Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Academia and Lifestyle Bias

The other week Megan McArdle wrote a post about political bias in academia, inspired by this anecdote about psychologist Jonathan Haidt:
He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.

"This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity," Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal.
This post generated a record number of comments, many of them explaining reasons why this disproportion among academics was the result of something other than academia being a hostile environment for conservatives, which McArdle summarizes in a followup post as follows:
* Smart people are almost always liberal
* Curiousity and interest in ideas is a liberal trait
* Conservatives are too rigid and authoritarian to maintain the open mind required of a professor
* Education erases false conservative ideas and turns people into liberals
* Conservatives don't want to be professors because they're more interested in something else (money, the military)
* Conservatives don't want to be professors because they're anti-intellectual
* Conservatives hold false beliefs that make them ineligible to be professors
Well, as you can see, there's an obvious lack of bias among the academics responding...

The follow-up post is quite long, and among other things does a good job of noting the ways in which bias could result in an increasingly liberal academy without people consciously saying, "That guy's a conservative, we better refuse to give him tenure." One of the ones that particularly struck me was:
Hidden tripwires Usually the dominant group doesn't even realize they are there. For example, the low pay (and increasing reliance on unpaid internships for entree) of journalism often excludes people who don't have, at the minimum, a family that could take them in and help cover the bills if disaster struck. It's not surprising that the profession is so predominantly white and affluent even though everyone talks a lot about diversity.

Now, I've done my share of thinking about academia over the years. Going on in History or Classics had a certain appeal to me. But aside from the standard worries of "I'd be surrounding myself with a whole lot of people who would strongly dislike me for being Catholic and conservative," the thing which made going into academia completely out of the question for me was that I planned to get married immediately after getting my BA and wanted to be able to support a family in the short term. One thing that was very, very clear to me, watching the friends I had who were in grad school or struggling to find tenure track positions, is that trying to make it in academia didn't fit well with getting married and having children young. So I made a pragmatic call which I don't regret: It was simply a much safer bet going into the business world than trying to make of go of it in academia, given our marriage and family plans. I would imagine that many others, in like circumstances, would do the same.

How does this relate to political bias in academia?

Well, there's a two-way relationship between lifestyle and politics. On the one had, people who are conservative and people who are religious are two groups that tend to marry and have more than the average number of children. If you're both conservative and religious, it's even more so.

On the flip side, different lifestyles end up reinforcing different political interests. If you're single and you move around frequently and have somewhat interrupted employment and use public transportation a lot and rely on the availability of grant and research money -- you have a whole lot of reasons to support a generally progressive political agenda. If you are working in the private sector and struggling to buy a home and pay your taxes and have your kids educated in a way that you are comfortable with -- you have a whole lot of reasons to support a generally conservative political agenda.

And, of course, this becomes self-reinforcing after a while. Once this (and other) selection factors and biases have resulted in the academy becoming populated mainly by strongly progressive people who plan to marry late and have few if any kids, there aren't a whole lot of people to complain about the fact that the process of trying to make it in academia is heavily biased against people who don't plan to marry late and have few if any kids. In fact, deviating from that norm starts to make it look like you're someone who isn't very serious about academia. And since you can count of people who are serious about academia, people whom you would want in your department, not to mind the kind of treatment that keeps them from feeling like they can marry and have kids while will in their 20s, you can of course allow it to get a little bit more extreme. Which will in turn make academia that much more unattractive to people who don't want to follow the dominant cultural lifestyle of that profession.


Roma locuta est said...

Well, yes, all of these things are true. I myself made a very difficult decision to stop the phd program at the masters level and pursue instead a career as a husband and father. Much of my experience seems to mirror Darwin's.

Anonymous said...

It's important to note that the proportion of liberals in academia varies a lot by discipline. Here is a good paper with breakdowns by field and subfield. Haidt was talking to psychologists, who are as a group among the most liberal (according to the paper, around 17% of professors in the Social Scientists consider themselves Marxists!) If we are talking engineering or elementary education, it's much more evenly divided.

Most explanations for why professors tend to lean left apply to all professors regardless of field. This suggests either that there is something else going on (maybe there is another factor that is more present in some disciplines than others, or maybe there is a countervailing factor that offsets the other factors somewhat in certain fields).

Darwin said...

Most explanations for why professors tend to lean left apply to all professors regardless of field. This suggests either that there is something else going on (maybe there is another factor that is more present in some disciplines than others, or maybe there is a countervailing factor that offsets the other factors somewhat in certain fields).

Fair point. (And I should probably caveat that my thinking on this is based on fields bridging between the Humanities and Social Sciences, which look to be the most heavily left-leaning.)

Though it strikes me that there might be a sense in which the point I was raising might actually apply to different fields to different degrees: Skimming through that paper, it looks like the most heavily left-leaning fields are the ones where a credential would be the least useful in getting a job outside of Academia. Say you have a PhD in History, Classics or English. If you wash out in trying to get a tenure track position, will your academic credential and experience help you much in getting a private sector job? Not really.

The most balanced fields politically look like they are ones where your credential might also qualify you for a non-academic job: Engineering, Business, Computer Science, Medical Science, Elementary Education

To that extent, taking a run at getting into academia would still be hard on the lifestyle in the short term, but at least the long term risks are not as high.

Also, Humanities and Social Science departments often have the greatest oversupply of candidates for available positions, so this might also both increase the lifestyle risk factor and give incumbents more room to discriminate based on worldview/culture/ideology.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...


