Skip to main content

How Ideology Has Hindered Sociological Insight

Abstract

American sociology has consistently leaned toward the political Left. This ideological skew hinders sociological insight in three ways. First, the scope of research projects is constrained: sociologists are discouraged from touching on taboo topics and ideologically unpalatable facts. Second, the data used in sociological research have been limited. Sociologists neglect data that portray conservatives positively and liberals negatively. Data are also truncated to hide facts that subvert a liberal narrative. Third, the empathic understanding of non-liberal ideologies is inhibited. Sociologists sometimes develop the erroneous belief that they understand alternative ideologies, and they fail to explore non-liberal ways of framing sociological knowledge. Some counterarguments may be raised against these theses, and I address such counterarguments.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. 1.

    In the field of personality psychology, reinforcement sensitivity theory posits that three systems underlie human emotions. The behavioral activation system (BAS) handles appetitive reactions, the fight–flight–freeze system (FFFS) handles aversive reactions, and the behavioral inhibition system (BIS) handles ambiguity. The experiences mostly closely associated with the respective systems are fear, joy, and anxiety. One reason that some people have different emotional dispositions is that they have different levels of baseline activation in these systems. Happy people have relatively greater activity in their behavioral activation systems, although their other systems are activated when appropriate. Depressed people have relatively little activity in their behavioral activation system. Sufferers of anxiety disorders have relatively high activity in their behavioral inhibition system. In my experience, academic disciplines contain similar systems with a unique profile in each discipline. Political science, economics, and history are happy. Psychology once suffered from anxiety, but it recovered. Sociology has been suffering from a prolonged episode of anxiety, and labors under the illusion that the ending of anxiety is synonymous with the beginning of joy.

  2. 2.

    For examples of such syllabi, see:

    www.asanet.org/images/members/docs/pdf/teaching/RESection5Jorgenson.pdf

    www.sites.clas.ufl.edu/soccrim/files/SYG-2000-2894-syllabus-Schnable.pdf

    www.deanza.edu/distance/syllabi/soc1_12m.pdf

    www.howdy.tamu.edu/Inside/HR2504/PDFs/SYL_201331_13215.pdf

    www2.humboldt.edu/sociology/syllabi/Soc%20F2013/Soc%20316%20-%20Gender%20Society%20-%20L%20Cortez-Regan%20-%20Fall%202013.pdf

    www.sociology.colorado.edu/sites/default/files/syllabi/2011Fall/SOCY4131-Harrison.pdf

    www.tilt.colostate.edu/files/eportfolios/7/File32-Mar-16-2008-11-59-59-AM.pdf

    www.soc.utah.edu/courses/Syllabi/Spring%202012/Martinez_3041.001_Rock&Roll_Spring%202012.pdf

  3. 3.

    Epistemic egocentrism can often be found in moral philosophy, where philosophers expect people to behave as though they are cognizant of unknowns. Consider this illogical claim by the moral philosopher Peter Singer (2013): “The man or woman who wears a $30,000 watch or buys similar luxury goods, like a $12,000 handbag . . . is saying; “I am either extraordinarily ignorant, or just plain selfish. If I were not ignorant, I would know that children are dying from diarrhea or malaria, because they lack safe drinking water, or mosquito nets, and obviously what I have spent on this watch or handbag would have been enough to help several of them survive; but I care so little about them that I would rather spend my money on something that I wear for ostentation alone.”

References

  1. Albert, P. R. (2010). Epigenetics in mental illness: hope or hype? Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience : JPN, 35(6), 366–368.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Allport, G. W. (1954). The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge: Perseus Books.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Bartels, L. M. (2006). What’s the matter with “What’s the matter with Kansas?” Quarterly Journal of Political Science, 1(2), 201–226.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Baumeister, R. F. (2010). Social Psychologists and Thinking About People. In R. F. Baumeister & E. J. Finkel (Eds.), Advanced Social Psychology:The State of the Science (pp. 5–24). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Benforado, A., & Hanson, J. (2012). Attributions and Ideologies: Two Divergent Visions of Behavior Behind Our Laws, Policies, and Theories. In J. Hanson (Ed.), Ideology, Psychology, and Law (pp. 298–338). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  6. Berlin, I. (1978). Karl Marx: His Life and Environment. London: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Birch, S. A. J. (2005). When knowledge is a curse children’s and adults’ reasoning about mental states. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(1), 25–29.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Birch, S. A. J., & Bloom, P. (2007). The curse of knowledge in reasoning about false beliefs. Psychological Science, 18(5), 382–386.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Black, D. (2000). Dreams of pure sociology. Sociological Theory, 18(3), 343–367.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  11. Brandt, M. J., Reyna, C., Chambers, J. R., Crawford, J. T., & Wetherell, G. (2014). The ideological-conflict hypothesis intolerance among both liberals and conservatives. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(1), 27–34.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Burawoy, M. (2002). “Personal Statement (for Candidacy as President-Elect).” Footnotes (March). Retrieved (http://www.asanet.org/footnotes/mar02/fn11.html).

