Perceptions of Political Bias and Efficacy in Social science Research: A Study

The United States federal government does not prioritize social science and behavioral research when determining the overall budget. (Chevreul et al., 2012) The National Science Foundation (NSF) Survey of Research and Development Expenditures at Universities and Colleges conducts studies on federal funding committed to research for different branches of science. The data shows that not only do the psychological and social sciences receive the least amount of funding, but also that the overall amount has dropped in the past decade. (NSF, 2012) Additionally, it is hypothesized that the stigmatization of mental disorders and lack of public awareness regarding mental health issues is related to both the lack of governmental funding and private donations. (Chevreul et al., 2012) The political nature of this issue is demonstrated by policy decision-making and implementation in the United States government.


Social science issues are politicized both in their funding and in their findings. This often depends on the level of partisan entrenchment the issue is perceived as having. (Glenn, 2001; Pittenger, 2003) As a result, scientists studying these issues cannot avoid political debates. Contrastingly, in translational research, researchers apply their knowledge acquisition to a specific issue and then translate it into policy. (Mcknight, Sechrest, & Mcknight, 2005) However, this can be thwarted when policy recommendations by social science researchers over-exaggerate the causal relationships of findings when they are actually correlative. (Glenn, 2001) Both political bias and efficacy shape many aspects of a psychological or social scientists’ research in relation to policy.




Censorship and dissuasion of research findings occur on both sides of the political spectrum. (Lilienfeld, 2010) Several studies within the social sciences have lost federal agency funding due to the controversial nature of the issues they’ve researched. (Pittenger, 2003) Although both sides of the political scale discriminate in their findings, they do so occurs in opposing ways. Conservatives have reached an all-time low in their trust of scientific findings, while liberals tend to view many findings as overly ambiguous and not determinative enough. (Maccoun & Paletz, 2009; Redding, 2013) It has been found that people tend to trust studies on a social issue more if the results align with their political beliefs. On the other hand, when the results contradict their beliefs, they attribute the results to the researcher’s ideological bias or faulty research methods. (Maccoun & Paletz, 2009; Pittenger, 2003)


Scientific inquiry, specifically in the field of social science, is defined by its safeguards against confirmation biases and preconceptions. (Glenn, 2001; Lilienfeld, 2010) However, researchers are susceptible to creating studies that align with their political leanings. (Maccoun & Paletz, 2009; Redding, 2013) Social science studies tend to produce more conclusions that are considered liberal and it is often noted that this is the effect of conformity into the norms of this field and the groupthink of social science researchers. (Glenn, 2001; Redding, 2013) This bias and cronyism can lead to the publishing of flawed studies, over-interpretation of causality from quasi-experimental studies, and unequal distribution of positive peer reviews for studies that back liberal beliefs. (Glenn, 2001; Lilienfeld, 2010) The perception of political bias in social science is counterproductive for affecting change because it has been found that people tend to have more trust in outcomes of studies when they believe that it emerged from a politically diverse group of researchers. (Redding, 2013)

Political Efficacy in Research         

The translation of research into practice or policy is often difficult because political stakeholders tend to be skeptical of the validity of social science research. (Redding, 2013) Moreover, policymakers and agencies favor specific types of social science research such as intervention studies, randomized controlled trials, and studies that lead to cost-control policies. Additionally, research is often translated into policy when the issues being studied are topical, and provide a “quick fix.” (Mcknight et al., 2005; Pittenger, 2003) Yet, when researchers are rushed into making policy recommendations of the basis of topicality, the outcomes are not always valid. (Mcknight et al., 2005) On the other hand, strong research that is not at the forefront of the current political agenda can be overshadowed and then forgotten. (Pittenger, 2003)

Overall, social scientists are encouraged to create translational research that has the ability to be used as a rationale for policies. (Mcknight et al., 2005) To accomplish this, some journals have suggested creating a layperson’s summary at the beginning of articles which would summarize the article in terms a general audience could understand or create comprehensive evidence briefs specifically for politicians that provide an overview of an issue. (Moat, Lavis, & Abelson, 2013; Phillips, 2002) On the political side, President Obama’s Executive Order 13707 (2015) introduced policies that would strengthen agencies’ relationships with behavioral scientists and research and create a Social and Behavioral Sciences Team that provides agencies with up-to-date research trends in social science. Additionally, the NSF came out with a report detailing a conglomeration of researchers’ reflections on current policies and future directions for the social and behavioral sciences (NSF, 2011)

Overall, the funding and implementation of social science, psychological and behavioral research is an issue separate from American political discourse. However, there are many gaps in the overview of this topic and much of the evidence is dated and conducted outside of the United States. Thus, the question can be pose: how does the changing political climate contribute to the perceptions of political bias and political efficacy within social science research?                                 


