centrism and sociology – guest post by chris martin

This guest post on the politics of sociology is written by Chris Martin, a doctoral student in sociology at Emory University.

Conservativism doesn’t seem to be a unipolar thing, according to much of the social psychological research on political attitudes. Rather, you can be conservative by being high in either social dominance orientation (SD) or right-wing authoritarianism (RWA). Of course, the two dimensions are moderately correlated but they’re not the same thing: high-SDO people dislike socially subordinate groups, and high RWO dislike socially deviant (or unconventional) groups. As a centrist, however, I’ve found that there’s a lack of research on the opposite poles of these scales even though there clearly seem to be a subset of liberals who like socially subordinate groups and a subset who like socially deviant groups.  Again, there’s considerable overlap between these two subsets. And there’s a small subset of libertarian liberals who don’t lean toward either pole.

This comes across in social psychological work on religious freedom. Early research showed that high-RWA people are more supportive of Christian than Muslim mandatory prayer, while low-RWA people oppose both types of prayer equally. However, if you change “mandatory” to “voluntary,” you find that low-RWA people no longer disfavor both types. Rather, they more strongly favor Muslim than Christian school prayer space.

To some degree, I’ve found that sociology has become so ideologically homogenous that it’s now the disciplinary norm to avoid using “inequality” to describe preferential treatment of subordinate or deviant groups. In the race domain, in fact, centrists can get accused of supporting colorblind ideology or denying White privilege, even if they have a well-reasoned critique of preferential treatment. And in the gender/sexuality domain, the norm is for 50% of the research to focus on people who are deviant by conventional standards. But this skewness of focus isn’t termed inequality. My point isn’t about race or gender, though, but the large issue of whether there’s place for centrists in sociology—people who neither valorize nor condemn subordinate and deviant groups. Psychological social scientists have begun to address this issue—see Jonathan Haidt and Lee Jussim in particular—focusing on how this political homogeneity harms science. Where does sociology stand?

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Written by fabiorojas

April 26, 2014 at 12:18 am

8 Responses

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  1. Chris, I agree that certain sub-disciplines within sociology suffer due to their ideological homogeneity. Ironically, your second sentence (and the research it cites) could be read as an example of the tendency in academia to treat conservatism uncharitably. The risk we will end up being unfair rises when we attempt to reduce people’s political orientation to their personality traits rather than their values. Anyway, I don’t want to focus unduly on this particular issue.

    Some people argue that conservatives are rare in academia because they are discriminated against – I think that argument is greatly exaggerated. But regardless, we should all work to counteract our own biases when we evaluate others’ work. And we should worry about our biases against work for its political implications as much as we worry about biases against work from other marginalized groups.


    Michael Bishop

    April 28, 2014 at 12:45 pm

  2. I touched on some of the themes of ideological homogeneity in my book Compromising Scholarship( When there is such homogeneity we should not be surprised that “deviant” opinions would face stigma. I fear that this leads to a lack of the introspection needed to be open to competing ideas. This post is a welcomed counter to that deficiency.


  3. First, I would like to say that I grew up in a very conservative, evangelical Christian environment; I don’t know if I met anyone who did not vote Republican until I went to college. With that being said, my view of conservatism may be skewed based upon our own experiences.
    I appreciate the calls for “ideological diversity”. Personally, I think that there is a great deal of ideological diversity within sociology even if 90% of sociologists (and other social scientists) most typically vote for democratic candidates. We live in a country of coalition politics, and its important to remember that people may come to vote for one candidate or another for all sorts of reasons, but necessarily because they share a common ideology.
    More relevant to this post, I’d like to see some developed examples of were a “conservative” approach to social science would produce better results than what we are currently seeing. We can’t talk about “actually existing” conservatism in the United States without at least considering some of it’s anti-scientific, biblical literalist, nativist and conspiracy oriented strands. To varying degrees, these strands are all part of the conservative mainstream and not simply the beliefs of a few outliers.
    We could be nicer to people who have deviant opinions ,I suppose, but I don’t think we should treat deviant opinions in the same that we treat more empirically vetted opinions. Beliefs like “Obama is the anti-christ”, “Whites are the true victims of racial discrimination” , “climate change is a global conspiracy to create a one-world tyrannical government”, “The government forced banks to give loans to black people, which caused the housing crisis” are all relatively common beliefs among conservatives. Some of those can be tested empirically, and some cannot. Maybe it’s wrong to stigmatize deviant opinions, and we should also be nice to people, but it’s hard to imagine that any of the ideas above should be taken that seriously from a scholarly perspective. For political sociologists or social movement scholars they might be interesting as an object of study, but they don’t seem like a foundation for good social science.
    On a final note, I think it’s important for us to recognize that many conservatives see themselves as a the subordinate or dominated group in our society. There is starting to be a bit more research in social psychology about conservatives perceptions of victimization, of which I am sure you are aware.
    Thanks for the post and challenging us to think critically about our discipline.


    Silly Wabbit

    April 28, 2014 at 3:28 pm

  4. Thanks for this post, I really enjoyed the Haidt link. Hard to imagine that soc wouldn’t benefit from more diversity of perspectives.


    Charles Seguin

    April 28, 2014 at 5:01 pm

  5. Please point to the type of sociologist who is an ideological fanatic who does not care about empirical evidence? Please identify what you mean by preferential treatment of stigmatized groups. Are you talking about affirmative action?


    Show me the evidence

    April 28, 2014 at 11:50 pm

  6. Thanks for you all of your comments.

    Michael–yes, the mention of those scales was deliberate. Conservativism (and centrism and libertarianism) are sometimes medicalized as conditions. I also know of one social psychologist who has chosen to be closeted about his conservativism because he’s concerned with his reputation. There’s some good evidence that conservatives are discriminated against–a forthcoming paper by Jarret T. Crawford and others reviews some of the evidence. IRBs in particular seem to reject research proposal that are ideologically taboo.

    George–thanks for your link. It is somewhat ironic that a discipline that studies social psychology doesn’t try to protect itself from groupthink. I suppose it’s human nature.

    Silly Wabbit–You’re correct that some deviant ideas are flat-out wrong. And as a centrist, I don’t really identify with conservative ideas, and I think the Republican party is terrible. My experience with reading scholars who are nonliberal, however–people like Clark McCauley, Phil Tetlock and Thomas Sewell–is that they don’t sympathize with the crazy right at all.

    Show me the evidence–by preferential treatment of stigmatized groups, I was partially referring to affirmative action in the diversity era (c. 1985 onwards). But I was referring to other phonemena too–see the second paragraph in my post for an example. At some point in the diversity era, diversity ceased to be an attribute of populations, and started to be an attribute of people. It was as though diversity emanated from certain people, and Whites had a deficit of it. Matthew Hughey’s sociological work touches on this issue.


    Chris M

    April 29, 2014 at 8:59 pm

  7. @Chris, I think you make some valid points, but that’s actually not what ‘groupthink’ means. Groupthink only applies to decision making processes in small working groups. It doesn’t explain homogeneity of social values among large, diffuse groups. Sorry, just a pet peeve of mine when people misuse that term.



    April 29, 2014 at 9:27 pm

  8. Sorry. I should have said something like: “a discipline that studies social psychology but doesn’t protect itself against homophily” or something similar. Of course, homophily has a good side in the sense that it draws people with similar interests and priorities together, which makes academic disciplines work (to some degree) in the first place. So it’s a tradeoff.


    Chris M

    April 29, 2014 at 9:49 pm

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