SOCIAL JUSTICE STUDIES IN THE UNIVERSITY. WHY DID THEY EMERGE? WHY DO THEY PERSIST?

By Nicolai J Foss and Torsten Skov

What is often called Social Justice Studies (“SJS”)  are influential in a number of research fields in social science and the humanities, as well as making their influence felt in STEM fields. However, much of SJS is plainly non-scientific, and in some cases even anti-scientific. So, why have they emerged and become influential?  In this essay we offer a number of hypotheses that may make sense of this puzzling development.

Science as an Error-Correcting Process

Science is often seen as a process that systematically weeds out erroneous beliefs, concepts, procedures, etc. This takes place through the mechanisms of public disclosure of arguments, data, and procedures and by review by primarily other scientists and scholars. This process has led to the supersession of many theories, such as the Ptolemaic system, the heliocentric universe, the labor theory of value, the miasma theory of disease, to name just a few.  The idea of science as a collective, error-eliminating process has clearly gained currency beyond the scientific community. For example many journalists now report whether a particular study has or hasn’t been “peer-reviewed.”

However, it is well known that the process doesn’t work perfectly and that errors can persist for a long time. Sometimes theories may be rejected that later turn out to be true (e.g., Pasteurization or the notion that stomach ulcers are caused by bacteria), and accepted theories turn out to be false (too many to list!). The last two decades have witnessed one “replication crisis” after the other, as discipline after discipline, including psychology, medicine, and economics failed to replicate a very large percentage of often central and seemingly well-established findings. This is problematic as replication is seen as a cornerstone of science.

The physician-scientist John Ioannidis has famously argued that most published empirical research does not meet good standards of evidence. This is part of the explanation of the replication crisis. Failure to adhere to standards of good scientific practice, ineffective reviewing at journals and conferences, having multiple stakeholders whose interests need to be addressed, etc. are among the reasons that wrong hypotheses, theories and perhaps entire fields fail to get weeded out, persist, and may even be canonized.

A Puzzle: The Persistence of Non-scientific Scholarship

We wish to add a reason why the scientific process may not succeed in eliminating errors: Scholars may simply deny the basic idea of science as one that systematically deals with and eliminates (at least as tendency) errors and biases! Traditional ideals of “objectivity”, “Wertfreiheit”, the is-ought distinction, etc. may, for example, be seen as attempts at imposing standards and values that in actuality only serve the power interests of capitalism, patriarchy and whiteness. This stance is typical of SJS.

Specifically, we refer to fields such as Gender Studies, Postcolonial Studies, Critical Race Theory, Fat Studies, and Queer Theory. We do not rule out that some activities within these fields could qualify as scientific, but we do claim that these areas are in large part un-scientific or even anti-scientific.  

Because of the influence as well as the sometimes startling claims of SJS, a large part of commentary and inquiry has debated what scholars in the field say, the truth claims that they make, and how they defend their research. However, much less attention has been dedicated to the social mechanisms and conditions that allow what is in some cases demonstrably nonsensical research to be published in ostensibly scientific journals. We will argue that a variety of social mechanisms and conditions are at work.

One of the first modern indications that scholars associated with the fields mentioned above may accept, endorse and promote non-scientific research is the famous Sokal Hoax. The hoax emerged from unease with certain manifestations of postmodern philosophy among scientists who had criticized what they saw as an anti-scientific rejection of norms of scientific objectivity in certain parts of the humanities.  Physics professor Alan Sokal managed to get the nonsense article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” published by Social Text. To borrow a phrase, the rest is history.

Much public attention has more recently been dedicated to the  “Sokal Squared” affair that was initiated when Peter BoghossianJames A. Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose in 2017 and 2018 managed to get a number of bogus papers published. These included “Human Reaction to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon,” ostensibly a study of canine rape culture in a Portland dog park!

These incidents are important and have had impact because they show that research that is entirely unfounded is publishable in certain fields. That the authors-hoaxers managed to do this repeatedly and across different learned journals suggests that we are not talking about the occasional, isolated error. Rather, we are dealing with communities and journals that systematically allow non-science to be published. The question is how this state of affairs is possible. Existing accounts of the intellectual origins of SJS (e.g., Pluckrose and Lindsay’ Cynical Theories) fail to explain this.

The Clash Between Espoused Values and Social Reality

We think that a discontinuity, perhaps even “revolution,” took place in the 1990s in primarily the USA that led to the abandonment of basic principles of scientific inquiry in certain parts of social science and the humanities. This revolution was a result of social justice activism being formally hugely successful, yet appearing materially as a failure. Thus, the increasing success of SJS has to do with a basic lack of congruence between espoused opinions and values on the one hand, and social reality on the other hand.

