Harvard University Press leans left–so what?
There is a study getting some attention, suggesting that Harvard University Press leans strongly to the left:
David Gordon, a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and Per Nilsson, a Swedish consultant, scrutinized—but did not always actually read—494 titles Harvard published between 2000 and 2010 in economics, history, philosophy, political science, and sociology. They used a 10-point schema to categorize the books politically. Only three of the 494 titles, they concluded, were written from a “classical liberal”—that is, antistatist and pro-market—orientation. One hundred and ninety-three titles, meanwhile, were characterized as “left.”
David Glenn, the journalist describing the study in the Chronicle of Higher Education impugns the credibility of the research:
In some cases, particularly for history titles, it is hard to discern why they categorized the books as they did. For example, their description of Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market says simply, “Study of the slave market in pre-Civil War America. Shows the dehumanizing effect of treating people as chattels.” Presumably that is an argument that could be endorsed by scholars in all 10 of Gordon and Nilsson’s political categories.
My own response is a little different. I would be very surprised if a study of a major academic press did not find it leans to the left, particularly if compared to, say, the Op-Eds printed in the New York Times, or polled opinion of the citizenry of the U.S. There are several reasons for this. First, academic life is something of a refuge for leftists in the U.S. People on the left are not particularly eager to ensure corporations remain profitable. Leftist opinion is very rarely aired in the commercial media in the U.S. So this leaves just a couple of options. There is governmental and non-profit work. For the most part, to retain credibility with political and media contacts, this requires suppressing leftist rhetoric in favor of an orientation towards specific policy advocacy (this is something many people on the left do, nevertheless). On the other hand, in academia, there is relative freedom to express one’s views, although for the most part academics make very little impact on public debate in the U.S. (particularly in the disciplines leftists gravitate towards, including sociology, history, anthropology, comparative literature), and efforts to do so can easily imperil an academic career.
Notwithstanding this last caveat (and an additional one, that the space for left views on the Middle East is closing up in the US academy), there is considerable room in academia for people on the left. Many fields have sub-organizations called things like ‘Marxist sociologists’ or ‘anarchist anthropologists’. I would be surprised if almost anyone employed at the New York Times or CNN would want to join an organization called ‘Marxist journalists’, and would be even more surprised if this did not ruin their career. Being a ‘Marxist sociologist’ does not jeopardize your potential for tenure; as in plenty of other sub-organizations, there are older professors who can potentially offer a hand up to junior aspirants.
We shouldn’t overstate things. Marxism suffered a loss of prestige with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and this reverberated through academia, probably more so than American life in general, where Marxism didn’t have much influence to begin with. For some, the ‘post’ approaches (postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, etc) seemed to renew American anti-ideological, anti-communism in new clothes. On the other hand, outside academia, these approaches are themselves typically regarded as scandalously radical, and many of their exponents regard themselves as on the left (for anyone right of center, often fierce disputes between Marxists and the ‘post-’ crowd are likely to look like the narcissism of small differences). But consider–the most famous geographer in the Anglo-American academia is a Marxist (David Harvey). So is the most famous literary theorist (Fredric Jameson). A number of the recent presidents of the American Sociological Association have either described themselves as Marxists, or have clear ties to the left (Erik Olin Wright, Michael Buroway, and none other than Frances Fox Piven). The hallway chatter at conferences like Latin American Studies and Middle Eastern Studies leans strongly to the left, with taken-for-granted notions that the U.S. generally plays a malign role in these regions, and that mobilization from below is likely to play an important role in their renewal. With so many people at or near the top of their fields identifying themselves with leftist strands of thought, it is not surprising that a prestigious academic press like Harvard would publish many left-leaning works.
There are a couple of other important factors, perhaps less obvious. One is the quantitative/qualitative divide. Scholarship that is dependent on quantitative evidence, for the most part, is judged through publication in prestige journals. Scholarship focused on narrative, ethnographic, and other forms of qualitative work, typically gets played out through the publication of books. To a certain extent, this also parallels a right (quantitative)/left (qualitative) divide, less relevant in the natural sciences (which are overwhelmingly quantitative). The two social sciences that lean right–economics and psychology–are both heavily quantitative (they are both also incomparably more influential in American life and politics than sociology, anthropology, geography, and other hotbeds of scholars on the left). So much of their most prestigious work is not published in books (the economics books that are published are somewhat more likely to be based on qualitative research, and hence more from left-leaning scholars, relatively speaking. It is also the case that quantitative sociologists, somewhat more conservative than their qualitative peers, lean heavily towards journals). Furthermore, it is probably fair to say that quantitative work is less commercial than qualitative, and academic presses do worry about whether they can sell titles to anyone besides the research libraries and a few course adoptions. So the way this divide has played out probably makes left titles more prominent in academic publishing.
Another factor is the reality that sociology, anthropology, and some of these other disciplines all have a heavily structural (including what is often called ‘post-structuralism’) cast, emphasizing the roles of social structures, discourses, networks, etc in shaping individuals’ behavior. This disciplinary foundation would strike many in the U.S. as ‘left’, given the heavy romanticism of the individual in American life. It is, again, mostly economics and psychology that attempt to begin to theorize by focusing on the individual, although some variations of this have found a few adherents in other disciplines like sociology (there is a conservative version of structuralism, which emphasizes the role of culture in integrating an unequal social structure. This view is not all that influential in academia these days and is not what David Gordon is looking for).
One can as easily flip the study’s findings on its head. So many scholars find approaches regarded as ‘left’ to be fruitful avenues of research (and the methodological individualism associated with the right to be a dead end) that one may wonder why academic presses are practically the only ‘respectable’ media in the U.S. where these views are seriously aired.
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