The Sexual Orientations of First-Year Philosophy Undergrads


What’s the distribution of sexual orientations among first-year undergraduates who are majoring in philosophy? Eric Schwitzgebel (Riverside), Morgan Thompson (Pittsburgh), and Eric Winsberg (South Florida) looked at data from Higher Education Research Institute’s “Freshman Survey” to find out that and other information.

[photograph by Muholi Zanele]

They conclude that “Students intending to major in philosophy are more likely to identify as non-heterosexual than are students in other majors.” Here are the numbers:

Overall, across all majors, 92% identified as straight, 4% as bisexual, 2% as other, and the remaining groups 1% each. Philosophy majors were more likely to report non-heterosexual sexual orientation: 88% straight, 6% bisexual, 3% other, 2% gay, 1% queer, and < 1% lesbian. (p < .001, comparing the proportion straight).

Non-response rates of 10% for philosophy majors and 8% for students over all was “an issue”, they say, but “the proportions, absolute numbers, and effect sizes are large enough to permit some confidence in the conclusion”.

They add, “Unsurprisingly, philosophy isn’t the queerest of all disciplines.” That designation would go to Women’s and Gender Studies, with 42% of the students identifying as non-heterosexual.

They also found that “43% (485/1132) of intended philosophy majors were women (1%, or 7 total, declined to state), compared to 58% of first-year students overall.”

They attempted to determine the proportion of philosophy students who are transgender, but, they say, “given the small number of self-reported transgender students and these resulting interpretative difficulties, we are hesitant to draw conclusions about the proportion of students who are transgender or about whether philosophy students were more likely than other students to be transgender.”

You can read more about their study here.


Related: “The Personality of Philosophy Majors“, “The Political Views of Philosophy Majors“, “Philosophy Majors Are Less Likely To Marry Each Other“, “The Philosophy Major Sees Increase in Numbers and Diversity“, “Proportion of Philosophy Majors Who Are Women Varies Widely Across Schools“.

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Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
11 months ago

Just to start off with the most obvious question but, is the difference between philosophy and non-philosophy majors a statistically significant difference? If so, how much so? Using what analyses? Is this ratio changing over time or consistent? This isn’t a critique, just a call for a little more info. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
11 months ago

They give a p-value in the quoted text, don’t they?Report

Eric
Eric
Reply to  David Wallace
11 months ago

Yes. This is the main reason this is the first finding we published: it just jumped out as the easiest thing to show.Report

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
11 months ago

At my University majors aren’t usually selected until 2nd year, usually towards the end. So I am a bit puzzled what we’re talking about here.Report

Eric Schwitzgebel
Eric Schwitzgebel
Reply to  Michael Kremer
11 months ago

Right! The HERI asks students what they intend to major in, so this is self-report of intention to major rather than any official record of actual majors.Report

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
Reply to  Michael Kremer
11 months ago

OK, the actual article makes clear that this was students who “expressed an intention to major in philosophy.” How well does that match actual philosophy majors? (I’m not really skeptical of the claimed results! But I am wondering about the methodology.)Report

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
Reply to  Michael Kremer
11 months ago

Better: in the quotes in the OP there is a bit of a slide from intending majors to “philosophy majors” and this is the source of my reaction, which I think was precipitate. My apologies.Report

Eric Schwitzgebel
Eric Schwitzgebel
Reply to  Michael Kremer
11 months ago

Fair critique. We should consistently phase it more cautiously. For sure there’s a big slippage between 1st year intention and actual completion. This is very difficult to estimate from existing data sources, but anecdotally it wouldn’t surprise me if it was in the ballpark of 50%. Interestingly, at a first pass, it looks like roughly as many students migrate away from philosophy as migrate into it, comparing the HERI and IPEDS numbers. About 0.3% of students intend to major in philosophy and about 0.3% of students complete a degree in philosophy. But it won’t be entirely the same people in both of those 0.3%s.Report

AD
AD
11 months ago

Glad to see such important work being done in philosophy. If this doesn’t make people want to keep philosophy in universities, nothing will.Report

