Yes, Ideological Bias in Academia is Real, and Communication Scholars Must Help Solve the Problem

The National Communication Association invited me to write an essay for the association magazine (Spectra) on ideological bias within academia and the communication discipline. Unfortunately, Spectra is not accessible to those without an NCA login; but fortunately, the agreement I signed with NCA permits me to post it here.

I am deeply grateful to those who took time to contribute their stories, to read the essay and offer feedback, and encourage me along the way. Let me especially mention my appreciation for George Yancey of University of North Texas, who is mentioned at some length here, who graciously took the time to offer his thoughts on the article.

I hope this piece motivates all of us to create ideologically welcoming communities, to understand each other better, and to find ways to work together across lines of ideological difference.


I am grateful that NCA invited me to write this essay on “what some have called the chilling effect of ‘liberal’ academia on freedom of expression among conservative professors and students.” As a social scientist, I think of this as two related empirical questions: What is the political tilt of academia? And, does that political tilt silence conservative voices? Fortunately, scholars have gathered data on these questions, and so I will briefly review a few findings. Then, I will share the lived experience of some of our colleagues and suggest how we might promote ideological diversity in our discipline.

Research Evidence

To the first question: Evidence indicates political skew in academia toward the left. Over a decade ago, Gross and Simmons’s study on the American professoriate found that 44 percent identified as liberal, 47 percent as moderate, and only 9 percent as conservative, with moderates leaning center-left rather than center-right. Particularly relevant to our discipline, the greatest imbalance emerged in the social sciences (58 percent liberal, 5 percent conservative) and the humanities (52 percent liberal, 4 percent conservative). Their monograph, although published only online, has received more than 100 citations since 2007. More recent peer-reviewed research on party affiliation suggests that the imbalance has widened. In a 2016 article published in Econ Journal Watch, Mitchell Langbert and his co-authors found that registered faculty Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 11.5 to 1 overall, and in Communication/Journalism, by 20 to 1. In many departments, members of minor liberal parties (such as the Green Party) are more common than Republicans. Academia leans to the left, and the Communication discipline is no exception.

And so, to the second question: What is the effect of this ideological tilt? The literature has focused on two competing hypotheses for why the imbalance exists: that conservatives self-select out of academia, or that conservatives experience bias that deters them. As sociologist George Yancey has contended, these explanations are not mutually exclusive. Both likely occur, yet the available evidence indicates that political bias against conservatives is no trivial concern. I only have space to summarize a few key findings here, but interested readers would benefit from exploring Heterodox Academy, which advocates for ideological diversity in university life.

  • In a study published in 2012 in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Inbar and Lammers asked psychological scholars about their perception of academia’s political climate. Liberals reported the least hostile climate (1.9 on a seven-point scale), moderates significantly more (3.7), and conservatives the most hostile (4.7). The more a scholar moves away from a liberal identity, the more ideological heat she or he perceives.
  • That study also found that some liberal professors admitted willingness to engage in bias that would harm the career of conservative academics: “Hostility toward and willingness to discriminate against conservatives is widespread. One in six respondents said that she or he would be somewhat (or more) inclined to discriminate against conservatives in inviting them for symposia or reviewing their work. One in four would discriminate in reviewing their grant applications. More than one in three would discriminate against them when making hiring decisions.”
  • Jussim, writing in the same journal in response to Inbar and Lammers, acknowledged the privilege he enjoys as a liberal academic, including: “If I apply for a job, I can be confident my political views are more likely to be an asset than liability”; “I can avoid spending time with colleagues who mistrust me because of my politics”; “I will feel welcomed and ‘normal’ in the usual walks of my academic life.”
  • Yancey, Reimer, and O’Connell, writing in 2015 in Sociology of Religion, found that academia can be particularly hostile to religious conservatives. Yancey testified to his own experience in an article published in The Stream: “Indeed when I read academic literature about my faith it is like I am reading about some alien I cannot recognize. Its description of conservative Christians is often some bizarre caricature of the worst of my faith.”
  • Yancey’s empirical work has further documented bias that conservatives (religious and otherwise) face in academia, particularly in the processes of hiring, promotion, and tenure. Like Inbar and Lammers, he conducted direct surveys of academics, finding that about half would be less likely to hire a conservative Protestant, about 40 percent someone who is part of the NRA, and about a third someone who is a Republican. In contrast, being a member of a liberal group such as the ACLU is seen as an asset.

