Students’ Religiosity and Perceptions of Professor Bias: Some Empirical Lessons for Sociologists

Abstract

A political mismatch between professors and a large swath of the student population has been widely documented. This mismatch is salient within sociology, where left-leaning politics are mainstream and institutionalized. Further, extant research indicates that this political mismatch leads students outside of the left-leaning mainstream to perceive that their professors are politically biased and to have diminished classroom experiences. However, studies assessing the influence of students’ religiosity, a foundational element of conservatism, on perceptions of political bias and negative classroom experiences is lacking. In response, this study analyzes survey data from a diverse sample of undergraduate students enrolled in sociology courses to explore the connection between students’ religiosity and perceptions of and subsequent reactions to professors’ political bias. Our results suggest that religiosity affects perceptions of and reactions to professors’ biases through increased skepticism towards science and perceived ideological distance from professors. This process is found to be operant only among politically conservative and moderate students. The implications of our results for sociology are discussed.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Notes

  1. 1.

    Gerth and Mills (1946, p. 146)

  2. 2.

    https://www.southernsociologicalsociety.org/2018Meeting/SSS2018FinalProgramForWeb.pdf

  3. 3.

    http://i.wayne.edu/view/59073a9f55e74?utm_source=link&utm_medium=email-59073a9f55e74&utm_campaign=Student+Republicans&utm_content=

  4. 4.

    Linvill and Havice (2011) used religiosity as a demographic control variable, not as a theoretically important predictor of perceptions of bias.

  5. 5.

    We also recruited students enrolled in two sociology courses at a small comprehensive university in the Southeast. These recruitment efforts yielded a small number (n = 19) of respondents that are included in our sample. We estimated supplemental models after omitting these respondents and found that the substantive conclusions drawn from our analysis were not sensitive to these cases.

  6. 6.

    We also estimated a process model that included a measure of ideological distance created by taking the absolute value of the difference between students’ political ideology and their perceptions of the political ideologies of their professors. Substantive conclusions derived from this alternative specification of ideological distance were consistent with those from the analysis reported here.

  7. 7.

    In addition to the two indirect pathways that we posit and document there are five alternative indirect pathways linking religiosity to students’ reactions to instructor biases. The bias corrected confidence intervals around the coefficients for each of these indirect paths contained zero indicating that these alternative pathways were not statistically significant.

  8. 8.

    Students’ self-reported political ideology is measured with a single item that asked participants to report their ideology on a 5-point scale that ranged from extremely liberal (=1) to extremely conservative (=5) with neither liberal nor conservative (e.g., moderate) as the center attribute (=3).

  9. 9.

    We do not know from our data whether it is that religious and conservative students are more likely to encounter bias, detect bias, or perceive bias from their instructors, but it would be useful to find out in future research.

References

  1. Al-Gharbi, M. (2018). Three strategies for navigating moral disagreements. https://heterodoxacademy.org/three-strategies-moral-disagreements/.

  2. Arriaga, A. (2017). Political division soars on campus, survey finds. Web log. The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 1. https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/political-division-soars-on-campus-survey-finds/118061.

  3. Berger, P. (2002). Whatever happened to sociology? First Things. Avaliable online at: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2002/10/whatever-happened-to-sociology.

  4. Brow, M. V. (2016). Investigating the perceptions of intellectual diversity among socially conservative Christian seniors at elite U.S. colleges. Journal of Research on Christian Education, 25(1), 38–55.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Bullers, S., Reece, M., & Skinner, C. (2010). Political ideology and perceptions of bias among university faculty. Sociation Today, 8 (2).

  6. Burawoy, M. (2005). For public sociology. American Sociological Review, 70(1), 4–28.

  7. Calhoun, C., Aronczyk, M., Mayrl, D., & VanAntwerpen, J. (2007). The religious engagements of American undergraduates. Social Science Research Council.

  8. Cofnas, N., Carl, N., & Woodley of Menie, M. A. (2018). Does activism in social science explain conservatives’ distrust of scientists? The American Sociologist, 49,135–148.

