Thursday, September 24, 2015

Thought Fragments Concerning Ideology in Social Science

I took a course in sociology my first year as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. The course was an introduction to sociology taught by professor and social activist, Harry Edwards. The course blew me away because it felt so viscerally real. Professor Edwards would talk about social class, race, and gender in America and students would chime in about their own experiences that brought these big social constructs to life. What I learned in Professor Edwards’ class resembled nothing we had discussed in my high school history classes—I grew up in a politically conservative suburb in San Diego, and we didn’t have much ideological diversity in our discussions of law and society. Sociology, and social sciences more broadly, really spoke to me.

I majored in psychology and sociology upon graduation from Berkeley. This education eventually led to my own empirical research program on social class with an advisor, Dacher Keltner, willing to and interested in studying a big construct with hundreds of years of theory behind it, but little empirical examination (in psychology). More broadly though, I think I just wanted to find a career where I would need to think like I did as an undergraduate. There aren’t a lot of places outside the social sciences where a person can feel safe and secure about critically discussing left-leaning social justice issues.

But perhaps there are costs to having these ideologically safe, but segregated, spaces in an empirical discipline? A couple of weeks ago Behavioral Brain Sciences published a thought-provokingpiece about the lack of ideological diversity in the social sciences. This lack of diversity of viewpoint in the social sciences threatens the validity of (some) research according to the authors—because ideologically similar individuals share blind spots.

Wow, that’s potentially a big problem without an easy solution! After reading the article and the commentary, and discussing the topic at length with the pigee group, I have come to some observations. These observations aren’t particularly insightful or ground-breaking—many were covered in the article and commentary—but I’ll share them anyway (in bullet point format).

·      My ideological views make me the researcher I am. Without my own subjective way of seeing the world, I would not have the motivation or interest to conduct research on the topics I do and in the way I do. Ideology must therefore be a necessary component of social science. It is important then, to acknowledge that ideological subjectivity is a part of social science and that balancing that ideology might not be possible for some of the topics we study. For instance, maybe your political views indicate that social class doesn’t exist in America. In that case, you could either write an article claiming that, or rather, you would probably more likely just study something else that actually does exist.

·      A lack of ideological diversity is a problem, but perhaps the causal order presented in the article is reversed: Liberals don’t choose social psychology, instead, social psychology—with its focus on the power of situational forces to shape people’s thoughts and behaviors—enhances or re-affirms liberal ideology in its practitioners. I’ve shifted to be more and more (and more) liberal-leaning the more I’ve studied social psychology (n = 1, p < .05).

·      Can’t we simply evaluate research based on its rigor, while leaving our own ideological viewpoints at the door? Hey, we’re all scientists here! It should be challenging, but possible to say something like the following as a reviewer of another scholar’s ideologically aligned research: “This makes a lot of sense, but is the evidence strong or weak?”

·      Ending ideological discrimination seems like a no-brainer because eliminating discriminatory practices is a liberal value and social-personality psychology is full of political liberals ;).

·      There are many scientific disciplines with differing ideological makeup, many of the disciplines study the same research questions as social-personality psychology, but using their own unique methods. For instance, there are many economists who study economic inequality (just like there are psychologists who study it), and economists tend to be higher in libertarianism. Perhaps the easiest solution to increasing ideological diversity might be to require greater interdisciplinary scholarship—that is, researchers should be asked to integrate what economists and psychologists say about economic inequality in their own empirical work.

·      Liberal ideology is not a monolithic ideological platform. There are many discussion topics that a group of two or three self-identified liberal psychologists would end in disagreeable arguments. Certainly some ideological views are not well represented, but perhaps there is enough ideological diversity to solve many of the problems listed in the article.

·      Social science fields are some of the only places where liberal ideology is protected and fostered. If we develop ideological enclaves in the social sciences, it’s not likely that these enclaves extend to the grocery store, to public schools attended by our children, to Thanksgiving dinner with family, or to cultural experiences (e.g., “I’d like to sit in the liberal section of the stadium please.”). In fact, I would wager that social scientists must contend with competing ideologies all the time in these public spaces. Or perhaps not.  

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