I am not claiming that these are perfect studies (no study is), or that all progressive scholars hold bias against conservatives (clearly not). Nor am I claiming that anti-conservative bias explains 100 percent of the variance in the political affiliation of scholars in our discipline or elsewhere. That would be absurd. Yet, given the evidence, I am persuaded that it would be even more absurd to claim an effect size of 0 percent. As Yancey put it in a Patheos article, some progressive scholars tend to “focus on self-selection with a slight nod to the possibility of bias. This is exactly opposite from what our empirical evidence has told us.”

Also, the reality of anti-conservative bias does not discount the very real threats to academic freedom experienced by my progressive colleagues. Even as we disagree on ideology and public policy, we should stand together against all threats to ideological diversity, from whatever part of the political continuum they arise.

I encourage those interested to check out these and other sources. I especially encourage my liberal colleagues to do this because, as Yancey noted when I spoke with him recently in a public forum, some progressive scholars disregard claims of ideological bias, despite their abiding concern for other forms of discrimination.

Lived Experience

I am unaware of any study of political bias that focuses exclusively on our discipline. So, to document such bias and vivify the claims above, I invited members of our discipline to share their experiences anonymously. With their permission, here are a few stories I heard:

  • “During my first job interview for a tenure-track position, I sat through an uncomfortable meal where a senior faculty member, assuming I was liberal, openly mocked economic beliefs that I hold. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I just kind of smiled and nodded.”
  • “I haven’t been to NCA in years. As a conservative woman, there is no space for me there.”
  • “When I was in graduate school, the Department Chair got up and started talking about how stupid Republicans are. I remember being shocked that the Chair was using a position of power to degrade others.”
  • “During a campus visit at a potential graduate school, I wore a cross necklace. A faculty member pointed it out and said, ‘Cross necklace? You aren’t welcome here.’ This interaction almost deterred me from pursuing any sort of graduate education.”
  • “I wrote an article on conservative artistic performances that the Editor responded to with high praise, followed by a request for a few revisions. After I made the requested revisions, the Editor rejected it. He told me that he wanted to publish the article, but that the conservative content of the performances had so offended the other members of his editorial staff that he ‘dared not run it’ lest he have to deal with a ‘full blown revolution.’”
  • “Political bias is one reason I left academia soon after receiving my doctorate.”
  • “When I write papers that suggest liberal bias in the media, they get rejected, and so I now write about other things. In a world where promotion is determined by publication/presentation rate, I have no desire to spend more time writing articles that will never see daylight.”
  • “As a graduate student, I remember being told at a conference that I couldn’t be a critical/cultural scholar because I had a Christian worldview.”
  • “Before I had tenure, a senior professor who knew my political leanings jokingly referred to me as ‘a Nazi.’ This occurred in front of students.”

I know we would be concerned (and rightly so) if we were to hear such lived experiences from other groups. Those concerns should be no less when the stories pertain to ideological diversity.

Promoting Ideological Diversity in the Discipline

So then, what should we do to foster ideological diversity in the Communication discipline? I’ve heard a variety of ideas from conservatives and concerned progressives. Here are a few actionable suggestions that, to me at least, seem to flow from the available evidence.

