With few conservatives, academia will struggle to develop a theory of progressivism
Recently, there has been renewed debate about ideological imbalance in academia, the political scientist Robert Maranto complaining about the dearth of conservatives in his field. This is related to a concern of mine: the lack of academic work on progressivism (as social justice ideology now seems to be known). Despite profound changes on the left, liberalism yielding to progressivism, there are few studies of this phenomenon.
Some contest the need, dismissing analysis of change in left-wing ideology as right-wing scaremongering. Whilst I agree that much analysis of ‘woke’ politics is unevidenced and paranoid – I even dislike the ‘w’ word (!) – this does not mean that nothing is happening. There have been real changes in left-wing ideology, progressives and liberals taking different positions on direct action, identity and freedom of speech. In an excellent paper, Cardiff psychologists construct a Progressive Values Scale which, based on correlations between answers to survey questions among a left-wing sample, demonstrates differences between liberalism and progressivism.
But if changes in left-wing ideology are genuine, why is there little academic work on this phenomenon? According to the spatial hypothesis, gaps in research agendas drive 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.
Naturally, there is demand for work which explains the origins of progressivism, the ideology being new and influential. Several books have met this demand, many becoming bestsellers and academics writing some of these.
Yet this phenomenon underscores problems with the spatial hypothesis. Whilst some of these books are useful, most do not engage in serious operationalization and evidence. For example, few engage with established debates about ideology or use inferential statistics. In short, there is limited evidence of the emergence of an academic field. Established concepts, methods and journals characterize such fields. As the great philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn observed, fields generate their own feedback mechanisms, supplementing and sometimes transcending external demand.
Research on right-wing populism is illustrative. This literature may meet external demand for such work – the rise of right-wing populism has been a major story of recent years – yet also reflects the logic of a large field, the publication of studies creating demand for further ones. Such logic can have drawbacks, sometimes encouraging inward-looking research, but is necessary for capacity building. To achieve consensuses, fields must have capacity, particularly during a replication crisis which makes researchers distrust single studies. Benefiting from its size, literature on right-populism has made crucial findings about the economic and cultural drivers of the ideology.
Compared to right-wing populism, why are there few studies of progressivism? Returning to Maranto, this might reflect the lack of conservatives in academia. Analysis of progressivism may make some liberals/progressives uncomfortable; despite differences, there are overlaps between liberalism and progressivism and supporters of both ideologies share parties.
Few of us like to acknowledge that our values reflect socioeconomic factors, rather than being self-evident, and, even for those of us who are interested in these questions, there may be uncomfortable encounters with colleagues and lack of interest from funding councils. Contrastingly, liberals/progressives are comfortable explaining the rise of right-wing populism and, given European history, may feel a duty to do so.
Of course, this does not mean academics will produce no work on progressivism. Research on the ideology is appearing – the Progressive Values Scale is an important example – and will produce feedback effects and a developing field. I disagree with conservatives who dismiss academia as irredeemable and am sceptical about attempts to create alternative institutions.
Nonetheless, the lack of conservatives makes it unlikely that work on progressivism will attain a major size. As scholars such as Kuhn show, fields do not inevitably appear in response to external demand; rather they need resources within the academy, in this case conservatives, which supplement demand and help develop a field.
Readers of this Substack will know I am not exactly a conservative. But an academy which does not reflect public opinion was always likely to encounter problems; difficulty developing a theory of progressivism is one of these.
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