Summary of dissertation work: For my oral examination (the defense)

  • Posted on: 17 November 2015
  • By: benfell

My dissertation committee chair, Bob McAndrews, writes of my forthcoming defense, "the usual way these meetings go is for you to briefly summarize how you came to your dissertation topic and how the Human Science program helped you shape it, then to explain your methodology and 'findings' and then what you feel your work has contributed to existing scholarship. Then we will discuss your work. Try to keep your summary to 15 minutes."1 This entry will form the basis for that summary.

I owe JoAnn McAllister, who was, until recently, the Human Science department chair at Saybrook University, who is now president of the Human Science Institute, and who is on my committee, a lot of credit for my dissertation topic. I entered Saybrook's Human Science program flailing about for a topic and had begun looking at the question of how, in the Neolithic, we had come to make a horribly wrong turn toward an authoritarian system of social organization.2 McAllister argued that the state of the field in archaeology would make this topic very difficult. She was right. As I was already discovering, especially from my starting point of Riane Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade,3 it is a complete mess.4

As I wrote at the time,

[JoAnn McAllister] advised that I should instead examine my question about why we organized ourselves into coercive social systems from the perspective of George Lakoff's Moral Politics.5 She was just saying to look at this from a social psychological perspective and in light of Lakoff's conservative (strict father, gender bias intentional) and liberal (nurturant parent) morality systems, and while one might ask what this has to do with coercive social structures, as a feminist, she's well aware of the link between patriarchy and conservatism.6

I'm not a linguist (let alone a cognitive linguist), a psychologist, or a statistician and the idea of pursuing the social and political psychology angle of this became less attractive as I noticed that the work on right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation was almost entirely quantitative and positivist. And while Lakoff offers very important insights into conservative thinking, I had, for several years, come to recognize conservatism as a multifaceted rather than monolithic phenomenon. Lakoff, while importantly recognizing that some conservatives might prioritize some metaphors differently from others, was still fundamentally treating conservatism as monolithic. This is not in any way to disparage Lakoff. Indeed, when I first read Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think,7 I thought it then and I continue to see it as highly insightful. But there is a need for a more comprehensive analysis of conservative ideologies.

Furthermore, even to breathe the word psychology in the same sentence with the word conservative, at least in the usual connotation, is unfortunately to suggest a pathological condition. George Nash argues—I think reasonably—that this is a way of evading conservative arguments.8 It seems to me further that before we even begin to discuss pathology or "a condition," we need to thoroughly evaluate whether a conservative perspective is in any way a reasonable view of the world: If conservatism can be shown to be irrational, then and only then can we perhaps begin to address the connotation of "a pathological condition."

This does not require an uncritical approach, but it does entail prerequisites which the field of Human Science is admirably suited for. First, working backwards, addressing conservative arguments means listening to them. We need to represent those arguments as fairly as possible—which is a reason for some form of narrative or critical discourse analysis: These methods enable a verbatim presentation of those arguments. But because with conservatives we are not viewing, in large part, subaltern people—regardless of how they may see themselves—but rather the oppressors of subaltern people,9 a critical theory approach—in my view, also integral to Human Science—which highlights social inequality seems appropriate for addressing the arguments.10 Critical theory methods such as those included under the umbrella of critical discourse analysis, and specifically in the case of this dissertation, discourse-historical analysis, become an obvious choice.11

Initially, I recognized only three—what I now call—tendencies, which I now label capitalist libertarian, functionalist conservative, and traditionalist conservative. I was in for an eye-opening experience as this list mushroomed to include authoritarian populists, neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, and social conservatives.12 My dissertation approach thus follows: I seek sample articles from each of these (now) seven tendencies to show how these tendencies overlap and differ from each other. Narrowing the topic to a single topic I thought most likely to highlight differences, I selected undocumented migration. While I hadn't been paying much attention to an issue I saw at the time as boiling down to humanity versus a murderous xenophobia, as it happens, beginning in 2013, undocumented migration became a major political and legal issue as migrants—who might more properly be called refugees—fled dire poverty and drug gang and cartel violence in Central America and arrived in the U.S. in large numbers, as President Barack Obama sought immigration system reform, and as some state governments challenged his executive order setting priorities for deportation that conservatives interpreted as an 'amnesty' in court.13

Oversimplified, my findings were, for each tendency of conservatism, as follows:

  1. Authoritarian populists view undocumented migration as a problem which begins at the border. They are uninterested in causes such as the 'war on drugs' or poverty. Their view of migrants falls can be categorized as what Elizabeth Minnich describes as a hierarchically invidious monism, that is, as a polarized binary in which one pole ("us") is held substantially superior to the other ("them").14
  2. Capitalist libertarians view undocumented migrants as "free labor," that is, as labor which employers are free to exploit.
  3. Functionalist conservatives were principally concerned with enacting and implementing immigration reform.
  4. Neoconservatives were concerned with secular law enforcement and mostly sought to exclude migrants in the name of secular or biblical 'law and order.'
  5. Paleoconservatives perceive the white race as being under attack by 'Blacks' and 'Browns.' This is different from authoritarian populism mainly in that paleoconservatives explicitly seek to exclude ethnic and racial "others" while authoritarian populists seek to do so less explicitly.
  6. Social conservatives and traditionalist conservatives were both divided between those who prioritize an argument based on biblical law which would exclude migrants and those who prioritize concerns about humanity.

Arguments that prioritized ideology, otherwise known as "transcendent knowledge," and that seemingly preferred to rely on incomplete information could be found among all tendencies. I was dissatisfied with the distinctions found between 1) authoritarian populism and paleoconservatism, and 2) social conservatism and traditionalist conservatism.

This work illustrates that previous research relying on any scheme recognizing at most three kinds of conservatives assumes an oversimplistic view of conservatism. It raises serious questions about the ability of a republican system of government to resolve differences in the absence of an epistemological agreement on sources of knowledge and in the presence of so much demonization, both between partisans on either side of the debate on undocumented migration, and of so many conservatives against undocumented migrants. My most significant suggestion for further research would be to illucidate whether distinctions between 1) authoritarian populists and paleoconservatives and 2) social conservatives and traditionalist conservatives are warranted.