  1. As a small but important first step, admit the reality. If a conservative scholar shares an experience of bias with you, they’re probably taking a brave step. Don’t minimize that. They’re showing you a remarkable degree of trust. Also don’t assume that all conservatives are alike; like liberals, we’re a diverse bunch. So listen. Even if you can’t affirm their beliefs, affirm their humanity and academic freedom. More generally, our field would benefit from the kind of discussion about political bias that Jonathan Haidt has spearheaded in Social Psychology.
  1. Affirm ideological diversity when you have the opportunity to do so. I find the statement that Heterodox Academy asks its members to sign to be a helpful one that resonates with NCA’s Credo for Free and Responsible Communication in a Democratic Society: “I believe that university life requires that people with diverse viewpoints and perspectives encounter each other in an environment where they feel free to speak up and challenge each other. I am concerned that many academic fields and universities currently lack sufficient viewpoint diversity—particularly political diversity. I will support viewpoint diversity in my academic field, my university, my department, and my classroom.” Scholars who agree may want to join — it’s easy, free, and a gateway to good conversation among scholars with diverse disciplinary and political orientations.
  1. Refrain from assumptions of political homogeneity in the discipline. This is perhaps nowhere so true in our discipline as partisan political statements passed in the form of NCA resolutions. Let us be candid: These have no discernible impact on public policy. As a Texan myself, I can assure you that the 2017 convention has come and gone and has made no difference in Texas politics. But some events there may speak volumes to conservatives in our field, particularly those who lack the academic privilege that comes with publication success and tenure. As one graduate student voiced after an e-mail from the NCA leadership ahead of the Dallas convention, “Can we maintain membership at NCA in light of this statement?” I look forward to a world where our students never have to ask that question, no matter their political stripe.
  1. Use online fora judiciously. For all their benefits, we know that online spaces can tempt us to engage in communication that dehumanizes others. Whatever strengths it may have, I am not convinced that the Communication listserv CRTNET has served as a healthy venue for political discussion. Perhaps more substantive online conversation could be facilitated by communication technologies newer than 1980s-style e-mail listservs.
  1. Purposefully build warm relationships with those whose beliefs differ from your own. To be utterly clear and emphatic: Over the course of my career, my relationships with progressive colleagues and friends have been overwhelmingly positive rather than negative. When we talk politics, the conversations may be animated, but most of the time they occur in a spirit of mutual respect. Often, we aren’t talking about politics at all, but about our personal lives or mutual professional interests regarding Communication research, theory, and pedagogy. And, indeed, such research tells us that intergroup contact reduces bias.

I believe NCA has the social capital and goodwill among its membership to address ideological bias. Some of my conservative colleagues do not share that optimism, but a panel at the 2017 convention gave me hope. Organized by then First Vice President Ronald L. Jackson II, co-sponsored by the Public Dialogue and Deliberation Division, and chaired by Laura Black (Ohio University) and Leah Sprain (University of Colorado, Boulder), the panel addressed public dialogue and polarization within NCA and featured scholars from diverse political orientations. People spoke candidly, but respectfully, and I think we all gained insight from the discussion. I see no reason why that spirit of goodwill amid disagreement cannot extend to the entire association, our departments, and the discipline.

Our discipline possesses a wealth of scholarship about effective communication across lines of difference. We can apply this knowledge to foster ideological diversity within our discipline—and then, if we are so inclined, we can turn and use that knowledge to help other disciplines solve this trans-disciplinary problem.


(This article is reprinted from an article that originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Spectra magazine, a publication of the National Communication Association. All rights reserved.)

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Additional information on moderating effect of mother/father conservatism (Ledbetter, 2015, Journal of Family Communication)

A forthcoming issue of Journal of Family Communication will contain an article reporting a study of (a) family communication patterns, (b) participant political philosophy, and (c) evaluation of the credibility of the two major candidates in the 2012 U.S. presidential election.

During the review process, a reviewer inquired how the political orientation of the mother/father might influence study results. This is a good question, but one that my data were not well-positioned to answer, as I did not collect data directly from the mother and father. I simply asked participants for their perception of their mother’s and father’s political beliefs, which obviously may be confounded with the participant’s own political beliefs (e.g., a highly liberal participant may see a moderate parent as more conservative than s/he actually is).

Nevertheless, I ran a post hoc analysis using participant perceptions of their parents’ political philosophy as moderators. A footnote reports these results briefly:

