If conservative views are not represented in social research, leftists will suffer most

If elements of society feel they have no stake in humanities and social science research, their support for it will evaporate, warns Musa al-Gharbi

March 29, 2018
Boxing gloves with Republican and Democrat logos
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It is no longer a matter of dispute whether increasing diversity of perspectives enriches understanding of social issues. Conversations about it typically turn on questions of race, gender and sexuality. More recently, class, geography and the intersections between categories of under-representation have also received attention.

However, diversity of viewpoint remains controversial. Many believe that it is acceptable – and even desirable – to exclude non-progressive perspectives. Indeed, while increased education mitigates prejudice on the grounds of factors such as race, it actually renders people more likely to discriminate against those who hold different beliefs or commitments.

In fact, while there has been noteworthy progress made since the 1990s in terms of representation for women and racial minority groups, the ideological under-representation problem is growing worse.

Although students are more likely to identify as “liberal” or “progressive” today than they were in the 1990s, faculty members have shifted much further to the left. Given early indicators that those in Generation Z are more conservative than millennials in many respects, the ideological gap between faculty and students seems set to grow even larger – not to mention the gap between academics and the mainstream US population.

Already, in the humanities and social sciences, the scale of ideological under-representation is vastly more pronounced than disparities along the lines of gender, sexuality or even race.

Of course, particular institutions need not strive for perfect parity with the general population along any demographic dimension. After all, under-representation (or over-representation) is often a result of selection effects. However, it becomes worrisome under two conditions. One is a hostile environment and/or active discrimination. The other is if insufficient input from certain constituencies lowers research quality and impact. Unfortunately, both of these conditions seem to apply.

There is evidence of active discrimination against conservatives (and more broadly, a suppression of views that defy the prevailing orthodoxy), and this does undermine the accuracy and effectiveness of social research.

Yet, those who recognise that lack of ideological diversity is a problem are often unsure how much of a priority addressing it should be, compared with other forms of under-representation.

After all, conservatives have never been on the receiving end of systematic oppression, exploitation and exclusion on the basis of their political ideology in ways that even remotely approach how women have been subjugated on the basis of their gender, or how blacks have been persecuted on the basis of their race. This is simply a historic fact. Therefore, even if we agree that it is wrong to discriminate against conservatives, and even if we acknowledge that, in absolute terms, ideological under-representation seems to be a bigger problem in social research these days, there would still seem to be a greater normative urgency to addressing racial or gender disparities.

This I do not doubt. However, ideological diversity is not distinct from other forms of diversity. Indeed, a commitment to empowering and defending women, people of colour and other minority groups actually makes it more important to protect and enhance freedoms of conscience, expression and enquiry.

As Jonathan Haidt and I have previously demonstrated, it is primarily women, minorities and progressives who suffer when free speech protections are undermined on campus. It is generally women and people of colour – usually progressives – who pay the cost when administrators are encouraged to weigh into political disputes. These same groups will also bear the brunt of continued erosion of public trust in institutions of higher learning.

The value of scientific fields is widely appreciated, but social research is a different matter entirely. Given that women, people of colour, LGBTQ scholars and leftists are better represented in the humanities and social sciences than in most other disciplines, they will disproportionately suffer when social research is devalued and defunded.

It is precisely for this reason that minorities and progressives must embrace ideological diversity on campus, and engage more with non-progressives and people who are not academics off campus as well. Only this way will they be able to demonstrate to everyone else that they also have a voice, and a stake, in the enterprise of social research.

Musa al-Gharbi is Paul F. Lazarsfeld fellow in sociology at Columbia University and a research associate at the Heterodox Academy.

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Print headline: Resist the echo chamber

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