The second half of the 20th century witnessed a steady decline of overtly expressed racism and sexism in American society, partly driven by civil rights movements and women’s liberation movements. Egalitarian, tolerant and “liberal” beliefs and attitudes were increasingly expressed in value surveys. And yet, statistics about income, health, education etc. for people of color did not show grand improvements, and gender statistics still showed wide disparities. The fight for social justice looked like it had been won. But, the reality was different if you scratched the surface. In fact, this is exactly how a number of activist scholars themselves see it (e.g., Dasgupta, Dovidio and Gaertner, Swim et al.). Declaring victory in the midst of what seemed to be a failure was not an option. Thus, an explanation for the disconnect between egalitarian attitudes and material inequality had to be found.

Implicit Associations and Unconscious Biases

In the American tradition of psychologizing social problems, the explanation was sought in the psychological realm. Since people’s conscious psychological attitudes and beliefs (i.e., their values as espoused in e.g., surveys) could no longer serve the purpose, candidate explanations would have to be found in the unconscious or in covert attitudes and beliefs (see the above links to papers by Dasgupta; Dovidio and Gaertner; Swim et al.). There are methodological problems in studying the unconscious, but it seemed that a method had just been invented to measure unconscious memory. The method was adapted in the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to measure what was assumed to be people’s implicit or unconscious attitudes and beliefs about gender, race, sexual orientation, obesity, etc.

The IAT gained enormous popularity and led, among other things, to the Harvard Project Implicit which exists to this day, and continues to influence public discourse on gender and race. Literally millions of people have taken an IAT and become convinced that they are unconsciously biased against women, people of color, obese, disabled, LGBT+, etc., and thus complicit in discrimination against the disadvantaged. 

A quotation from the then Editor-in-Chief of Science, Jeremy Berg, illustrates the impact of the theory and the IAT. After taking an IAT Berg confessed:

As someone who grew up with a mother who was a medical researcher, who has been married to a woman very active in scientific research for more than 30 years, and who has had many female colleagues and students, I was surprised when I first took a test to measure implicit gender bias and found that I have a strong automatic association between being male and being involved in science.

Obviously, Berg believed that he harbored unconscious attitudes that played tricks with him behind his back. So do millions of people inside and outside of academia today.

The problem is, however, that the new theories about the unconscious lacked scientific validity. It took 20 years before Forscher and colleagues (2019) made the definitive meta-analysis and showed that the IAT does not predict behavior. Berg has nothing to worry about. If he feels he is all for gender equality, then that is what he is.

The Egalitarian Cause

There may be many reasons for the theory of the unconscious biases gaining such acceptance despite being obviously weakly scientifically founded from the outset. One element is, as we noted above, that public opinion had been won for the egalitarian cause. People, inside as well as outside academia, wanted equality. Solutions that promised immediate remedy and material improvement were very likely to be accepted in this situation. The theory of unconscious biases filled a gap. And perhaps not only a gap in the understanding of equality but also a gap left after the declining belief in the unconscious as understood by psychoanalysis, as well as a religious gap left by the declining influence of the protestant churches in the USA. The unconscious had been vacated by psychoanalysis and the religious had been vacated by the church; thus, both were available for exploitation by an invalid “scientific” theory. A perfect storm.

In parallel with the advent of unconscious explanations for social inequalities, the idea of equality itself also made a transition. The focus on equality of opportunities for all, was gradually replaced by focus on equality of outcome – a logical development in view of formal equality being largely obtained but material equality lacking. At first, the argument was made that in practical terms inequality of outcome could be taken as a sign of lacking equality of opportunity. For example, Anne Phillips argued that “equality of outcome …. has to be taken as a key measure of equality of opportunity” in her paper in defense of equality of outcome).

Two decades later, the transition is complete. The concept of equality of opportunity has ceased to play a role in public discourse and has been replaced by equality of outcome as the criterion for equality.

It would not have been difficult to point out that Phillips neglected time in her analysis;  social change takes time. Of course, this position was not ideologically acceptable. It has also turned out that men and women make systematically different choices and that apparently their choices may become more different the less they are restricted by social constraints, an empirical observation that does not appeal to a mindset influenced by SJS, and which remains largely ignored.

The basic point we want to make with the above remarks is that scientific rationality and integrity was in deficit in the theories about unconscious bias and discrimination pertaining to race and gender that became dominant after year 2000. This paved the way for other SJS that lacked these same properties, in the fields of postcolonial studies, fat studies, queer theory, as well as a wealth of intersectional studies that combine these with feminist theory and antiracism.

