Why Do Sociologists Lean Left — Really Left?

23 July 2006 at 1:28 pm 16 comments

| Peter Klein |

It’s no secret that academic intellectuals tend to favor socialism and interventionism over the free market, agnosticism and warm-and-fuzzy universalism over orthodox Christianity, cultural relativism over tradition and authority, and so on. Indeed, studies of US professors’ political affiliations consistently find a strong leftward bias. Hayek ascribed the hostility of the intellectual classes toward capitalism to selection bias. Schumpeter noted the intellectual’s “absence of direct responsibility for practical affairs,” emphasizing “the intellectual’s situation as an onlooker — in most cases, also an outsider — [and] the fact that his main chance of asserting himself lies in his actual or potential nuisance value” (Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 3rd ed., p. 147).

Now comes a new study of academics’ political affiliations using voter-registration records for tenure-track faculty at 11 California universities. The study, by Christopher F. Cardiff and Daniel B. Klein, finds an average Democrat:Republican ratio of 5:1, ranging from 9:1 at Berkeley to 1:1 at Pepperdine. The humanities average 10:1, while business schools are at only 1.3:1. (Needless to say, even at the heartless, dog-eat-dog, sycophant-of-the-bourgeoisie business schools the ratio doesn’t dip below 1:1.)

Here’s the most interesting finding. What department has the highest average D:R ratio? You guessed it: sociology, at 44:1. Perhaps some of our readers of the sociological persuasion could tell us why, and what this means.

I find the study interesting, but am not sure that party affiliation tells us much about “left” and “right,” at least in terms of economic policy. Today’s Republicans, after all, tend to favor centralized power, nation-building, vast increases in government spending, trade protectionism, and subsidies. The Democrats have become, in relative terms, the party of fiscal restraint and decentralization. (Recall that in the 19th century, the Republicans were for protectionism and corporate welfare while the Democrats were the party of laissez-faire.)

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16 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Anon Symou  |  23 July 2006 at 5:47 pm

    Left and right are of course fuzzy concepts so as usual there is no easy answer. In today’s political situation I suppose the main difference has to do with what you prioritieze, which translates into a preferred form of social organization.

    Very roughly speaking, modern day ‘Left-wingers’ prioritize the well being of people, especially those not so well off. As a result they seek a system of government that assures a good life for a nations citizens (including social security, freedom from oppressive traditions and authorities such as the helplessness promulgated by orthodox Christianity’).

    Modern day ‘Right-wingers’ instead prioritize the well being of corporations and the promotion of economic growth. As a result they seek a system of government that assures good conditions for a nation’s capitalists and entrepreneurs (including fighting unions and social security, and promoting an authoritarian and traditionalist mind set among workers, including the passive Christian promise of salvation in heaven rather than on earth).

    Of course, both the left and right run the risk of becoming anti-liberal.

    Perverted forms of ‘leftism’ have led to authoritarian communist societies, a fact that should not be confused with being ‘left’. Cf. the ‘left wing’ liberal Bakunin who fought Marx vigorously and warned of the dangers of a new “red bureaucracy” which would prove to be “the most vile and terrible lie that our century has created.”

    Similarly, the right’s reliance on irrationally motivated authority, faith and tradition are basic components of fascism, a fact that should also not be confused with being ‘right’. Cf. the antiauthoritarian ‘right wing’ liberal Adam Smith who spoke of “those who live by profit” especially monopolistic ones “an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.”

    In terms of professors, I guess sociologists study real societies, groups and individuals and tend to adopt their goals and priorities. Economists who study economies, corporations and homo economici similarly tend to internalize their priorities. Those economists who prioritize people over corporations (who perhaps come from or know people from the not so well of walks of life) may then be left.

    Btw, I am honestly curious about how you square the rational ambitions of classical liberalism with the irrational conservative ideals on ‘orthodox Christianity’ and reliance on Authority? Christianity and Authority are of course practical tools for pacifying workers and more generally promoting corporate rather than individual freedom. This seems highly consistent with interests of the Smithian ‘profiteer’, but hardly with the sentiments of Smith himself.

