In the US, nursing is one of the most politically conservative groups of workers, up there with farmers, police officers, and people in the military. Based on the 2006 Northern American Academic Study, 62% of all US university faculty members surveyed identified as being left of center politically, but only 39% of nursing faculty identified this way. Nursing was less liberal than business, engineering and agriculture. Overall, nursing was the most conservative-leaning discipline of the 22 departments surveyed.
I can understand why business and engineering would be among the most conservative disciplines: their programs promise graduates high-paying jobs, they are built on tradition and status quo power and financial structures, and you want engineers especially to stick to tradition and not question gravity. But I don’t completely understand why nursing would align politically with business, engineering, and agriculture. Granted, compared with the level of education of a BSN-prepared nurse, his or her hospital-based salary potential is relatively high. This fact would support a more conservative viewpoint out of economic self-interest. And, although I could not find any studies looking at this specifically, nursing as a profession seems to have a higher than average percent of practicing Christians. Religiosity—and especially a “practicing Christian status” is now highly correlated with social and political conservatism.
Why does this matter? In the US a liberal political orientation is generally aligned with values of economic redistribution, the welfare state, inclusion of minority groups: social justice. These values are at odds with the pro-free market conservative position. Perhaps this is why when the American Nurses Association supported health care reform, many of its members objected, and questioned why the group was getting involved in politics. Perhaps this is why when I introduce political advocacy to my undergraduate students in community health and health policy, many of them write on their course evaluations comments such as “I just want to be a good nurse and I don’t care about being an activist.”
Political views influence research, science and knowledge production. Having a liberal political orientation is highly correlated with characteristics we associate with intellectualism: Hofstader’s “creative, critical, and contemplative minds,” and a greater tolerance for controversial ideas. In my experience, nursing overall is anti-intellectual. This may be rooted in the “functional doers,” servile tradition of nursing. It may stem from the lack of a well-rounded liberal arts education for most all nurses: BSN prepared nurses generally only have two years of basic liberal arts, and even that is heavily stacked towards the pre-nursing requirements of the sciences. And it may be related to the fact that nursing (as all academic disciplines do) “spawns and hires new PhD’s, so the club reproduces itself,” in the words of Daniel Klein and Charlotta Stern. This may be an advantage on one level: nurses are viewed as less snobbish, more like common folk, so that the general public may relate to and trust nurses more than if they were part of the intellectual elite. But for nursing to mature and change, the conservatism of nursing needs to be challenged.