Specifically, I analyzed two conditional process models (Hayes, 2013), whereby mother and father political philosophy moderated the associations in the model. To summarize, these models exhibited the following differences and similarities with the model reported in the main study: (a) Conversation orientation remained a positive predictor of both participant conservatism and Romney’s credibility; (b) Participant conservatism remained a positive predictor of Romney’s credibility and an inverse predictor of Obama’s credibility; (c) Conformity orientation ceased to be a positive predictor of participant conservatism, although it now inversely predicted Obama’s credibility (or, in the mother model, nearly so, p = .059); (d) Conversation and conformity no longer interacted to predict Obama’s credibility. Almost no evidence emerged for moderated mediation, except for a significant interaction between father conservatism and conversation orientation on participant conservatism (p < .05). Decomposition revealed that the positive effect of conversation orientation was limited to conservative fathers. For liberal fathers, high conversation children tend to have a liberal political philosophy, yet their philosophy is just as liberal as if they had come from a low conversation orientation family. The main effects for parental political philosophy were limited to participant political philosophy and, with the exception of mother’s political philosophy as a predictor of Romney’s credibility, did not extend to candidate credibility. Taking this post hoc analysis overall, it is noteworthy that the associations for conversation orientation remained intact. Thus, incorporating parental political philosophy seems to most alter the effect of conformity orientation, which may be unsurprising given the historical and conceptual affinity between conservatism and conformity. Nevertheless, these results are reported here tentatively, as this study did not directly measure the parents’ political philosophy.

Here, I’d like to provide a bit more detail than I could in the journal article. First, here’s the graphical decomposition of the father conservatism X conversation orientation interaction effect:

dad_conv_interact

And here are the standardized regression parameters for the FATHER conditional process model:

PREDICTING PARTICIPANT CONSERVATIVISM:
Conversation orientation: .16*
Conformity orientation: .12
Conversation X Conformity: -.04
Mother’s conservatism: .44**
Father’s conservatism: .19**
Father’s conservatism X Conversation: .14*
Father’s conservatism X Conformity: -.01
Father’s conservatism X Conversation X Conformity: .04
Participant age: .06
Student status: .15**

PREDICTING OBAMA’S CREDIBILITY:
Conversation orientation: -.07
Conformity orientation: -.17*
Conversation X Conformity: -.08
Participant’s conservatism: -.61**
Mother’s conservatism: -.06
Father’s conservatism: .14
Father’s conservatism X Conversation: -.02
Father’s conservatism X Conformity: -.07
Father’s conservatism X Conversation X Conformity: .02
Father’s conservatism X participant’s conservatism: .07
Participant age: -.11
Student status: -.14*

PREDICTING ROMNEY’S CREDIBILITY:
Conversation orientation: .29**
Conformity orientation: .07
Conversation X Conformity: .06
Participant’s conservatism: .56**
Mother’s conservatism: .21**
Father’s conservatism: -.06
Father’s conservatism X Conversation: .03
Father’s conservatism X Conformity: .08
Father’s conservatism X Conversation X Conformity: -.02
Father’s conservatism X participant’s conservatism: -.08
Participant age: .10
Student status: .12*

And also, the standardized regression parameters for the MOTHER conditional process model:

PREDICTING PARTICIPANT CONSERVATIVISM:
Conversation orientation: .15*
Conformity orientation: .10
Conversation X Conformity: -.04
Mother’s conservatism: .47**
Father’s conservatism: .18*
Mother’s conservatism X Conversation: .10
Mother’s conservatism X Conformity: -.02
Mother’s conservatism X Conversation X Conformity: -.003
Participant age: .07
Student status: .15*

PREDICTING OBAMA’S CREDIBILITY:
Conversation orientation: -.06
Conformity orientation: -.15
Conversation X Conformity: -.10
Participant’s conservatism: -.61**
Mother’s conservatism: -.05
Father’s conservatism: .14
Mother’s conservatism X Conversation: .003
Mother’s conservatism X Conformity: -.06
Mother’s conservatism X Conversation X Conformity: -.04
Mother’s conservatism X participant’s conservatism: .05
Participant age: -.11
Student status: -.13*

PREDICTING ROMNEY’S CREDIBILITY:
Conversation orientation: .26**
Conformity orientation: .05
Conversation X Conformity: .06
Participant’s conservatism: .56**
Mother’s conservatism: .20**
Father’s conservatism: -.04
Mother’s conservatism X Conversation: .02
Mother’s conservatism X Conformity: -.01
Mother’s conservatism X Conversation X Conformity: -.04
Mother’s conservatism X participant’s conservatism: -.03
Participant age: .10
Student status: .11*

The Palantír Effect

I’m almost finished with a re-read of The Lord of the Rings. Wow, what an amazing novel! (I’ll call it a ‘novel’, singular, because Tolkien really wrote it as a single book, which his publisher later split into three.) I’ve seen so much more in the books as an adult than I did as a high schooler. One of those things I’ve gained is a name—a name for an effect of communication technology that I’ve talked about for years with my students.

