Sociology’s Sacred Victims and the Politics of Knowledge: Moral Foundations Theory and Disciplinary Controversies


The field of sociology has long been subject to critique for alleged ideological bias and left-wing groupthink linked to its social justice mission. Critics contend that the construction of “sacred victims” by progressive intellectuals hinders their ability to objectively appraise the circumstances of such vulnerable groups. To address this criticism, we survey 479 sociologists in national universities and colleges in the U.S. regarding three sensitive controversies: urban poverty in the black community; gendered differences in occupational choices; and immigration. We find significant patterns in the data. Commitment to the field’s “moral mission,” preferred research paradigm, gender, and especially political orientation are all significant predictors of sociologists’ views. The results, we suggest, can be understood by conceptualizing the field of sociology as an “emotive community.” In doing so, we draw upon current social psychological research on moral foundations theory developed by Jonathan Haidt and colleagues.

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  1. 1.

    Though we occasionally critique respondents’ views, particularly in the concluding discussion, we should stress that we are progressives ourselves and our judgments should be situated in that light. The lead author identifies as marxist humanist; the latter as communitarian and social democratic.

  2. 2.

    Our social-psychological approach differs from traditional “sociology of knowledge” approaches in that we focus on shared moral intuitions and consequent political identities within academic communities that influence the construction of knowledge “bottom-up.” We see this method as complementary to sociological examinations of wider historical and cultural influences that shape knowledge production from without.

  3. 3.

    Steinberg goes on: “In Wilson’s explanatory schema, all of the immense power and resources vested in political and economic institutions that could provide restitution and remedy for the descendants of slaves still mired in poverty are trumped by kids strutting around in a ‘cool pose’ and by black men who are in need of fathering classes.”

  4. 4.

    Summers hypothesized that women’s greater disinclination toward jobs that interfere with family and men’s greater variance in mathematical ability (i.e., higher representation on the high and low ends) may play a larger role than socialization and discrimination in the STEM gender disparity. Though suggesting partly innate causes, Summers (2005) stressed that he would “like nothing better than to be proved wrong.”

  5. 5.

    Haidt stresses the adaptive (historical) roots of such concerns, noting the benefits of shared identity to group trust, social capital, crime reduction, and prosperity.

  6. 6.

    Our target population closely approximates U.S. Department of Labor (2016) data indicating 3500 sociologists employed nationwide in 2016. However, the voluntary nature of our survey, as well as our modest response rate, suggest caution regarding generalizability. In that light, readers should construe our references to “sociologists’” responses as applicable specifically to our sample. We should note, moreover, that of an initial 590 entrants, 111 did not answer a single substantive question. Were such “post-entry refusals” unfriendly to the substance of our survey, that would increase the likelihood of self-selection bias, though we are unable to verify this.

  7. 7.

    We designate as strong adherents those respondents who marked “agree” or “strongly agree” to each of the first three “moral mission” questions of our survey (MM1, MM2, MM3). Strong adherents make up 43% of the sample.

  8. 8.

    Vulnerable-group-partial can be interpreted in a double sense. Sociologists who are most partial to vulnerable groups (seeing themselves as working on their behalf, defining the field in terms of the fight against oppression) tend toward partiality when interpreting relevant evidence about such groups. We elaborate on aspects of this partiality in our discussion below.

  9. 9.

    Respondents were provided a list of fourteen research approaches from which they could choose those “central” to their work: ethnic studies; gender studies; class studies; intersectionality; feminism; Marxism; communitarianism; functionalism/neofunctionalism; symbolic interaction; critical theory; phenomenology/ ethnomethodology; postmodernism/post-structuralism; rational choice/exchange theory; and evolutionary theory/biology. The most commonly chosen were class studies (40%), ethnic studies (32%), gender studies (34%), and intersectionality (28%); the least common were communitarianism (4%), evolutionary theory/ biology (5%), and functionalism/neofunctionalism (5%).

  10. 10.

    Due to the (expectedly) sparse representation of conservatives and libertarians in our sample, we combine them as the reference group in the political orientation regression models.

  11. 11.

