How Ideology Has Hindered Sociological Insight Into White Privilege

Setting the Stage.  White privilege is commonly described as a negative — the discrimination and hindrances that white people don’t face or face as often.  To understand white privilege we have to know about discrimination that occurs in non-white racial groups.  For knowledge about this and other aspects of racism we often turn to academic fields of study for authoritative information — fields such as sociology and social psychology.  And therein lies the rub.  There is a growing body of research and scholarship that shows that academia itself suffers from a system of power and privilege.  A system that privileges one ideological viewpoint, discriminates against others, and sometimes is intolerant and makes excuses to justify it’s lack of diversity.   So while white privilege is a reflection of a system of power, privilege and discrimination — with the accompanying themes of diversity and tolerance — when we attempt to better understand white privilege we run into another powerful system of power, privilege and discrimination.

Update: See also     New Website on the Loss of “Viewpoint Diversity” in the Academy

I think you will note from the abstract of the paper featured below that the responses of some accademics to the idea of ideological privilege in sociology is reminiscent of the reactions of some stereotypical reactions to to white privilege.

This post features How Ideology Has Hindered  Sociological Insight, a paper by Chris C. Martin, a graduate student from the Department of Sociology, at Emory University.   Martin raises three ways in which an “ideological shew” has impacted sociology: taboos, data censoring, and limited empathy for outsiders.

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.

Martin claims that “the discipline as a whole has retained a pessimistic leftward tilt, which compresses
the range of acceptable scholarship, and constrains sociological insight”.

You can read the entire paper here.

Sociology Needs Political Diversity

Martin discusses his paper in a guest post on Johnathan Haidt’s blog Post-Partisan Sociology (Guest Post by Chris Martin).      (We’ve summarize some of Haidt’s work here.)

Does it compromise scholarship when sociologists try to remedy social problems? If sociology, like economics, drew scholars from various ideological backgrounds, I think it would not be problematic. There would be room to debate the pros and cons of new and old forms of social order. American sociology, despite its progressive origins, once had such diversity. Sadly, that diversity has now vanished.
The irony here is that sociologists care about race, gender, and class diversity not just for the sake of social justice, but also for the sake of bringing different perspectives into the classroom. Given the relevance of political polarization to the study of social divisions, isn’t it obvious that sociology needs political diversity too?Post-Partisan Sociology (Guest Post by Chris Martin)

Ideas That Are Often Taboo in Sociology

Martin lists several topics that are taboo.  The subject matter of these taboo topics are certainly debatable but taboo means that debate is strongly discouraged (“no debate allowed”).  The topic is taboo, debate or discussion is taboo.  Often, even discussion about taboos are taboo.
  • that “victims” are sometimes blameworthy.
  • that sexes and races biologically differ from one another.
  • that social beliefs are inborn rather than constructed.
  • and that stereotypes sometimes match average group attributes.

I can see why research on these topics is hard to swallow, but  …  wouldn’t you expect [social scientists] to reach morally troubling conclusions at least some of the time?

Data Censoring

The second problem is data censoring. Often, data are trimmed to fit a liberal cause. Consider the case of White privilege. In the canonical article on White privilege, Peggy McIntosh noted, among other things, that her Whiteness endowed her with the privilege of housing affordability: “If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford ….”

Here McIntosh correctly implies that Whites are better off than Blacks—but incorrectly implies that Whites are better off than everyone else. White income actually lags behind Chinese-American, Filipino-American, Jewish-American, Indian-American, and Japanese-American income. McIntosh may not have had these figures at hand in 1989, but they’re easily available now. Yet they’re persistently trimmed because they interfere with the story that whites, as the majority-group oppressor, have privileges that are denied to all minority groups.

Limited Empathy for Outsiders.

In everyday life, we often think we have social insight—we assume that we know what information other people hold in their heads. In fact, we have a tendency to assume that if we know something, other people know it too. In reality, of course, that doesn’t always hold. In fact, we don’t even know if other people use the same vocabulary that we use.

For instance, liberals often talk about inequality as a synonym for unfairness. They then describe conservatives as tolerant of inequality. However, inequality (in itself) may simply not be salient for people who aren’t liberals. It’s not that these people don’t care about fairness, but rather that they don’t think that inequality of outcomes necessarily implies unfairnes

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Underlying Principles & Observations

  • There are many unskillful and perhaps counter-productive ways of presenting white privilege narratives.  (I found a number of examples on-line where people admit to having regrets about how they talked about WP to others)
  • Discussing or presenting the concept of white privilege is challenging for many.  There are many unskillful ways of doing it.
  • Most Americans believe and accept the concept of white privilege.  Or more precisely, they accept a or their concept of white privilege.   Which leads us to …
  • There are many way of telling the story of white privilege.  Stories are told in narratives.  Therefore …
    There are a diversity of narratives about white privilege.  There are some significant contrasts, differences, disagreements and debates between them.
  • Narratives are often not simple.  They often include theories about causes, accounts and interpretations of history,  implications of white privilege in the present, and ideas or exhortations about how to respond.   It’s quite possible that a educated, compassionate and mindful listener accept some form of WP for themselves while remain skeptical about a narrative’s causes, history, and/or implications for engaged action.
  • The various white privilege narratives are often perceived to carry with them many “code words”, unstated premises, values and beliefs.  Participants should be encouraged to ask “so what?” and “why do you think that is important”?
  • Many suspect (and not without reason) a follow-on conversation along the lines of “if you accept white privilege therefore you must …”.  In other words, while hearing other narratives listeners are often “waiting for the other shoe to fall”, for the political “got cha”.
  • Many who are said to deny white privilege are not denying white privilege per-say, that is they are not denying all narratives, but rather the “denial” is a rejection of some one else’s narrative.
  • White privilege engages issues of power, privilege, diversity, and ideology.  Its easy and I believe common for presentations about WP to privilege advocacy of a particular narrative over others.   Such presentations can thus themselves becomes examples of privilege and power that limit diversity and discriminate against “the other”.  The risk falling into hypocrisy is ever present.
  • There is a important distinction between an honest broker of information and options for action, an advocate, and a stealth advocate.  (Stealth advocacy is probably the most destructive and its quite common in political discourse especial discourse that is partly informed by science.)