To explain the effect, here’s a little quiz. Can you name:

  1. Your city’s mayor?
  2. Your representative to your state legislature?
  3. The important news stories in your local area?
  4. Your next door neighbors?

Maybe you’re one of the few that knows a lot about each of these. But that’s not most of us. Although I don’t have statistics to back this up, my guess is that the average person knows more about the president than they do their own mayor (I mean, at least they can name the president!), and more about their Facebook friends than they do about their neighbors.

This is the effect: communication technology shifts our attention from the local to the distant. I now call it the palantír effect.

What is a palantír (plural palantíri)? In The Lord of the Rings, it is a magical sphere. The person who looks into one can see things far away and communicate with someone who holds another palantír. In Middle-earth, only seven palantíri exist. In our earth, I think we each carry a little palantír in our purse or pocket.

Yes, part of the reason I like this metaphor is because I am a fantasy/sci-fi geek at heart… I can’t deny that. I also like the moral complexity of the metaphor. In Tolkien’s work, we see both good and bad effects of the use of palantíri. Regarding good, Aragorn used a palantír to see a dangerous military attack from the sea and took action to defeat it. He also used it to distract Sauron from Frodo’s quest. Earlier in the history of Middle-earth, a kingdom used the palantirí to facilitate communication and control across a vast territory. Likewise, communication technology allows us to coordinate activities across a distance. Anyone who’s ever had to ask a significant other what they were supposed to pick up at the grocery store knows this to be true.

On the other hand, communication technology may also focus our attention away from local matters we can address toward distant but fascinating problems we can do nothing about. (Have you heard anything about Ferguson, MO recently? Can you actually *do* anything about problems in Ferguson, MO? Yeah, me neither.) In Lord of the Rings, Denethor, the steward of the kingdom of Gondor, serves as the most potent example of this. Disturbed by images of distant armies, he despairs and concedes defeat, even to the point of ignoring the simple things he can do to protect his people and save his only living son.

Let me be clear that I’m not talking about time; I’m talking about attention. Some scholarship has argued that technology harms relationships because we spend time online that we could spend with local friends and family. That may happen (although research supporting that view has been weak).

However, technology may dominate our attention even when we spend a short amount of time with it. I’ve been guilty of glancing at a game of Words with Friends for a second, and then turning possible moves over and over in my mind for the next hour while I do other non-tech things. Likewise, Denethor didn’t spend much time using his palantír, but it controlled his emotions and decisions during every moment of the day.

This semester, as I teach my course on social media and personal relationships, I curious what my students will think: when does the palantír effect occur, when is it good, when is it bad, and who is most susceptible to it? Not easy questions, but perhaps important ones. In Middle-earth, the ability to harness the power of the palantíri for good helped save the day, whereas misuse of them nearly brought utter ruin.

Yes, Tolkien wrote decades before the age of Twitter and texting, But my re-read has taught me that, in the regard and others, perhaps his Middle-earth isn’t so different from our world after all.

 

1.2.many: personal connections in the digital age (introduction)

Just a quick note: I’ve changed the name of this blog. The former name, “Maintaining Healthy Relationships,” wasn’t bad–I do care about relational health. But upon reflection, that doesn’t quite capture the core of my research.

Since graduate school, my one-sentence description of my scholarly identity has been this: I am social scientist who researches how people maintain relationships using communication technology.

Thus, I work at the intersection of interpersonal and mass communication–two traditionally separate areas of communication research that we now, of technological and social necessity, must wed together.

The first part of the new blog name, “1.2.many,” captures that union. In traditional mass communication research, “one-to-many” has referred to communication technologies that broadcast from one source to many recipients. Radio or cable TV are classic examples. I’ve twisted this phrase by changing the “to” to a “2”–the number of people communicating in classic definitions of interpersonal communication.

Thus, “1.2.many” represents how we communicate via technology–often physically alone (1), maintaining specific dyadic (i.e., 2-person) relationships, yet often to and with a broader social network (many). Taken alone, this could capture many communication goals, such as word-of-mouth marketing. But I’m interested in how we maintain relationships–hence the tagline “personal connections in the digital age.”

Oh, there’s a new visual theme too.