    We were delighted to receive 3020 remarks in the comment boxes across the substantive questions of our survey (for an average of around six remarks per respondent). Trivial edits are made on occasion for reading convenience.

  12. 12.

    The following comments are typical: “You can have the passion – but tone it down when doing the research – see Weber;” “Max Weber’s Science as a Vocation is still the best articulation of the delicate balance we do – and should – all strive for.”

  13. 13.

    E.g., “You have to be willing to set aside deeply held biases and learn from and listen to data. Big challenge here, maybe the biggest;” “Some passions provide the energy needed to get to the heart of the matter; some passions blind us to reality. Passions need to be recognized, clearly admitted, and, sometimes, managed.”

  14. 14.

    Haidt et al.’s evolutionary approach is consistent with wide-ranging literature in behavioral genetics, neuroscience and psychology confirming a biological underpinning to people’s personalities and consequent political identities (Block and Block 2006; Hatemi et al. 2014; Hibbing et al. 2013; Mooney 2012). Of course, sociologists who adhere to a cultural determinist or “blank slate” view of human behavior dismiss the notion that people’s political orientations could be influenced by their genes (Pinker 2003; Horowitz et al. 2014). Although we cannot revisit the debate here, we find the mounting transdisciplinary evidence, including large-scale twin studies, simply too extensive to discount. We should stress that the influence of genes on personality is interactive rather than deterministic. Contemporary political psychology suggests that innateness accompanies wide societal influence and developmental flexibility (Haidt and Joseph 2007). Hence people are “prewired” with certain characterological predispositions that sway but do not determine their later political identities.

  15. 15.

    The following two paragraphs are modified from Horowitz and Hughes (2018) and Horowitz et al. (forthcoming).

  16. 16.

    Haidt (2012) acknowledges his debt to Hume and the ancients for highlighting the systematic fallibility of reason before the passions and wider interactive influences. His social intuitionism, we might add, finds resonances in the “non-rational” tradition in sociology. Although he draws expressly from Durkheim – stressing the adaptive roots of collective effervescence and sacralization – Haidt’s approach is arguably prefigured by Pareto (especially his discussion of the “residues”); the pragmatist conception of constructed rather than correspondent “truths;” and Weber’s admonition regarding the tension between detached scientific observation and the craving for emotive experience. Haidt’s innovation, we would argue, is in explicitly anchoring the intuitions in evolved biology, with implications for individual differences and ideological polarization. The result is a much more chastened view of Enlightenment rationalism (Haidt goes so far as to reproach what he dubs the “rationalist delusion” in Western moral philosophy). We will have more to say in our concluding remarks. But suffice to note here that we are on the whole less pessimistic about the prospects for reasoned judgments in science, informed in fact by the very intuitionist insights that his evolutionary story reveals.

  17. 17.

    One author recalls from his days in graduate school how a particular professor was scrawled a “rational choice theorist” as an epithet on a stall in the department’s bathroom.

  18. 18.

    The lead author encountered visible consternation from sociology colleagues due to his emerging interest in biosociology.

  19. 19.

    E.g., “There IS an incredibly strong and ‘responsible’ black community in EVERY SINGLE MAJOR US CITY” [emphases theirs].

  20. 20.

    We cannot appraise the merits of Putnam’s study here. We encountered, however, some foreseeable repudiation: “Ha! Like Robert Putnam’s work? With his discredited cross-sectional frequency distributions that were supposed to show some causal relationship between diversity and social cohesion? This is the kind of work I am referring to that just reflects prior beliefs and then packages them up as robust empirical tests. Give me a break!”

  21. 21.

    We do not embrace such ideals nonchalantly, nor see science in some inexorable march of progress. We recognize that historical claims of “disinterested” knowledge all too often conceal colonial, patriarchal and other hegemonic interests. Yet in the end we affirm the struggle to put “truth over tribe” – to build consensus based on shared facts.

