problems in the sociology of intellectuals

Here are some empirical issues in the study of intellectuals that sociologists should think harder about:

1. Intellectuals and authoritarianism: Are intellectuals any more or less likely than average folks to gravitate toward authoritarian politics? Case in point: intellectuals and the Soviets. I can easily see a college professor cheering on the Communist Party in 1910, but to do so during the era of Stalin is simply crazy. Why did that happen? Update: I’m asking about Western intellectuals who loved Stalin. Of course, folks in Russia didn’t have much choice.

2. Influence and Personality: Neil Gross’ book on Rorty made a simple point that biography can profoundly shape intellectual output. Here’s the broader question – is personality or biography the main predictor of why people produce their type of scholarship? Or is there a real impact of mentoring/exposure? Of course, we exempt technical areas (e.g., you need to go to medical school or produce medical research), but it seems important in the humanities and social sciences.

3. Anti-intellectualism and politics: Which political groups love or hate intellectuals? For example, populists, especially those of conservative bent, hate intellectuals. Libertarians love their philosophers and economists, and socialists enjoy high theory. Why?

4. Networks and Ability: Are networks and scientific ability endogenous? A common finding is that high achieving intellectuals have ties to high achieving mentors. Is this “scouting” – smart people can spot other smart folks? Or does the collaboration and contact add value to the career?

5. Autonomy and Repressive States: How do intellectuals retain their autonomy in coercive institutions? For example, when most of Soviet science went down hill, the mathematical and physical sciences remained outstanding. How did that happen? Is anything similar happening in China? What about states that hate intellectuals, like Cambodia during the Khemr Rouge era?


Written by fabiorojas

July 22, 2009 at 8:15 am

Posted in fabio, sociology

10 Responses

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  1. 1. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So when you have a lot of knowledge, you think you should tell everybody what to do. Think Hayek’s The Intellectuals and Socialism.

    2. Reading “Lives of the Laurureats” I would say a lot of it is personality. For myself, its biography.

    3. No clue. Personally, I have little use for continental intellectuals, but I enjoy Anglo-Americans very much in a populist way. Think C. Wright Mills and Cornel West.

    4&5. I think I see some papers that needs to be written…



    July 22, 2009 at 2:09 pm

  2. Good set of questions Fabio.

    Re 1: The Stalin issue would seem to be all about incentives. There were fairly strong incentives for intellectuals to curry favor with Stalin’s regime.



    July 22, 2009 at 2:15 pm

  3. The answer to all of your questions: yes. :-D


    Michael F. Martin

    July 22, 2009 at 3:38 pm

  4. #5 seems fairly obvious. the social sciences and humanities make explicit or implicit political claims about human nature, social organization, and justice. in contrast the hard sciences make no such claims that might contest the legitimacy of the state and so are politically harmless (and technically useful). the exception that proves the rule is that occasionally a totalitarian regime will convince itself that the hard sciences do have political implications and then it will repress them. for instance, for a period the Soviets had piss poor biology because they became convinced that Darwin was incompatible with the doctrine of the “new Soviet man” and so they suppressed good biology in favor of the neo-Lamarckianism of Lysenko.



    July 22, 2009 at 4:41 pm

  5. B-king: What do you think were the biggest incentives for pro-Stalinism? Was it the depression? Ties and pay-off by the Soviets?



    July 22, 2009 at 6:28 pm

  6. Resources and legitimacy (how else were they going to fund their research? receive academic appointments?), not to mention the threat of getting sent to the Gulag.



    July 22, 2009 at 6:45 pm

  7. B-king: I was ambiguous in the original post. I was referring to Western intellectuals who cheered the Soviets! Of course, Russian intellectuals have big “incentives” cooperate.



    July 22, 2009 at 7:07 pm

  8. Charles Kurzman had an article about the role of intellectuals in democratization in AJS not too long ago.



    July 22, 2009 at 8:22 pm

  9. Regarding Soviet Biology, indeed the rise of Lysenkoism all but ruined the study of genetics in name for decades during the mid-20th century.

    But (and this is why good history of science is indispensable) it turns out genetics research of which the very best came out of Soviet controlled areas in the Ukraine continued on unabated under several different names in institutions we’d normally not associate with genetics (physics labs, cybernetics departments, etc). Informal networks, made possible and indeed sustained by the elite status of the scientist caste, allowed genetics to essentially go underground for twenty years until an informal social movement could get Lysenko removed from the Academy of Sciences, paving the way for its formal reemergence.



    July 23, 2009 at 12:21 pm

  10. Regarding question 3, I think a strict interpretation of this question in term of homology between positions in the “space” of capitals and position in the “space” of political opinions goes a long way to solving it. In less fancy language, political opinions are very much shaped by the relative level of various capitals people detained, people fight to promote their relative advantage with respect to their relative disadvantage, and thus espouse party which promote one to the expense of the other.

    In my country at least, the ration between intellectual capital (measured for instance by diploma) with financial capital is a very strong predictor of position on the (conventional) left/right axis. However, the fact that it correlates with left and right (in the economically redistributive sense for instance) is a by-product of the social history of the parties themselves (in that case, the investment in left wing politics of the new educated class of the 60s and 70s) and should not be considered an absolute truth.

    To give another example, more or less solving your initial question, the very usage of the word populist suggests someone who appeals to an electoral clientele composed of people with more financial capital than intellectual capital, so if one believes in the theory of homology (as I do), almost by definition, a populist will strive to diminish intellectual accomplishment with respect to “honest, hard-working, common sense” stuff.

    Libertarians, I don’t know very well, but they seem to belong to a category with good intellectual capital but even better financial one, and sure enough they love their thinkers, but generally choose thinkers who are not so high in the intellectual hierarchy, because the latter would give too much weight to intellectual capital.



    July 24, 2009 at 8:54 am

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