Ambiguity as the Ideal

Troublesome demands for empirical support for theories were replaced by demands for ever more fanciful theories without empirical support. To the extent that empirical studies were carried out, requirements for methodological rigor were secondary to demands for the production of knowledge that supported the just causes; thus, data was selected to fit preexisting theory rather than theory being built on data.

Of course, scientific endeavors have always been haunted by sloppy methods and biased interpretations. The change we are talking about here is one that made this  the mainstay in some fields—or, even worse, the ideal! Donna Haraway’s 1988 paper –which is seen as seminal by SJS scholars and now cited more than 19,000 times—is telling in this regard. It specifically states that truth belongs to the subjugated, and that the only group of people that cannot possibly make valid science are white, Western men. About rationality, Haraway has the following to say: “A splitting of senses, a confusion of voice and sight, rather than clear and distinct ideas, becomes the metaphor for the ground of the rational.” In other words, in Haraway’s “scientific” universe, confusion is the ideal state of affairs.

Why Aren’t These False Theories Weeded Out?

This kind of thinking had been around for decades, perhaps without doing too much harm, became “weaponized” towards the end of the 1990s in reaction to the perception that while core feminist and civil rights ideas were formally hugely successful, materially they were failures.  

Not surprisingly, SJS has become part and parcel of the ongoing culture war which mainly plays out in the Anglosphere but also increasingly makes its influence felt elsewhere. In turn, this means that while SJS is indeed under political attack, it can also muster considerable political as well as corporate backing.   

SJS scholars have linked up with, contributed to and fueled ongoing societal discussions of gender issues, racism, ecological challenges, the social responsibilities of business, etc., always adopting (radicalized versions of) progressive positions on these issues. This means that attacks on invalid SJS theories can be construed as attacks on these causes. This politicization is a factor that to some extent shields SJS scholars from criticism, including criticism from other scholars.

The Increasing Importance of Third Missions and Societal Relevance

At the same time the increasing politicization of universities in the form of stepping up the engagement with the surrounding society is a factor working towards shielding SJS. Increasingly, universities have adopted Third Missions, that is, “the economic and social mission of the university and its contribution to communities and territories.” Many universities have built layers of middle managers who deal with external parties (accreditors, donors, funding bodies), need to be kept busy, often sympathize with SJS ideas, and may have some discretion over decisions. 

Third missions are often articulated as the need to conduct research in a comprehensive, program-like way on “grand challenges.” For example, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln seeks to implement its third mission in terms of “the opportunity, rationale and potential payoffs associated with UNL’s committed focus and strategic integration of research, education and engagement around anti-racism and racial equity; climate resilience; early childhood education and development; health equity; quantum science and engineering; science and technology literacy for society; and sustainable food and water security.”  

Large funding instruments are increasingly dedicated to such grand challenges, so universities are incentivized to pursue grand challenges and pursue them in a concerted manner. When universities start such programmatic research, directing it towards, for example, racism or gender issues, the initiative often starts at the level of top university administrators, and is facilitated by sympathetic mid-level administrators. They naturally search internally for scholars who are already equipped to address these issues—or claim that they are.  Those who are likely to be considered as leading or being part of grand challenges initiatives are faculty who explicitly do, say, research on racism or gender.

Such research may in principle be conducted from the perspective of many different disciplines, such as social science, statistics, psychology, the humanities, and medicine. However, statisticians, economists, or political scientists (who may have good tools for addressing grand challenges) are less likely to have done research on racism and gender issues than researchers in the sociology, anthropology and humanities departments. These are the departments that are most likely to be homes to scholars who work from a SJS perspective. The result is that such scholars may get access to funding resources, become important to carrying out third mission activities, and may become institutionally entrenched.

The Role of University Management

Part of the role of the top university management is to establish and maintain the overall rules of the game, such as making sure that evaluation procedures are established and function well. However, university management (as any management) is based on multi-criteria objective functions.  Thus university top managers may be willing to make tradeoffs, such as being willing to “buy” more “grand challenge” research at the cost of accepting that parts of this research may be of lower (or indeterminate) quality. Moreover, these managers (like any top management) need to manage competing internal coalitions.  This entails keeping frictions and conflict at a reasonably low level. Accepting low-quality research may, in the eyes of university management, sometimes be an acceptable cost of maintaining the internal truce. This may take the form of accepting that evaluation is carried out in a less effective manner.

