Tag Archives: academia

James Wright’s recounting of the Regnerus review process wasn’t true

(And Brad Wilcox lied continuously, too.)

It may seem like a footnote to the Regnerus scandal (last summary here), but I think it is worth reporting that we now know Social Science Research editor James Wright apparently lied in his published description of the process by which the Regnerus paper was published.

In the “Introductory Remarks” that Wright published in the November 2012 issue of SSR, he described the sequence of events leading up to the paper’s publication, writing in part (with false portion highlighted):

The [Loren] Marks paper was submitted to SSR on October 3, 2011, and had already been accepted for publication (subject to some pretty significant revisions) when the Regnerus paper was submitted on February 1, 2012. Like most journals, SSR often tries to co-publish topically linked papers … and given the obvious topical similarity of these two papers, publishing them at the same time seemed sensible (assuming, as goes without saying, that both fared well in peer review). The email sent to prospective reviewers of the Regnerus paper therefore stated, “I would greatly appreciate the quickest possible turnaround on your review” but was otherwise identical to the form letter sent to all prospective reviewers when requesting reviews.

In this telling, Wright’s motivation for encouraging a quick turnaround was that he wanted to publish the two papers together, and that’s why (“therefore”) he asked the reviewers to expedite their reviews.

But, Straight Grandmother has published the email that Wright sent to reviewer Brad Wilcox, and it does not match Wright’s published description. In that email, Wright wrote:

We have received a manuscript that we think may interest you. We would very much appreciate your reading it and rendering a critique.

We have also learned that a report on this study will be released sometime this coming summer and if the paper is destined to appear in SSR, it would be nice to have the paper accepted (and available online) before the report is released. So I would greatly appreciate the quickest possible turnaround on your review.

Here is the grainy public-records version, for authenticity:

wright-wilcox-reviewer1

Clearly, the highlighted passage in the first quote was not the only passage that made the Regnerus request different. In his “Introductory Remarks,” Wright omitted mention of the summer report deadline. And the email to Wilcox does not mention the goal of publishing the Regnerus and Marks papers together.

Why would Wright change the story, from one about trying to publish the Regnerus paper in time for the summer report (told to Wilcox) to one about trying to publish two topically-related papers together (told to the public)? The answer, I conclude, is that in his published accounting Wright was attempting to distance himself from the appearance (fact) of coordination with Regnerus and his backers (including Wilcox).

Wright’s story of the dog wagging the tail is reversed. Regnerus and Wilcox needed to have the peer-reviewed paper accepted and online before they could release the “report” publicly, because they wanted that legitimacy (this is apparent in the first document dump). Wright’s actions made that strategy successful. (When it appeared, the “report” was just an animated website rehashing the contents of the paper.)

Wilcox lies, too

Brad Wilcox will say this was not a lie, because he thinks he carefully did not lie, but it was a lie, because lying is about deception, not just about uttering words that are literally untrue. Take it from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in which Pope John Paul II wrote:

[Quoting St. Augustine] “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.” … To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.

I don’t know this first-hand, but I’m told God does not give partial credit for lies of omission. In his response to Wright’s reviewer request, Wilcox’s entire reply was this:

Dear Jim:

I’m happy to do this. Just want to let you know that I serve on the advisory board for this project — as does Kelly Raley and others on the SSR board. Ok?

Brad

You could call this a head-fake disclaimer. What is the relevance of the advisory board? It is certainly not the most important fact about Brad’s involvement with the study. We probably don’t know all that he did, but we do know that Brad coordinated the fundraising for the study, recruited Regnerus to be the lead researcher, advised Regnerus on how to handle co-authorship with Cynthia Osborne, suggested to Regnerus that they send the paper to Wright at SSR, and referred to the research project as “our dataset.”

So, sure, the email exchange contains a disclosure — one that puts Wilcox on the same level of involvement as other fleeting consultants — but it is far from the most important thing to disclose. That’s lying.

Did Wright lie some more?

After Brad’s response to the reviewer request, they exchange two more emails, which read, in their entirety:

Wright: Understood.

Wilcox: thanks.

So why, in his email to Inside Higher Ed, did Wright say this?

Amato and Wilcox mentioned their prior involvement with the Regnerus study in response to my initial reviewing request.  I asked, as I always do, whether this involvement precluded their writing an objective review. Both said no and so both were asked to proceed.

Perhaps there was a followup exchange in which Wright wrote to Brad, “Oops, forgot to ask, as I always do: Will this involvement preclude you writing an objective review?” But if there wasn’t, then Wright lied again. One can’t help suspecting that Wright did not expect his actual email exchange to be published.

