Why Do Sociologists Lean Left — Really Left?

23 July 2006 at 1:28 pm 40 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.)

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Classical Liberalism, Cultural Conservatism.

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40 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

    […] também relevantes. Este estudo realizado em 11 universidades da Califórnia, e que é analisado neste blog, sugere uma forte tendência de esquerda entre os académicos em geral… The study, by […]

  • […] 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 […]

  • […] by jimrosenz [link] […]

  • 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….

  • 17. Katy Maloney  |  24 February 2016 at 1:54 am

    Sociologists lean left because our objects of study lead us there. Because we are thinking about these social issues, and not just reacting to them in a “problem-solution” type of way. We look at the root of them problems, and see other ways of solving them than just putting some band-aid over it: root causes, hence the epithet of “radicals”. Someone mentioned poverty and the institutions that keeps poor people poor: it’s not that we hate wealth per se, we simply frown upon the way it’s used and distributed by individuals who don’t seem to give two dimes about where it came from as long as it “grows”. Thermodynamics, anyone? We have no true socialist states in this world, nor have we ever had any. What we used to call socialism isn’t what Bernie Sanders would call socialism. All we have are capitalist states, some more interventionist than others, some more democratic than others. Free-markets is as idealistic in those terms as socialism: no market is completely free from intervention. We DO anchor our knowledge in reality: historical and present. And some of us do even feel the burden of responsibility, we feel responsible for the ability we have to analyze social determinants and social consequences tied to human activities, and the kind of criticism we face for being “untied to reality” is abject. We do have families to feed too, and we are also forced to “leverage our assets” to better the world, through publishing, teaching or consulting with governments, businesses and other institutions seeking to understand social interactions better.

    We humans have this ability to see patterns and analyze them: a sociologist is no different from an economist or from a physicist, in that sense that we analyze data to find patterns and confirm or infirm trends and tendencies, but our object of investigation has feelings, and it has free will. It’s not a computer or a list of outputs/inputs, we can’t test socialism in a lab, just like we can’t test an economical theory or a theory on the Big Bang. This is getting TL:DRed, I realize, but I had to say something for sociology professors: they are dedicating their life and sanity to studying the most elusive subject of all, the subject everyone and their mothers feel like an expert at. They get no recognition for all that time spent buried in books and social data. If doctors tells you cholesterol is bad for you, you’re likely to seek treatment for it or change your diet (if you don’t, you won’t blame them for your heart disease at least). If financial analysts tells you this one stock has a high chance of dropping and advises you to get rid of it, you most likely will. Experts in most fields have at least that level of trust from the rest of the public, I know I’d rather trust a psychologist with my mental health than a politician or a car mechanic. What I mean to say is that sociology studies society and its institutions, including the political and economical institutions, so it’s our expertise to find patterns of social innovation/social regression following changes in policy. What we find is that technical progress does not equate social progress. Economic growth does not equate public distribution of wealth (and it isn’t infinite, either). And private vices don’t equate public good, no one gains socially from watching a billionaire blow his money on a trip to space.

    People keep saying our heads are way up in the clouds, but our feet are way down on the ground, and our “leftism” isn’t an “occupational bias”, we aren’t “fed leftist ideology”, we are simply reaching a certain consensus based on analysis of the data presented to us. We’d probably have plenty to constructively criticize in a socialist state, but what we got are capitalist states and advanced capitalist states. My job as a sociologist is to analyze how that social model works and evolves. Unlike an entrepreneur, I can’t propose and sell a “new model society of the year”. But we have a common goal: make the world a better place. We just don’t do marketing in sociology. No bullshit. We’re hyper-rational, sometimes to a fault, even, just read Habermas! We usually tend to have too much respect for free-will and democracy to even attempt at manipulating it. Machiavel would be disappointed. Most often we are too, because our right-wing counterparts are not always as scrupulous when it comes to seizing opportunities… Marketing is manipulating the market through creating needs, or inducing wants in a customer base, so a coherent right-wing free-market rational theory should proscribe it, in fact. It engages affects, not rationality. Anyhow, I digress, but climate change is another good example of how a scientific consensus and the knowledge it produced are wrongfully accused of being “ideological” or “a left-wing conspiracy” to destroy America and destroy good jobs and markets. We keep hearing those same voices rise against scientists as if they were all self-serving, cloud-loving idealists… I’m bored of it. My rationality is butt-hurt by it. If it’s too freakin’ idealistic or ideological to work towards a better future for everyone by warning humanity about the way it might be doing things wrong sometimes, then let’s just close shop right now and call it a day! Truth is our best ability yet isn’t rational pattern-reading, it’s adaptability. The market, too, needs to adapt to changing times. Sociologists aren’t the only ones saying it. And we aren’t just saying it, we got data to back it up. Actual back data, not algorithmic models and projections of future data..! HARD data. Quantitative and qualitative.

    I’ll stop there, because sociologists, like other experts, do need sleep, not just recognition of their work and expertise…! ;) This post does reminds me of why we do need sociology though… and why I chose it as a profession. You can’t sell critical thinking, but if you could, it’s the only thing I’d feel comfortable selling. So I chose to foster it by encouraging my students to challenge their views of the world, and to this day I don’t regret it. I can’t buy myself a trip to space, but that’s alright. I’m not an astronaut.

