Chris C. Martin is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the Sociology Department of Emory University. He is writing his dissertation on the concept of anxiety and affluence. Among his published articles is “How Ideology Has Hindered Sociological Insight,” American Sociologist, 2015, 47: 115–130.
Together with a number of more senior scholars, Mr. Martin recently founded Heterodox Academy, an organization dedicated to promoting viewpoint diversity in U.S. colleges and universities.
You may learn more about Mr. Martin from his personal website.
This interview was conducted in August of 2016.
Thank you for agreeing to participate in an interview with TheBestSchools.org.
We will be concentrating in this interview on Heterodox Academy. However, before turning to that venture, we would like you tell us a bit about who you are. When and where were you born? What is your family background? Where did you do your undergraduate work?
Anything you would like to share with us to help give our readers a sense of who you are would be welcome.
Chris C. Martin
My parents are Indian. I was born in Mangalore, in southern India, but because my father had a job in Saudi Arabia, I spent the first 10 years of my life there, where I attended the U.S. international school. Then we moved to Pune, my father's hometown in India, where I stayed until the end of high school.
Like most Indian students, I had aspirations of studying in the U.S., and I was planning to wait until I had finished a bachelor's degree in India before I applied because there's a paucity of financial aid at the undergraduate level. But my father convinced me to apply, and I was very fortunate—Davidson College accepted me and gave me enough financial aid.
At Davidson, I knew from the outset that I would major in psychology. (I also minored in music.) I was initially interested in doing some research in social psychology, but during my senior year, I decided I didn't want to immediately enter a Ph.D. program, so I started to consider fields related to applied psychology. I began to get interested in library and information science because I worked at the college library, and that led me to human-computer interaction (HCI).
I got an MS in HCI from Georgia Tech in 2000, and worked in the field of web usability for about 10 years. In seven of those 10 years I was at CDC, which is based in Atlanta. The other three were at private marketing firms that handled website design and branding for Fortune 500 companies.
After I received my green card, I was able to change jobs, and I started investigating new careers. I decided to apply to graduate programs in social and personality psychology. From 2010 to 2012, I attended the College of William and Mary and received an MA in experimental psychology. Then I came to Emory University for a Ph.D. in sociology.
You have two master's degrees: one in experimental psychology and another in “human-computer interaction.” I guess we all have some sense of what experimental psychology involves, but could you explain to us what a master's degree in human-computer interaction actually consists in?
Chris C. Martin
Human-computer interaction has its roots in human factors engineering, the study of how to make machines usable. Machines are designed by engineers, who are trained to consider principles of the natural sciences when they do their work, but they traditionally have neglected psychology, so when it comes to designing the interface between the machine and its operators, there have been some notable failures. The field of human factors engineering was born out of an attempt to prevent these failures, especially because failures can cost human lives.
Human-computer interaction mostly involves learning how to research what people need before you build them a computer application, and then evaluating what you've built to make sure it's usable. There are elements of psychology, ethnography, graphic design, and sociology in the mix. There are also branches of HCI like ubiquitous computing, everyday computing, wearable computing, and educational technology. I wasn't involved in those branches.
What made you decide to switch from psychology to sociology for your doctoral work? Also, why Emory, in particular?
Chris C. Martin
I only applied to one sociology program. All my other applications went to psychology programs. I chose the sociology program at Emory because there's a professor here—Corey Keyes—who does research on positive mental health. He mostly publishes in psychology and public health journals. I thought his interests were a good fit for my research. Also, one of my professors at William and Mary, John Nezlek, who knew me well suggested that a sociology program was a better fit for my interests.
There were a couple of bonuses. First, I used to live in Decatur, which is where Emory is located, so I could move back to a familiar place. Second, I got a prestigious merit-based fellowship from Emory, which made it much more financially appealing.
It was a difficult choice, though. I was also accepted to the University of California at Riverside, which has an exceptional social and personality psychology program. I think I would have done well at either place.
Sociology is a relatively new academic discipline, originating in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the work of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, though with roots stretching back another couple of centuries, in the thought of Dilthey, Tönnies, Marx, Spencer, Comte, Saint-Simon, Hegel, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, Condorcet, Montesquieu, Mandeville, and others.