  • 2. Peter Klein  |  23 July 2006 at 6:22 pm

    I am honestly curious about how you square the rational ambitions of classical liberalism with the irrational conservative ideals on ‘orthodox Christianity’ and reliance on Authority?

    A reasonable question. I will address it in a future blog post.

  • 3. Tina  |  24 July 2006 at 5:35 pm

    my explanation comes from personal experience with the German university system. I believe, for one part the political affiliation of sociologist toward the left is the result the history of this discipline – for example, sociologists in Germany did have to leave the country when the nazis came to power, not only because of their jewish background but also just because they we occupied with something the nazis did not know and did not understand – and when sociology came back and was founded once more after 1945 the experts representing the discipline had had refugee background and very bad experiences with conservative thinking, and that contributed to their their thought (Adorno and the Frankfurt School is the example I have in mind). Later, in the 1960s these sociologists were surprised and not very happy with the youth they were confronted with.

    The other part is the social background of students who choose to study sociology,and that changes, too. In the 1990s, people with a political affiliation toward the left would chose sociology as their subject – and almost everybody in a student cohort would share some basic orientations in political thinking; if one did not share this orientation this was a matter of discussion. But this had also to do with the social background of young people starting to study sociology and with subjects offered within the diploma-education. In the 1990s more people from the lower strata discovered socilogy as a good possibility to enter the German university system whereas they had no chance (or almost no chance) to get into economy, medicine or law. Particularly in disciplines such as medicine and law, students are more homogeneous, such that the majority of them are sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers or from academics of adjacent disciplins. Today it seems like the social background of students in sociology has become more heterogeneous, such that you find students from all strata and milieus, and increasingly, find the sons and daughters of academics of almost all disciplines. It is not as unusual for the son or daughter of an entrepreneur to study sociology as it was ten years ago.

  • 4. lars  |  5 August 2006 at 5:19 pm

    I am not sure if you’re so right about the left tendencies in german sociology. Right now it is more common to citate Frankfurt Schiool, but they do function more in a ornamental way. But mainstream sociology has always been much more a conservative or liberal domain: Take for example Luhmann and his origins in Freyer and Schelsky or the the the parallels in RCT approaches and action based approaches.
    and concerning especially Frankfurt School, they did have some conservative tendencies in their thinking, too – take for example their model of “Kulturkritik”.
    The difference here is that voting for left parties doesn’t make the voter necessarily a leftist , the much more if he/she is a sociologist. In this case the concept of society itself is the key to their political position.
    Just to colour that: compare Adorno’s concept of society with Luhmann’s. While for Adorno society was a special form of social organization which would vanish in the state of conciliation, Luhmann tends to see a evolutionary code in society, which is – as a matter of evolution – universal.
    You might also name the widespread use of the terms “the social”, “society” and “culture” as substitutes.

    Although I accept your description of the study choices i wouldn’t mix left with an awareness of social inequalities.
    Last not least left and r

  • 5. lars  |  5 August 2006 at 5:25 pm

    …Last not least left and right are relative positions bedsides being fuzzy. Sociologists tend to look left if you compare them with the recent discussions on brain and free will.

  • 6. Tina  |  6 August 2006 at 5:50 pm

    hm, I know the differences in positions between Adorno, just to name one leading figure of the frankfurt school – and Niklas Luhmann as the leading figure representative of the systems theory being remote from any statement toward left or right since this is not his focus. Besides when mentioning that Adorno did not really get along well with the spirit and political affiliation of the students he was confronted with, it tells you that there are differences between ‘left’ and ‘left’ ; in the German context we know from Ulrich Beck theory that the categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’ have become increasingly fuzzy in recent decades; and in an international context – if you take into account the political system and party structure of the U.S. and Germany for example – we experience, that the categories might even have different content when you get to issues of concern. But still: the tendency that Peter Klein discussed for the US. context holds true in Germany, too, but a good explanation should take into account both the American and the German tradition and history of the discipline.