In Darren Sherkat’s report on the journal’s review process, incidentally, he wrote:

Two of the reviewers indicated that they had a potential conflict of interest related to consulting on the Regnerus paper but both averred that this consulting relationship would not preclude an objective, critical assessment.

If this is supposed to be a description of the Wright-Wilcox exchange Straight Grandmother has published, then it also appears not to be true — Wilcox didn’t tell that particular lie. I don’t know the source of Sherkat’s information on that point, but it might well just be Wright’s say-so.

The shifting boilerplate

I don’t know the content of all of Wright’s requests to reviewers, or what he “always” asks, but I have some circumstantial evidence. A review request that Wright sent to someone I know the same month as the Regnerus paper is identical to the one Straight Grandmother published to Wilcox, except for the part about the summer report and the quick turnaround. So that appears to have been a form letter (the typos match as well). In that letter, Wright says SSR has single-blind reviews because:

…we feel it is important to give our reviewers an opportunity to be forthcoming about potential bias prior to rendering a critique or decline to review for fear of compromising professional ties with the authors.

It doesn’t ask them whether anything “precluded their writing an objective review.” However, the boilerplate seems to have changed. The last review request I received, in early 2013, included a passage that is not in the email he sent to Wilcox or my informant:

Agreeing to review a paper for this or any journal is simultaneously an affirmation  that you harbor no conflicts of interest or past or current relationships with the author(s) that would preclude you from writing an honest, objective critique.  If this is not the case, our assumption is that you will decline to do the review.

So I guess Wright might say that he “always” asks this now, but it does not appear that he asked it of Wilcox (at least in the documents we have). Maybe he’s improving his practice. Maybe he’s covering his bases.

So, some of you may still be reviewing for James Wright at Social Science Research, or sending your papers to him. My question is, Why?

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It’s modernity, stupid (Book review of The Sacred Project of American Sociology, by Christian Smith)

Book review: The Sacred Project of American Sociology, by Christian Smith. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Smith Confounding

Christian Smith Confounding Philip Cohen: With (left to right) Brad Wilcox, Mark Regnerus, C. Wright Mills, and Talcott Parsons (Original source: Giovanni di Paolo, St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroës, from Wikimedia Commons)*

Note: I am self-publishing this review rather than trying to find another outlet for it because I once (in response to Smith’s email described below) used a single profanity in an email reply, and I don’t want to get some editor in trouble for allowing me to write a review when I have a documented personal animosity against the author. Unfortunately, it’s much longer than it would be if someone else published it. Sorry!

Christian Smith in this book reminds me of a vaccine denier. He is convinced the whole modern world is a Big Lie but, except for a few fellow travelers, he can’t find a way to convince everyone else that they’re the ones who are crazy. Inevitably, out of desperation, he starts to write in italics.

…the secular enterprise that everyday sociology appears to be pursuing is actually not what is really going on at sociology’s deeper level. Contemporary American sociology is, rightly understood, actually a profoundly sacred project at heart. Sociology today is in fact animated by sacred impulses, driven by sacred commitments, and serves a sacred project (x).

(In his frustration, he also clutters up a very short and simple book with endless redundant phrases like “in fact,” “rightly understood,” and “actually.” I haven’t added italics to any of his quotes in this review.)

He’s not being “tricky” with the term sacred: he means it in the strictly Durkheimian sense of, “things set apart from the profane and forbidden to be violated,” things “hallowed, revered, and honored as beyond questioning,” things that “can never be defiled, defied, or desecrated by any infringement or desecration” (1-2). This is not a metaphor, this is “exactly the character of the dominant project of American sociology” (2). Literally.

The book is not just the familiar diatribe against leftist groupthink in academia. What sets this apart is that Smith’s real problem is modernity itself, which I’ll return to. However, this particular expression of modernity – the one that happens to surround him in his chosen academic discipline – is especially grating. So we’ll start with that.

Like a vaccine denier, Smith is more and more convinced of his theory the more all the sociologists around him deny it. In fact, actually, rightly understood, rampant denial is literally evidence that he’s right. By the end of the book he concludes, “Many American sociologists will … find it impossible to see the sacred project that sociology is – precisely because my argument above is correct” (199). This treads uneasily close to the line where common arrogance tips over into a lack of grip on reality.