Most of the authors just cited looked upon the study of human society as a fundamentally humanistic endeavor—a matter of seeking understanding of the meanings and the reasons involved in human social interactions (verstehen, in Wilhelm Dilthey's famous formulation).
Today, we suppose that most sociologists think of themselves primarily as “social scientists,” i.e., seeking rigorous causal explanations (erklären) in the manner of the natural sciences.
What do you think about social science, in general, and sociology, in particular? In your opinion, are their scientific pretensions justified?
Chris C. Martin
It's true that sociology has its roots in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thought, but much of what constitutes contemporary sociology has its roots in theories developed in the last three or four decades. Of course, people still make nods to Weber and Marx, but sociology is similar to economics and political science. There's an emphasis on empirical quantitative research and hypothesis testing. There are also a number of successful sociologists who do qualitative work, and that differentiates sociology from political science and economics. So you're correct about rigorous causal explanations if you're focused on the quantitative work. The qualitative sector sometimes neglects causality, and aims at meaningful understanding, or verstehen.
I think sociology is just as scientific as the other social sciences, and probably more scientific than anthropology. However, many sociologists have a “sacred project,” as Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith [right] calls it. It's to create a world of perfect equality and individual autonomy where no one feels oppressed. The problem is that sometimes people reach conclusions based on this goal, and the conclusions are placed ahead of the data analysis. In the top sociology journals, you can't get away with this, but elsewhere you can. It's especially a problem in pedagogy.
Now I think this problem can be exaggerated. There are many sociologists who study topics that are not ideologically loaded. If you pick up a copy of Sociological Theory, you can see this breadth of scope. Sometimes that breadth gets hidden when you attend a sociology conference, because the big topics of race, gender, and class dominate the agenda.
Some recent changes have made me optimistic about progress in sociology, though. For instance, genetic research used to be taboo, but the latest generation of sociologists is much more comfortable accepting that genes matter, and that to explain some contrasts (or inequalities), you have to attend to the genetic level.
You have already published 10 or so scholarly articles in your young career. Of these, the one that is perhaps most relevant to our present concerns is the paper called “How Ideology Has Hindered Sociological Insight” (American Sociologist, 2015, 47: 115–130).
That is a very interesting title! Please tell us about the thesis of this paper, and also about the evidence and reasoning you base the thesis upon.
Chris C. Martin
The gist of the paper is that ideological homogeneity can be bad for a discipline—for a variety of reasons.
First, the scope of projects is limited: you can't investigate a hypothesis that violates a taboo.
Then, there are limitations on information: people who are ideologically dissimilar to you are more likely to be aware of facts that falsify your theories. If you have none of those people in your discipline, you're unlikely to be aware that your theory can be falsified. That way, “inconvenient facts”—to use a term from Weber—get swept under the rug.
Finally, there's limited understanding (verstehen) of people who have other ideologies because topics get framed in a way that casts aspersions on those ideologies.
As we understand it, you are currently doing research for your Ph.D. dissertation. Could you please tell us a little bit about that?
Chris C. Martin
I'm currently writing a three-article dissertation. All three articles are about economic prosperity and affluence.
In one article, I'm trying to explain why affluent people aren't much happier than middle-class people. My thesis is that once you reach the middle-class you have adequate time to do the things you need to have a happy life. As your income grows, you end up in a high-status job with a lot of work pressure. So in the end, you're not much better off than a middle-class person on a day-to-day basis.
In the second article, I'm looking at why psychopathology seems to be rising among American college students, even though the U.S. is still an economically prosperous country, and students don't have to be extremely worried about findings jobs, relative to students in many other countries. I'm going to interview therapists who have worked at college counseling centers to find out what changes they've seen in terms of causes for anxiety and depression.
The third article is also about college students. I want to find out whether affluent students, when confronted with problems, are less likely than middle-class students to use problem-oriented coping and more likely to disengage from their problems. There's quite a lot of evidence that children who grow up in affluent neighborhoods are more likely to use alcohol and drugs, especially if they don't receive a lot of parental supervision and if they perceive that their parents demand that they be overachievers. I'm trying to find out if the use of alcohol and drugs is part of a larger syndrome of pessimism, which causes people to disengage from challenges.
