Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University, and managing editor at Heterodox Academy.
Heterodox Academy is concerned with promoting mutual understanding, constructive disagreement and viewpoint diversity.
This latter goal is broadly construed: we want to see more diversity in the academy in terms of socioeconomic status, race, nationality, gender and sexuality — and also the diversity which comes about from engaging with literatures, methodologies and analytic frameworks from other disciplines — under the belief that the inclusion of these perspectives will enhance the quality and impact of social research.
However, a good deal of our efforts up to now have been focused on promoting ideological diversity, and more narrowly, political diversity. This is in large part because, while the value of other forms of diversity have become widely accepted, ideological diversity — and political diversity in particular — are not respected in the same way.
Perhaps the most common response I get from my fellow scholars when I mention the dearth of conservative perspectives in the academy (and especially in social research fields) is something like, “what about other historically disadvantaged or underrepresented groups? Isn’t the underrepresentation of blacks, Hispanics, women, LGBTQ scholars a bigger problem than the lack of conservatives?”
Statistically speaking? Not so much: directly comparing base-rates in the general population to representation in the academy, universities actually seem to be far more diverse in terms of race, gender, or even sexuality than in terms of political diversity.
In social research fields, conservatives are actually the single most underrepresented group.
Below, I detail the most common responses progressive academics offer when confronted with these data — and answer these objections by drawing on the best available empirical evidence for the questions and concerns raised.
For those who want to advocate ideological (and political) diversity in social research and pedagogy but face skeptical colleagues and students — or for those who are themselves skeptical — this post is intended to be a resource for you:
This framing implies that race, gender or sexuality are intrinsic (and therefore, presumably, invariant). But in fact, people’s gender and sexual identities often do evolve over the course of their lives. Indeed, even racial and ethnic identities shift — for instance, in response to legal classifications, after getting back a DNA test or unearthing historical records suggesting a familial heritage one was not aware of, or as a result of marriage, the communities one lives in, socio-political current events, on and on.
But of course, just because one’s gender, sexuality or racial identities can be changed does not mean they are strongly volitional: resolving one’s sexual identity is not the same as deciding where to eat tonight. And so the question is: are political commitments akin to racial, gender or sexual identities? Or are they more like decisions about what to wear in the morning?
For instance, could a committed progressive – someone who deeply believed in the core tenets of the movement — just decide one day to be a conservative, and feel these commitments just as strongly (or vice-versa)?
A similar point holds with regards to religion: could a deeply convinced atheist just “choose” to be a devout Sufi mystic or a fundamentalist Hindu? Not just in terms of practice, but a sincere believer?
Most research on psychology, cognition or culture suggests that fundamental commitments simply don’t function that way. Instead, certain biological and otherwise intrinsic affinities are shaped through many of the same social forces through race, gender or sexuality are constructed.
In fact, for many, religious or socio-political commitments are actually more central to their identity than their gender, sexuality, or race. Fundamental commitments typically help shape understandings of these subordinate demographic categories and their social significance. In the process, they inform what people value, what they aspire to, and how they act or interact “in the world.”
Foundational commitments often function much like an ethnicities (which is why, for instance, Islamophobia can be considered a form of racism, despite the fact that Islam is not a “race”: in most Western countries, one’s Muslim identity would essentially supervene upon one’s actual racial or ethnic background in shaping perceptions and interactions). As with many “actual” ethnic minorities, members of “functional ethnic groups” often end up concentrated into geographic clusters and patterns of life that persist across generations.
In the U.S., the conservative-progressive spectrum trends strongly along the lines of geography and class. It would therefore be expected that institutions which preclude conservatives would also tend to have severe underrepresentation among, say, working-class and rural Americans (who are more likely to identify as conservative than urban or wealthier Americans). Indeed, this is the case in U.S. institutions of higher learning: as universities have grown increasingly politically homogenous (towards the left), participation among rural and working-class Americans has plummeted.
Of course, economic factors play a key role in driving this effect, but so does the perception among many rural and working class families that college is not “for them” – that they don’t “belong” there. This discourages many who do have the financial means, or the grades to be competitive for scholarships and financial aid, to not even apply (or if they do attend, to struggle with “imposter syndrome” – to the point where some end up failing or dropping out).
In short: measures that preclude conservatives from university spaces will tend to marginalize rural and working class people more broadly – because in many important respects, progressives and conservatives are not just the same kinds of people who happen to vote differently (in which case discrimination seems less clear), but are increasingly different types of people.
