New View of Faculty Liberalism

Study links a range of factors -- including educational attainment, gap between educational attainment and expected income, and religion -- in making academe "politically typed."
January 18, 2010

Why are professors liberal?

That question has led to many heated debates, particularly in recent years, over charges from some on the right that faculty members somehow discriminate against those who don't share a common political agenda with the left. A new paper attempts to shift the debate in a new direction. This study argues that certain characteristics of professors -- related to education and religion, among other factors -- explain a significant portion of the liberalism of faculty members relative to the American public at large.

Further, the paper argues that academe, because of the impact of these factors, may now be "politically typed" in a way that attracts more faculty members from the left than the right.

The research was done by Neil Gross, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, and Ethan Fosse, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Harvard University. Gross has been the author of numerous studies of professorial politics, including a 2007 analysis that found faculty members, while liberal, may be more moderate than many believe. The new study may be found on his Web site.

In this analysis, Fosse and Gross do not dispute that faculty members are more liberal than the public at large. Rather, they make two main arguments. First they look at a range of characteristics that apply disproportionately to professors but are not unique to professors, and examine the political leanings associated with these characteristics -- finding that several of them explain a significant portion of the political gap between faculty members and others. Then, they offer what they call a new theory to explain why academe may attract more liberals, regardless of whether they have those characteristics.

The paper finds that 43 percent of the political gap can be explained because professors are more likely than others:

  • To have high levels of educational attainment.
  • To experience a disparity between their levels of educational attainment and income.
  • To be either Jewish, non-religious, or a member of a faith that is not theologically conservative Protestant.
  • To have a high tolerance for controversial ideas.

The analysis is based on data from the General Social Survey from 1974-2008. Beyond the items above, a smaller but significant impact also was found because professors are more likely than others to have lived in an urban area growing up and to have fewer children.

On the question of the education/income gap, Gross and Fosse say that their findings are consistent with the work of Pierre Bourdieu. "For Bourdieu, intellectuals are defined structurally by their possession of high levels of cultural capital and moderate levels of economic capital," they write. "This structural position, Bourdieu asserts, shapes their politics.... Deprived of economic success relative to those in the world of commerce, intellectuals are less likely to be invested in preserving the socioeconomic order, may turn toward redistributionist policies in hopes of reducing perceived status inconsistency, and may embrace unconventional social or political views in order to distinguish themselves culturally from the business classes."

Political Types

After outlining their statistical case, the authors go on to suggest what they call a new theory to explain professorial politics that builds on the differences they identify in the first part of their paper. They note that the factors they focus on in the first part of their study explain a portion but only a portion of the political gap, suggesting that relying on class analysis alone would be inadequate.

"The theory we advance ... holds that the liberalism of professors is a function not primarily of class relations, but rather of the systematic sorting of young adults who are already liberally or conservatively inclined into and out of the academic professions," they write.

Gross and Fosse cite research by others about how some professions become "sex typed" such that they are associated with gender. Even if some men and women defy these patterns and there is nothing inherently gender-related to these patterns, these types have an impact on the aspirations of young men and women.

"We argue that the professoriate, along with a number of other knowledge work fields, has been 'politically typed' as appropriate and welcoming of people with broadly liberal sensibilities, and as inappropriate for conservatives," they write. "This reputation leads many more liberal than conservative students to aspire for the advanced educational credentials that make entry into knowledge work fields possible, and to put in the work necessary to translate those aspirations into reality."

The authors are careful to define limits to their theory. They state that they do not believe that young people place themselves into numerous socioeconomic and philosophical views to determine a choice of career. And they note that they doubt that most young people even understand their full range of options. Rather, they argue that for those with political sensibilities, "identity and the social psychology of identity" come into play.

"[W]e argue that for young people whose political identities are salient, liberalism and conservatism constrain horizons of educational and occupational possibility," they write. "Because these identities involve cognitive schemas and habitual patterns of thinking that filter experience ... most young adults who are committed liberals would never end up entertaining the idea that they might become police or correctional officers, just as it would never cross the minds of most who are committed conservatives that they might become professors, precisely because of the political reputations of these fields."

The theory might also, the authors write, explain political differences visible among different academic disciplines.

"[W]e theorize that, within the general constraint that more liberals than conservatives will aspire for advanced educational credentials and academic careers of any kind, liberal students will be far more inclined than conservatives to enter fields that have come to define themselves around left-valenced images of intellectual personhood," the paper says. "Over the course of its 20th century history, for example, sociology has increasingly defined itself as the study of race, class, and gender inequality -- a set of concerns especially important to liberals -- and this means that sociology will consistently recruit from a more liberal applicant pool than fields like mechanical engineering, and prove a more chilly home for those conservatives who manage to push through into graduate school or the academic ranks."


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