend warriors.” I wondered if his subjects knew he was dehumanizing them, making fun of them and reducing/caricaturing an activity they obviously enjoy and take seriously. I found it to be extraordinarily disrespectful particularly since this group welcomed him into their world. Charmaz and Mitchell, Jr. explain that this account exemplifies a voice that is “neither neutral nor muted (p. 200).” Because of this bias, I considered what valuable information we missed, information that would have helped us understand this particular group of people.
I explain to my students that it is easy to make fun of survivalists or others with more extreme lifestyles. It is harder to try to understand them and report findings in an honest, nonjudgmental manner. An excellent example of respectfully but critically studying aberrant groups is Matthew Hughey’s (2012) comparative study of white nationalist and antiracist organizations in White Bound: Nationalists, Antiracists, and the Shared Meaning of Race. As sociologists, I explain, our scholarship is stronger when we invite and answer contradictory, unpopular and opposing views or findings. Furthermore, reflexivity requires us to explore our response if a colleague were to disclose, “I’m a Republican” or “I serve my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” or, in this case, alleged gun ownership.
Excerpt from My Sociology 101 Syllabus on Controversial Issues
It is my goal to create an environment where we can engage in the free exchange of ideas without fear of judgment, harassment, and discrimination. In this class we will be discussing a variety of controversial issues. A good sociologists, however, knows how to discuss these issues with mutual respect, civility, and understanding.
We will spend the first days of class identifying what we need to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable engaging in mutually beneficial and enlightening discussions. You do not have to agree with everything you hear in class, but you must respect a persons right to their opinion and thoughts. I simply ask that when you express these opinions, you do so with respect. Most issues occur when people share personal stories without prefacing their remarks with a desire to learn. Beginning a remark with, “No offense but…” is usually an indicator that your remark will be completely offensive. If you are unsure how to ask a question and/or discuss an issue, I welcome you to meet with me. I promise you will leave feeling understood, respected, and hopefully having learned a different point of view.
I strive to create an open and welcoming classroom. If I ever miss the mark, please don’t hesitate to come and talk to me. We are all learning together.
- Cardiff, Christopher F. and Daniel B. Klein. 2008. “Faculty partisan affiliations in all disciplines: A voter-registration study.” Critical Review 17(3-4): 237-255.
- Charmaz, Kathy and Richard G. Mitchell, Jr. 1997. “The Myth of Silent Authorship: Self, Substance, and Style in Ethnographic Writing,” in Reflexivity and Voice edited by Rosanna Hertz. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.
- Fields, Corey D. 2016. Black Elephants in the Room: The Unexpected Politics of African American Republicans. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.
- Gross, Neil and Solon Simmons. 2014. Professors and Their Politics. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Hughey, Matthew. 2012. White Bound: Nationalist, Antiracists and the Shared Meaning of Race. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- yengar, Shanto and Sean Westwood. 2015. “Fear and Loathing across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization.” American Journal of Political Science 59(3): 690-707.
- Kristof, Nicholas. May 7, 2016. “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance.” New York Times. Retrieved October 16, 2016 (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/opinion/sunday/a-confession-of-liberal-intolerance.html ).
- Shields, Jon A. and Joshua M. Dunn, Sr. 2016. Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Tierney, John. February 8, 2011. “Social Scientist Sees Bias Within.” New York Times. Retrieved October 19, 2016 (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/08/science/08tier.html?_r=0).
- Yancey, George. 2011. Compromising Scholarship: Religious and Political Bias in American Higher Education. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.
Marisela Martinez-Cola is a doctoral student in sociology at Emory University and instructor of sociology at Oglethorpe University.
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