Political Affiliation of Canadian University Professors

By Nakhaie, M. R.; Adam, Barry D. | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Political Affiliation of Canadian University Professors


Nakhaie, M. R., Adam, Barry D., Canadian Journal of Sociology


The social role of the modern academy has been the subject of a lengthy debate between those who extol its capacity to generate critical thinking and preserve a free zone of systematic and rational investigation, and critics who point out its role in producing well-socialized professionals acting on behalf of the state and corporate sectors. On the one hand, academic institutions are seen as a major source of system legitimization, socializing a large sector of the population into system-reproducing modes of thought. On the other hand, these institutions are seen as a major source for the inculcation of critical outlooks and challenges to the status quo (see, for example, Lipset and Dobson 1972; Boggs 1993; Jacoby 1987). This typology coincides with the common practice of dividing intellectuals into ideological and utopian (Mannheim 1955), traditional and organic (Gramsci 1971), intellectuals and intelligentsia (Gouldner 1979), responsible and combative (Chomsky 1978), number-smiths and wordsmiths (Nozick 1998), and useful and genuine (Smith 2001).

The most common questions arising out of the study of intellectuals are whether or not they are politically oriented and, if so, under what conditions intellectuals become an intelligentsia critical of social order. In Canada, it is customary to designate the Royal Society as the country's intellectual elite, members of which are drawn from among university professors (Ogmundson and McLaughlin 1994:2-4). Thus, Porter (1965:493, 505), writing for a period in the intellectual history of English Canada which was not remarkable for social criticism, argued that the Canadian intelligentsia was heavily weighted in favour of conservative traditionalists who lacked social criticism and participation in the political arena. Speaking of the Royal Society of Canada, Section II, composed almost exclusively of the British charter group, Porter stated that very little of what they wrote could be considered social criticism. "With few exceptions, their attitudes and values are conventional" (1965:500). He attributed their conservatism to the attitude expressed by Harold Adams Innis that politics are "nasty things for scholars to play around with" (1965:503). Similarly, Section III of the Royal Society of Canada is made up of the "men of science, the leaders in the empirical, non-ideological disciplines ... not linked to political power" (1965:513). However, Section I, containing French literature, civilization, and social sciences had quite a different composition in Porter's time; they were more active in the public sphere (1965:503).

Similar distinctions are developed by other scholars. Brym and Myles (1989:447-448) concluded that the Canadian political system severely constrains intellectuals' open advocacy of partisan policy. In the Anglo-Canadian system, intellectuals are rewarded for disengagement and penalized for engagement. Regarding francophone intellectuals, Pinard and Hamilton (1989:296) spoke of their "unique" character whose parties of choice--the Parti Quebecois and the New Democratic Party--have been distinctively antiestablishment. Brooks and Gagnon (1987:39) stated that engagement was more characteristic of social scientists in French Canada, involving direct participation in the mobilization of interests through parties, social movements, unions, and organs of contemporary criticism.

This short review is indicative of a paucity of empirical research on the political orientation of Canadian intellectuals, in general, and that of university professors, in particular. The only survey-based sociological study of university professors, conducted in 1987 (Nakhaie and Brym 1999), showed that Canadian professors from lower class backgrounds; those in lower ranks; with lower publication counts; in social sciences, education, and humanities; from the less prestigious universities; Francophones; and women were more likely to have a left-leaning political orientation than their counterparts. …

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