Obama economic adviser on marriage and the gender gap

Two parts of this interview with Obama economic adviser Betsey Stevensen stood out to me. I’m just surprised to hear such straightforward social science from someone in such a powerful position.

Betsey

This, on marriage and poverty:

What’s your reaction when you hear conservatives talk about marriage as a poverty reduction tool?

My research found that actually, if you want to increase marriage, you need to increase the minimum wage and strengthen the middle class so that people can enjoy the fruits of marriage from those more comfortable positions. I do think that conservatives don’t understand that the dynamics of marriage have changed in such a way that income supports marriage, rather than the marriage supporting having a higher income or supporting getting people out of poverty. There’s also the fact that they seem to really believe that if you push young people to marriage you can alleviate poverty, but then you see enormously high divorce rates, which actually makes things even worse because divorce is very expensive. The big differences in divorce come from, if you’re a 20-year-old high school dropout, you have [approximately] a 60% chance of divorcing within 10 years of marriage, but if you’re a 35-year-old with a college degree, you have [approximately] a 5% chance of divorcing. If what you think is that marriage is important for having a strong middle class, what you do is actually encourage people to wait before settling down.

The conservative view is, we should smush you together, then you’ll have more money, then there’ll be less tension. But actually, when you get two people making $7.25, there’s a lot of tension because you’re both still struggling. That tension leads to family conflict.

And this, on the gender wage gap:

Every time the president comes out and says, women should have equal pay for equal work, you have folks, including economists, come out and say, that’s a misleading number, that’s not for the same job, that’s year-round full-time wages, and a big part of it is women’s choices. What’s your response to that, and what’s a good way to understand these numbers?

When people come out and say that’s not a fair number, well, what really is a fair number? You brought up “women’s choices.” Well, some women’s choices come about because they’re being discriminated against. Some of women’s choices come because they experience sexism. Some of women’s choices come because they are disproportionately balancing the needs of work and family. Which of these choices should we consider legitimate choices, and which of them should we consider things that we have a societal obligation to try to mitigate, to alleviate some of these constraints so that they can make different choices? A lot of people will say things like, let’s control for occupational choices. But the research is showing us that women are choosing occupations which penalize them the least for taking time out of work.

If there was less discrimination, if there was more flexibility in work, you wouldn’t see women necessarily choosing the same occupations. So why should I take the wage gap holding occupation constant? If we change society, we reduce discrimination, we’re not going to hold occupational choice constant – women are going to choose different occupations.

I agree that the 77 cents on the dollar is not all due to discrimination. No one is trying to say that it is. But you have to point to some number in order for people to understand the facts. And what it represents is the fact that women on average are put in situations every day that for a variety of reasons mean they earn less. Much of what we need to do to close that gap is to change the constraints that women face. And there are things we haven’t tried.

I wouldn’t expect Obama to say things like this, but I’m impressed that someone in his near proximity would.

For more, follow the tags for marriage promotion and the gender inequality.

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Different divorce rates

Deadline crush, not getting out the posts I want to. So here instead is one thing I was planning to write about but didn’t really yet.

Photo by Dan Bluestein from Flickr Creative Commons

What’s the rate? Photo by Dan Bluestein from Flickr Creative Commons

I’ve written about divorce quite a bit on here, including on the mess of our official statistics. Now Sheela Kennedy and Steven Ruggles have a (paywalled) paper in the January issue of Demography called, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Count: The Rise of Divorce in the United States, 1980–2010.” Because of the paywall and the obscure academic journal, I thought I had some time to write about it, but it’s been reported on Wonkblog and and other places, so no point in waiting.

The headline is, “divorce is actually on the rise.” It’s risen when they age-standardize the trend, but it’s complicated: “Divorce rates have doubled over the past two decades among persons over age 35. Among the youngest couples, however, divorce rates are stable or declining.” The interpretation is not as simple as, “they have a better measure.”

Meanwhile, I was quoted in a Wall Street Journal story about some TV show, and I let slip my multiple-decrement lifetable version of the current divorce rate. This hasn’t been finished, much less peer-reveiwed, but I’m pretty confident about the basic result. I wrote to the reporter, who asked me for the divorce rate:

As for divorce rates, it’s hard to be definitive because there is no one answer. One answer is: In 2012 there were 19 divorces for every 1000 people who were married (my calculation from the 2012 ACS).