Critically, ethnicity is not the same as race. Ethnicities can encompass a wide array of races – for instance, there are Hispanic whites, Hispanic blacks, and everything in between. Functional ethnicities are no different: Muslims in the U.S., for instance, are extremely diverse in terms of race and nationality.
Similarly, “rural” and “working class” are not mere synonyms for “white” (let alone “male”). In fact, policies and practices which are harmful to rural working class whites are likely to have an especially harmful effect on rural or working class minorities. Intersectionality 101: if it is disadvantageous to be rural, and disadvantageous to be Hispanic, then a rural Hispanic person is likely to be much worse off (and a rural Hispanic woman, even more so).
“Conservative” is not a synonym for “white” either.
To the extent that people who hold conservative or religious views feel unwelcome in the academy (and especially in social research fields) – it will not just be whites who are excluded, but also a number of blacks and Hispanics (not to mention women):
Although blacks overwhelmingly vote Democrat, they are actually much more heterogeneous in their ideological leanings than their voting patterns would suggest – especially on issues related to gender, sexuality or even immigration. Hispanics also tend to be more conservative than whites on a range of social issues. Blacks and Hispanics tend to be more religious than whites too.
Given that blacks and Hispanics are, on average, more religious and more socially conservative than whites – policies and practices that alienate socially conservative or religious perspectives will disproportionately affect these minority groups rather than whites (that is, students who are Hispanic or black would be more likely to be impacted by these exclusionary measures in virtue of being more likely to be religious or socially conservative).
Therefore, it may not be a coincidence that the representation rates for blacks, Hispanics and conservatives are so similar, why representation of working class, black and/or Hispanic students has gone down in the very elite and east coast universities where domination by the left is most pronounced. In principle, these hyper-liberal spaces should be the least hostile spaces for these groups. In reality, the exclusion of conservatives and believers from the academy actually seems to run contrary to the goal of bringing in more people from historically marginalized and underrepresented backgrounds, or elevating their voices.
Indeed, it is not just religious or socially conservative minorities who end up jeopardized by the academy’s institutional biases against the right: Progressives who hail from historically underrepresented or marginalized groups tend to bear the brunt of the blowback from Republican voters against “partisan” universities. In fact, research by critical race scholars, feminists, or queer theorists is perhaps most likely to be devalued and defunded when universities find themselves under assault by conservatives who feel as though they have no place in institutions of higher learning.
This objection just rests on a bad analogy: what separates flat-earthers and geologists are empirical disputes which can be resolved empirically.
However, what separates conservatives and progressives are largely normative questions: is inequality necessarily wrong? Why and under what circumstances? How should scarce state resources be allocated? On what grounds? How should deviance be defined and responded to? Are social problems best addressed through top-down administration by experts and bureaucrats? Or by providing the communities and individuals with the resources, freedom and responsibility to address their own challenges (bottom-up)?
There is no objectively correct answer to questions such as these. Even the process of defining what counts as a social problem (rather than merely a social phenomenon) is a normatively-laden enterprise.
Recognizing this, and given the limitations and fallibility of our moral reasoning (which is why there is normative shifting across socio-cultural and temporal contexts), then we should be far more humble and open-minded with regards to normative disputes (such as those between progressives and conservatives) than empirical ones (such as those between flat-earthers and geologists).
This line of criticism argues that, if the goal is viewpoint diversity within a field or institution, it can be achieved without including more conservatives. For instance, radical Marxists, feminists, or queer theorists could challenge many perspectives of more conventional liberals and leftists, right?
Two major lines of response:
First, even radical Marxists, feminists or queer theorists are generally aligned with the left. So while adding more feminists, queer theorists or Marxists might increase diversity within the left, it would not really add any perspectives from outside that shared framework. For instance, there would be little difference between them about the normative status of inequality, or on a secular and materialist understanding of the world, etc. And not because those positions are unimpeachable (they, too, could be “problematized“).
As a result, we would still be left with an overly-narrow understanding of social problems and their possible solutions. In short: while more diversity within the left is good and should be encouraged, increasing intra-leftist diversity does not obviate the need for non-leftist perspectives.
Second, while it is clear that conservatives are vastly underrepresented in social research fields relative to their share in the broader population — it is not clear that the same can be said of Marxists, feminists or queer theorists.
Even among the most sympathetic age group, Millennials, the overwhelming majority reject communism, and most have an unfavorable view of Marx. Nonetheless, Marxists outnumber conservatives by 4:1 in my field, sociology.