In the text of the American Sociological Association (ASA) description of the discipline, for example, “none of it admits to advancing a sacred project” (6). Aha! Why not? Two reasons, he figures. First, the sacred project “is so ubiquitous and taken for granted … that it has become invisible to most sociologists themselves” (6-7). Why would we discuss something universal and uncontroversial? Second, admitting its existence “would threaten the scientific authority and scholarly legitimacy of academic sociology,” so it must be “misrecognized, implicit, and unexamined” to maintain “plausible deniability,” and therefore “sociologists carefully exempt their own discipline from their otherwise searching sociological gaze” (7). So, we “carefully” keep secret for strategic reasons that which we cannot even know exists. The devil does work in mysterious ways.

Sacred is as sacred does

What is the content of the sacred project? In a bizarre throwback to the 1950s – he even puts red-scare quotes around “the people” [12] – Smith describes “the project” as

about something like exposing, protesting, and ending, through social movements, state regulations, and government programs all human inequality, oppression, exploitation, suffering, injustice, poverty, discrimination, exclusion, hierarchy, constraint and domination by, of, and over other humans (and perhaps animals and the environment (7).

For convenience, we could reasonably shorten this to, “communism.”

But this veneer of egalitarianism “does not go deep enough.” The project is

more fully and accurately described as … the visionary project of realizing the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire, by constructing their own favored identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures (7-8).

We might call this deeper goal, “decadence.”

After that, it’s only a matter of a few lines before he starts putting “(so-called)” before “the Enlightenment” (8) and stringing together terms like this: “modern liberal-Enlightenment-Marxist-social-reformist-pragmatist-therapeutic-sexually liberated-civil right-feminist-GLBTQ-social constructionist-poststructuralist/postmodernist” (11). Did I mention this guy was Mark Regnerus’s dissertation committee chair at UNC? (Funny, he forgot to mention that, too.)

Of course, Smith has to admit that the sacred project is not something that all sociologists are into. “Most are, I think, being more or less conscious and activist on behalf of it [the project]. But some are not” (23). Who are those more innocent ones? He grudgingly lists five groups of exceptions (23-24):

  • “believers in sociology as purely a scientific study of society … often very fine people”;
  • “just commonplace ‘institution improvers,'” trying practically to make modern society work better;
  • “professional data collectors” who work in various bureaucracies and companies;
  • “ordinary, middle-America college professors who simply like to learn and teach about the family, criminal justice, or what have you”, and, finally;
  • “old-school liberals who genuinely believe in tolerance, fairness, and pluralism.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking this comprises is an important slice of American sociology, however, because they don’t represent “the discipline’s dominant culture, sensibilities, interests, discourse, and project.” And anyway, they are a very small minority. Excluding these five groups, in fact, Smith estimates that 30 to 40 percent are “true believers” and another 50 to 60 percent are “essentially on board, but are circumspect in how they express it” (24). Doing a quick calculation 100-(30+50) and 100-(40+60), it appears that those five groups of exceptions sum to between 0 percent and 20 percent of American sociologists. But it’s worse than even that, because some of the moderates, “when scratched hard enough,” do “show their true colors as sympathizers” with the project (25).

Hardly evidence

It seems shocking that that such an overwhelming majority of American sociologists could be so deeply into something so radical. To make such an extreme claim in a book published by a leading, highly reputable university press, surely one must have some pretty damning evidence? No.

It doesn’t help his case much, but the chapter titled “Evidence” is packed with ammunition for any grad student who ends up with Smith on his or her dissertation committee. Keep these defensive lines handy:

  • “the evidence I can offer is not ‘conclusive,’ at least when the standards of proof are set as the types that count for, say, publication in the top journals” (28). (No offense intended to Oxford University Press, I’m sure.)
  • What is “personally most convincing” is his own experience of many years, which he hopes will help readers “intuitively grasp the truth of my thesis” (28).
  • “There is no practical way to ‘test’ my thesis with standard sociological measures; the issues involved are too subtle and elusive to be ‘verified’ by such means” (29).
  • “I cannot conduct a systematic investigation to ‘prove’ that [some random claim], but I am confident that one well conducted would validate my claim” (66).
  • “Again, nobody, I am sure, has conducted or could conduct a systematic study of such features and reactions to empirically ‘prove’ my point” (87).

Honestly, the required survey design seems pretty simple. First, ask a sample of sociologists if they “are now or have ever been an activist on behalf of the sacred project.” Then, provide them with a list of their friends and colleagues, and ask for them to identify the individuals who would or should answer affirmatively to the first question.