However, what most people want to know is what percentage of people who get married will end up getting divorced. There is no official estimate of this because it involves a guess about the future. We can estimate divorce like we estimate life expectancy — it’s not the actual prediction of how long people will live, it’s how long they would live on average if they lived through the risks of most recent year over and over again their whole lives. (Technically, it’s a projection, not a prediction.) Anyway, using that method, I estimate that about 50% of couples who married in 2012 would eventually divorce (with the rest of the marriages ending with someone’s death).

In her story, of course, that became, simply, “And about half of those who married in 2012 will eventually divorce.”

This method, which I got from this old Sam Preston paper, combines mortality rates and death rates to project how many people are lucky enough to die before divorcing at current rates. (Hence “multiple-decrement,” the demographers’ dry way of saying, “there are only two ways out of this.”) When he applied the method, with much cruder data from 1973, incidentally, he got a 43% divorce rate, which was much higher than the rates floating around at the time, and would have made big news in the blogosphere if there had been one.

More on this eventually.

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What was I supposed to do, not report the results?

In case you haven’t been following the research on this, my understanding is that there is some evidence that women in several cultures are more likely to wear red-related colors when they are trying to look sexually attractive. We know that from the article “Women Use Red in Order to Attract Mates” in the journal Ethos. That’s all well and good, but to make it really interesting, we’d like to know that women are especially likely to do that when they are in the most fertile time in their menstrual cycle. Because, you know:

Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson from Wikimedia Commons

Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson from Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, that paper from Ethos did not find that red-wearing was associated with menstrual cycles. But, Beall and Tracy were able to find that link. Their conclusion:

Our results thus suggest that red and pink adornment in women is reliably associated with fertility and that female ovulation, long assumed to be hidden, is associated with a salient visual cue.

As Kim Weeden pointed out when I mentioned this on Twitter, Andrew Gelman used that paper as an example of how researchers have many opportunities to slice findings before settling on those that support their hypotheses.

Fortunately, Beall and Tracy set out to replicate their finding. Unfortunately, when they attempted to replicate the results, they were not successful. Fortunately, they realized it was because they were being confounded by the weather. As they have now reported, this is important because in warm weather female humans don’t need to resort to red because they can manage their attractiveness by reducing the amount of clothing they wear (and then, who cares what color it is?). Thus:

If the red-dress effect is driven by a desire to increase one’s sexual appeal, then it should emerge most reliably when peak-fertility women have few alternative options for accomplishing this goal (e.g., wearing minimal clothing). Results from re-analyses of our previously collected data and a new experiment support this account, by demonstrating that the link between fertility and red/pink dress emerges robustly in cold, but not warm, weather.

And here it is. Happy, Gelman?

journal.pone.0088852.g001

Confirmatory classroom exercise

Since I am teaching love and romance in my family course this week, I thought we should add something to the conversation. I only did one exercise, and I am reporting the full results here. Nothing hidden, no tricky recodes, no other questions on the survey, no priming of the respondents (it was at the start of the lecture).

I have 80 students in the class, which means 53 were there in time for the exercise, 29 men and 24 women. I gave them this two-part question:

shirt-question

Because red and pink are both associated with fertility (see the baboon), I combined them in the analysis (but it works if you just use red, too). And these were the results:

redpink-shirts-results

The statistical test for the difference between date and family event for women is significant at the level of p<.035. This is not research, it’s just a classroom exercise (which means no IRB, no real publication). But if it were research, it would be consistent with the women-wear-reddish-to-attract-mates theory (although without the menstrual cycle question, its contribution would be limited).

Most sociologists might not go for this kind of stuff. Maybe it’s a slippery slope that leads to unattractive conclusions about gender inequality in the “natural” order. My perspective is that I don’t care. Of course this is not really evidence that evolution determines what American (or, in the case of the Ethos paper, Slovak) students wear on dates. But it doesn’t refute the theory, either.