  9. Cox, D. (2017). College professors aren’t killing religion. FiveThirtyEight. October 15. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/college-professors-arent-killing-religion/.

  10. Deflem, M. (2013). The structural transformation of sociology. Society, 50(2), 156–166.

  11. Dixon, J. C., & McCabe, J. (2006). Competing perspectives in the classroom: the effect of sociology Students’ perceptions of “balance” on evaluations. Teaching Sociology, 34, 111–125.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Downey, A. (2017). College freshmen are less religious than ever. Scientific American Blog Network. May 25. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/college-freshmen-are-less-religious-than-ever/.

  13. Ecklund, E. H., & Scheitle, C. P. (2007). Religion among academic scientists: distinctions, disciplines, and demographics. Social Problems, 54(2), 289–307.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Feagin, J. (2001). Social justice and sociology: Agendas for the twenty-first century. American Sociological Review, 66, 1–20.

  15. Fingerhut, H. (2017). Republicans skeptical of colleges’ impact on U.S., but most see benefits for workforce preparation. Pew Research Center. July 20. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/07/20/republicans-skeptical-of-colleges-impact-on-u-s-but-most-see-benefits-for-workforce-preparation/.

  16. Fobes, C., & Kaufman, P. (2008). Critical pedagogy in the sociology classroom: challenges and concerns. Teaching Sociology, 36, 26–33.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Gauchat, G. W. (2008). A test of three theories of anti-science attitudes. Sociological Focus, 41(4), 337–357.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Gauchat, G. (2012). Politicization of science in the public sphere: a study of public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010. American Sociological Review, 77(2), 167–187.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Gerth, H. H., & Wright Mills, C. (Eds.). (1946). From Max Weber: Essay in sociology. Oxford: New York.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Gross, N., & Fosse, E. (2012). Why are professors liberal? Theory and Society, 41(2), 127–168.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Gross, N., & Simmons, S. (2007). The social and political views of American professors. Unpublished manuscript, Department of Sociology, Harvard University and Department of Political Science, George Mason University. Doi: http://www.conservativecriminology.com/uploads/5/6/1/7/56173731/lounsbery_9-25.pdf.

  22. Hayes, A.F. (2013). The PROCESS macro for SPSS and SAS (version 2.16) [software]. Available from http://processmacro.org/download.html.

  23. Horowitz, D. (2007). Indoctrination U: The left’s war against academic freedom. New York: Encounter Books.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Horowitz, M., Haynor, A., & Kickham, K. (2018). Sociology’s sacred victims and politics of knowledge: moral foundations theory and disciplinary controversies. The American Sociologist. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12108-018-9381-5.

  25. Inbar, Y., & Lammers, J. (2012). Political diversity in social and personality psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(6), 645–654.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Kelly-Woessner, A., & Woessner, M. C. (2006). My professor is a partisan hack: how perceptions of a professors political views affect student course evaluations. PS: Political Science and Politics, 39(03), 495–501.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Kelly-Woessner, A., & Woessner, M. (2008). Conflict in the classroom: considering the effects of partisan difference on political education. Journal of Political Science Education, 4(3), 265–285.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Klein, D. B., & Stern, C. (2006). Sociology and classical liberalism. The Independent Review, 11(1), 37–52.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Klein, D. B., & Stern, C. (2008). Liberal versus conservative stinks. Society, 45(6), 488–495.