FCP
FCP
Reply to  AD
11 months ago

I would say this is a genuinely “small but important contribution to understanding the sociology of academia”. Kudos!Report

Eric Schwitzgebel
Eric Schwitzgebel
11 months ago

The systematic study of demographic trends is a small but important contribution to understanding the sociology of academia, cited in various ways by people across the political spectrum as well as by people who are interested in thinking about sources of the decline in enrollments in humanities.Report

Eric Schwitzgebel
Eric Schwitzgebel
Reply to  Eric Schwitzgebel
11 months ago

Whoops — I meant to post that as a reply to AD.Report

ehz
ehz
Reply to  Eric Schwitzgebel
11 months ago

Why is sociological work being done by philosophers and funded by the American Philosophical Association?Report

CS
CS
Reply to  ehz
11 months ago

Lots of APA members are interested in sociological questions about the philosophy profession – how many folks graduate in what areas, etc. In part for the reasons Eric mentions, above. I for one would like to see the APA do more to advocate for the discipline and for the humanities. To do this sometimes requires sociological work (e.g., finding out about gender breakdowns with respect to who gets jobs, etc.). We also want to see if our majors are learning anything in our classes, too. This isn’t really philosophical work, either – it is in education, I suppose. But it seems like a reasonable thing for the APA to fund these kind of things too – they’re on issues that philosophers care about. (Note that many philosophers involved in the APA also do psychology (what philosophers refer to as “experimental philosophy”). It isn’t like the APA is sponsoring random sociological or psychological work that doesn’t matter to our discipline.
Report

Chris Surprenant
Reply to  ehz
11 months ago

I’ve been very critical of the APA, what it does, the projects it helps to support, etc. I’m very supportive or something like this. Going forward, especially in a time like this when philosophy departments are getting cut, it’s important for academic philosophers to show that we’re able to make meaningful contributions to discussions in other fields or areas that have more practical interest than what academic philosophers might traditionally focus on.Report

dcw
dcw
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
11 months ago

I agree provided we are talking about contributions that philosophers can make *as philosophers*. It’s not clear to me that it does us good – with respect to the internal politics of the university – for philosophers to make contributions as sociologists (or psychologist, or…).Report

FakeItTilYouMakeIt
FakeItTilYouMakeIt
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
11 months ago

Chris, how exactly is research about the demographics of philosophy departments meant to show that “we’re we’re able to make meaningful contributions to discussions in other fields or areas that have more practical interest than what academic philosophers might traditionally focus on”? Report

Stephen Bloch-Schulman
Stephen Bloch-Schulman
11 months ago

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to these excellent philosophers for their continued exceptional work to make the discipline more self-aware and, I do hope, more just.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Stephen Bloch-Schulman
11 months ago

I don’t really care much either way whether people do research on things like this, though I’m slightly interested in its results. And I really don’t care whether my colleagues or students in philosophy are heterosexual or not. If there are people who have good philosophical rigor and insights and help us pursue interesting lines of inquiry, and they’re interested in contributing to philosophy, then great, I hope they do so. If there are students who would benefit from training in philosophical thinking (and I think most would), I hope they take some philosophy courses. But I doubt that either of those things correlates with people’s sexual orientation, race, sex, or gender-identity, and it seems to me to be (probably harmful and untrue) stereotyping to assume that we can read off people’s philosophical positions from those crude demographic features, so I don’t care all that much about it. In fact, I feel we owe it to our colleagues and students as part of a norm of respect not to care much about those things and to see them each as individuals, not at all as tokens of their demographics.

