Every now and again, as I stroll along through the rhythms of teaching and writing, my students stop and remind me of all the assumptions I quietly carry around. I find these moments helpful, if jarring. They usually entail me stuttering and looking confused and then rambling through some response that I was unprepared to give. Next there’s the rumination period during which I think about what I should have said, cringe at what I did (and did not) say, and engage in mildly self-deprecating wonder at my seeming complacency. I’m never upset when my positions are challenged (in fact, I quite like it) but I am usually disappointed and surprised that I somehow presumed my positions didn’t require justification.
Earlier this week, during my Public Sociology course, some very bright students took a critical stance against politics in the discipline. As a bit of background, much of the content I assign maintains a clear political angle and a distinct left leaning bias. I also talk a lot about writing and editing for Cyborgology, and have on several occasions made note of our explicit orientation towards social justice. The students wanted to know why sociology and sociologists leaned so far left, and questioned the appropriateness of incorporating politics into scholarly work—public or professional.
I think these questions deserve clear answers. The value of integrating politics with scholarship is not self-evident and it is unfair (and a little lazy) to go about political engagement as though it’s a fact of scholarly life rather than a position or a choice. We academics owe these answers to our students and we public scholars would do well to articulate these answers to the publics with whom we hope to engage.
In an exercise that’s simultaneously for me, my students, and those who read this blog, I’ll talk through the questions of political leanings and their place in academic engagement, respectively.
Let’s begin with the liberal bias. First of all, I want to temper claims of radicalism in the academy. Survey data of academics’ political views show that overall, about 45% of professors maintain progressive ideals, compared with 45% who identify as moderate and 9% as conservative. Conservatives are admittedly underrepresented within the academy, but less than half of all academic faculty identify with the left and of those, only a tiny fraction (about 8%) hold radical leftist views. Still, political leanings vary by discipline with social scientists in general and sociologists in particular maintaining higher than average left leaning propensities compared with academics in other fields. So, sociologists are collectively progressive. Why?
One guess is that sociology has an inherent appeal to the progressive sensibility and so attracts people with a leftist political bent. However, this explanation falls short when we look to the origins of the field, which are largely conservative and date back to attempts by key figures at finding stability amidst the industrial revolution while equating society to the organic body. Another guess—and I think a partially reasonable one—is that progressive politics are informally rewarded while conservative politics may face censure within Sociology departments. However, having met very few truly conservative trained sociologists (inside or outside of the academy), negative effects of conservative dissent likely only play a small role in the general tenor of the discipline
I believe that a major reason sociologists lean left politically is because we are bombarded by inequality professionally. Our job is to scrutinize social life and in doing so, systemic oppressions become blaring. Sociologists are trained to enact the sociological imagination, a praxis introduced by C. Wright Mills by which personal troubles are understood in relation to public issues. The course of our study reveals clear patterns in which intersections of race, class, geography, and gender predict life chances with sickening precision. We teach about egregious disparities in health care, life expectancy, educational attainment, mental wellbeing, and incarceration rates. Through research and reading, we become intimately familiar with the voices of those on the wrong side of these rates—the individual persons whose troubles represent public issues. In my own collaborative research, I’ve dealt with issues of race and disability stigma, social responses to intimate partner violence, and the costs of being a woman during task-based social interaction. To know these patterns, connect them to real people’s lives, and understand how policy and culture perpetuate inequitable systems, tends to foster a progressive sensibility.
But even if this sensibility is both understandable and tightly rooted in empirical realities, is it appropriate as part of professional practice? For me, it is. I strongly support the inclusion of politics into pedagogy, public engagement, and scholarly production. The idea that scholars are only scholars—impartial vestibules of knowledge—is disingenuous. Scholars are people, and as people, we have politics. Pretending those politics aren’t there obscures the discourses in which we engage across professional arenas. Our intellectual projects are inextricable from political agendas. From the research questions we ask, to the ways we frame our findings, to the decisions we make about how to disseminate our work and ideas, politics are ever present. From an intellectual standpoint, making those politics as transparent as possible increases the credibility and robustness of scholarly bodies of work. Scholarly argumentation goes much deeper when all parties lay bare their assumptions. From a human and ethical standpoint, I contend that there is an obligation to take what we know and do something useful with it. To willingly ignore patterns of injustice and oppression is a moral decision, just as is the choice to act politically against them. One’s position as a scholar/academic does not recuse that person from the dynamics of social life. We are all a part of society, and maintaining a position of passive objectivity is equivalent to active complicity in the way things are.
I appreciate that my students are critical in the classroom and that they push me to defend my pedagogy and scholarly practice. I’ll share this post with them and hope that they feel empowered to keep the conversation going.
Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis
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