Similarly, while the number of Americans who identify as LGBTQ is on the rise, especially among young people — and although Americans tend to vastly overestimate how many in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ — only about 4% identify as queer or transgender. LGBTQ scholars are actually statistically overrepresented at institutions of higher learning, especially in social research fields.
Only about 14% of Americans identify as “strong feminists” (let alone radical feminists). Nonetheless, gender & women’s studies departments are rapidly proliferating and expanding throughout the country.
In short, there does not seem to be a deficit in Marxists, queer scholars or feminists within the university. Of course, this is not a call for less Marxists, feminists, or queer theorists. Indeed, these scholars would do well to better infiltrate social research fields like economics or political science (rather than being concentrated so heavily in gender & women’s studies, sociology, anthropology, and to a lesser extent, philosophy).
However, conservative perspectives are massively underrepresented in virtually all social research fields — including economics, political science and history (which are generally more hospitable to non-progressive perspectives). Hence, the emphasis on the dearth of conservatives.
On this model, it is not that conservatives are necessarily excluded from social research – there may be lots of people who start university as conservatives. However, many end up converting to the left as they learn more about social issues. Therefore, the dearth of conservatives in social research is perfectly natural and non-problematic – it is a sign of growth not exclusion.
It should be noted that this kind of framing also more-or-less takes for granted the objective truth of progressive ideology – and holds that the conservative position is based largely in ignorance, and is “cured” by education. Positions such as these are distressingly common among social researchers. Indeed, some lines of research go so far as to essentially define conservativism as a pathology.
But what do the data reveal about the “conversion” thesis?
Interestingly, there is evidence of a slight leftward shift among students over the course of their academic careers. However, outright realignments seem rare: kids who enter the university as conservatives generally remain conservatives throughout (and beyond). Indeed, many emerge as outright reactionaries due to their experiences in college with the radical left.
More frequently, what seems to happen is that conservative students come to recognize that their perspective is neither represented nor respected in many academic fields, and decide to pursue other lines of study and other paths of employment instead.
The deciding factor does not seem to be a lack of interest in social research among conservatives, nor a lack of ability: there seems to be no significant difference in tests scores, grades or other aptitude measurements or qualifications between conservative and liberal students. It’s not, for instance, that conservatives are just bad at critical thinking, or something like that.
Here, the idea would be that social research is fundamentally about identifying and rectifying problems. To the extent that conservatives are interested in preserving and legitimizing the prevailing order, their commitments seem to be just fundamentally at odds with the social research project.
I think this objection simply misunderstands what conservativism is about: conservatives do not oppose change per se, but instead serve a social function akin to “quality control.” They want to make sure that any dramatic changes to the social order are demonstrated as critical and likely healthy, and they want to preserve in the process of change what worked well from the preceding order.
This is actually super important: Well-intentioned social planners regularly cause great harm – especially to society’s most vulnerable populations – when this social check is disabled or suppressed. James Scott provides one of the most systematic explorations of this ignoble history – by a scholar on the left, for those on the left.
However, this objection also misunderstands the nature and history of social research. For instance, while American sociology was basically born as a research organ of the progressive social reform movement, the European founders of the discipline had a much different project. They were primarily concerned with defining and mitigating the social ills brought about by modernity – which they overwhelmingly viewed in ambivalent or even negative terms. They sought to understand and remedy “modern” Europe largely by looking to premodern and non-Western societies.
For that matter, the modern university was itself a conservative project in many respects: the goal was to preserve and organize knowledge in the face of rapid social and technological change, and to establish a common “Western” European culture based on values that transcended “modernity.”
In other words, there is nothing about the university in general, or social research in particular, that runs contrary to conservativism in any fundamental sense. Indeed, they seem highly complementary.
As an aside, there is some research suggesting that fundamentalists may be more attracted to STEM fields – but of course, conservatives are not necessarily fundamentalists, nor are fundamentalists always conservative (or religious). Nor are conservatives the only ones who tend to ignore science that violates their priors.
On this account, there is no fundamental tension proposed between conservativism and social research. Nor are there unfair barriers preventing conservatives from participating. Instead, it just happens to be that, as a result of differences in average career preferences and life interests, as a group, conservatives are just more likely to prefer other fields and lines of work. And of course, if true, there would be nothing wrong with that.
However, one reason to question the explanatory power of the “selection effects” story is that, historically speaking, conservatives have represented a much larger share of the academy than they do today. Indeed, even in the early 2000’s there were about twice as many conservative faculty members as there are today. So it does not seem to be the case that conservatives are generally disinterested in the academy or social research.