If a plausible case were made that certain demographics were less likely to do philosophy *and a good case were made that that reason had to do with bigotry rather than free choices* (so rarely is the second part thought necessary!), then I’d want to make sure the bigotry could be addressed. However, in this case, it seems that non-heterosexuals are if anything overrepresented in the discipline, which would seem quite unlikely if there were general bigotry against them (and philosophers, happily, seem to be generally broad-minded about these sorts of things). And there also doesn’t seem to be a problem of bigotry against heterosexuals. So to me, these results seem mildly interesting, but I don’t yet know whether they make us self-aware in any crucial ways or help promote justice. Report

r
r
Reply to  Justin Kalef
11 months ago

The results of the survey track with my anecdotal experience as a gay philosopher, which has been that philosophy is perhaps a little queerer than baseline, but neither especially queer nor especially straight (and a 4% difference, while statistically significant, is pretty small to show up in my individual experience). And because philosophy is politically and culturally left wing outside of specifically religious bastions, it “wasn’t a big deal” socially. This may be a new development, given how radically and rapidly culture has changed on this, but it’s my experience given the timing of my arrival in the academy as an older millenial.

Correspondingly, I have wondered for a while whether it really makes sense to group LGBT+ philosophers under the “under-represented minorities” umbrella, given that they appear to be represented at about expectation. Certainly they’re at radically closer demographic parity than e.g. black American philosophers. I have also wondered whether it really makes sense, by so grouping them, to put initiatives LGBT+ support under the same umbrella of justice as other groups which imo have much better claims to face widespread unjust treatment in their attempts to pursue philosophy. Granted, this is one small piece of data, and only part of a bigger picture.

Still, if that picture is really one of generally equal representation and little discrimination, that may render some special efforts to promote e.g. the citation and recognition of LGBT+ philosophers suspect. Nonetheless, it seems to me still plausible that things like LGBT+ societies, affinity groups, and celebration of LGBT+ culture are still perfectly reasonable. There’s nothing wrong with a department or even discipline making itself attractive, supportive, or fun in ways that do not directly tie to the correction of some or another injustice. Rather, insofar as there is something good about those things, and there are no considerations ~against~ them, they seem worth doing all things considered.

To tie this more directly to your point, Prof. Kalef, it strikes me that bigotry is a serious evil which plausibly licenses fairly draconian counter-interventions, and, indeed, I suspect that they may not actually be licensed for LGBT+ philosophers given their prevailing social status in the discipline. Still, I wouldn’t take that as showing the whole of the ‘diversity agenda’ to be misconceived, tokenizing, or offensive (even though it can plausibly sometimes be some of those things). Instead I think it’s worthwhile to rethink some items on the diversity agenda as not required responses to injustice but instead just all things considered good interventions.Report

notgettingdoxedthistime
notgettingdoxedthistime
Reply to  r
11 months ago

I, for one, would like to know in what circles r has been traveling. I’m a bit older than r (Gen X), and a woman. I have had amazingly good luck, and amazingly bad luck in this old profession. But the bad luck has included an outrageously high amount of quite blatant discrimination, and –unlike with other marginalized groups– there have been quite public anti-gay statements by philosophers, about philosophers, in their role as philosophers, during my time in the profession. In this century. If someone could provide directions to the safe liberal enclave in which folks like me never face discrimination, that’d be great. Once the lockdown ends, I’ll be sure to go. Perhaps r could just indicate location of this enclave on a google map?Report

r
r
Reply to  notgettingdoxedthistime
11 months ago

notgettingdoxedthistime, I’m sorry to hear that your treatment was so much worse than mine.

I don’t recall any public anti-gay statements about philosophers, qua philosophers, by other philosophers. I think it would be good for me to know of these, if nothing else to dispel my apparent naivete. Can you describe these incidents, or say enough about them to enable me to do relevant googling? Report

notgettingdoxedthistime
notgettingdoxedthistime
Reply to  r
11 months ago

I find it difficult to believe that you are actually both gay and that naive, r. And I am not gullible enough to be drawn into this (much) further. These things are not hidden, and I believe the majority of those actually in philosophy who are reading this know exactly what I have in mind. Or at least one or two of the most prominent, en masse public displays thereof. But listen, if your corner of the philosophical world is as rainbow-progressive as you’ve described it, and you really do not know of what I could possibly be speaking, why not find one of your slightly older colleagues and ask them?Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  r
11 months ago

r, I think these may be two of the high profile cases notgettingdoxedthistime is alluding to (I’m not sure though, and I’m not taking any stance on how representative they are):

