Monday, January 18, 2010

Political Typing and Liberal Professoriat

The political liberalism of professors -— an important occupational group and anomaly according to traditional theories of class politics —- has long puzzled sociologists. To shed new light on the subject, we review research on professorial politics over the past half-century, identifying the main hypotheses that have been proposed to account for professorial liberalism. Using regression decomposition, we examine hypothesized predictors of the political gap between professors and other Americans using General Social Survey data pooled from 1974-2008. Results indicate that professors are more liberal than other Americans because a higher proportion possess advanced educational credentials, exhibit a disparity between their levels of education and income, identify as Jewish, non-religious, or non-theologically conservative Protestant, and express greater tolerance for controversial ideas. Together, the variables linked to our hypotheses account for about 43 percent of the political gap between professors and other Americans. We conclude by outlining a new theory of professorial politics that integrates these findings, moves beyond existing approaches, and sets an agenda for future research.

That's the abstract of a working paper -- Why Are Professors Liberal? (pdf) -- by Prof. Neil Gross of the University of British Columbia and Ethan Fosse of Harvard.

You can bet that their 'new theory of professorial politics' will attract a lot of attention and commentary in the coming weeks. Here's a quick summary of this theory from Scott Jaschik's piece in Inside Higher Ed:

Gross and Fosse cite research by others about how some professions become "sex typed" such that they are associated with gender. Even if some men and women defy these patterns and there is nothing inherently gender-related to these patterns, these types have an impact on the aspirations of young men and women.

"We argue that the professoriate, along with a number of other knowledge work fields, has been 'politically typed' as appropriate and welcoming of people with broadly liberal sensibilities, and as inappropriate for conservatives," they write. "This reputation leads many more liberal than conservative students to aspire for the advanced educational credentials that make entry into knowledge work fields possible, and to put in the work necessary to translate those aspirations into reality."

See also: NYTimes story by Patricia Cohen.


  1. Ravi Venkataraman said...

    Is it possible that the ability to think critically and independently tends to make people more liberal and causes them to refuse to accept the myth of God? If so, that is sufficient to account for the liberal streak among professors.


  2. Anonymous said...

    My question to Ravi and anybody else: Who exactly is a liberal? Someone who subscribes to particular viewpoints considered 'liberal' or someone open to be persuaded by reason? Critical and independent thinking would be more important to the latter than the former.......

  3. Ravi Venkataraman said...

    I used "liberal" in the latter sense, and in the sense of being willing to consider alternative viewpoints; a liberal is not one who subscribes to particular viewpoints then in vogue.

  4. Chetan said...

    Scott Jaschik's piece mentions:
    The paper finds that 43 percent of the political gap can be explained because professors are more likely than others:
    1) To have high levels of educational attainment.
    2) To experience a disparity between their levels of educational attainment and income.
    3) To be either Jewish, non-religious, or a member of a faith that is not theologically conservative Protestant.
    4) To have a high tolerance for controversial ideas.

    The second point regarding disparity between levels of educational attainment and income resonated because personally I have heard this, not just from professors but also from other left liberals.

    The Libertarian philosopher, Robert Nozick, had proposed a similar hypothesis to explain prevalence of liberalism among intellectuals including, ... poets, novelists, literary critics, newspaper and magazine journalists, and many professors."

    Why then do contemporary intellectuals feel entitled to the highest rewards their society has to offer and resentful when they do not receive this? Intellectuals feel they are the most valuable people, the ones with the highest merit, and that society should reward people in accordance with their value and merit. But a capitalist society does not satisfy the principle of distribution "to each according to his merit or value." Apart from the gifts, inheritances, and gambling winnings that occur in a free society, the market distributes to those who satisfy the perceived market-expressed demands of others, and how much it so distributes depends on how much is demanded and how great the alternative supply is. Unsuccessful businessmen and workers do not have the same animus against the capitalist system as do the wordsmith intellectuals. Only the sense of unrecognized superiority, of entitlement betrayed, produces that animus.
    (In schools)They were judged against others and deemed superior. They were praised and rewarded, the teacher's favorites. How could they fail to see themselves as superior? Daily, they experienced differences in facility with ideas, in quick-wittedness. The schools told them, and showed them, they were better.

    The schools, too, exhibited and thereby taught the principle of reward in accordance with (intellectual) merit. To the intellectually meritorious went the praise, the teacher's smiles, and the highest grades. In the currency the schools had to offer, the smartest constituted the upper class. Though not part of the official curricula, in the schools the intellectuals learned the lessons of their own greater value in comparison with the others, and of how this greater value entitled them to greater rewards.

    The wider market society, however, taught a different lesson. There the greatest rewards did not go to the verbally brightest. There the intellectual skills were not most highly valued. Schooled in the lesson that they were most valuable, the most deserving of reward, the most entitled to reward, how could the intellectuals, by and large, fail to resent the capitalist society which deprived them of the just deserts to which their superiority "entitled" them? Is it surprising that what the schooled intellectuals felt for capitalist society was a deep and sullen animus that, although clothed with various publicly appropriate reasons, continued even when those particular reasons were shown to be inadequate?

    Although, I don't completely agree with him, I think the hypothesis does have a kernel of truth in that anecdotally it is a grouse I have heard multiple times from people with Leftist persuasion and a resentment I have myself harboured.

    I have quoted liberally from Nozick's article. But please do read it in its entirety. Even though it makes certain assumptions which one might not agree with, it still is a fascinating, albeit infuriating, read.