I have to disagree with part of your analysis. It's true that academia makes it devilishly hard to have a family at a young age--for women. One of the most notorious amd much-discussed problems in academia, as far as addressing diversity is concerned, is that it's nearly impossible to combine motherhood with any hope of tenure. The women I know in academia all had children late, and the ones I know well enough to have personal information about, had to use fertility treatments to conceive. The women who had children earlier dropped either out of their programs or out of their fields. Even if they worked, it wasn't in academia.

It's not the lack of money or employment certainty that makes parenthood difficult for academics--plenty of people have babies with substantially less of both--it's knowing that taking time off to be with a baby, if you're not tenured, will take you off your career path permanently.

Literacy-chic said...

But feminism told me I can do anything! Isn't that true? :P

Excellent analysis, Darwin, and as someone mired in the muck of it all, I have to agree with the self-reinforcing tendencies of lifestyle and politics. Academia is trying, to a degree, to address the lifestyle issue for women--so long as they choose to have their one child in such a way that it does not impede the progression of the career! But academics deny the political bias at the same time, and probably would not see the two as related. And the increased permissiveness toward women in academia who have children is a result of the feminist quandary that I mention above, and so a liberal/progressive agenda of its own. I would have to say, though, that the predominant feminist attitude is that being responsible with your fertility means limiting family size and favoring some notion of autonomy over motherhood, especially where a career is concerned.

And yet, thinking of the alternatives for women, I still think that the academic lifestyle is more family-friendly than a career that requires 40+ hour/week work in an office, so there is *that.*

Christina said...

Thanks, blackadderiv!
My husband is on the PhD track in engineering (hoping to be a professor) and I must say it's a MUCH more family-friendly environment than I would encounter if I were to continue in theology (sad, huh?)-- even in Cambridge, MA.

That being said, I had a philosophy professor in undergrad who constantly bemoaned what he called 'liberal academic sterility.' People who were already less likely than their conservative counterparts to have children gradually found themselves consumed so much by work that it effectively became their 'child' so they didn't have time or desire for real children. He contended that this lack of children also led to strangely abstract modes of thinking in said liberal professors, which in turn made them bad (read: postmodern) philosophers.

His solution: lock all of the exits and unleash the daycare into the philosophy building. I'd love to see him pull that off some day.

Anonymous said...

darwin, you raise some interesting points. In addition to the question of why academia is liberal, I'd like to see similar analyses of why Wall Street is conservative, why journalism is liberal, and why the military is conservative.

I would also add that at least one group of religious people is overtly hostile to academia: Evangelical Protestants. I spent years in the movement, in several different churches and denominations in different parts of the US, and I can vouch that they really do routinely disparage the life of the mind. The belief in biblical literalism makes it pretty close to impossible to pursue rigorous scholarship in almost any field, and they know this, though they would certainly never acknowledge it in so many words. Evangelicals are a large enough fraction of the population that that their self-exclusion from academia may be sufficient to explain the bias in some fields.


Literacy-chic said...

Something occurred to me during the course of the day--not everyone chooses their path after college based on family considerations, even those with conservative leanings. Many do not find their spouses when they are undergraduates, and others who do (like myself) already have firm post-graduate plans in place that have very little to do with practical concerns, and are unlikely to be swayed by family considerations. I entered a degree program at 22 years old with a 2-year-old, and my husband was entering one at the same time. It takes a special kind of love and a blind kind of insanity to enter academia in the first place, at least in the Humanities. :P Though at least on some level, we wanted to make a better life for our kids. Still working on that 11 years later. *sigh* So conservative non-academics are just the ones who made the right choices, I guess, with their priorities lined up rationally. Are Conservatives more practical? Maybe that's why they're not in academia. Which is kind of what you're arguing.

bearing said...

"Are Conservatives more practical? Maybe that's why they're not in academia. Which is kind of what you're arguing."

It's what some of the liberals are arguing too, only instead of "practical" they call it "interested in money."

Darwin said...


In addition to the question of why academia is liberal, I'd like to see similar analyses of why Wall Street is conservative, why journalism is liberal, and why the military is conservative.

It seems to me that some of this is simple self interest and/or local knowledge.

Investment bankers are not, to my knowledge, unusually conservative when it comes to issues such as gun control, immigration, abortion, the death penalty, etc. However, they often oppose additional banking regulation and tariffs -- whether out of a cynical belief that this makes it harder to earn money or out of an earnest belief that they understand the economy better than the average bear and know what's good for it.

Similarly, those in the military are not necessarily unusually conservative on social issues or government spending, they just tend not to be pacifists. (Because, if they were, they probably would not have joined the military.) And they often have the view that the US military does more good than harm -- which is a view most people have about themselves and their activities.

Journalism is probably more of a cultural and lifestyle issue. Working in journalism (except at the very top) is highly insecure, and so you'd be in more of a position to support programs that help people living in insecure job and lifestyle situations. It can require frequent moves and long hours, and thus favors people willing to make those lifestyle sacrifices. And then there's probably also a mentality factor: Good journalists may tend to be those who tend more towards empathy than judgment. And the sorts of stories you run into as a journalist will tend to emphasize that many of people's problems result from chance (something that correlates with progressive policy views.)

Literacy-chic said...

Awwww... nothing for ME, Darwin?

@bearing - Yep, I am familiar with that line. I don't buy into it. I am that rare species of academic: Catholic and Conservative (insofar as I can stomach politics).