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Left or right? What should we do about political bias in the Social Sciences

Updated Friday, 13th March 2015

The question of bias in academic disciplines is one that has resurfaced in recent years, particular in relation to the Social Sciences. 

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Cartoon of two iconic leaders representing the left wing and the right wing asking about teaching methods Creative commons image Icon Gary Edwards under Creative-Commons license The question of bias in academic disciplines is one that has resurfaced in recent years, particular in relation to the Social Sciences. The Open University has in the past been the subject to criticism, being regarded by some as a hotbed for left wing socialist thought. In at least six of the years during the period 1976-85 there were allegations that OU course materials were politically biased. The Times asked 'Is there a Marxist bias at the Open University?' It concluded, on the basis of analysis of 10 of the 2,000 units that the OU produced that year, that there was bias. Questions were asked as to the future of the OU.

In today’s climate, the issue of political bias seems to be more bipartisan in the US where universities are more greatly corporatised and where the ideological right is galvanised in its opposition to Barack Obama’s presidency. However, the basic picture emerging is that this is more than just appearances. On the whole, research in the US and elsewhere shows that academics in Social Sciences tend to be more liberal and left leaning in their political attitudes. There have been a variety of explanations for why there is such a bias in favour of employment of liberal academics. These include explanations in terms of differences between liberals and conservatives in brain functioning and personality that might lead to less egalitarian viewpoints and may ultimately be less commensurate with Social Sciences’ methodology at an epistemological if not also at an ontological level. Furthermore, differences in cultural and economic capital between liberals and conservatives, discrimination against conservatives and self-selection of conservatives into different careers have all been proposed as further explanations.

So why should we care?

A recent study by Duarte, Crawford, Stern, Haidt, Jussim & Tetlock (in press) warns against the lack of political diversity, specifically in social psychology as a potential cause of replication failure and research fraud. Thus the reason for considering it relates to the validity and credibility of the discipline. Considering the methodological developments in the Social Sciences, for example methodological reflexivity, it would be embarrassing if a liberal bias was to undermine the very methodological approaches developed and supposedly critical accounts of liberal bias were uncritical of the researchers’ own assumptions regarding conservative positions or viewpoints.

Duarte et al show how liberal language and preoccupations have uncritically entered into the theoretical formulations and methods developed by some social psychologists that renders such research methodologically flawed. They also challenge studies which have sought to characterise conservative thinkers as more rigid in their thinking, arguing there is also evidence showing the opposite may be true and it is liberals who are prone to rigid and biased thinking.

Duarte et al argue that unchallenged political and worldview assumptions can be seen to bias research at the level of research questions and design, and as such liberal thinkers may be at risk of the same type of fallacious and rigid thinking they attribute to conservatives. However, this should not lead one to the equally fallacious notion that liberal thinkers who prefer progressive social change invariably produce biased research and that social psychology is therefore fundamentally biased by the political views of its researchers and theorists. The biggest problem of unchallenged liberal bias is that it may represent a threat to the validity and credibility of social theories relating to concerns of the more liberal political spectrum (e.g. environment, unemployment, social inequality).

What can be done? 

What can be done to reduce the impact of liberal bias on research and to counter the underrepresentation of conservative viewpoints in the Social Sciences?

In brief, efforts to reduce the epistemic costs of liberal bias should concentrate on requiring more critical evaluation of publication submissions in order to avoid liberal assumptions leading to truth claims that cannot be supported with the methodologies used. This may be particularly important for studies employing quantitative approaches that generally tend to be less reflexive, but also applies to research using qualitative methods.

Underrepresentation of conservative viewpoints may arise due to self-selection by conservatives into different careers. Should Social Sciences be made more attractive to conservatives in its recruitment, so that more undergraduates with conservative leanings chose academic career in Social Sciences? It is difficult to see how this could be achieved or whether such efforts would even be sensible. Instead, it may be far more important that the message of Social Sciences that undergraduates take away from their study is not that it appears to favour a liberal viewpoint, but that it is critical, evidence-based and interpretative, producing sophisticated insights that benefit policy decision-making in a pluralistic world.

Awareness could be raised by including discussion of political bias (both liberal and conservative) in teaching ‘Methods’. For example Socratic questioning, using argument and counter- argument, can be used to further evidence-based learning in order to challenge biased assumptions. Contextualising theories and research in the real world and engaging problem-based scenario teaching can lead students to develop a more rounded and critical understanding of potentially divisive topics, reflecting the diverse viewpoints that arise from them.

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
Want to know more about studying social sciences with The Open University? Visit the Social Sciences faculty site.

Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.

 

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