Why Psychology is Inherently Political

I have argued that the participants in a the process of reasoned inquiry will generally tend, over time, to move toward agreement about the facts. On the previous page, however, I noted that on some occasions, particularly when social and psychological issues are being discussed, the participants in the inquiry process will not reach agreement due to differences in the assumptions and values they hold. To put it another way, psychology – like all social sciences – is a field in which discussions and disagreements about research will always be, in part, political: those who fund, conduct, and consume psychological research will define and interpret evidence in ways that reflect their own perspectives and priorities, and these perspectives and priorities will have implications for the policy conclusions they will draw.

This political character has raised significant concerns in recent years. A number of authors have noted that professors in colleges and universities are predominantly politically liberal and these authors have voiced fears that the dominance of liberal views on college campuses is biasing the educational atmosphere and chilling open discussion of social issues (e.g., Shapiro, 2018; Sweeney, 2016). Other authors have expressed similar concerns about the field of psychology, specifically (e.g., Duarte et al., 2015). Some of these authors have adopted the position of conservative author David Horowitz (2006), who has argued that the predominance of liberals on campus is a serious problem that requires public intervention. The issues raised by these concerns are complex and require some careful untangling.

To begin with, the political character of social inquiry is not a matter of choice. As indicated on the previous page, this political character stems, in part, from the fact that all observers interpret evidence in the context of their own personal histories, assumptions and values. No amount of “will power” and/or “good intention” can free us, entirely, from our own evaluations. Furthermore, the very data of psychology themselves inextricably reflect these evaluations. For example, even in rigorously controlled research, observations must be guided by operational definitions; these definitions, in turn, embody conceptions that reflect theoretical constructs and assumptions that are – particularly in fields of social and psychological inquiry – inherently value-laden and hence subtly and immutably political in their implications. An example would be the definitions of “harm” chosen by the investigators in the hypothetical study of divorce described on the previous page. On the next page I will give some additional examples, illustrating how values supporting existing social and political arrangements often steer actual psychological research in directions unrecognized by the investigators themselves. In fields like psychology, therefore, the question is not whether the activities of investigators should be political but how we can understand and respond to the fact that they unavoidably are political.

It should be noted that the political nature of psychological knowledge does not in itself preclude a reasonable degree of objectivity about the facts that are being claimed and the nature of the disagreements that they entail. As previously noted, the process of reasoned inquiry, when undertaken in good faith, both permits and drives the identification of common ground, so that at least some agreement is always possible – even if that agreement involves nothing more than a common understanding about which facts are in dispute, and why. Moreover, if the participants are sincerely interested in attaining valid knowledge (i.e., truth), engaging in reasoned inquiry entails a commitment to work toward fact-based consensus whenever possible. But more than this, the particular social research techniques that are derived from the process of reasoned inquiry are specifically designed to clarify the nature of different types of knowledge and to uncover the objective forces that underlie, shape, and encompass them. For example, while they are radically different from each other in certain respects, the methods of both quantitative and qualitative research have each been refined to answer specific types of questions, and a number of authors have analyzed how these various methods can be employed separately and in combination to produce valid information about the social world (e.g., Morgan & Winship, 2015; Denzin & Lincoln, 2017; Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2005; see also Jackson, 2015a and 2015b for an extended discussion of some of the issues that must be considered when attempting an integration of these methods). It is therefore always possible to have fact-based discussions about different research findings, different interpretations applied to these findings, and how these differences might or might not be reconciled. All of this presupposes, of course, an honest commitment to the process of truth seeking.

Some comments are also in order about the predominance of liberals in academia. A number of surveys have, indeed, found a large, and growing, predominance of progressive views among academicians. One reason for this trend may be a disidentification by some academicians with a conservative ideology that has moved increasingly toward the protection of traditional social, racial, ethnic, and gender roles and values. But a related and more fundamental factor is the nature of academia itself. For academia is the only sector of society that is institutionally committed to radically questioning all received knowledge. For this reason I would suggest that the institutional mission of the academy – at least in the fields of social inquiry – largely overlaps with the values that define political liberalism. While this assertion may alarm some conservatives, I offer three additional considerations: (1) All institutions have value orientations which cannot be divorced from their missions; thus, just as academia is inherently liberal in some respects, so business, the military and law enforcement are all inherently conservative in some respects; (2) a predominance of liberals or conservatives in any institution neither entails nor requires that all members of that institution subscribe to the political views dominant among its membership; and (3) the real issue is not liberal or conservative ideology per se, but whether the members of the institution meet their institutional obligations in a fair, open, and honest manner. In reality, the public understands that different institutions have different value-orientations and that their missions may be more compatible with one political perspective or another; but the public also rightly expects that those institutions will be just and professional in carrying out their missions – which in the case of academia includes being genuinely open to ideas from persons across the political spectrum and subjecting all such ideas to the same tests of academic scrutiny and rigor regardless of political implications. If academics fail to maintain this kind of openness, then the critics are right that there needs to be some kind of corrective action. But when the focus of corrective actions involves issues of scholarship (as opposed to whether students and colleagues are treated with fairness and respect), such issues must be addressed purely by scholarly scrutiny and critique, and not – as Horowitz and others have suggested – by public or external political pressure.

Finally, the predominance of self-identified progressives in academic disciplines should not be accorded undue significance. The discipline of psychology, in particular, has a complex political culture with both liberal and conservative elements that readily override the inclinations of individual investigators and steer psychology in the direction of affirming existing institutions and power arrangements, as I shall argue on the next page.