More importantly, I am confident that we could, if desired, through concentrated social engineering, eliminate the practice of women wearing reddish on dates if we thought it was harmful — just as we have (almost) engineered away a lot of harmful behaviors that emerged from the primordial past, such as random murder, cannibalism, and hotmail. After all, they did it in China:

chinese-red-women

Sorry, wrong picture:

chinese-women-mao-suits

For previous posts in the series, follow the color tag.

 

 

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Family Inequality wins Charm Quark

I’m pleased to report that the blog has been awarded the Charm Quark, which is third place in the Politics and Social Science category for 2014, from 3 Quarks Daily.

charmquark

The write-up for the award is here. The judge was Mark Blyth, and the post he read was my debunking of the State of Utah’s claim that banning same-sex marriage would make it more likely for kids to be raised by straight married parents. Blyth put my post in the category of “Bullshit Police,” writing:

If social science has a public function this is it. Theory generation and hypothesis testing and all that grad school stuff is all fine and well, but at the end of the day the job is to take the claims of those that want us to think X is Y and sniff it to see if its bullshit. … the winner in this pot is Philip Cohen for his Family Inequality piece on the state of Utah and same sex parenting. Take a causal argument. Test it. Test it again. Pronounce it bullshit. Move along. Move along. Fantastic stuff and first class ‘bullshit police’ work.

It’s very nice to have my work recognized this way. It’s especially gratifying that it was a piece that included original data analysis (and even fixed-effects regressions). I hope I did it right!

3 Quarks is a filter blog that presents posts on “science, design, literature, current affairs, art, and anything else we deem inherently fascinating” six days a week, and original pieces on Mondays. I hope you will visit the site and see what they have to offer.

Thanks to Mark Blyth and the 3 Quarks folks for the boost.

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Michigan same-sex marriage case, entirely unbelievable edition

Sociologists breathed a sigh of relief when U.S. district court judge Bernard Friedman, who was appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1988, ruled that Michigan’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional (here is the decision). What I wish we’d call homogamous marriage commenced a few hours later.

We’re relieved because the social science consensus was put on trial in the case, as the judge allowed researchers to debate whether gay and lesbian parents are bad for kids, to see if any rational basis could be found for a state law that clearly harms gay and lesbian couples. He concluded there was no such basis.

I discussed the case and its anti-equality experts here (Mark Regnerus) and here (Douglas Allen), and the whole history is hashed out on the Regnerus tag. And Judge Friedman seems to have agreed. He concluded of Regnerus, “The Court finds Regnerus’s testimony entirely unbelievable and not worthy of serious consideration.” And of the anti-equality experts in general:

The Court was unable to accord the testimony of [Loren] Marks, [Joseph] Price, and Allen any significant weight. … They, along with Regnerus, clearly represent a fringe viewpoint that is rejected by the vast majority of their colleagues across a variety of social science fields.

Like the brutal dismissal of non-expert David Blankenhorn in a similar case in California, Friedman’s assessment was simple and fair. In Blankenhorn’s case, he simply wasn’t an expert at all. In the Michigan case, team no-rights simply had no convincing evidence to support their claims. His detailed description of their failure is worth reading.

In this trial, and in the several years we’ve been hashing this out, the good experts have not received nearly as much attention as the charlatans, which is too bad because there were really good. In his summary of the evidence, Judge Friedman offered these evaluations:

David Brodzinsky: “The Court finds Brodzinsky’s testimony to be fully credible and gives it considerable weight.”

Michael Rosenfeld: “The Court finds Rosenfeld’s testimony to be highly credible and gives it great weight.”

Vivek Sankaran: “The Court finds Sankaran’s testimony to be fully credible and gives it great weight.”

Gary Gates: “whom the Court also found to be a highly credible witness.”

Nancy Cott: “The Court finds Cott to be highly credible and accords her testimony great weight”

Loving it

The bad-for-children argument is bad science, bad politics, bad morals, and bad law.

This is not some politically-correct cover-up. I would have been perfectly willing to report results — if I had them — showing that children being raised by gay and lesbian couples had more trouble than those raised by heterogamous couples. Why not? They’re a subordinate group, experiencing all manner of discrimination (much of it completely legal), and for most of history they haven’t even been allowed to marry. Judge Friedman wrote (with reference to Rosenfeld’s study):

Taking the state defendants’ position to its logical conclusion, the empirical evidence at hand should require that only rich, educated, suburban-dwelling, married Asians may marry, to the exclusion of all other heterosexual couples.