    I think you are right that awareness of social inequalities is an important aspect when it comes to the decision for stuying sociology. Yet I would want to add: it is not the only aspect.

  • 7. lars  |  7 August 2006 at 4:50 am

    @tina: okay I go along with most of what you said, everything exept for luhmann. My argument was, that not statements of being left or right ist is the criteria for the political position but the theory they produce and in this terms. But although Luhmann did spare such articulations in his theory, system theory is not beyond the political. And the concept of evolutiuonary systems is best described as “it could have come in other ways but it didn’t…” in the politicalk system this would be a quite conservative position.

    Maybe it’s time to historicize system theory.

  • 8. Sociólogos Sociófilos « CODFISH WATERS  |  23 April 2008 at 7:02 pm

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  • […] really weaken your arguments. Looks like BVS dug himself a hole again. Poor little feller. Why Do Sociologists Lean Left — Really Left? Organizations and Markets 44:1 Democrat/Republican leaning of sociology faculty members. The highest of any discipline. […]

  • 10. Deborah Savage  |  1 November 2008 at 6:45 pm

    Perhaps the answer to Peter’s question can be found in Adam Smith’s choice of title … an inquiry into the WEALTH of nations. Economics has followed a track that notes that there is too damned much poverty in the world, and we want to try to figure out how to make the world’s economies rich. Sociologists ended up studing how institutions keep people poor. Somehow that got translated into hating wealth and those that have it.

    Republican/Democrat affiliation is a a somewhat different matter, of course, and increasingly about litmus test questions.

    My 13-year-old son just expressed amazement that Lincoln was a Republican. After all, he seemed to stand for all kinds of things now associated with Democrats.

  • 11. Ron Gardner  |  8 February 2012 at 5:42 pm

    LMFAO. Peter Klein is a real idiot, just like all the left-wing sociology professors I studied under at UCSD, 1969-1973. (I also studied philosophy under Herbert Marcuse.) Anyone with half a brain knows that it is Demos, not true Repubs, who are into building a leviathan central government. What the Demos are into now is liberal fascism (and the fact that Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act and never repealed the Patriot Act proves it), but the brain-dead libs are incapable of understanding what Ayn Rand made clear: fascism, like all forms of totalitarianism, is left-wing in nature. A majority-rule democracy is the epitome of fascism: a system in which putatively inviolable constitutional rights are are subordinated to the whims of the majority.

  • 12. David Hoopes  |  10 February 2012 at 12:12 pm

    Well, I don’t know if I agree with Peter that Dems were demonstrating fiscal constraint and a taste for decentralization back in 2006 (I hope you did notice this post is six years old). However, at the time, many Republicans had gotten into some wild spending and were supporting trade barriers. I seem to remember President Bush leading the way on steel tariffs. I think one of the big reasons Republicans lost congress is that their fiscal core-supporters felt that Republican politicians had abandoned their economic principals. To wit: the Tea Party has criticized many Republicans for their weak stance on free markets and weak will on government spending. And, I don’t think that many of the current presidential candidates seem that strong in terms of free markets.

    P.S. Peter is not even close to being an idiot. Maybe a spaz.

  • 13. Why Do Sociologists Lean Left, Really Left? « Economics Info  |  18 February 2015 at 10:00 pm

    […] Source […]

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  • 15. Kimberly Heins  |  30 August 2015 at 7:35 pm

    I am a sociology college student and receive nothing except the far leftist point of view of society. It is sad to see students struggle with the one hugely exaggerated point of view of the left. Nothing really makes sense and since socialism has been proven to turn societies into poor, dumping grounds, it would seem these highly “educated” instructors would live in the real world; teach students truth not the hopeless false hope of socialism, putting down capitalism. When will sociologists get it?

  • 16. Peter Klein  |  30 August 2015 at 9:22 pm

    There are a few decent ones, like our friends at orgtheory.net, but the rest….

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