This article was written in 1989 for publication in The British Journal of Psychology but was not accepted
Enemies of Freedom: Understanding Right-wing authoritarianism
By: R. Altemeyer. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988.
407 pp. Hardbound. $22.95
This book won the prize for behavioural science research issued by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. So the book represents what at least American mainstream psychologists regard as first-class science. It seems likely, however, that there eventually will be some embarrassment about this. Let us look at some of the book's more remarkable features.
Let us say that we had set one of our postgraduate students the task of studying variable X. His task included devising a measure of variable X and using it to help us understand variations in X. When the student hands in his assignment we find that he has virtually ignored the last 20 years of research (consisting of a couple of
hundred papers) on X and devised a new measure of X which provides virtually no prediction of X. How would we mark him? Fail? Most likely.
The student behavior I have just outlined, however, is also accurate as an outline of Altemeyer's work.
Right-wing authoritarianism was very much a "hot" research topic of the '50's and '60's. Since that time, however, there have been only three researchers who have continued to write extensively on it in the journal literature: Patrick Heaven, Ken Rigby and myself. Other authors seem to contribute just one or two papers and then fall silent on the topic. We three diehards have however been prolific. I alone
have had over a hundred papers on the subject published over the last 20 years. Science is supposed to be a "brick-by-brick" building process in which one learns from what went before so one would expect that anybody writing on authoritarianism would have to give major consideration to the writings of Rigby, Heaven and Ray. Altemeyer, however, in his current book totally ignores Rigby, cites only one paper by Heaven (a paper in which Heaven used Altemeyer's scale) and cites only three papers by myself (two of which refer to Altemeyer's own work). Altemeyer is obviously hard to impress. His own work must be good.
But how good is it? Would it not be a minimum validity requirement for a scale of Right-wing authoritarianism that it give a good prediction of Right-wing political choices? Altemeyer's scale does not. Scores on the RWA scale are roughly normally distributed so it should have the potential to discriminate well but by Altemeyer's own admission his scale gives virtually no prediction of Right-wing
political preference at all. Whatever it measures is essentially non-political. Altemeyer seems to think that we should take it on trust that the scale "could" have political relevance "some day". That being so, the book is more a horoscope than a work of science. Even a horoscope, however, would presumably make more sense than saying (as Altemeyer by implication does) that at the present time many Right-wing authoritarians are Leftists!
So if the Altemeyer work is an empirical disaster, is it maybe some sort of theoretical triumph? Far from it. The theory content makes even the empirical work look good. There has of course been a couple of centuries of writing on what differentiates conservatives from their adversaries. Altemeyer's knowledge of that literature appears to be what he calls "zippo" (nil). The definition he gives of conservatism is a schoolboy one: it shows that he may have gotten as far as being
able to consult a dictionary but it shows a complete ignorance of political thinking. His definition is: "A disposition to preserve the status quo, to maintain social stability, to preserve tradition". By this definition, Britain's Prime Minister Thatcher (surely one of the world's leading conservatives) seems not to be conservative. Is she concentrating on maintaining the status quo? Far from it. She is one of the most energetic reformers Britain has ever had. And which countries in this century have done most to maintain social stability and to preserve their traditions, generally at enormous human cost? Surely the Communist ones! See Brahm (1982). So Communists are conservatives and Margaret Thatcher is a Leftist in Altemeyer's strange world. The fact that conservatives have long opposed the extension of State power, control and intervention and are now beginning to reverse such extensions seems to have escaped Altemeyer. It is basically your attitude to State power that makes you a conservative or a Communist, not your attitude to anything as vague as "change". One of the major writers on conservatism was aware of the poor linkage between dictionary-type conservatism and Rightism at least as far back as 1978 (Wilson, 1978) but it was obviously too much to expect that Altemeyer
keep up with the work of the major writers in his own field.
So how did Altemeyer get that prize? One can only speculate but perhaps it had something to do with some sort of "Rightists under the bed" mentality on the part of the awarding committee. Altemeyer does manage to sound pretty alarming about Right-wing authoritarians. Perhaps for some people it is reassuring to think that you have enemies and to be told that they are a bad lot. The satisfactoriness of the
conclusions made up for all deficits of theory, method and results.
University of N.S.W., Australia
Brahm, H. (1982) Die Sowjetunion -- eine konservative Gesellschaft?
Osteuropa 32(7), 531-544.
Ray, J.J. (1987) Special review of "Right-wing authoritarianism" by R.A. Altemeyer. Personality & Indiv. Diffs. 8, 771-772.
Wilson, G. (1978) The psychology of conservatism: Comment on Stacey
New Zealand Psychologist 7, 21.
Published reviews of the book can be found as under:
Ray, J.J. (1990) Book Review: Enemies of freedom by R. Altemeyer. Australian Journal of Psychology, 42, 87-111.
Ray, J.J. (1990) Letter to the editor about Altemeyer's Enemies of Freedom. In: Canadian Psychology, 31, 392-393.
Ray, J.J. (1990) Book Review: Enemies of freedom by R. Altemeyer. Personality & Individual Differences, 11, 763-764.
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