In other words, some of my favorite social groups have children who share in their subordinate social status and marginalization. With regard to their right to marry, so what? To make this a rational reason for a state ban, you would have to show not only that it was some inherent quality of their gender that harmed the children, and that the harm was greater than the many other risks we subject children of parents to, but also that allowing same-sex couples to marry would somehow make this worse. Friedman concluded,

There is, in short, no logical connection between banning same-sex marriage and providing children with an ‘optimal environment’ or achieving ‘optimal outcomes.’

Anyway, the legal question we’re heading for here, really, is the legal power of individual states to ban same-sex marriage. That was what the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision (which I wrote about here) didn’t decide. But in that decision, Justice Kennedy signaled SCOTUS’s willingness to take that on, writing that the “states’ interest in defining and regulating the marital relation [is] subject to constitutional guarantees,” a passage Friedman quoted, adding, “These statements are not merely surplusage.”

Not mere surplusage because Kennedy made the remark in the context of the Loving v. Virginia case that overturned mixed-race marriage bans. Like today’s cases moving toward the Supreme Court, Loving eventually came down to whether states had the power to impose unconstitutional limits on marriage. And the defenders of those racist laws used the same last-ditch arguments that Regnerus used this time. The science is unsettled, they said. Here is an excerpt from the state of Virginia’s appeal to SCOTUS*:

If this Court (erroneously, we contend) should undertake such an inquiry [into evidence of a scientific nature tending to support or undermine a legislative determination of the wisdom or desirability (of Virginia’s interracial marriage ban)], it would quickly find itself mired in a veritable Serbonian bog of conflicting scientific opinion upon the effects of interracial marriage, and the desirability of preventing such alliances, from the physical, biological, genetic, anthropological, cultural, psychological and sociological point of view. The available scientific materials are sufficient to support the validity of the challenged Virginia statutes whether the constitutional standard be deemed to require appellants to demonstrate that those statutes are arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable or to require the State to show a compelling interest in the continuation of its policy prohibiting interracial marriages. In such a situation it is the exclusive province of the Legislature of each State to make the determination for its citizens as to the desirability of a policy of permitting or preventing such alliances-a province which the judiciary may not constitutionally invade.

Virginia then cited the science of the day:

The statistical evidence incorporated in this study makes it clear that the ‘odds’ do not favor intermarriages, in that almost two to four times as many intermarriages as intramarriages end in divorce, separation or annulment. This is a highly significant fact. It is objective and utterly free from emotion-inducing factors. It ought, therefore, to be considered and weighed most carefully.

And then they quoted a study: “In the absence of any uniform rule as to consequences of race crosses, it is well to discourage it.” That is Regnerus almost verbatim.

Friedman concluded:

Taken together, both the Windsor and Loving decisions stand for the proposition that, without some overriding legitimate interest, the state cannot use its domestic relations authority to legislate families out of existence. Having failed to establish such an interest in the context of same-sex marriage, the MMA cannot stand.

And with that he teed up the case for the Supreme Court.

Tip it

And with that we can update the tipping point chart (last updated here). Please note this figure has its imitators, but no one else calculates the percentages using the state and national populations for each year!

tippingpoint

Give it till the end of the year to get back on the curve-breaking track.

* Richard Perry LOVING, Et Ux., Appellants, v. VIRGINIA, Appellee., 1967 WL 93641 (U.S.), 49

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What they say about race when they don’t say anything about race and poverty

My picture from the 2013 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

My picture from the 2013 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Referring to The Bell Curve, Paul Krugman wrote that Charles Murray was “famous for arguing that blacks are genetically inferior to whites.” In response, Murray wants us to know that the book was not about race and IQ. The research in the book (co-authored with Richard Herrnstein), purporting to show the powerful effect of genes on intelligence and success in America, was about Whites. Its sole concrete statement about race, Murray says, was this:

It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not justify an estimate.

That led to this Twitter exchange:

murray-fire-tweet

Why do so many people think the book was a sociobiological racist tract, when it made only indirect claims about genetic racial hierarchies? Context matters. In the U.S., you can practice racism without speaking about race.