http://dailynous.com/2016/09/25/tale-two-conferences/

http://dailynous.com/2016/01/20/hey-did-you-know-logical-pluralism-is-connected-to-homosexuality/Report

r
r
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
11 months ago

Thanks NIcolas for helpfully directing me to these. If those were the intended incidents, it would explain the disconnect; I was aware of both, at the time, and neither made an impression. With respect to the first, I would not categorize espousing a conservative Christian view of sexual morality as criticizing gay philosophers qua philosophers, but instead criticizing them qua sexual agents. I also take such discourse to be expected at “specifically religious bastions,” which is why I excluded them from my initial statement about my perception of the culture of American academic philosophy.

With respect to the second, Jean-Yves Beziau may indeed be drawing a connections between homosexuality and suspect logical views, thereby impugning the competence of gay philosophers qua philosophers. However, Beziau’s paper was universally received as completely over-the-moon crazy. To me that incident did not speak to Beziau’s ideas, such as there even were any recoverable from the frankly bizarre text, as having any traction in the broader profession.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  r
11 months ago

Again, I’m not sure at all these are the intended allusions. They came to mind and I have no evidence going one way or another. I’m genuinely agnostic and have no stake in this.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
11 months ago

I know a woman who, on announcing that she was planning to go to grad school and become a professional philosopher, was warned by many women that she was about to enter a world of sexism and even misogyny, and that this foray would be a living hell. They warned her to at least look over the anonymous stories told at the blog, “What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy?”.

She loved philosophy so much, she didn’t want to be deterred needlessly. But she felt she owed it to herself to hear the worst of it, and finally summoned up the nerve to face the dark side of the discipline. She sat there at her computer and read every single story that had ever been submitted there, one after the other.

She told me that it had the unexpected effect of easing her mind considerably! Her reaction was that if, after so many years of collecting the worst horror stories (real, false or exaggerated) from around the world, *this* was all that came out of it, her odds of having a career without any of these problems were very good. And indeed, that was well over a decade ago now, and she still hasn’t run into anything bad.

I wonder whether something similar might be going on with the two incidents discussed above.

I’ve also found reading this exchange illuminating in another way. I know two or three gay and lesbian people in the profession, and they seem quite happy about things, but I realize that that’s just anecdotal evidence. ‘r’ has given us a positive account as a gay philosopher, but that’s just another single anecdote. notgettingdoxedthistime claims to have found a hostile discipline, but that’s yet another anecdote. None of this, in itself, seems to give us a basis for determining whether or not there’s a problem to be solved: given how vast the profession is, it would be surprising if there was *nobody* who had an objectionable attitude toward gay people. The question is how widespread this is and whether there are others who can and will step in in cases of clear bigotry. That doesn’t seem to be answered so far.

However, I do notice something different in the way r and notgettingdoxedthistime respond to each other. r hears about notgettingdoxedthistime’s different experiences, takes them seriously, and asks to hear more so that he can gain a fuller and fairer appreciation of they way things are. notgettingdoxedthistime hears about r’s different experiences and responds in a condescending way that already assumes that r’s experiences are not representative, and shows no apparent interest at all in figuring out how extensive these problems are, or even of giving r and the rest of us a sense of what is supposedly so bad. I must say that this sort of attitude, which I have seen so many times before, tends to make r seem like a much more trustworthy source of information. If a blog or culture of discourse collects the hits and disregards the misses, it’s going to give you an exaggerated sense of the hit/miss ratio.Report

wr09
wr09
11 months ago

I’m all for the study but curious why limit it to first-years. A lot of people I know, as well as myself, used college as a time to explore our sexuality. Many people who thought they were straight at the beginning of college embraced queer labels after encountering queer theory/various experiences. I think surveying graduates might yield a more representative result.Report

Eric Schwitzgebel
Eric Schwitzgebel
Reply to  wr09
11 months ago

That would be very interesting! We don’t have data on that, unfortunately — but if anyone knows of a source, I’d love to hear.Report