Rather than follow such a straightforward approach, Smith presents “an array of semi-systemic evidence,” beginning with a “stroll through the ASA’s annual convention book exhibit” (29) (presumably senior professors with endowed chairs conducts “strolls” to collect their data, while junior faculty might feel the need to at least jog). From his stroll, he constructs 12 generic categories into which “most” of the books there “could be translated.” I won’t list them all, but these give you a feel:

  • People are Not Paying Enough Attention to Social Problem X, But if They Read this Book they Will Realize that They Have To
  • Women, Racial Minorities, and Poor People are Horribly Oppressed and You Should Be Really Angry About That!
  • Gays, Lesbians, Transsexuals, and other Queers are Everywhere and Their Experiences are Some of the Most Important Things Ever to Know About

After establishing the categories, he reprints the titles of about 30 books from NYU Press (which he doesn’t name because “a look at the sociology lists of virtually every other university press and trade publisher would produce a list very similar” [34]). The book list supports his hypothesis that there is a “narrow range of themes and perspectives.”

This is confusing. When you use concepts like, “Social Problem X,” and then put most books into that category, the question really is how many values does X take? This is like saying many history books are the same because they fit into the category, “Something happened during Period X in Place Y.”

The actual list of books he includes covers topics as diverse as factory farming, GLBT people in Islam, mass incarceration, paganism, breastfeeding, fair trade, donor conception, the NRA, school discipline, hip-hop culture, marriage promotion, immigrant health care, deliberate self-injury, and homeless youth. To Smith these are all “these type of books” produced by “activist disciples of the sacred project.” And, without opening a single one of them, he concludes, “So much for celebrating diversity, the proactive inclusion of social others, and welcoming differences” (34). (I’m thinking, “What an interesting body of work!”)

To supplement the NYU list, Smith adds 30 books reviewed in one issue of Contemporary Sociology. And now he’s in the territory of Sen. Tom Coburn – just listing research topics which, if you already think social science is stupid, sound stupid.

While one cannot always judge a book from its cover (title), my discussion above provides the right interpretive context for knowing what these books are about. Collectively, they are focused on threatening social problems (about which sociologists are the prophetic experts), injustices committed (about which sociologists are the whistle blowers), abuses by economically and politically (especially ‘neo-liberal’) powerful elites (ditto on whistle blowing), and mobilizing social and political movements for sociopolitical and economic change (about which sociologists are the experts and cheerleaders) (40).

To supplement his evidence, because titles don’t tell you everything, he includes five “exemplar” books, into which he delves more deeply – which means quoting from the book jackets and random reviews posted on Amazon.

And then Smith spends four pages – more than he spends on any other research in the book – attacking one book (which he didn’t read) about religion: Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches. He writes, “Between the book itself and the reviewer’s presentation of it, American sociologists are generally confirmed in their standard stereotypical fears about and negative mental associations with evangelicalism” (43). He refers to the book as a “sociological ethnography,” which reflects attitudes held by “sociologists” and the practices of “sociologists far and wide.” He doesn’t even show the courtesy of identifying the author (Omri Elisha) and citing the book properly. If he had, he might have noticed a slight problem with his evidence: the author is an anthropologist! Details.

To analyze research articles, Smith turns to American Sociological Review, based on the method of reading the next issue that arrives (Vol 78, No 3) for evidence of the “sacred project.” Except for one methodological piece, “the raft of articles in this issue tilted clearly in the supportive direction of the sacred project to which, explicitly or implicitly, subtly or obviously, the ASR, the ASA, and American sociology as a whole are committed” (58-59). The evidence he finds is basically that most of the articles study inequality, and when they do they sometimes describe it in negative terms. In essence, the existence of any sociological work describing any aspect of inequality confirms his hypothesis. (And somehow he thought this was too subtle to study empirically.)

Mo’ better modernity

The extent of his disillusionment finally becomes clear in a brief discussion of Horne et al’s, ASR article on bridewealth in Ghana. They investigated “normative constraints on women’s autonomy in the reproductive domain.” Smith objects to the value-laden perspective by which autonomy for women is assumed to be a good thing. He virtually sneers, “Here ‘improving the lives of African women’ is equated, as a good western feminist presupposition, with expanding ‘women’s reproductive autonomy'” (57).

Smith may not know that reproductive autonomy usually refers to a broad suite of decisions about childbearing within families, and it’s an important predictor of such vital outcomes as seeking medical care during pregnancy and delivery (e.g., in Ethiopia, Tajikistan, Bangladesh, and India), reduced unintended pregnancies (e.g., in Bangladesh), and children’s adequate nutrition (in India). If the big problem with sociology is that we assume those are positive outcomes, then I think I’m OK with that.