    Google Scholar 

  30. La Noue, G. R. (2017). Promoting a campus culture of policy debates. Academic Questions, 30(4), 476–483.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Langbert, M., Quain, A. J., & Klein, D. B. (2016). Faculty voter registration in economics, history, Journalism, Law, and Psychology. Econ Journal Watch, 13(3), 422–451.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Linvill, D. L. (2011). The relationship between student identity development and the perception of political bias in the college classroom. College Teaching, 59(2), 49–55.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Linvill, D. L., & Grant, W. J. (2017). The role of student academic beliefs in perceptions of instructor ideological bias. Teaching in Higher Education, 22(3), 274–287.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Linvill, D. L., & Havice, P. A. (2011). Political Bias on campus: understanding the student experience. Journal of College Student Development, 52(4), 487–496.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Linvill, D. L., & Mazer, J. P. (2011). Perceived ideological bias in the college classroom and the role of student reflective thinking: a proposed model. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 11(4), 90–101.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Linvill, D. L., & Mazer, J. P. (2013). The role of student aggressive communication traits in the perception of instructor ideological bias in the classroom. Communication Education, 62(1), 48–60.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Mariani, M. D., & Hewitt, G. J. (2008). Indoctrination U.? Faculty ideology and changes in student political orientation. PS: Political Science and Politics, 41(04), 773–783.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Martin, C. C. (2016). How ideology has hindered sociological insight. The American Sociologist, 47,115–130.

  39. Nichols, L. T. (2012). Renewing sociology: integral science, solidarity and loving kindness. Sociological Focus, 45(4), 261–273.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Nichols, L. T. (2015). Editor’s introduction: the symposium on American sociology. The American Sociologist, 46, 1–10.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Paternoster, R., Brame, R., Mazerolle, P., & Piquero, A. (1998). Using the correct statistical test for the equality of regression coefficients. Criminology, 36(4), 859–866.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Rothman, S., Robert Lichter, S., & Nevitte, N. (2005). Politics and professional advancement among college faculty. The Forum, 3(1).

  43. Rushe, S. N., & Jason, K. (2011). You have to absorb yourself in it’: using inquiry and reflection to promote student learning and self-knowledge. Teaching Sociology, 39, 338–353.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Saad, L. (2018). Conservative lead in U.S. ideology is down to single digits. Gallup.com. Gallup News. January 11. https://news.gallup.com/poll/225074/conservative-lead-ideology-down-single-digits.aspx.

  45. Smith, B. L. R., Mayer, J. D., & Fritschler, A. L. (2008). Closed minds? Politics and ideology in American universities. New York: Brookings Institution Press.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Smith, C. (2014). The sacred project of American sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.

  47. Sweet, S. (2009). Politicizing sociology through a bill of rights learning module. Teaching Sociology, 37, 177–187.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Wills, J. B., Brewster, Z. W., Brauer, J., & Ray, B. (2013). Political ideological distance between sociology students and their instructors: the effects of students’ perceptions. Sociation Today, 11(1), 1–13.

    Google Scholar 

  49. Woessner, M., & Kelly-Woessner, A. (2009). I think my professor is a democrat: considering whether students recognize and react to faculty politics. PS: Political Science and Politics, 42(02), 343–352.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Woessner, M., & Kelly-Woessner, A. (2014). Reflections on academic liberalism and conservative criticism. Society, 52(1), 35–41.

    Google Scholar 

  51. Yair, O., & Sulitzeanu-Kenan, R. (2014). Biased judgment of political bias: perceived ideological distance increases perceptions of political bias. Political Behavior, 37(2), 487–507.

    Google Scholar 

  52. Yancey, G., Reimer, S., & Oconnell, J. (2015). How academics view conservative Protestants. Sociology of Religion, 76(3), 315–336.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Zipp, J. F., & Fenwick, R. (2006). Is the academy a liberal hegemony? The political orientations and educational values of professors. Public Opinion Quarterly, 70(3), 304–326.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

The authors wish to thank David Merolla and Lawrence Nichols for helpful suggestions on earlier drafts of this paper. The authors are also grateful to their colleagues who encouraged their students to participate in this study.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jeremiah B. Wills.

Appendix

Appendix

Table 3 OLS regression models predicting ideological distance, skepticism towards science, perceptions of bias, and reactions to bias (n = 394)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Wills, J.B., Brewster, Z.W. & Nowak, G.R. Students’ Religiosity and Perceptions of Professor Bias: Some Empirical Lessons for Sociologists. Am Soc 50, 136–153 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12108-018-9388-y

Download citation

Keywords

  • Professor bias
  • Political ideology
  • Religiosity
  • Ideologica l distance
  • Science distrust
  • Sociology students