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Does liberal bias affect academia? Advancing a deadlocked debate
Liberal bias within academia has long stoked debate. High proportions of researchers have liberal political views, studies finding that liberals outnumber conservatives by a ratio of 5:1. According to the dominance hypothesis, this entails bias, liberals being less attentive to weaknesses in their own arguments and more attentive to weaknesses in conservative arguments. This debate exhibits signs of saturation, participants exchanging well-worn arguments and often arguing past one another; new arguments are necessary. In this essay, I will try and move beyond established positions, offering perspectives from institutional theory.
There are various retorts to the dominance hypothesis, but the most sophisticated is the spatial hypothesis. This states that the existence of gaps in research agendas drives output, akin to markets in classic economic theory. There is social demand for different ideas, reflecting distinct interests, entailing incentives to fill these niches; rewards include money and status. In the Sociology of Philosophies, the prominent sociologist Randall Collins argued that academic knowledge progresses in this manner, gaps providing opportunities for individuals. This implies that the dominance of liberal views matters little, gaps driving research outcomes.
Yet I am suspicious of the spatial hypothesis. As an institutional theorist and economic left-winger, I distrust accounts which suggest that supply and demand meet ‘efficiently’. As in economics, several factors prevent this, many of which reflect institutional influences. If we are to understand how academic debates develop, institutional theory offers a more compelling explanation. When explaining developmental trajectories, historical institutionalists emphasize path dependency; institutions develop in a manner which reflects previous developments.
Though the spatial hypothesis predicts that demand for academic ideas is exogenous, path dependency posits that academic fields create their own demand, complementing and often supplanting external influences. Pluckrose and Lindsay’s Cynical Theories documents extreme examples of such fields, fat studies being one case. It is difficult to believe that debates in this field, recent papers examining fat protagonists in romantic fiction and fat politics as a constituent of intersecting intimacies, meet societal need. Rather, they reflect the ideological concerns of specific academics, such agendas maturing over years. Whilst these are extreme examples, one observes such effects in traditional fields. Agendas can be technical and certain fields are apolitical, yet in fields in which politics is relevant, liberal sympathies probably shape agendas. Though effects tend to be subtle, certain cases are conspicuous. For example, political psychologists have long acknowledged right-wing authoritarianism, yet the discovery of left-wing authoritarianism is surprisingly recent. Whilst this reflects peculiarities of left-wing authoritarianism, it is difficult to believe that the liberal sympathies of researchers are irrelevant. In likelihood, such sympathies entail less interest in researching left-wing authoritarianism and greater scrutiny of the thesis.
There are problems on the supply side. Like its equivalent in economics, the spatial hypothesis assumes a ready supply of conservative theories. Reality is knottier. For a start, conservatives tend not to be attracted to academia, reflecting perceptions of the sector as a liberal bastion and weaker hierarchies within academia. During the Brexit referendum, I helped organize debates within universities; a major problem was that we could not find academics who would argue for Leave. The postulation of contrary theories can be more difficult. Given the established profile of extant theories, it is easier to produce work which builds on existing assumptions; uprooting approaches invites conceptual errors and criticism from scholars committed to prevailing theories. Moreover, trends associated with supply and demand reinforce one another, perpetuating path dependency.
This process is complex and circumstances within fields vary. One might assert that path dependency limits liberal partiality, historic conditions constraining potential for bias. This influence is important, but does not negate key elements of my argument. Path dependency does not entail stasis, conditions within fields evolving and reflecting external pressures. And liberal domination is longstanding, implying extensive influence.
The notion that ideological imbalances do not affect outcomes just seems implausible. Liberals who disagree might consider how they would perceive the inverse scenario. For decades, economic conservatives dominated economics departments, occasioning similar debates. Many liberals excoriated such departments, arguing that bias was inevitable. They had a point. And whilst biases may be transmitted indirectly, simplistic versions of the dominance hypothesis being problematic, path dependency shows how such biases can affect academic output.
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