An appeal to authority - Social Sciences boffins please read
August 4, 2010 2:42 PM   Subscribe

Are the results of Bob Altemeyer's research, as presented most recently in his book The Authoritarians, solid?

Reading that book confirmed a lot of things I'd been struggling toward deeper understanding of. When anything affirms my previously-held beliefs that closely, I want to check it out thoroughly to make sure I'm not standing on perilous intellectual ground.

While I have some basic statistics and general background in the social sciences, all my advanced education and most of my work experience has been in the arts. I'd like to hear from people with advanced training, or closer familiarity, with the subject matter in question. Of course, if you're as ill-tutored as me, but still notice shoddy methodology or gaping holes in logic, please let me know as well!

The only negative scholarly opinion I could find online that wasn't behind a paywall or otherwise inaccessible was by another professor studying authoritarianism, and one of his objections was that he hadn't been cited (or not cited enough). Not sure if this is the narcissism of small differences or just normal academic snipery, though.
posted by jtron to Science & Nature (5 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It's an ongoing research program and Altemeyer is famous for it, but the more solid work in this area, in my view, is being done by people researching social dominance orientation. Felicia Pratto is one name to look for. You might read some work on this, which will address Altemeyer's work.
posted by proj at 2:57 PM on August 4, 2010

Pratto is enthusiastically referenced in Altemeyer; he talks about Social Dominance Orientation (which apparently has a .81 correlation with his RWA measure) throughout the book. I will check her stuff out, though, thanks!
posted by jtron at 2:59 PM on August 4, 2010

I have no special knowledge in this area. However, I was in one of Altemeyer's first-year psychology courses in the late 1990s, and like all his students in that class, I filled out the RWA scale he mentions in the first chapter of his book. After we all completed the survey, he talked about the decades-long research project it was a part of, and he raised your question: How solid is this methodology, and how useful are the results? He specifically said that he felt the data he's gathered are a pretty good reflection of right-wing authoritarianism, as Altemeyer himself defines it (his emphasis), among first-year University of Manitoba psychology students in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s; he said he'd be hesitant to make broader claims about more heterogeneous populations based solely on his own results. (He did point out that others have used his scale to conduct similar research, and of course he's gone on to make broader claims in The Authoritarians.)

Obviously he was just trying to make some freshmen think about bias and methodology. But I figure it might be worth sharing the anecdote anyway. Make of it what you will.
posted by twirlip at 7:03 PM on August 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Altemeyer was a primary source, back when his results had mostly only been seen in academic journals, for John Dean's book Conservatives Without Conscience and IIRC it was Dean who suggested to Altemeyer that he write a popular version of his findings.

My training is more on the physics/engineering side of things than the social sciences, but his methods appear solid to me; both his descriptions of his methods and his conclusions have the "ring of truth." Of course all such studies are at best approximations but once I read Altemeyer's descriptions it was easy to think of people who fell into the categories he described and behave exactly as he suggests they would.
posted by localroger at 3:30 PM on August 5, 2010

Thanks, everyone!

I grew up with D&D so immediately noticed the two groups in Altemeyer correspond quite closely to Neutral Evil and Lawful Evil
posted by jtron at 10:36 AM on August 26, 2010

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