But some of you might be asking, “will he write more frequently??” My honest answer is that I hope to. Yes, you sense a “but”–and the “but” is that I have other writing commitments to keep, and for better or worse, academia does not yet place much value in the blog as a scholarly outlet! Now that’s a subject worthy of a blog post itself… perhaps someday.

If you’re interested in my work that has been published this year, there’s this article in Communication Quarterly about how romantic partners’ attitudes toward technology are associated with their technology use. In an article in Journal of Family CommunicationStephenson Beck (NDSU) and I address two competing models of family communication and relational maintenance. And with TCU colleague Amber Finnan article in Communication Education finds that college students actually do want their teachers to regulate students’ social use of technology–and perhaps especially cell phones. There’s also the new edition of A First Look at Communication Theory, but I’ve already blogged about that.

So, until next time… meanwhile, you can keep up with me in smaller tidbits on Twitter @dr_ledbetter.

“All That is Gold Does Not Glitter” for the social scientist

While teaching my final graduate-level quantitative research methods class yesterday, one of my students asked about how a person can know whether they should study quantitative or qualitative methods. A very good question.

In response, another of my students quoted Tolkien: “Not all those who wander are lost.” A good response to a good question!

And it got me thinking–especially since I’m re-reading Lord of the Rings right now–what might the famous “All That is Gold Does Not Glitter” poem look like, if written for a social scientific audience?

Here is my attempt at it, by way of footnotes to the original poem:

All this is gold does not glitter(1),
Not all those who wander are lost(2),
The old that is strong does not wither(3),
Deep roots are not reached by the frost(4).

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king(5).

(1) Please note that the data supporting this claim are cross-sectional in nature, and thus these results serve only as weak evidence of causation. Only future experimental and/or longitudinal research can determine whether goldenness causes lack of glittering, lack of glittering causes goldenness, or whether the apparent association is spurious due to a third factor unmeasured in this investigation.

(2) Stated more formally: H(0): Wandering is not significantly associated with being lost; H(A): Wandering is significantly associated with being lost.

(3) I.e., strength significantly moderates the extent to which age predicts withering. The moderating effect of other demographic variables could not be examined due to lack of statistical power.

(4) p < .08.

(5) We offer these practical applications only tentatively(6), and these possible applications should be evaluated further in clinical and/or applied contexts.

(6) “Thanks” to the anonymous reviewer who demanded we include such a practical application section before s/he would recommend accepting this for publication.

A First Look at Communication Theory 9th Edition – It’s here!

So I went to my office after returning from the Central States Communication Association conference (awesome time, BTW!), and found THIS on my desk!:

AFirstLook9thed

Seeing this book in print, with my name on the cover, was a meaningful moment in my career. When I was a junior at Wheaton College, I took Em Griffin’s interpersonal communication course. That class whetted my appetite for more, so in the spring semester I took his class on persuasion–which was intriguing, applicable, and engaging.

Then I enrolled in Em’s communication theory course. I was so excited that I bought the theory book before I left campus for the summer. I’d read half of it by the time I returned in the fall. The subject matter fascinated me–and around that time, I knew that I wanted to be a college professor. Specifically, a professor of communication.

Years later, when Em asked me to join him as a co-author on the A First Look textbook–the textbook that played a potent role in leading me to my career–I felt honored beyond words (and for us communication scholars, that’s saying something…) And let me just say that Em Griffin and Glenn Sparks are outstanding collaborators. They’re also very good writers–for example, if you want an insightful and entertaining read, check out “Rolling in Dough,” Glenn’s memoir on growing up in a doughnut shop. I’ve learned so much about the writing process from both of these outstanding colleagues and friends.

So that’s some of the story behind the book–what about the book itself?

Even though a couple of new names appear on the front, the spirit and style of the book remains the same. To continue the book’s legacy of engaging students with communication theory, we’ve made several additions and changes in response to instructor feedback and our own close reading of the book. Some of the changes that excite me most include:

  • Updated examples throughout the text. Although some historical examples remain (e.g., the “I Have a Dream” speech analysis in the Rhetoric chapter), we’ve freshened pop culture references throughout. See especially the chapters on Mead’s symbolic interactionism and Tannen’s genderlect styles.
  • A new chapter on Robert McPhee’s theory of the communicative constitution of organizations. Reader response to this chapter interests me not only because it’s a fresh and popular org comm theory–but also because I was primarily responsible for crafting it.
  • The uncertainty reduction theory chapter now includes a section on Leanne Knobloch’s relational turbulence model. Likewise, the muted group theory chapter addresses Mark Orbe’s co-cultural theory. I hope readers will appreciate these modern extensions of classic communication theories.

