September 8, 2022 - 1:25pm

The birth of the Great Awokening is said to be around 2010-2014. The abrupt surge in prejudice-denouncing terms such as racism, sexism and homophobia in the media preceded the political emergence of Donald Trump and has continued since he left office. Further work confirmed similar dynamics in UK and Spanish news media.

More recently, I have investigated the prevalence of the same terms in the academic literature. What I found is that in contrast to news media content, where the number of references to different prejudice types has been fairly flat since the 1970s and then rises sharply post-2010, in academic literature the prominence of prejudice terms has been steadily rising for several decades.

The figure below shows how academic focus on ethnic prejudice has been growing for almost a century through four distinct waves. The first wave occurred right after World War II, the second one after 1968, the third during the so-called “politically correct” 1990s and the fourth wave takes place post-2010. Notice also how after each wave, the base level remains elevated, thus establishing a new normal.

Year frequency of terms denouncing prejudice in academic papers (1900-2020). Source: Semantic Scholar Open Research Center

In contrast to ethnic prejudice, the concept of gender prejudice was virtually unheard of in the academic literature prior to the 1970s and it then emerges swiftly. The prominence of this topic in scholarly content then remains relatively constant for about 30 years and grows again post-2010.

Academic interest on sexual orientation prejudice rises mostly after 1980, coinciding with the devastation caused by the AIDS epidemic. The concepts of gender identity prejudice (i.e. transphobia) and Islamophobia are relatively recent phenomena in academic content and only start to increase in prominence after the turn-of-the-century.

Academic focus on anti-Semitism reveals a completely different dynamic. Mentions of anti-Semitism in scholarly content grew prior to and during World War II. The topic then drops in prominence during the 1950s and it has stayed relatively flat from then on in stark contrast with all the other prejudice types.

The relationship between academic focus on racism and sexism after the civil rights movement of the 1960s is of interest. It is worth noting in the figure below how the sudden rise in the prominence of gender prejudice in the academic literature happens slightly later than the second wave of interest in ethnic prejudice. Words commonly used to denounce ethnic prejudice rise rapidly during the late 1960s and early 1970s. In contrast, words often used to denounce gender prejudice rise throughout the 1970s. This trend is consistent with the idea of gender scholars in the 1970s building up the concept of gender prejudice by mimicking previous work on ethnic prejudice

Frequency of references to ethnic and gender prejudice in academic papers (1900-2010). Source: Semantic Scholar Open Research Center

It is also worth directly comparing the relationship between the prominence of different prejudice topics in academia and news media content. The next figure shows how the first wave of attention to ethnic prejudice in academic content after the Second World War was mostly not echoed in news media. The post-civil rights wave however manifested itself in both institutions. The third wave (during the “politically correct” 1990s) was very prominent in scholarly papers but not very noticeable in news media, suggesting a disconnect at the time between academia and mainstream news media on this topic.

Yearly frequency of terms denouncing prejudice in academic papers and news media. Source: Semantic Scholar Open Research Center

These results over the last century suggest that the concept of prejudice has been building gradually in academic content for many decades prior to its post-2010 explosion in news media. Increasing academic focus on prejudice could be a consequence of the growing Left-leaning skew of academics, since concern about prejudice ranks higher among individuals that espouse Left-wing politics.

But the mystery remains as to what triggered the post-2010 explosion in prejudice themes in news media. The answer is likely multifactorial. One plausible contributing factor might have been universities graduating a continuous stream of future producers and consumers of news media content that were increasingly attuned to the concept of prejudice. A confluence of additional factors around 2010, such as the emergence of social media and its incentives to leverage emotional and negative language to maximise virality of news content, likely also played a role. The polarised Trump presidency might have also contributed to consolidate or exacerbate the pre-existing trend.

These results suggest that often, but not always, different prejudice concepts emerge first in academic content before they enter mainstream news media discourse. But mainly, the results provide robust evidence about the increasing frequency with which both institutions, academia and news media, mention terms often used to denounce prejudice. It is unclear what this means for America on a sociological level, but given the ever-growing intensity of the culture war, the explosion in the use of these terms can hardly be taken as an indicator that we are moving onto greener, more peaceful, pastures.

David Rozado is an associate professor at Otago Polytechnic