Politics & Policy

Will Your Sociology Professors Talk behind Your Back if You’re Conservative? They Just Might

(Pogonici/Dreamstime)

‘Will everyone be whispering about you behind your back because you’re a Republican? Yes.”

I was sitting across from a senior sociology professor of a respected institution in the Northeast when I heard these words earlier this year. It was a one-on-one meeting for newly admitted (though not yet matriculated) grad students.

I knew both the Northeast and sociology tended to lean left, but it wasn’t exactly how I expected to be welcomed to the program. My undergrad degree is from a liberal northeastern school, so I’m used to being in the minority, but if my professors there had any thoughts about my ideological beliefs, they either kept them to themselves (to my knowledge) or engaged in amicable discussion.

At the introductory dinner the night before, I was repeatedly asked where I worked. “The American Enterprise Institute,” I answered.

The professors’ eyebrows raised, one venturing with a confused look. “Last time I checked, they were pretty conservative. Have they done a 180 since then?”

“No,” I replied cheerfully, “and I love working there.” The professor gave a half-smile and moved on to another student without another word.

I have been advised in the past that if I want to enter sociology and be taken seriously, I have to be discreet about my conservative background. (My interest is really social policy, but I seriously considered entering that field via a master’s in sociology.) My résumé is almost entirely made up of conservative activities, however, so “discreet” isn’t really possible. After seeing the openly surprised faces of the professors when they learned I work at a generally right-leaning, though technically non-partisan, think tank, I decided to be candid in our individual meetings. It seemed only fair to know what I’d be signing up for if I went there.

I mentioned to a professor who had been in the department for decades the surprised response to my workplace the night before and asked, “Is it unusual to have conservatives in the department?”

“Sociology is a pretty liberal field. Let’s see . . . we had one once . . . ” He thought hard before mentioning a professor who used to be in the department. “I know he voted Republican.” That was the end of his list. And that’s when he told me everyone would whisper behind my back.

“But it shouldn’t really be an issue . . . it’s not like you’re going for a Ph.D.!” I’d have to be careful then — that’s much more complicated, he explained. As a master’s student I’d be pretty harmless, since my original work would be limited and the degree was more about skills, not research. Nothing to worry about.

Trying to stifle my rising indignation, I inquired, “Interesting. Why do you think sociology tends to be more liberal?”

“Because sociologists like to look under the rug and find out what people want to keep hidden.” He raised a pretend rug. “They ask the hard questions.” I guess we conservatives like to keep that rug down. He continued, “Now political theory — if you go over there, that tends to be more of a conservative department.”

I smiled, “Well, I can’t help what I’m interested in.”

“True,” he said, with a little sigh.

After our discussion finished, I asked one more question before I left. “Would I be a good fit here?”

He diplomatically hedged: “You’re very bright — I’m sure you’ll do well wherever you choose to go.”

I hope he’s right. Only a couple hours after that meeting, I was accepted into (and will be attending) my first-choice policy program at another institution. But I can’t help wondering what would have happened if I had entered sociology.

Natalie Goodnow works on family and child-welfare policy issues. She has held positions at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, the Independent Women’s Forum, and the American Enterprise Institute.

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