  13. Calhoun, C., & VanAntwerpen, J. (2007). Orthodoxy, Heterodoxy, and Hierarchy: ‘Mainstream’ Sociology and Its Challengers. In C. Calhoun (Ed.), Sociology in America: A History (pp. 367–410). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  14. Cardiff, C. F., & Klein, D. B. (2005). Faculty partisan affiliations in all disciplines: a voter‐registration study. Critical Review, 17(3–4), 237–255.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Carey, N. (2012). The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology Is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Carney, D. R., Jost, J. T., Gosling, S. D., & Potter, J. (2008). The secret lives of liberals and conservatives: personality profiles, interaction styles, and the things they leave behind. Political Psychology, 29(6), 807–840.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Chorba, C. (2001). The danger of federalizing hate crimes: congressional misconceptions and the unintended consequences of the hate crimes prevention Act. Virginia Law Review, 87(2), 319–380.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Cole, S. (2001). Introduction: The Social Construction of Sociology. In S. Cole (Ed.), What’s Wrong With Sociology? (pp. 7–36). New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Deflem, M. (2005). “Public Sociology, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet.” Journal of Professional and Public Sociology, 1(1), Article 4.

  20. DeNavas-Walt, C., Proctor, B. D., Smith, J. C. (2012). Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2011. Washington, DC. Retrieved May 10, 2013 (http://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/p60-243.pdf).

  21. Felson, R. B. (2001). Blame Analysis: Accounting for the Behavior of Protected Groups. In S. Cole (Ed.), What’s Wrong With Sociology? (pp. 223–246). New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Fiske, S. T. (2010). Envy up, scorn down: How comparison divides us. American Psychologist, 65(8), 698–706.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Fiske, A. P., & Tetlock, P. E. (1997). Taboo trade-offs: reactions to transactions that transgress the spheres of justice. Political Psychology, 18(2), 255–297.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Folsom, F. (1994). Days of Anger, Days of Hope: A Memoir of the League of American Writers 1937–1942 (1st ed.). Niwot: University Press of Colorado.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Frank, T. (2004). What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. New York: Metropolitan Books.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Frank, T. (2008). “Class Is Dismissed.” Retrieved (http://web.archive.org/web/20080309095606/http://www.tcfrank.com/dismissd.pdf).

  27. Freeden, M. (1979). Eugenics and progressive thought: a study in ideological affinity. The Historical Journal, 22(3), 645–671.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Gans, H. J. (2002). “Most of Us Should Become Public Sociologists.” Footnotes 30(6, July/August). Retrieved (http://www.asanet.org/footnotes/julyaugust02/fn10.html).

  29. Graham, J., Nosek, B. A., & Haidt, J. (2012). The moral stereotypes of liberals and conservatives: exaggeration of differences across the political spectrum. PLoS ONE, 7(12), 1–13.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Graham, J., et al. (2013). Moral foundations theory: the pragmatic validity of moral pluralism. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 55–130.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Haidt, J. (2011). “The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology.” 12th Annual Meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, San Antonio, TX. Retrieved (http://people.stern.nyu.edu/jhaidt/postpartisan.html).

  32. Haidt, J. (2013). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Vintage.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Haidt, J., Movius, H. (2012). “Moral Values and the Fiscal Cliff.” Washington Post, November 27. Retrieved (http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-11-27/national/35511338_1_fiscal-cliff-moral-values-tax-increases).

  34. Harman, V. (2010). Experiences of racism and the changing nature of white privilege among lone white mothers of mixed-parentage children in the UK. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 33(2), 176–194.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Hedström, P., & Swedberg, R. (1996). Social mechanisms. Acta Sociologica, 39(3), 281–308.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Hodson, G., & Busseri, M. A. (2012). Bright minds and dark attitudes: lower cognitive ability predicts greater prejudice through right-wing ideology and low intergroup contact. Psychological Science, 23(2), 187–195.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Hollander, P. (2013). Righteous political violence and contemporary western intellectuals. Terrorism and Political Violence, 25(4), 518–530.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Jeffries, V. (2014). Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity as Field of Study. In V. Jeffriesm (Ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity: Formulating a Field of Study (pp. 3–20). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Jussim, L. (2012a). Liberal privilege in academic psychology and the social sciences: commentary on Inbar & Lammers (2012). Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(5), 504–507.