Dysfunctional Evaluation Hierarchies

Because science is focused on eliminating errors, the effectiveness of evaluation processes are of central importance.  It is essential that evaluators have the right capabilities for evaluating research contributions. In particular, it is crucial to avoid situations where sloppy or erroneous research is not filtered out because the evaluators are representatives of fields where such research is rampant. Tt is also crucial that the process is organized in the right way.

Suppose any evaluating unit (an individual scholar, an evaluation committee, a set of reviewers at a journal, a hiring and promotion committee, a dean, etc.) has a probability of committing an error of judgment (e.g., either rejecting sound research or accepting false research ). Hopefully, the probability is low. But realistically, there is a probability of making mistakes. To further weed out mistakes, evaluations often take place in a hierarchy. In practice much of the research process is organized in this way. An idea is first evaluated by a scholar’s close colleagues. If they accept it, it is passed on presentation in a seminar. If it survives there, it may be written up and submitted to a scholarly journal, where it is reviewed, sent back for further work (or rejected). Ultimately, the article may be published.

It easy to see that if there are few evaluating units (i.e., the hierarchy is flat), a lot of ideas will proliferate. But, many of these research ideas will be wrong.  If there are many evaluating units (i.e., the hierarchy is steep), more ideas are likely to be killed. Fewer flowers are allowed to bloom. But that may be good, because it also means that fewer erroneous research ideas will proliferate. When it is important to avoid errors, we should have steep hierarchies (e.g., hierarchies for evaluating new drugs). If errors are less important and we care more about rapid progress, we may want to have flatter hierarchies (e.g., companies in fast-moving industries).

The fact that research contributions such as those in the Sokal Hoax and the Sokal Squared Affair that we mentioned above get published shows that errors happen. Moreover these were not flukes; the scholars who organized the Sokal Squared Hoax were able to repeatedly place non-scientific papers in ostensibly learned journals. This suggests that something is systematically wrong on the evaluation side. Specifically, it appears that how evaluators at each layer conducted their evaluation tasks was entirely off. Apparently, the evaluators (reviewers, editors) were not capable of distinguishing between the non-scientific submissions and what was usually published in the relevant journal—because, we submit, there weren’t any differences!

This indicates an even more deep-seated problem. It is possible for a community to set up its own evaluation processes in separation from other evaluation processes. Of course, to some extent this happens in any field and discipline.  But because evaluation processes and their organizational and institutional embodiments can lead separate lives, they may also develop differently and have very different standards. We see SJS scholars as clearly forming communities with their own evaluation hierarchies—but, also and very importantly, their own evaluation criteria. These criteria are different from those of scientific criteria. In particular, the identities, or “positions,” of scholars may matter and become an independent criterion for acceptance. Scholars from universities that are associated with, for example, a colonial past or just some “power” position may be disregarded because of their affiliation. This is extremely problematic because it means that the self-regulatory mechanisms of science—the inbuilt error correction of critique—is basically sabotaged. Non-science may proliferate, seep into the surrounding society, and begin to exert a problematic influence.

The Tyranny of the Intolerant Minority and the Costs of Opposition

Why aren’t these developments resisted from within academia? First, they are an  insult to scholars who work hard to produce what they see as valid claims to knowledge. Second, they fly in the face of the ethos of most practicing scientists who don’t endorse an “anything goes”-attitude. Third, they potentially harm the reputations of universities and scientific fields. Fourth, taxpayers may well feel that their hard-earned tax money is wasted. Fifth, the spread of non-scientific ideas in society may cause harm. In other words, many people are negatively affected by the proliferation of SJS. Why don’t they band up and put an end to it?

The problem here is one of the cost of collective action and of highly skewed incentives. SJS scholars may be seen as small, well-organized special interest groups. They directly appropriate the benefits of their activities (publications, tenure, influence in the university). So, their costs and benefits are directly linked. This is different in the case of their opponents. Those who suffer the costs of grievance studies are a much diverse group (scholars who are harmed by journal space being occupied by grievance studies; annoyed colleagues who do not share the values of grievance studies colleagues; tax payers; etc.).  Their individual benefits from criticizing Social Justice Theory may be small, but they shoulder all the costs. The rational decision may then be to keep quiet.

The costs to individuals of engaging with SJS may be high. This is not just a matter of spending time getting acquainted with SJS. It is also a matter of criticism potentially resulting in deplatforming, organized attacks on social media, complaints to university administrators, and other intimidation tactics. In turn, the perceived costs to “woke” scholar-activists of engaging in such activities may be low because they feel they are acting in the interest of a noble cause and because their unity of purpose makes organizing to fight critics a low-cost activity. By the same token, because of the diversity of the groups that are harmed by grievance studies it is costly to organize collective action. All these factors imply that opposition to SJS is likely to be weak and disorganized.