In the end, I hope these additions and changes help students not only learn communication theory, but become passionate about it. That’s one of the things I appreciate most about the text’s earlier editions–Em always presents communication as an inherently fascinating object of study. And not only fascinating, but useful in everyday life. I hope this new edition of the book inspires students to communicate excellently in both their personal and professional lives.

Book review: Veronica Roth’s “Allegiant”

Yeah, this blog is generally a professionally-oriented blog. I’m not planning to post tons of reviews of fiction here.

But I know many of my professional colleagues (e.g., the wonderful Kristen Carr, Katie Forsythe, and Kaitlin Phillips) are fellow fans of Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series–in part because, in its dystopian world, communicative and social factors take center stage. In other words, the first two novels, “Divergent” and “Insurgent,” are great fiction for social scientists.

Alas, my opinion is that the third book in the trilogy, “Allegiant,” isn’t good fiction for anybody.

I was so incensed by the third and final book that I wrote a 1-star review of it on Amazon. I’m posting it here too. The beginning is spoiler-free, but it gets really spoilery after that, so… you’ve been warned!

My thought after finishing Allegiant was: “Whoa–what on earth was that??” From the reviews here, seems like many others had that same reaction.

I felt such strong disappointment that I decided to post my first book review ever on Amazon.

It’s been three days since I’ve finished, and in that time I’ve weighed giving the book 2 stars or 1 star. In the end, I decided on the latter–there’s so much wrong here, and so little that really works.

I’ll get to specific, spoiler-filled reasons in a moment. But first, the non-spoiler thoughts: Much of the book is dull and talky. Characterization is much poorer than the previous books–lots of two-dimensional characters, and inconsistent divergence (ha) from what we’ve known of the characters in the previous books (chiefly Tobias). Many plot points and themes are inconsistent as well, and the ending is unsatisfying not so much because of *what* happens or *why*, but rather *how* it happens.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Many reviewers, here and elsewhere, have elaborated on the book’s weaknesses. I’d like to add three observations to the mix; I’m sure someone somewhere has already noted these, but I haven’t seen them emphasized in other reviews. So maybe it’s just me, but these three things bothered me greatly:

1) THE WORLD OUTSIDE THE FENCE IS DULL AND UNDERDEVELOPED: Insurgent left this as the chief story question: What is the world outside the fence? Allegiant offers a thin answer that doesn’t bear scrutiny. What’s up with the Fringe? We spend a lot of time on it, two long chapters–we discover people there are poor. And it’s violent. OK… so? Why is it that way? If it’s anything like real-world poverty, I assume there’s a variety of contributing factors. But the book suggests, somewhat vaguely, that government oppression of GDs is the sole cause. OK… well, how about that government then? The United States still exists apparently, but what does the current government look like? They seem pretty weak in their oversight of the Bureau, but are strong enough to keep many folks in abject poverty? And what exactly is the relationship between the government and the Bureau–surely the Bureau doesn’t act entirely on its own? Wouldn’t the government possess significant concern about a memory reset of the entire Bureau by a bunch of rebels from the experiment? It’s utterly unclear how the government and broader society operates here–thus, the chief story question left by Insurgent remains, in my view, unanswered.

2) THE BOOK FEELS LIKE A RETCON: OK, I get that it’s the nature of a story like this to discover that things we thought we knew just aren’t true. You can do that a bit and not only get away with it, but add significantly to the plot. From Insurgent, I’d put Evelyn’s non-death in that category. But in Allegiant, Roth backtracks so much that it gave me mental whiplash. Who is Edith Prior? Never mind, her identity doesn’t matter really. Sending an army of Divergent outside the city? Nope, that was a lie told for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Tori’s brother dead? No he’s not, but that fact contributes next to nothing to the plot. The faction/factionless conflict in the series really matters right? Doesn’t appear so–it gets little time and is (unbelievably) easily resolved. Tris’s mom was from Dauntless? Oops, no–and somehow Jeanine knew that, but don’t ask how. The Erudite developed the attack serum? Sorry, they were just toadies dependent on the Bureau. Being Divergent involves serum resistance? Well kinda but not really. So is Tobias Divergent? Well, actually not, but don’t expect an explanation for how Tris actually is beyond the word “genetics.” Perhaps Roth planned these things from the beginning. If so, she executes these revelations ineffectively; if not, well, this smells like the retcon it is.