In my teaching, I often discuss the role of male incarceration, mortality, and unemployment in contributing to the difference in marriage rates between Black and White women. And when I show that Black men have incarceration rates many times higher than White men’s, I focus on racism more than race. That is, these inequalities are not the outcomes of race, but of the way racial inequality works — explicit and implicit racism, unequal opportunity, policing practices, incarceration policies, and so on. Sometimes I do use phrases like “low-income communities,” or “inner city areas,” but I try to be specific about race and racism when it’s called for — even though of course it can be uncomfortable, for me and my students, to do that. It’s important because in the U.S. system of inequality racial inequality is not just an outcome: the system doesn’t just differentiate people by class or gender or skills or something else, with a lower-class population that “just happens” to be disproportionately from racial-minority groups.

One thing that frustrates me in the growing conversation about economic inequality is the appearance of a perhaps-too-comfortable stance in which being explicit about economic inequality means not having to address racial inequality. It is true, and important, economic inequality exacerbates racial (and gender) inequality. That’s why this stance frustrates me rather than angering me. But there is a certain politeness involved in talking about class instead of race that sometimes doesn’t help. Of course, this issue is not new at all, having been litigated especially extensively in the 1980s around the sociological work of William Julius Wilson (see, e.g., this collection).

Wilson’s research — the declining significance of race, or, the increasing significance of class — contributed to today’s movement against class inequality (as Krugman’s post illustrates). But it has also been co-opted by people taking the really racist position that inequality is caused by race (rather than racism). That is: poor minorities cause poverty. This position ironically doesn’t have to discuss race at all, because the framing is the dog whistle.

Which brings us around to the flap over Paul Ryan’s recent racist-without-race remarks. Here is a series of quotes to put that in context. None mentions race. Follow the underlined sequence:

William Julius Wilson: “Inner-city social isolation also generates behavior not conducive to good work histories. The patterns of behavior that are associated with a life of casual work (tardiness and absenteeism) are quite different from those that accompany a life of regular or steady work (e.g., the habit of waking up early in the morning to a ringing alarm clock).”

Newt Gingrich: “Really poor children, in really poor neighborhoods, have no habits of working, and have nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday, they have no habit of staying all day.”

Paul Ryan: “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”

Charles Murray: “Try to imagine a GOP presidential candidate saying in front of the cameras, ‘One reason that we still have poverty in the United States is that a lot of poor people are born lazy.’ You cannot imagine it because that kind of thing cannot be said. And yet this unimaginable statement merely implies that when we know the complete genetic story, it will turn out that the population below the poverty line in the United States has a configuration of the relevant genetic makeup that is significantly different from the configuration of the population above the poverty line. This is not unimaginable. It is almost certainly true.”

In this progression, we go from children not being sufficiently exposed to steady work, to children seeing no one working in their daily lives, to multiple generations not even thinking about working, to people who are genetically lazy. That’s something!

What they talk about when they’re not talking about race

In his post on the Paul Ryan comment, Shawn Fremstad compares Ryan to Murray and concludes that Murray is more apocalyptic because he’s warning against a White cultural collapse, not just complaining about a Black one. Murray has perfected the strategy of writing about Whites (including in his latest book, Coming Apart). But I usually think of this as a dog whistle device to protect his mainstream image while whipping up his racist base. That is, if you show that genetic intelligence determines economic inequality among Whites (Bell Curve) or that declining moral standards undermine families and the work ethic among Whites (Coming Apart), then the implications for Blacks — poorer and therefore supposedly more morally decrepit and less intelligent on a population level — are obvious and need not be repeated in polite company. Just say, calmly, “Smoke,” and let (racist) nature takes its course.

But maybe Fremstad is right, that the Full Murray is more extreme than the dog-whistling Ryan. Here’s how he puts it:

In short, today’s Charles Murray thinks the much bigger culture problem—the one that really puts American society’s very survival at risk—is with white working-class people, which is what makes Ryan’s almost-nostalgic dog-whistling about “inner-city” men so striking. The big question here is whether Ryan is willing to up ante, and go for the full Murray by calling out white working-class “culture”, particularly in the suburbs and small towns where so many low- and moderate-income white people live.

