Ideology in the social sciences

TED2008- Jonathan Haidt
Image by redmaxwell via Flickr

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt‘s recent talk at an academic conference made today’s New York Times – and with good reason.  Calling attention to the vast preponderance of political liberals in the social sciences – he called it “a statistically impossible lack of diversity” – he characterized his colleagues as a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder research and damage their credibility.

Ideological minorities seen as less rational

Haidt speaks with the awareness of someone who changed his own position. He characterizes himself as a longtime liberal who became a centrist.  That shift put him in a distinct minority – sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons estimated that Democrats outnumber Republicans among psychologists by nearly 12 to 1. The shared mind-set has an impact on research – on the topics they will pursue, and those that are left aside.

“If a group circles around sacred values, they will evolve into a tribal-moral community,” he said. “They’ll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value.” It’s easy for social scientists to observe this process in other communities, like the fundamentalist Christians who embrace “intelligent design” while rejecting Darwinism. But academics can be selective, too. Haidt cites the widespread shunning of Daniel Patrick Moynihan‘s research showing negative impacts from a rise in unmarried parenthood in the Black family as an example. Only in the last few years,” he says, “have liberal sociologists begun to acknowledge that Moynihan was right all along.”

The “in group” – liberal or conservative – can’t easily see other views as reasonable

News of Haidt’s speech came soon after I was reminded of WEIRD – the acronym coined by Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan to describe the people most often studied by social science researchers: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic.  Their article The Weirdest People in the World? (published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2010), 33: 61-83) surveyed a variety of domains; they concluded that “WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species – frequent outliers.” They conclude with a call for social science to be slow to generalize the findings from this “thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity” as universals of human psychology.

Haidt’s recent talk builds on his work in the psychology of morality (watch his presentation at TED in 2008 below).  Where he spoke, then, of the psychological foundations of liberal and conservative worldviews, he is now speaking about how they shape even our ability to do social science – to see the fullness of our social reality. As he suggested – only half in jest – perhaps the social sciences needs a new kind of affirmative action – one that invites views other than progressive liberals to the table.

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  1. This post and Haidt’s assertion just seems odd to me. I don’t know a Republican who is interested in anything with the word “social” in it. This criticism seems akin to wondering, for example, why it is that mostly Christians are involved in thinking about christology. Surely we can understand why people who reject the very notions of common action, social justice, social services, and perhaps sociology itself do not spend much time studying them.

  2. This was fascinating! I watched that video, too, and I think he’s right about a lot of points. I’m not crazy about his implication that religion is something devised by humans to help give order to society, but those five points that each person is born with–natural law, written on the human heart?–as emphasized by liberals and conservatives is spot-on. TRUE religion, I believe, is able to make us pay attention to all five in our lives.

    • I like his analysis of the balance needed between openness and order. Teaching in a college, I see in the lives of my students the swath of destruction that comes from the search for experience unbalanced by any allegiance for order. But then – I might just be resonating with another liberal-turned-centrist…

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