To investigate this research problem, two female participants were recruited for semi-structured interviews. These two participants were chosen through a convenience sample in which the researcher was familiar with the two participants and believed that they could both be considered experts in the implementation and organizational aspects of research in relation to politics. The researcher was currently or previously working under both participants and recruited them via email or face to face inquiry. This study used a small sample size for the sake of convenience.  The comparative case study allows for an in-depth look into cases that could provide insight for further research.

The first participant is a mid-level employee at a social policy research organization in a metropolitan area. Her field involves overseeing family, child, and educational policy-relevant research. The specific study being researched by this participant involves early childhood education. The second participant is a researcher and coordinator at a university in a metropolitan area. Her field of research involves the study of interventions for youth in the juvenile justice system and its effectiveness within the female youth population.                


This study aimed to present a comparative case analysis between two research-involved participants. The two participants’ perceptions of the political bias involved in the creation and implementation of research into practice was examined, alongside the political efficacy they felt their research helped realize. Additionally, these interviews aimed to illuminate the current political climate’s impact on these two variables. Semi-structured interviews involve the creation of a general guideline and a set of interview questions, while allowing the participant to guide the conversation. This method was employed because both participants had extensive knowledge on the issues involved in the study, but came from different contexts and could have different experiences dealing with the topics inquired about in the interviews.

Each interview lasted between 25-30 minutes. The list in which questions were referenced was the same throughout the two interviews, but the interviewer would elaborate on some questions. They also used a technique called funneling in which the questions would range from general to specific to gain more extensive knowledge on each subject. An example of a question pertaining to political efficacy includes: “How often do the studies get implemented into social policy research?” An example of a question relating to political bias includes: “Do political ideologies ever affect funding of research?” The first interview was recorded and transcribed, but the second participant opted out of the recording, so the interviewer took notes of the entire conversation. The transcript and the notes were then prepared for coding.              


The Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis coding technique was utilized in this study. (Smith & Osborn, 2008) This form of coding involves steps which aim to investigate participants’ perceptions of events, experiences, and specific aspects within their sphere of influence. This technique was chosen due to its emphasis on capturing an “insider’s perspective” of issues, using a small sample size, and conducting semi-structured interviews. Contrary to other forms of thematic coding, these codes are determined by the content of the data, are not preconceived, and are discussed at length without determining frequencies.  

Using the data from the initial interview, the transcript was read over several times. Then, during a close reading of the data, each line of the interview would be annotated by a message that a chunk of data was conveying. These annotations were later compiled into a master list and read through several times, and then clustered into groups of similarly emerging themes and named according to what themes they represented. Using the data from the second interview, the process was repeated. However, the annotations were read several times to determine if they would fit into the themes from the initial interview and grouped accordingly. If not, new themes were created by the clusters from the second interview.


Overall the coding and clustering of themes resulted in eleven overall emerging themes. These included: orrisome current political climate, Optics dictating decisions, Salience of political leanings, Prioritizing success and optimization, Emphasis on assisting disadvantaged or oppressed groups, Top-down decision making of government entities, Ambiguity or clarity of political efficacy, Hierarchy of research, Inflexibility of government budgets, nd overnment micromanagement.


The only theme that emerged relating specifically to this construct was a orrisome political climat. This developed in both interviews, manifesting itself through a variety of ideas. Specifically, it came through in concerns regarding the recent “worrisome” U.S. election, cynicism about upcoming policies, overall uncertainty about the future, an influx of conservative ideals, and anti-immigrant values. For example, one portion highlighted how the new executive administration might be heading in a different direction in the realm of education policy. Another example indicated the anti-immigration sentiments of the incoming administration and how it would relate to the research being conducted.

Political Bias

The construct “political bias” is comprised of four emergent themes. They include: ptics dictating political decisions, Salience of political leanings, Prioritizing success and optimization, and mphasis on assisting disadvantaged or oppressed group. These themes developed in both interviews conducted. Governmental fear of unwanted publicity, catering projects to ideologies, an emphasis on progress and success, approaching education inequality, and seeing young girls as victims were particularly stressed by both participants.

Optics dictating political decision came up when one participant acknowledged that activism and political pressure by citizens can contribute to the government willingness to tackle certain issues. Discussion of alience of political leanings occurred when one participant recognized that all social issues and related research could be perceived as liberal. On the subject of rioritizing success and optimizatio, one participant dictated how the government funders of a project were mostly interested in outcome variables that indicated a reduction in “bad behaviors.” Regarding mphasis on assisting disadvantaged or oppressed groups, ne participant indicated that funders and policymakers paid more attention to projects that aimed to help groups with low socioeconomic statuses.

POLITICAL EFFICACY                        

The construct, “political efficacy,” contained five emergent themes: Top-down decision making of government entities, Ambiguity or clarity of political efficacy, Hierarchy of research, Inflexibility of government budget nd overnment micromanagement.

These themes varied and did not appear consistently across participant interviews. Some general ideas that formed within this construct include: the power of stakeholders, contract of political influence, collaboration with other organizations, treating subjects as experts, seeking independence from government funding, and government oversight of ethical issues.                