I don’t know. But one answer to that came in the follow-up flap, in which Ryan insisted to a reporter that he was talking about all poor people, such as the rural poor, for whom “there are no jobs.” As Jay Livingston points out, that’s not a clarification that was warranted when he was talking about “inner city” men who are “not even thinking about working.”

What does Brad Wilcox have to not say about this?

The other recent entry in this tradition is none other than Brad Wilcox, currently a colleague of Murray’s (and apparently an impressive one) at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). In last year’s attempt to promote early marriage, the “Knot Yet” report, he wrote about the “education and class divide” in non-marital births — and avoided race almost entirely.

But seriously, if you claim to be serious about the serious issue of unmarried women having babies, you can’t politely ignore race and racism. It’s ridiculous (as I’ve argued before, about mobility). This issue simply does not reduce to social class or education level. Look: Black mothers are much more likely than White mothers to be unmarried at every education level.

unmarriedmothers

Among college graduates, Black mothers are 5.4-times more likely than White mothers to be unmarried; for high school graduates it’s 1.7-to-1. Asian mothers who are high school dropouts are less likely to be unmarried than Black college graduates. However you want to address this issue (if you want to address it at all), if you ignore this pattern and only talk about education or social class, you’re either uninformed or dishonest.

Or, you don’t care about Black families. This is exactly what Wilcox exhibited in a shocking interview with James Pethokoukis for AEI. Wilcox said the government should lead a public education campaign to convince people to be married before they have children. Then the question was, “What would be the nature of that sort of PR campaign, and to whom would it be directed?” This was his answer (from the edited transcript):

Well, the first thing is you have to understand is where all the momentum is here. Basically, since the 1970s, you’ve seen pretty high levels of single parenthood and non-marital child bearing among poor Americans and Americans who are high school dropouts. And we’ve also seen in the last really 20 or 30 years that in some important respects, marriage is stronger among college-educated Americans. So, for instance, divorce has come down from the ’70s to the present for college-educated Americans. So there’s been progress there.

But I think in terms of where all the sort of movement is recently, and it’s primarily in a negative direction, it’s among moderately educated Americans who have got a high school degree or some college or kind of classic working-class or lower middle-class Americans. And it’s this particular portion of the population and where about half of their births are outside of marriage today. And they’re at a tipping point. They can go down the road of not having marriage as the keystone to their family formation, family life, or we can hold the line, if you will, and try to figure out creative strategies for strengthening marriage in this particular middle demographic in the United States.

What is the “classic working class or lower middle-class American”? Hm. Here I’ll switch to my own transcription of the audio file AEI posted, because the details they edited out are interesting. Pethokoukis asks Wilcox to elaborate, “is this the bottom 20 percent we’re talking about”?

No, no. I’m talking about, essentially, from the 25th percentile, if you will, to the 65th percentile. So, one way to talk about it would be, sort of, you know, in some ways the NASCAR demographic would be one way to talk about it. Actually a large share of the Hispanic population in the United States would fit into this demographic group. You know, it’s sort of this middle American group, both white and Hispanic, where, once again, they’re at kind of a tipping point. And if we can kind of I think get a positive message to this group or these groups about marriage and fatherhood, you know it’s kind of an ideal, it’s a goal. That is part of the solution.

Really. The 25th to the 65th percentile of family income? That is from $32,500 to $85,000 income per year. That includes 33 percent of the African American population, 37 percent of Whites, and 38 percent of Latinos.* So, it’s more or less the middle third of each group. Or, you know, sort of, Whites and Hispanics. And NASCAR people.**

Photo by familymwr from Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by familymwr from Flickr Creative Commons

Now I suppose this is what Shawn Fremstad calls the Full Murray. Wilcox is raising the alarm about Whites, “classic” Americans, who are “at kind of a tipping point.” Just as Ryan invokes the lack of jobs when he gets out of the “inner city,” when Wilcox is talking about “classic” Americans, he says there is still time to stop them from going “down the road of not having marriage as the keystone to their … family life.” With them, “we can hold the line” for marriage. The clear implication is that Blacks passed that “tipping point” already, so that no such intervention is warranted.

*All these numbers are based on the Current Population Survey of the civilian non-institutional population.

