Social Scientists Lean to the Left, Study Says

Analysis finds wide variations among disciplines -- with anthropology and sociology more liberal than political science and economics.
December 21, 2005

Several studies this year -- some disputed -- have suggested a political tilt (toward Democrats) among professors. Now a new study is being released saying that social science professors are overwhelmingly Democratic, that Democratic professors in those disciplines are more homogeneous in their thinking than are Republicans, and that Republican scholars are more likely than Democrats in the field to end up working outside of academe.

The study will appear in the journal Critical Review and its authors argue that it provides more evidence about political bias in academe. But leaders in some of the disciplines studied say that the study overstates and oversimplifies the role of party affiliation in academic life, and that the authors do not provide evidence of discrimination.

The latest study is based on surveys conducted in 2003 of members of various disciplinary associations. On the question of political affiliation, the survey found the following breakdown of Democrats to Republicans:

  • Anthropologists and sociologists -- 21.1:1
  • Political and legal philosophers -- 9.1:1
  • Historians -- 8.5:1
  • Political scientists -- 5.6:1
  • Economists -- 2.9:1

The professors were then asked a series of questions on political, economic and social issues, and the survey found wide agreement among the Democrats, but less agreement among the Republicans, and the authors suggest that non-liberals fall in both conservative and libertarian camps. The survey also analyzed data for scholars who ended up working outside of academe and found that Republican scholars were more likely -- across disciplines -- to be working outside of academe than in academe.

So what does this mean?

In an e-mail interview, Daniel Klein, one of the authors and a professor of economics at George Mason University, said that it demonstrated "solidly" that most social science professors are "leftist and statist, and that they have a narrow tent." He also said that the data on scholars outside of academe backs up the claims made by conservative critics about ideological bias in the academy.

As for the variations by discipline, Klein said that he thinks "the study shows that the academics across the disciplines are more alike than different." Even as an economist (and a libertarian), he said he found the results "depressing." But he said that he was not surprised that economics had more political balance than other fields because the discipline "got its legs when (true) liberalism was ascendant." In contrast, he said, "sociology got its legs later, and almost as a reaction to Smithian liberalism."

Other social scientists have quite a different take on the findings.

Troy Duster, past president of the American Sociological Association, said he was not surprised that Democrats far outnumber Republicans in his discipline. But he said that the suggestion that "some kind of conspiracy" was at work simply was not true. Duster said that the fact that there are more Democrats than Republicans doesn't show anything about the kind of scholarly work done, and that there is a wide variation of scholarly views within the field.

Duster, who is director of the Institute for the History of the Production of Knowledge, at New York University, said that sociologists and anthropologists, by their training, "look at issues of social stratification and social inequality" and do so from the perspective that inequality is not a good thing. People who spend their professional lives focused on inequalities are probably likely to have "a more progressive orientation," he said, than people whose professional lives focus on other issues.

In 30 years of serving on search committees, he said, he has never once seen a candidate criticized or rejected for being conservative or a Republican. "There are conservatives who have good jobs in academe," he said. The emphasis in hiring is properly placed, Duster said, "on publication records, not political affiliation."

Michael Brintnall, executive director of the American Political Science Association, said he wasn't shocked by the data because "the lore all along has been that political science probably does fall in between economics and some of the other social sciences." But he rejects the idea that his field is skewed because of party affiliation.

Britnall said that political science journals and discussion groups are full of "healthy debate" over issues and that people of all political views "talk pretty hard" about what they see as the flaws in ideas. "There certainly is not an obvious party line for the discipline," he said.

To the extent that there are divisions within political science, Brintnall said that their sources are more likely to be methodological than partisan. Some political scientists base a lot of their ideas on rational choice theory, he said, while others pay more attention to culture, to cite just two examples of approaches. The former group is intellectually closer to economics and the latter to sociology, he said. But even if that translates into a Republican/Democratic split as well, the source of the difference is methodological and the partisan correlation doesn't work for all scholars.

"It's very hard to align people just on party identification," he said.


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