That sounds extremely interesting! We look forward to reading your results.
Now, let us turn to the Heterodox Academy. Please tell us briefly about the aim of the organization. Also, if you would, could you tell us how you became involved in the project, and what your own role is?
Chris C. Martin
Heterodox Academy is an association of tenured professors, primarily from the social sciences, who think that academia should be ideologically diverse. Right now, most academics are "liberal" in the American sense of that term. A lot of academics, including some liberals ones, believe that the academy will be a better place if it includes people who are skeptical of liberalism.
In addition, ideology is now becoming institutionalized because universities are trying to create a brand, and to get everyone to follow that brand. (Alice Dreger has written and spoken about this problem.) This branding violates the underlying logic of academic freedom, which is that the university should be a place where every professor has considerable independence, and there's no obligation to some larger brand, other than good scholarship.
At Heterodox Academy, we're trying to communicate that message to the larger world.
Who else is involved with the Heterodox Academy?
Chris C. Martin
Jonathan Haidt and Sean Stevens are the two people who are most involved.
Jonathan Haidt is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis (Basic Books, 2005) and The Righteous Mind (Pantheon, 2012). He used to be a professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia. He's at NYU's business school now.
Sean Stevens has a Ph.D. in psychology from Rutgers University, where he studied under Lee Jussim, who has been very critical of the taboo around stereotype accuracy. Sean's research is on political psychology.
We have a very large membership roster, though. You can find it on our website. It includes professors from around the country, including Nick Christakis, Dan Gilbert, John McWhorter, and Steven Pinker, who are well known outside the academy.
So, let's look at the main issue the Heterodox Academy was founded to address—the ideological uniformity of American academia—from a broader perspective.
First, do you believe it is true, as has often been reported, that America's colleges and universities are populated overwhelmingly by people on the left politically?
Chris C. Martin
Yes, you can find evidence of this in numerous studies. For instance, in the field of psychology you can look at the review of evidence in a paper by José Duarte, Jarret Crawford, Lee Jussim, Phil Tetlock, Jonathan Haidt, and Charlotta Stern. You can find a summary of that paper on the Heterodox Academy website:
Overall, there's been a particular shift in terms of social rather than economic ideology. In some ways, that's a good thing. We now have less discrimination against people who formerly had a subordinate status. When it comes to economic ideology, there seems to be more diversity. Even on economic issues, however, I suspect that academic professionals know they're likely to be in a minority if they prefer lower taxes or less spending on welfare programs. So that economic diversity is probably invisible.
If that is so, then why is it so, in your opinion?
Chris C. Martin
I think academia is always going to be tilted a little toward the left because of differences in openness to experience. That's a personality trait linked to curiosity, and people who are liberal have higher levels of openness to experience, on average. People have documented this in many large population studies. This is a moderate correlation, however, so it shouldn't be misinterpreted as a statement about every liberal or conservative. There are many conservatives who are relatively high in openness to experience. However, at the population level, there are more liberals than conservatives who are high in this trait, and that partially explains the inequality. There's also the issue of intelligence. Intelligent people are divided on economic matters but they tend, on average, to be socially liberal. Again, this is a correlation, so it doesn't mean there are zero people who are both socially conservative and intelligent. But it does get manifested at the population level.
Based on these effects, you should see an academic population that's about two-thirds liberal. However, what see now is a much larger inequality, and I think that's because of several trends. I think the historical cause is the Vietnam War. People who went into academia to get deferments tended to be concerned with the progressive causes of the 1960s, like racial and gender equality. Those topics became institutionalized as central academic topics in the social sciences. This led to a self-perpetuating spiral where it became increasingly difficult to question the conventional liberal position, so non-liberal graduate students who might have considered an academic started to perceive the academic work environment as hostile to them.