** Wilcox presumably assumes NASCAR fans are White, but various sources (like this and this) say Blacks are about 9% of its fan base (can you find the Black fan in the picture above?).

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New sociology grad student research agenda: Pros and cons

Last year I wrote some advice for students in our program, which came down to: Broaden yourself. In this follow-up I offer some advice about how to move from the statement of purpose into a graduate program, which might also help you pick a program (which many students are doing right now).

My advice will be: If you have to choose between a graduate program that specializes in the narrow field you want, versus one that you prefer for other (important) reasons, all else equal, go with the second one. For example, I’d rather have a great relationship with a faculty and change what I work on than have a crummy relationship with a faculty that focuses exactly on my topic coming in. In fact, that’s what I did do, and I’m glad I did.

To get into grad school in sociology, students write an essay about their research intentions. These are all over the map — offering both fascinating insights and maddening banalities, pure idealism and pure BS. But when it comes to what students plan to study, student mostly stick to (a) what you already care about; (b) what you already know about, and; (c) what pertains to your own life experience.

Based on my experiences with students, and evaluating maybe a thousand applications, I draw these examples from a common sociology applicant profile: socially progressive students who want to do good works, with a good portion from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds.

1. Researching something you already care deeply about

For example, you want to help stop rape, gender oppression, global warming, or racism; or you want to help the powerless organize, help children improve their educational prospects, or improve the efficiency of non-profit groups.

Pros: You are motivated to work on it, to make a positive social contribution. So you will work hard at it. You are smart and have already learned a lot, so you probably picked something that is very important.

Cons: Yours passion may blind you to other things that matter as much or more. In the moral grand scheme of things, what are the odds you chose the most important thing in the world? Locking yourself in now might prevent you from finding an even more important or rewarding issue or subject matter to embrace.

2. Researching something you already know a lot about

You have probably read a lot and learned a lot. You are already beginning to specialize. You have invested time and energy, and devoted memory capacity to these subjects.

Pros: You get a head start on your topic. The first literature review you write is already within your reach. You have already identified sub-topics to study, which is one of the hardest things to do in graduate school.

Cons: Limiting yourself to what you already care about might retard the development of your self-confidence by scaring you away from new topics. You might end up engaging intellectually and socially with others working on the same topics, to the exclusion of exciting new areas and people. You risk building your future research agenda up from a foundation you started when you really knew very little compared with what you will learn even in the next year or two. You overestimated the relative value of what you’ve already learned.

3. Researching something close to your own experience

This is sometimes dismissed as “mesearch” (see the review and discussion by Tom Medvetz here). The impulse to study the situation from which you emerged seems healthy and reasonable, especially for graduate students starting out. The privileged faculty member asks without compunction: “Why not study something completely different?” But the loyalties to family and friends, and the twisted emotional knot of human suffering, don’t allow such easy dismissals by the young student using social science and self-understanding to light the pathway out of a troubled personal or familial past.

Pros: It has all the pros of the first two elements: what you care about and what you know. It matters to you and to your family — who, wondering why you’re not using your hard work and smarts to get a degree in law or medicine, might be pacified by the argument that this will allow you to give back to your community.

Cons: It’s intellectually, professionally, and morally limiting. Intellectually: the power you build by learning new things is greater than that which you achieve from what you already know. Professionally: the connections you build and the knowledge you acquire outside your immediate interests expands your opportunities. Morally: whatever you have experienced, or those around you have experienced, someone has it worse, or there is a bigger problem to face; why not help them, or address that problem instead? These are questions you need to consider.

What does snow look like?

A sociologist starting out is like an amateur photographer, or should be. So many different ways to look at things! With a camera, a roll of film (ha), and enough time, an excitable amateur photographer can work on any subject and turn up enough fascinating angles and quirky compositions to bore even the most supportive group of Facebook friends. Look at these pictures of snow I took this season!

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What I want new grad students to have is that sense of confidence, and wonder, that says, “I can make interesting and important research and teaching out of anything important in society.” If all goes well, you will learn much more than you know now, about things you never considered before, and you will develop the skills and perspective necessary to turn those new things into new knowledge that contributes something valuable to humanity. But for that to happen you have to trust your future self. I hope you’ll try.

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