  • 18. Kimberly  |  26 February 2016 at 11:17 am

    Yep, left is still alive and well. Come on rightists of sociology, jump in, the water’s warm!

  • 19. Thomas Sowell Quotes  |  31 October 2016 at 10:39 pm

    […] Liberals outnumber conservatives 44:1 in sociology […]

  • 20. Stefan Metzeler  |  23 January 2017 at 1:39 am


    For starters, the Frankfurter School got started in the 1920s, so well before the Nazis came to power and it was already founded on Marxism.

    And … “conservative thinking”? Seriously?

    The Nazis were 100% SOCIALIST!

    Nazi = National Socialist.

    NSDAP = Nationale Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter Partei.

    They were only fighting the Communists, because they were competing for the same electorate.

    They even represented the socialist mainstream of the day. FDR admired Mussolini and through him, Hitler, as they shared the same Keynesian/Socialist thinking.

    Antisemitism had always been on the left. Marx himself, though ethnically Jewish, was spread antisemitic thinking, cf. his “About the Jewish Question”.

    I can provide you with quotes from both, Marx and Engels, that are so nationalistic and racist that you’d immediately think that they were from Hitler.

  • […] Here’s the most interesting finding. What department has the highest average Democrat to Republican 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. –Peter Klein […]

  • 22. clipxxxvideo  |  6 December 2017 at 9:14 am

    Wow! At last I got a website from where I can actually obtain valuable facts regarding my study and knowledge.

  • […] Here’s the most interesting finding. What department has the highest average Democrat to Republican 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. –Peter Klein […]

  • 24. Ebenezer Suresh  |  29 June 2021 at 4:30 pm

    Because they’re aware of how (specifically) things work.

  • 25. Ebenezer Suresh  |  29 June 2021 at 4:38 pm

    > 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.

    Could you expand on that? Is that what your feelings tell you to identify?

  • 26. Ebenezer Suresh  |  29 June 2021 at 4:39 pm

    See: dirty business tactics (endorsed and used by Republicans)

  • 27. Ebenezer Suresh  |  29 June 2021 at 5:05 pm

    > 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’.


  • […] See: variable, limited possibilities, words are tools, Economists who study economies, […]

  • 29. Kimberly  |  30 June 2021 at 11:05 pm

    I’m not at all shocked to see how confused and mixed up this original post was years ago. Seems all the “good” is left and all the “bad” was right which was typical Liberal agenda. Reminded me of Jr. High in m public school. Sorry to see that things haven’t changed. I am a right Sociologist and my research argues the 44:1 now after the fun year of 2020. Our findings have resulted in more right Sociologists now that true diversity and equity are the base of Conservatism and Modern Christianity (vs Orthodox Christianity). I will report the findings my Ivy League Liberal University’s research after the year end. Sorry, Liberals, you’re not the popular kid anymore.

  • 30. Ebenezer Suresh  |  1 July 2021 at 9:08 am

    > Kimberly

    Is your last name Krutchfield by any chance?

  • 31. Ebenezer Suresh  |  1 July 2021 at 9:08 am

    > Our findings have resulted in more right Sociologists now that true diversity and equity are the base of Conservatism and Modern Christianity (vs Orthodox Christianity).

    If this is the case, would you care to share a piece of information with me? Ms. right wing sociologist?

  • 32. Ebenezer Suresh  |  1 July 2021 at 9:11 am

    Specific train of thought?

  • 33. Kimberly  |  1 July 2021 at 5:14 pm

    Wow, how immature. This little thread of thought is out of date. I don’t wish to continue converse with narrow, small minded people who think their Liberal POV is center. Have a great Independence Day! 🇺🇸 goodbye.

  • 34. Kimberly  |  1 July 2021 at 5:16 pm

    Wow, how immature. I do not wish to continue converse with narrow, small minded people who think their Liberal POV is center. Have a great Independence Day! 🇺🇸 goodbye.

  • 35. Kimberly  |  1 July 2021 at 5:20 pm

    (Sorry, dup post. Weird media)

  • 36. Ebenezer Suresh  |  3 July 2021 at 11:27 am

    Liberal is a euphemism for open-minded, nothing evil about it.

  • 37. Demolition Man  |  3 July 2021 at 1:59 pm

    “Liberal is a euphemism for open-minded, nothing evil about it.”

    “Liberal” in the TRADITIONAL sense, as it is still used in Europe, means: “Favoring individual liberaty, pushing for low taxes and small government”.

    “Open-minded” is a term that means “agrees with my own irrational views”. Totally unrelated to the term “liberal”.

    “Liberal” has been hijacked in the US and Canada and now means the exact opposite, i.e. high taxes, big government, Socialism, fascism and extreme intolerance of any disagreement with the “liberal” agenda.

  • 38. Ebenezer Suresh  |  18 July 2021 at 11:31 am

    > “Open-minded” is a term that means “agrees with my own irrational views”. Totally unrelated to the term “liberal”.

    Open minded just means that you know that you don’t know everything

  • 39. Ebenezer Suresh  |  18 July 2021 at 11:32 am

    > extreme intolerance of any disagreement with the “liberal” agenda.

    Wouldn’t that seen good for the liberals?

  • 40. Ebenezer Suresh  |  18 July 2021 at 11:32 am

    > individual liberaty

    We must be diff defs of individual liberaty

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