What has made things worse in the U.S. in particular is the transformation of the Republican party. As Ornstein and Mann have shown in their recent political science research, it used to be a right–center party, willing to make compromises. However, it's now an extremist party that refuses to even acknowledge the legitimacy of the Democratic Party, scorns compromise, and has no compunctions about shutting down the government. This change is likely to make even centrist academics hostile to the Republican Party, which can then transfer to conservatives.
Playing devil's advocate for a moment, let us ask you this: Why isn't it enough to point out that leftist political thought is correct?
That is, if men and women on the left (i.e., self-styled “liberals” and “progressives”) are the ones who see the truth about the human condition, doesn't that explain the ideological uniformity of America's colleges and universities all by itself?
After all, why should American academia wish to become more ideologically diverse, if that means bringing on board people who are wrong—people who are perhaps not as smart, or else not as altruistic, as people on the left?
Chris C. Martin
The problem with science is that you can never be entirely certain that you're correct. So it's always helpful to have a bit of skepticism. Now if there were a perfect correlation between intelligence and liberalism, we could use liberalism as a proxy for intelligence. In that world, there would be no trade-off.
However, we don't live in that world. And we know that progressives have got some things wrong. Communism, for instance. If liberalism or progressivism had a perfect record, that would be a different story.
Where do you come down on the question of truth? Do you believe there even is anything like objective truth, at least when it comes to what makes human beings tick?
Chris C. Martin
Let's step back and think about how we express truths and falsehoods, which is through language. Anthropologists have suggested that language evolved so that groups of humans could plan coordinated action. To paraphrase the historian, Yuval Noah Harari, language made it possible to talk about what a group needs to do and how they need to it. Chimpanzees can't do this.
Now if language is pragmatic in origin, we can deduce that each word in a language is satisfactory at serving a pragmatic purpose but not overly precise. Take the word “heap,” for example. If I tell you I have a heap of rice, you can understand what I mean, but there's no precise definition of how many grains of rice do and do not constitute a heap.
If you want perfectly precise truth, I don't think you can get it using human languages. However, if you want approximate truths, you can get them. And verification is possible. If you take the concept of religion, it's obviously socially constructed and definitions of it have changed over time, but there's a prevalent definition at a given place or time. So if I tell you that someone is motivated by religious beliefs, you and I can probably both agree that we can test this claim in a number of ways. And that gives us an approximate picture of whether my claim was true. However, it doesn't give you a perfectly precise answer because your definition and my definition of religion aren't exactly the same; they're just similar enough for us to communicate.
This is a long-winded way of saying that people who share a language can agree about the truth or falsehood of something. And I think that this version of the truth is satisfactory. I don't think it's useful to put the word “objective” before truth. The purpose of the word is to differentiate things that are roughly objective from things that are roughly subjective, but it doesn't make sense to put it in front of the word “truth.”
In the area of science, there are varying levels of analysis. There are anthropological, sociological, psychological, and neuroscientific explanations of what makes humans tick. They're operating at different levels of analysis, and they can all be simultaneously true. If you have a specific question about motivation, you have to specify the level of analysis and you can get a true or false answer. Overall, experts in each field are going to develop more precise terminology and better tests to weed out falsehoods.
Your research touches on the notion of well-being or “happiness,” which seems to be a “trending” topic these days, as they say.
We are thinking especially of the work of Jonathan Haidt (e.g., The Happiness Hypothesis [Basic Books, 2005]). Moreover, your dissertation advisor, Corey L.M. Keyes, once co-edited a volume with Haidt (Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived [APA, 2002]).
Can you explain briefly how your own research relates to the increasingly well-known work of Haidt and others on happiness?
Chris C. Martin
As I mentioned, my current work is on affluence. In the conclusion to The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt states that happiness comes from “between.” What he means is that external circumstances and internal states have to come together in a way for happiness to emerge.
Wealth is an external circumstance, and it contains the potential to engender greater happiness. However, if you look at the ecology of wealthy people in economically developed nations like the U.S., you find a lot of internal insecurities about one's social status. These beliefs create anxiety. I think that bolsters Haidt's point about the need for a good fit between what is external and what is internal.
