January 22nd, 2010
Rednecks need not apply for academic jobs. In fact, they don’t apply at all. That’s the message of a recent study described in the New York Times. Neil Gross, of the University of British Columbia, and Ethan Fosse, a doctoral student at Harvard, both sociologists, have published a self-evidently titled article, “Why Are Professors Liberal?”. The piece has drawn quite a bit of attention to the obvious, but sometimes it’s worth reviewing the obvious. The angle these scholars take is to ask why liberals seek to become academics—and conservatives do not. Of course, they are not talking about political parties as we know them in Canada but about ways of thinking about the world.
The answer to their question is—wait for it—“typecasting.” That is, universities have acquired the reputation of being places where laid back, casually dressed individuals have a lot of time and space in which to think and talk about social issues. Sounds like a liberal, right? Well, the theory goes that the reputation academics have acquired as tweedy pinheads in turn attracts people who want to partake of that reputation—and become just like the types in central casting. Like attracts like, is essentially what these sociologists are implying. Not exactly an earth-shattering revelation, but, again, some of what they tease out is provocative enough for this blog, at least.
Their persuasive analogy is with the nursing profession, which is dominated by women and almost always has been. Men avoid applying to nursing school not because they lack the capacity to acquire nursing skills but, the argument goes, because the reputation of the profession is severely gendered. It’s interesting that women have broken through the reputation barriers in medical school, however, where men have long dominated the labs and clinical classrooms. It has taken a while, but women have finally torn up the reputation of the male-dominated medical profession. Funny that it doesn’t work the other way with nursing, for example.
Likewise, the researchers point to law enforcement as a generally conservative profession, to which liberals need not apply, not that they would want to, which is, again, the very point of the study. This line of argument is designed to turn the myth that some professions actively discriminate against certain categories of people (liberals/conservatives) on its head. If it can be shown that liberals deliberately do not seek conservative professions and vice versa, then, ostensibly, discrimination is a non-starter.
I don’t buy this completely, do you? Any self-respecting graduate student knows as s/he goes from seminar to seminar that no two professors are alike. Some are more liberal or conservative than others, and one gets to figure this out pretty quickly. It’s a survival strategy, surely. Consider, too, that we have two sociologists doing this study. Sociology is arguably the most liberally inclined discipline in the academy, the place where Marx is still hotly debated and the faculty dress code runs from casual to Seattle 1989. But even within that discipline there are shades of difference along the political spectrum, and it is tempting to generalize that the social theorists are more liberal than the demographers. Sue me if I’m out of line.
What about the professional schools? Engineering and Business? I don’t get the impression these faculties are dominated by liberals, but maybe I just can’t see the forest of suits for the tweeds.
An appealing consequence of this type of study is that it almost dares you to challenge its assumptions. It strikes me that there is some truth but not the whole truth to what Gross and Fosse (sounds like a legal firm made in heaven) are saying.
It’s unfair to call a conservative thinker a redneck. I just wanted to get your attention. Some conservative thinkers are rednecks, though, and may be more interested in practicing discrimination and racism than teaching these subjects.
A key finding here is that conservatives are less interested in pursuing advanced degrees than liberals. Now what does that tell us? Does this suggest conservatives are attracted to employment that doesn’t require advanced skill sets or intellectual acumen? Oh, such an observation speaks volumes, but perhaps conservatives aren’t inclined to read them.