Indeed, many conservatives continue to dedicate their careers to social research – albeit largely at think-tanks rather than universities. The think-tank model took off precisely because of the perceived liberal dominance over institutions of higher learning (and increasingly, crowd-funding is becoming a trend for intellectuals whose ideas are unwelcome at institutions of higher learning).
Many conservatives have written off the academy as a lost cause. This is not without consequence: universities lose brilliant minds, and both institutional models fail to engage with critical research (think-tank scholars typically publish through policy briefs and in trade presses rather than academic journals or presses. Really, we live in two largely separate worlds). Both think-tanks and universities grow politically and epistemologically polarized as a result. This leads conservative lawmakers and polities to increasingly devalue, and move to defund academy (people tend to hold no loyalty to institutions they are not represented in). It’s a vicious cycle. All parties would be better served if these scholars could be integrated into the academy.
For what it’s worth, those (increasingly uncommon) conservatives who do stick around as professors generally do find it to be a satisfying line of work, and enjoy cordial relationships with their colleagues and students. However, this is in part because they tend to be far more moderate than professors on the left (a much larger share of leftist professors fall to the far left than conservative scholars fall to the far right). They also tend to avoid weighing in on pressing controversial questions in their research or teaching, and generally keep their political views “close to the vest.” Through these acts of self-suppression, many of the benefits of ideological diversity are effectively negated. It would be much better for everyone if these scholars could more fully engage qua conservatives in institutions of higher learning.
I think it’s actually an interaction story: Again, there is evidence of a slight leftward value shift from education – although it is not the case that many conservatives outright “flip” to the left. There likely are selection effects as well – although one thing that seems to be driving many conservatives to “choose” other careers is a perceived hostile atmosphere in universities for their views.
However, there is also lots of evidence that outright discrimination occurs: faculty discriminate against conservatives in graduate admissions, in decisions about hiring and promotion (even when conservative scholars come from better schools and have superior publication record), and in peer-review for publications. Curricula consistently exclude or denigrate conservative and religious views. Students dock professors whose political ideology strays from their own during course evaluations. Conservative guest speakers are disinvited from campus under pressure of student mobs – or find themselves unable to actually speak due to protests and disruptions. On and on.
These parochial tendencies must be addressed. It is wrong, both morally and practically speaking, that so many young people and early-career scholars should feel excluded or unwelcome in universities on the basis of their political beliefs.
But of course, this objection is mostly concerned with the question of how to solve this problem. Its perceived power lies in the fact that that conservatives tend to oppose affirmative action – and tend to be highly skeptical of microaggressions, safe spaces, etc. Therefore, it would be hypocritical for conservatives to complain about microaggressions, or to call for safe spaces or affirmative action when it suits their own perceived interests. And for non-conservatives to lobby for these policies on conservatives’ behalf also seems problematic, as most conservatives likely would (or should) oppose these measures given their other commitments.
Do conservatives need “safe spaces” and protection from “microaggressions?” I don’t think we need to treat the right with kid gloves. It’s fine to be skeptical or even highly critical of conservatives. However, we must be willing to turn our critical lenses on assumptions we hold dear, and work we are predisposed to support, as well. We need to be alive to the possibility that we may be wrong, deeply wrong – that our preferred solutions may not work in certain instances — and that conservatives or libertarians and others may have something to add to enrich our understandings of social problems and their possible solutions. We need to engage the arguments of conservatives and libertarians rather than dismissing them out of hand – with an open mind, intellectual charity and good faith.
And of course, as it relates to questions about hiring and promotion, what should matter most is the research quality. The academy need not reach 100% parity with the broader public in ideological representation. Indeed, any particular ratio would be arbitrary. But we clearly need more ideological diversity than we currently have. And we need to take a sober look at the institutional and cultural barriers conservatives face and ask if they are truly consistent with our values – be it as scholars or as progressives.
There is a certain historical irony here as well: the left was able to dominate campuses largely due to bipartisan protections that were put in place following the McCarthy inquisitions and the civil rights movement – explicitly to protect leftists and minorities from academic persecution or discrimination and to ensure our research was institutionally supported.
For progressives to now turn around and persecute or exclude others on the basis of their political ideologies seems perverse and hypocritical. It is also self-defeating, undermining both the quality and impact of our work.
Did I miss anything critical in the answers I provided? Is there some other objection you have, or you get from others, which you would like a robust answer for? Post it in the comments below!
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