An example of Top-down decision making of government entities occurred when a participant expressed that foundations tend to only care about study outcomes, while the government would oversee every aspect of a study. Regarding mbiguity or clarity of political efficacy, one participant illustrated that prior to a study being conducted, there was an agreement that dictated that it would have an effect on policy. Within the theme Hierarchy of research, a participant dictated that the organization itself had politics in which the research had to operate. In reference to nflexibility of government budgets, a participant suggested that government funding only aims to solidify the status quo. An example of overnment micromanagemen was demonstrated when a participant discussed that funding allowed stakeholders overarching control over projects.                 


Overall, this study showcases an overview of the general relationship between politics and social science research. The initial construct, the “current political climate,” aimed to develop hypotheses about the topicality of research in politics and predict how to best approach this subject in the future. The construct of “political bias,” or ideological bias, refers to the belief that one’s political leanings affects one’s perceptions or actions. “Political efficacy” has been described as the perception of the ability to make change through political participation (Balch, 1974). This study sought to discover the links between these constructs and the perceptions by researchers of the implementation of social science research. The qualitative nature of this study intended to find overarching themes that could describe the phenomena of these constructs.

Regarding the current political climate, the overwhelming response in both interviews dictated a worrisome and uncertain tone about the recent United States elections and its overall effects on the way social science research could be conducted. Not only did the future seem unclear in this regard, but it also seemed as though research about social issues would become less of a priority over time. As previously stated, the U.S. government currently does not prioritize the research and development within the social science field and this is partly due to stigma surrounding such issues. (Chevreul et al., 2012; NSF, 2012) The results show that the researchers are aware of this, and are concerned that social science research may be deprioritized even further.

Within the main construct of “political bias,” a consensus was reached amongst members of the social science research community. The intersection between the emerging themes was noted and their relation to one another was striking. The idea that optics dictates decision-making in politics relates to both emergent themes, demonstrating by an emphasis on assisting disadvantaged groups, prioritizing success, and optimizing outcomes. These findings align with the belief that policymakers favor studies that produce “quick fixes.” (Mcknight et al., 2005; Pittenger, 2003) Additionally, it supports the theory that short-term solutions are favored over long-term strategies because decisions are often made out of a sense of fear, clouding their rationality. (Wodak, 2008) In regards to overall political ideological salience as a theme, the results indicated an emphasis on social science and social issues as generally a liberal endeavor and that projects are affected by the perception of political leanings. This upholds the generalization that the social sciences are liberal and that research is dictated by general political leanings. (Maccoun & Paletz, 2009; Redding, 2013)

Within the construct of “political efficacy,” the cases diverged on several of the emergent themes. Overall, the two cases were on opposing ends of the spectrum regarding perception of general political efficacy of their projects. This resonates with the opposing ideas that generally, policy makers are skeptical of social science research findings, but favor certain studies regarding outcomes and perceived effectiveness. (Mcknight et al., 2005; Redding, 2013) Additionally, the themes of op-down decision making of government entities, Inflexibility of government budget nd overnment micromanagemen are intertwined, but vary in different projects. These themes demonstrated that government funding could relate to the decisionmaking of research projects and that stakeholders tend to exert extensive control over social science research. This promotes the theory that the government puts pressure on universities and research organizations to have research that creates an impact on certain agendas. (Thomson, 2015) An inconsistent finding developed in the theme concerning hierarchies in research. For one case, many decisions regarding projects were decided by major stakeholders within the organization, while the other case emphasized the subjects of the studies’ participant as important.


This comparative case study was qualitative in its data collection and measures and should be taken as an introduction to these topics. This initial investigation’s purpose was to discover whether the constructs of political climate, bias, and efficacy had a stake in the development and implementation of research. Though the sample size was small and the study derived its participants from a convenience sampling strategy, the outcomes demonstrated a promising possible relation between the perceptions of these constructs and the implementation of research. Additionally, the comparisons and contrasting of the convergent and divergent themes promoted the idea that these constructs have some differing effects, but also many similar effects on the perceptions of social science researchers.

As the study of this research topic continues, it should be noted that the intersection between politics and research is inevitable and should involve meta-analyses to integrate the constructs of political climate, bias, and efficacy into research practice. The continuance of this analysis is important to the streamlining of knowledge transfer and the translation of research into practice, and how it is perceived on both the political and research ends. Recently, the Congressional chair of the appropriations subcommittee, which funds the NSF, announced that the budget would focus on “core sciences,” specifically excluding social and behavioral sciences. The justification for this budget cut was that the NSF should focus on sciences that matter in the “national interest.” (Mervis, 2015) To promote the use of social science research in policymaking, the study of this relationship between research into practice or policy is crucial. Social science research must be instrumentalized by federal, state, and local governments to help understand and alleviate social issues. (Vessuri, 2002)              





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