  40. Jussim, L. (2012b). Social Perception and Social Reality: Why Accuracy Dominates Bias and Self-Fulling Prophecy. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  41. Kanazawa, S. (2010). Why liberals and atheists are more intelligent. Social Psychology Quarterly, 73(1), 33–57.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Keyes, C. L. M. (2009). The black–white paradox in health: flourishing in the face of social inequality and discrimination. Journal of Personality, 77(6), 1677–1706.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Kochhar, R., Taylor P., Richard, F. (2011). Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs between Whites, Blacks and Hispanics. Washinton, DC: Pew Research Center Washington, DC. Retrieved May 10, 2013 (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/07/26/wealth-gaps-rise-to-record-highs-between-whites-blacks-hispanics/).

  44. Koslowski, B. (2013). Scientific Reasoning: Explanation, Confirmation Bias, and Scientific Practice. In G. J. Feist & M. E. Gorman (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Science (pp. 151–192). New York: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Krueger, J. I., & Funder, D. C. (2004). Towards a balanced social psychology: causes, consequences, and cures for the problem-seeking approach to social behavior and cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 27(3), 313–327.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Kutulas, J. (1990). Becoming ‘more liberal’: the league of American writers, the communist party, and the literary People’s Front. Journal of American Culture, 13(1), 71–80.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Kutulas, J. (1995). The Long War: The Intellectual People’s Front and Anti-Stalinism, 1930–1940. Durham: Duke University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2008). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  49. Laland, K. N., & Brown, G. R. (2011). Sense and Nonsense : Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behaviour (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Langlois, R. (2008). The closing of the sociological mind? Canadian Journal of Sociology, 33(1), 134–148.

    Google Scholar 

  51. Lengermann, P., & Niebrugge, G. (2007). Thrice Told: Narratives of Sociology’s Relation to Social Work. In C. Calhoun (Ed.), Sociology in America: A History (pp. 63–114). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  52. Lewis, M. B. (2011). Who is the fairest of them all? Race, attractiveness and skin color sexual dimorphism. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(2), 159–162.

  53. Magen, E., Dweck, C. S., & Gross, J. J. (2008). The hidden-zero effect representing a single choice as an extended sequence reduces impulsive choice. Psychological Science, 19(7), 648–649.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Mannheim, K. (1936). Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Markides, K. S., & Eschbach, K. (2005). Aging, migration, and mortality: current status of research on the Hispanic paradox. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 60(Special Issue 2), S68–S75.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Martin, C. C., & Nezlek, J. B. (2014). The white ceiling heuristic and the underestimation of Asian-American income. PLOS ONE, 9(9), e108732.

  57. Marx, K. (1986). Karl Marx: A Reader. In J. Elster (Ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  58. McIntosh, P. (1990). White privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack. Independent School, 49(2), 31–35.

    Google Scholar 

  59. McLellan, D. (2006). Karl Marx: A Biography (4th ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  60. Merton, R. K. (1973). The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  61. Mynatt, C. R., Doherty, M. E., & Tweney, R. D. (1978). Consequences of confirmation and disconfirmation in a simulated research environment. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 30(3), 395–406.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Nagel, J., Juan, V. S., & Mar, R. A. (2013). Lay denial of knowledge for justified true beliefs. Cognition, 129, 652–661.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. NBC News (2010). “Will Freshmen Crash Senate Republicans’ Party?” NBC News. Retrieved May 10, 2013 (http://www.today.com/id/39875721/ns/today-today_news/t/will-freshmen-crash-senate-republicans-party/).

  64. Niemonen, J. (2010). Public sociology or partisan sociology? The curious case of whiteness studies. The American Sociologist, 41(1), 48–81.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. Oswald, M. E., & Grosjean, S. (2004). Confirmation Bias. In R. F. Pohl (Ed.), Cognitive Illusions: A Handbook on Fallacies and Biases in Thinking, Judgement and Memory (pp. 79–96). New York: Psychology Press.

    Google Scholar 

  66. Pembrey, M. E., et al. (2005). Sex-specific, male-line transgenerational responses in humans. European Journal of Human Genetics, 14(2), 159–166.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. Pew Forum (2008). US Religious Landscape Survey. Washington: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Retrieved May 10, 2013 (www.religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf).

  68. Pew Research Center (2013). The Rise of Asian Americans. Pew Research Center. Retrieved May 13, 2014 (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2013/04/Asian-Americans-new-full-report-04-2013.pdf).

  69. Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate : The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking.

    Google Scholar 

  70. Popper, K. (1963). Conjectures and Refutations. In Readings in the Philosophy of Science (Pp. 9–13). Mountain View: Mayfield.

