The American Sociologist

, Volume 49, Issue 4, pp 496–519 | Cite as

Race and the Race for the White House: On Social Research in the Age of Trump

  • Musa al Gharbi


As it became clear that Donald Trump had a real base of political support, even as analysts consistently underestimated his electoral prospects, they grew increasingly fascinated with the question of who was supporting him (and why). However, researchers have also tended to hold strong negative opinions about Trump, and have approached research with uncharitable priors about the kind of person who would support him and what they would be motivated by. This essay presents a series of case studies showing how analyses of the roles of race and racism in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election seem to have been systematically distorted as a result. However, motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, prejudicial study design, and failure to address confounds are not limited to questions about race (a similar essay could have been done on the alleged role of sexism/ misogyny in the 2016 cycle, for instance). And while Trump does seem to generate particularly powerful antipathy from researchers – perhaps exacerbating negative tendencies – ideologically-driven errors likely permeate a good deal of social research. Presented evidence suggests that research with strong adversarial or advocacy orientations may be most susceptible to systemic distortion. Activist scholars and their causes may also be among those most adversely impacted by the resultant erosion of research reliability and credibility. Ultimately, however, these are problems which all social scientists must remain vigilant against, and which we all have a stake in working to address.


Sociology of knowledge Political sociology 2016 Election Donald Trump Political bias Race / racism 



There were many people who provided essential feedback and advice for this work at different stages in its development. It would be impossible to thank everyone. However, I would be remiss if I did not flag a handful of scholars who were particularly important for bringing this essay to fruition. At my home department, Columbia University Sociology, Shamus Khan and Diane Vaughn played critical roles in helping me develop and refine the argument and framing. Daniel D’Amico of Brown University’s Political Theory Project also provided very helpful feedback and encouragement in the formative stage of this project. Finally, I would like to thank Heterodox Academy for workshopping the paper with a group of scholars from different disciplinary and ideological backgrounds. I am particularly indebted to Jonathan Haidt (NYU Stern), Deb Mashek (Psychology, Harvey Mudd), Chris Martin (Sociology, Emory University) and Raffi Grinberg (Carroll School of Management, Boston College) for their questions, comments and criticisms in that process.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Columbia UniversityNew YorkUSA

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