Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sorting in the Academy

A recently released study of academics asserts that certain characteristics of professors may explain the higher proportion of liberal academics relative to the population at large. The study concludes that 43 percent of the political gap between academics and a random population sample can be attributed to four factors more common among academics: 1)high levels of educational attainment; 2) disparity between levels of educational attainment and income; 3) self-identification as Jewish, non-religious, or a member of a faith that is not theologically conservative Protestant; and 4) high tolerance for controversial ideas.

The authors of the study, Neil Gross and Ethan Fosse, note that their findings confirm the theories of French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu. Like Bordieu, Gross and Fosse see intellectuals as defined by "possession of high levels of cultural capital and moderate levels of economic capital." Bordieu asserts that this structure shapes intellectuals' political views. ".... Deprived of economic success relative to those in the world of commerce, intellectuals are less likely to be invested in preserving the socioeconomic order, may turn toward redistributionist policies in hopes of reducing perceived status inconsistency, and may embrace unconventional social or political views in order to distinguish themselves culturally from the business classes."

The four factors account for only some of the difference. The authors theorize that young adults are sorted into the professoriate based on their political views. "[T]he professoriate, along with a number of other knowledge work fields, has been 'politically typed' as appropriate and welcoming of people with broadly liberal sensibilities, and as inappropriate for conservatives." The reputation of the academy for 'political type' "leads many more liberal than conservative students to aspire for the advanced educational credentials that make entry into knowledge work fields possible, and to put in the work necessary to translate those aspirations into reality."

Although students may not be aware of its effect on their career choices, political typing likely affects them: "Because these identities involve cognitive schemas and habitual patterns of thinking that filter experience ... most young adults who are committed liberals would never end up entertaining the idea that they might become police or correctional officers, just as it would never cross the minds of most who are committed conservatives that they might become professors, precisely because of the political reputations of these fields."

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