The Way Forward

The endeavor to weed out non-science from the university can easily be framed by its opponents as a political crusade against legitimate political positions. It is important to avoid this framing by emphasizing that this is about scientific integrity, not about political positions.

We submit that most (if not all) of what goes on in SJS is non-scientific if not anti-scientific. A university that would start looking at such activities would have to evaluate each activity and researcher on their specific merits, lest well-conducted research be deemed invalid. Serious researchers who engage in real science should feel secure no matter their field of research and their political stance. Luckily, evaluation of individual researchers is a routine at universities already. Some evaluation criteria will have to be added to identify activities that deserve no merit. Here are some suggestions:

  • Many publications profess to be looking at some phenomenon in the world “through the lens of” queer theory, or whiteness studies, or similar. This is a sure sign of the authors subsuming the observation of reality totally under a theory that is already assumed to be true. Since the theory is not falsifiable and an interpretation of reality can always be established according to theory, the result is often a political statement about social injustice and how it should be remedied. Scholars who do nothing but produce such political statements pump up their CVs with non-scientific publications, jamming the scientific signaling process, fill positions at universities (which are then not available for more qualified researchers), and, what is worse, set a precedent for producing non-science or even anti-science there.  This must be resisted. We are aware that taking institutional action here will potentially amount to closing research areas with obvious employment consequences for those who are active in such areas. This will cause resistance and cries of attacks on academic freedom. However, “academic freedom” may not include engaging in non- or anti-scientific activities as the main way of fulfilling one’s research duties. Besides, concern for status of universities and science must weigh heavily here.
  • Seeing the world through the above lenses may produce the types of output parodied by the paper about dog rape culture. Like the parody paper, they are basically products of sheer phantasy and imagination. They are at least partially intelligible and make sense provided that one accepts the lens through which everything is seen. However, since the underlying theory is neither modified nor falsified by observation and observation is distorted, the activity contributes nothing to science. In the same realm are publications which are beginning to appear in allegedly scholarly journals of literary texts in the form of prose and poetry.  Such literature may be a valuable source of insights into human life, but they should be published in literary journals and magazine. Scholars whose only activity is to produce such texts of phantasy and imagination are not well placed in the universities
  • Fanciful theories that build ever more complex extensions on the core theories of the SJS, are not likely to be more valid than the core theories and can be weeded out.
  • There is a large number of publications that misrepresent or misinterpret data, or are underpowered and/or poorly analyzed and presented. These are in principle amenable to standard science-internal criticism. In practice they are often shielded from standard critique by way of being part of SJS. Such shielding should be removed. For example, if authors fail to pass on data or do not answer critical questions, they should be instructed by superiors in their universities to do this.
  • Institutionally, university managers need to exercise great diligence when they are looking for faculty to place on research programs that are aimed at addressing grand challenges or when looking for scholars to otherwise meet third missions. While Social Justice Theory researchers may at first glance seem to be directly qualified because they have often placed issues such as gender, racism and inequality at the core of their research, very often they will turn out to be unqualified. They view everything through the distorting lens of Social Justice Theory. Moreover, they seldom have strong competences in statistics and survey design which are often necessary competences for meaningfully engaging with grand challenge issues.  Administrators are better served by reaching out to, say, economists, social psychologists, statisticians, and quantitative management scholars.
  • Finally, it is necessary to institutionalize critical perspectives on SJS. Thus, university managers need to ensure that evaluation, promotion committees, etc. are not just staffed by representatives of SJS. This can be implemented as a general university-wide rule that all panels and committees should be multidisciplinary.
The Authors

Nicolai J Foss has a M.Sc. in economics (1989) and a Phd in management research (1993). He is a Professor of Strategy at the Copenhagen Business School. Foss has published widely on management, economics, and theory of science issues. He is a Clarivate Highly Cited Scholar. 

Torsten Skov is MD (1981) and has a bachelor degree in philosophy. He earned his PhD in cancer epidemiology in 1993, and did research in occupation medicine for some years, including survey methods and questionnaire validation. Then he switched to the life science industry where he spent the last 25 years in clinical development positions.

This paper first appeared in Bulletin:

https://bulletin.nu/social-justice-studies-in-the-university-why-did-they-emerge-despite-being-anti-scientific

Torsten Skov

Læge, PhD i epidemiolog, batchelor i filosofi

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