    This conventional view contrasts sharply with standpoint epistemology and feminist critiques of “objective” science as “masculine.” It is indeed striking that gender has proven to be a significant predictor of scholars’ views in this study as well as in our surveys of anthropologists (Horowitz et al. forthcoming; Yaworsky et al. 2015). Women tend more than men to align with their politically radical colleagues regarding relativist epistemologies and vulnerable-group-partial interpretations of evidence. Recall that female sociologists are significantly less likely than males to affirm the importance of a dispassionate attitude in research (Table 6 and 8, AO3). In their review of an international database of almost 120,000 respondents, Graham, Haidt and colleagues (Graham et al. 2011) find that women reveal on average keener sensitivity than men to care and harm concerns when rendering moral judgments. It appears, hence, that interpretive differences by gender may have at least partially intuitive roots. See Horowitz et al. (forthcoming) for elaboration of this argument regarding anthropologists’ divergent views of science, prehistoric violence, and indigenous knowledges.


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Correspondence to Mark Horowitz.

Appendix: Survey Vignettes

Appendix: Survey Vignettes

Note: We constructed the vignettes not as comprehensive overviews but to capture the major fault lines of controversy. We did not include bibliographies or references to specific authors to best tap respondents’ views of the substantive claims made, rather than their reactions to possible caricatures of the authors in the field. The exclusion of references also aided readability. Vignette I draws verbatim from a few lines in Patterson (2015); vignette II paraphrases American Psychological Association (2006) and Beltz et al. (2011); vignette III paraphrases Haidt (2016).

  • Please Read the Following Vignette About Inner-City Poverty and Respond to the Questions Below:

Postwar “culture-of-poverty” theories applied to U.S. inner cities fell out of favor in the 1960s–70s, as social scientists came to see discussion of cultural factors as examples of blaming the victim. In recent years, however, social scientists are bringing culture back into the discussion. They argue that although structural factors like joblessness, social isolation, and poor schools are decisive factors, a violent culture among male black youth plays a role as well in perpetuating the black “underclass.” Such values include hypermasculinity and sexual conquest, extreme individualism and materialism (including contempt for low-wage work), and reverence for the gun. Consistent with such research, some observers call on solutions that stress the government’s role in addressing key structural factors, while also highlighting the responsibility of the black community to confront the problems of violence and out-of-wedlock births that they believe help perpetuate inner-city poverty.

  • Please Read The Following Vignette About Gendered Occupational Choices and Respond to the Questions Below:

Women’s persistent underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers continues to spur social scientific investigation. There is widespread consensus among social scientists that gender socialization and discrimination are key limitations to women’s access to such occupations. More controversial, however, is the claim that gendered occupational choice has a sex-related biological component. Research reveals average difference in aptitude between females and males on skills such as verbal abilities (where women tend to score slightly higher) and visuospatial abilities (when men tend to have a slight edge). Moreover, research demonstrates average differences in occupational preferences, with males more inclined to work with things and females more inclined to work with people. A recent study reveals a biological contribution to such differences, showing that girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (atypical exposure to prenatal androgens) expressed greater interest in things relative to people than unaffected females.

  • Please Read the Final Vignette About Immigration and Respond to the Questions Below:

Few issues are as divisive today as immigration. Palpable anxieties polarize Europe and the United States over their respective Muslim and Hispanic populations. Social science literature devotes considerable attention to immigrants’ experiences of marginalization and institutionalized discrimination. Perhaps less studied are the implications of immigration for social and cultural integration. Social scientists have found that anti-immigrant sentiment is rooted more in perceptions of “cultural threat” than in economic anxiety. In this vein, some observers view the call to limit immigration as reflecting in part legitimate moral concerns of shared identity and collective trust that should not be reduced to economic anxiety or dismissed as simply racist. Europe’s rising Muslim populations, for example, spur the fear that Islamic values and customs threaten Western norms of human rights and gender equality. In the U.S. context, some fear that cosmopolitan policies, such as bilingual education, if not balanced by concerns for assimilation and shared values, may nourish the fractious cultural environment that helped prompt the rise of Trump.

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Horowitz, M., Haynor, A. & Kickham, K. Sociology’s Sacred Victims and the Politics of Knowledge: Moral Foundations Theory and Disciplinary Controversies. Am Soc 49, 459–495 (2018).

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  • Survey of sociologists
  • Sacred victims
  • Intuitionism
  • Moral foundations theory
  • Emotive communities
  • Jonathan Haidt