  71. Roberts, B. W., Kuncel, N. R., Shiner, R., Caspi, A., & Goldberg, L. R. (2007). The power of personality: the comparative validity of personality traits, socioeconomic status, and cognitive ability for predicting important life outcomes. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2(4), 313–345.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  72. Royzman, E. B., Cassidy, K. W., & Baron, J. (2003). ‘I know, you know’: epistemic egocentrism in children and adults. Review of General Psychology, 7(1), 38–65.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  73. Rubenstein, W. B. (2003). The real story of U.S. hate crimes statistics: an empirical analysis. Tulane Law Review, 78, 1213–1245.

    Google Scholar 

  74. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  75. Sadler, M. S., Correll, J., Park, B., & Judd, C. M. (2012). The world is not black and white: racial bias in the decision to shoot in a multiethnic context. Journal of Social Issues, 68(2), 286–313.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  76. Sakamoto, A., Goyette, K. A., & Kim, C. H. (2009). Socioeconomic attainments of Asian Americans. Annual Review of Sociology, 35(1), 255–276.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  77. Sakamoto, A., Takei, I., & Woo, H. (2012). The myth of the model minority myth. Sociological Spectrum, 32(4), 309–321.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  78. Salmon, W. C. (1984). Explanation and the Causal Structure of the World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  79. Shiao, J. L., Bode, T., Beyer, A., & Selvig, D. (2012). The genomic challenge to the social construction of race. Sociological Theory, 30(2), 67–88.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  80. Silva, E. B., & Forman, T. A. (2000). ‘I am not a racist but…’: Mapping white college students’ racial ideology in the USA. Discourse & Society, 11(1), 50–85.

  81. Singer, P. (2013). “Why Pay More?” Project Syndicate, May 9. Retrieved May 10, 2013 (http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/the-moral-shortcomings-of-conspicuous-consumption-by-peter-singer).

  82. Siy, J. O., & Cheryan, S. (2013). When compliments fail to flatter: American individualism and responses to positive stereotypes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(1), 87–102.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  83. Smith, C. (2003). Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  84. Smith, C. (2014). The Sacred Project of American Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  85. Smith, C. (2015). To Flourish Or Destruct: A Personalist Theory of Human Goods, Motivations, Failure, and Evil. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  86. Solomona, R. P., Portelli, J. P., Daniel, B.‐. J., & Campbell, A. (2005). The discourse of denial: how white teacher candidates construct race, racism and ‘white privilege.’. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(2), 147–169.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  87. Sommers, C. H. (1994). Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women. New York: Simon & Schuster.

    Google Scholar 

  88. Sorokin, P. A. (1965). Sociology of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. American Sociological Review, 833–43.

  89. Sperber, J. (2013). Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

    Google Scholar 

  90. Strevens, M. (2006). Scientific Explanation. In D. M. Borchert (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Philosophy (pp. 518–527). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA.

    Google Scholar 

  91. Talhelm, T., et al. (2015). Liberals think more analytically (more ‘WEIRD’) than conservatives. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(2), 250–267.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  92. Tetlock, P. E., Kristel, O. V., Beth Elson, S., Green, M. C., & Lerner, J. S. (2000). The psychology of the unthinkable: taboo trade-offs, forbidden base rates, and heretical counterfactuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(5), 853–870.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  93. Turner, S. (2013). American Sociology: From Pre-Disciplinary to Post-Normal. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  94. Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1981). The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science, 211(4481), 453–458.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  95. Vaughan, D. (2002). Signals and Interpretive Work: The Role of Culture in a Theory of Practical Action. In K. A. Cerulo (Ed.), Culture in Mind: Toward a Sociology of Culture and Cognition (pp. 28–56). London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  96. Veenendaal, M., et al. (2013). Transgenerational effects of prenatal exposure to the 1944–45 Dutch famine. BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, 120(5), 548–554.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  97. Wallerstein, I. (1999). The heritage of sociology, the promise of social science. Current Sociology, 47(1), 1–37.

  98. Weber, M. (1946). Science as a Vocation. In H. H. Gerth & C. W. Mills (Eds.), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (pp. 129–156). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  99. Wheen, F. (1999). Karl Marx: A Life. New York: Norton.

    Google Scholar 

  100. Yancey, G. A. (2011). Compromising Scholarship: Religious and Political Bias in American Higher Education. Waco: Baylor University Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

I thank John Boli and Christian Smith for their comments on earlier drafts.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Chris C. Martin.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Martin, C.C. How Ideology Has Hindered Sociological Insight. Am Soc 47, 115–130 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12108-015-9263-z

Download citation

Keywords

  • Sociology of knowledge
  • Sociology of ideas
  • American sociology
  • Ideology
  • Methodology