3) HOW TRIS DIED: Now let me be utterly clear: I’M NOT BOTHERED BY THE *FACT* THAT TRIS DIED. Her death could’ve possessed tragic, artful beauty. I also get the sacrificial theme Roth was going for in her death (i.e., *why* she died). My problem is that *how* she died is inconsistent with the *why*.

If you read Roth’s blog post on why Tris died, you’ll find that she intended her death to demonstrate Tris’s understanding of love and sacrifice. Thematically, I can accept that. The problem is, the actual reasons–the “how”–of Tris’s death possess inconsistencies with that theme.

So why did Tris die? From this reader’s point of view, the following reasons, chiefly:

1) TRIS HAD A MOMENT OF STUPIDITY. Really–leaving her gun behind when going into the serum room? I could see Caleb doing that. But not someone Dauntless-trained.

2) HER ENEMIES WERE STUPIDER. So they found evidence an attack might occur. Now, what would you do in that situation, if you were David? I’d get those planes in the air, right away, or at least protect the pilots. I’d get some key decision-makers to safe, secure locations. I mean, I’d be more familiar with these serums that anyone else; I’d have safeguards in place to deal with death and memory serums getting loose in the compound. This is obvious–at least it should be obvious to people as supposedly smart as the Bureau. (Tangent: The Bureau seem like Erudite 2.0. Wish Roth had written a different kind of villain here–makes me wonder what bad experiences she had with science profs at Northwestern…) Or, at least station some more guards at the all-important serum room. Or inside it. I mean, they had just this kind of attack earlier in the book–that should’ve been a big wake-up call about their lax security measures. In short, the bad guys here are much too stupid to be credible enemies, especially given all the scientific prowess they’re supposed to possess.

3) TRIS WAS SELFISH. Now this strikes directly against Roth’s chief theme. Consider it. Why did Tris want to destroy the Bureau? Because the Bureau is a GP-dominated entity with a history of oppressing GDs. The Bureau was concerned about violent leaders in the city and wanted to erase their memories–never mind the collateral damage to the many innocent people in the city.

But, what about the city? Well, the city is a GD-dominated entity (the factions) with a history oppressing GPs (Divergents, and especially Factionless Divergents). On behalf of the city, Tris is concerned about violent leaders in the Bureau, and wants to erase their memories–never mind the collateral damage to the many innocent people in the Bureau (those poor GD underlings we see through Nita…)

And the thing is, this isn’t just my read of the narrative. Tris acknowledges this herself in a critical conversation in Chapter 39: “It’s not a perfect situation. But when you have to choose between two bad options, you pick the one that saves the people you love and believe in most. You just do. Okay?” So on one hand, Roth wants us to believe that the entire trilogy is about true self-sacrifice. On the other hand, she offers self-oriented relational interest as the chief, overriding criterion for making tough ethical decisions.

I think I just heard several dead Abnegation spinning in their graves…

So in the end, I found Allegiant to be a dull, slow, incoherent mess of a book. Some have taken this as an opportunity to bash Roth. I don’t think that’s warranted. We all make mistakes–and Roth is still a young (albeit very successful) author. And we know from Divergent and Insurgent that she can write an awesome book. She also seems like an author who possesses significant respect for her readers. My hope–and it’s a longshot, I know–but my hope is that her respect will translate into an apology. I think her fans still care about her–I think they’d take well to an, “I’m sorry, I really tried, but I goofed” sort of acknowledgment. (If only George Lucas had done that after Star Wars Episode I…) Then I’d welcome a fix–maybe a rewrite of the ending, if not the entire book. Until then, I’ll just pretend I have some memory serum to push Allegiant aside–and I’ll try to imagine an ending that’s truer to the story’s themes and roots.