The Happiness Hypothesis is also about the value of ancient wisdom. In many ancient religions and philosophical traditions, you find skepticism about wealth. Religious leaders haven't consistently discouraged the pursuit of wealth, although some like Jesus have. But they have propounded the idea that the pursuit of wealth alone isn't going to bring you happiness. In Eastern traditions, there's also an emphasis on inner tranquility and resistance of cravings.
A lot of people feel that we are living in dark times in this country.
Homicides, suicides, and heroin overdoses are all up. Marriages, legitimate births, gainful employment, and academic achievement in our public schools are all down. Here in Chicago, we are undergoing an epidemic of gun battles on our main highways.
Then, there is our politics, about which perhaps the less said, the better.
Would you describe yourself as an optimist or a pessimist about the future of our country?
If you're an optimist, what sort of positive role do you think sociology and the other social sciences have to play in the gradual improvement of our social and political institutions, and of the well-being of our fellow citizens?
Is it even the case that those two things (better institutions and happier lives) are necessarily connected?
Chris C. Martin
I think the two biggest threats to the U.S. are the radicalization of the Republican Party and climate change. With regard to the Republican Party, I've mentioned Mann and Ornstein's book earlier, but you can also look at research by E.J. Dionne on how it has fundamentally changed. I'm quite pessimistic about it. I don't see the Republican Party getting better, and I don't foresee any rival parties combating Republican extremism in an effective way. A persistent problem is the myth that polarization has been symmetrical, so the Republican Party escapes the blame.
Climate change is a nightmare because it happens so gradually. It's not like muggings or car accidents, where there's a dramatic event that captures your attention. In fact, the pace of change is so sluggish, it's probably the least attention-grabbing thing you can imagine. But risk assessments show that it's likely to cause much more misery than anything else.
When it comes to other aspects of life, I think things are mostly getting better. I'm on the fence about the increase in income inequality. If we were to have greater equality in America, I think the average happiness level would increase, but the middle class in the U.S. is remarkably prosperous when considered in an international context.
Most of the social sciences exist as an end in themselves. Social scientists enjoy the creation of knowledge, and the debates that scientists have. Some social scientists are doing work with pragmatic value, however, and I think some of them are gradually seeing their work getting institutionalized. If you look at the work by Geoffrey Cohen and Greg Walton on how to reduce anxiety among disadvantaged college students, you can see their practices getting institutionalized. It's happening slowly, of course, and most people have never heard of them, but they're making a difference. Sociologists tend to focus on the things that you can't change quickly, but their work informs policy debates. Although economics is more influential, you can find sociological work influencing domestic and international policy.
When are you planning on graduating? Will you be pursuing an academic career, after that?
Chris C. Martin
I plan to graduate in 2017, and I'm uncertain about what kind of career I'm going to pursue. I'm planning to stay in Atlanta for family reasons, so it depends on the opportunities. If there are good academic opportunities, I will probably apply.
Is there a book in the works, at some point?
Chris C. Martin
I'm just planning to publish journal articles at this point.
What about the future of the Heterodox Academy? We know it is still just getting off the ground, but where do you hope it will be in five years' time? Can you see alliances forming down the road between Heterodox Academy and other, similar endeavors?
Chris C. Martin
Ideally, Heterodox Academy will solve the problem that it was intended to address, and will then dissolve. I don't know how quickly it will solve that problem, but I would estimate it taking at least a decade.
As for partnerships, some right-wing organization might want to form alliances with Heterodox Academy, but we're not a fundamentally right-wing organization. On social issues, we're actually quite liberal. We may have some official partnerships with universities that are interested in exposing their students to ideas that are outside the academic mainstream. The University of Colorado at Boulder has an annual position for a scholar of conservative thought. I can envision us partnering with universities that want to do similar things. We're also likely to create partnerships with researchers who want to study political ideology, partisanship, perceived or actual censorship, and similar topics.
Thank you very much for participating in this interview!
1. J.L. Duarte, J.T. Crawford, C. Stern, J. Haidt, L. Jussim, and P.E. Tetlock, "Political diversity will improve social psychological science," Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2015, 38: 1–13.