But Smith is presumably thinking of autonomy in the modern American sense of, “I’m bored, let’s get a divorce”; or, “I love myself, I think I’ll masturbate instead of volunteering at a soup kitchen.” And in that he has reason to worry, as it appears the majority of the world may be headed that direction.

smith-wvs

But surely – given the weak influence of sociology on global culture – he misdirects his irritation over modern life in general onto the sociologists who merely reflect it. This is especially clear in the discussion of sociology’s roots, which reveals the origins of the sacred project he is trying to describe:

As a project, sociology [originally] belonged at the heart of a movement that self-consciously and intentionally displaced western Christianity’s integrative and directive role in society. It was a key partner in modernity’s world-historical efforts to create a secular, rational, scientific social order … Sociology was not merely about piecemeal reforms but world transformation guided by a radically new sacred vision of humanity, life, society, and the cosmos (122).

Indeed, the latest version of the sacred project focuses on “the moral centrality of the autonomous, self-directing, therapeutically oriented individual,” but “this is merely a new emphasis, the seeds of which were planted long ago and have been growing along with the progressive unfolding of western modernity” (130). Thus, “the sacred project that dominates mainstream sociology today is a natural, logical development of the inheritance of liberal, Enlightenment modernity” (131).

Given the worldwide magnitude of this project, and its global success over several centuries, in which American sociology has played such a small role, its seems useless to single out today’s idealistic graduate students and young researchers for blame. They are mere cogs in the modernity machine. This is the deep incoherence of the book: he pours his scorn so superfluously on the leftists who annoy him even though the details of contemporary politics seem tangential to his existential concerns.

Into ASA

Smith extends his superficial empirical analysis into the subject of ASA sections, the organizations sociologists use to develop affinities around their interests and expand their institutional influence. This analysis consists entirely of Smith separating sections into three categories by title based purely on his own inimitable expertise. No content, no text, not even a mocking list of conference presentation titles – just section titles.

The first category is those that are “at the vanguard of sociology’s sacred project.” Naturally, this is the largest category, with some 13,000 members (many people belong to more than one). These include, obviously, Sex and Gender, as well as, less obviously, Mental Health; Alcohol, Drugs and Tobacco; and Disability and Society. Next are those that are “less obviously but in many ways still promoting sociology’s sacred project.” These sections have about 11,000 members, including those covering Culture, Theory, Law, and Population. (Oddly, while Mental Health is in the seriously-bad category, Medical Sociology is only in the pretty-bad category. He said it was subtle.) He would “venture to say” based on his experience, that the “majority” of research and teaching by those in this second category “ultimately feeds into support for and the promotion of” the sacred project (66). Finally, there are only four sections, with less than 1,000 members, that are “seemingly not related” to the sacred project (History of Sociology, Mathematical Sociology, Rationality and Society, and Ethnomethodology).

To cover teaching, Smith discusses selected portions of John Macionis’s best-selling Society: The Basics. I have never used one, but I hear that intro books are often frustrating for research university professors, so I am sympathetic here, although my concerns would no doubt be different. I don’t mind criticizing the triumvirate theoretical framing of functionalism-conflict-interaction, but I’m OK with discussing the limits of “free will” (versus social influence), quoting Tocqueville on how excellent the French Revolution was, and even using of BCE/CE instead of BC/AD for dating eras (so touchy – who knew?).

Anyway, there is an extensive literature about introductory sociology textbooks, and since Smith ignores it I mostly ignored this section. However, I did like this: “I could also conduct the same kind of analysis of the other best-selling introductory sociology textbooks, and again, the results would be extremely similar” because “these textbooks are almost identical to each other” (85). I love that he knows this before conducting the “analysis.” But I also don’t doubt that we would reproduce similar conclusions regardless of what he read.

Tall tales

Smith concludes the crucial “Evidence” chapter with “some less systematic [!] but still I think revealing illustrations” (86). These are extended anecdotes that nicely illustrate his ability to harbor a grudge – including cases in which sociologists vehemently reacted to violations of the sacred project (mostly sociologists mistreating his friends).

For some of the anecdotes, Smith does not name names. This is supposedly to underscore his larger points, but since he is not a reliable reporter this is a very bad practice. One he discusses anonymously is obviously the reaction to the book by Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially. His description is completely misleading, characterizing it only as a “book about the many benefits of marriage, the lead author of which was a very highly regarded University of Chicago sociologist and demographer.” Excluded is the fact that the book was not published by a university press (Doubleday), and that the second author was a conservative activist, a non-academic “affiliate scholar” working with the Institute for American Values (IAV). Gallagher was already known as a right-wing nut (the author of Enemies of Eros: How the Sexual Revolution Is Killing Family, Marriage, and Sex and What We Can Do About It), who went on to become perhaps the most famous American anti-gay marriage fanatic.

Waite was also working outside of academia to advocate policy. She was writing for IAV, and served on the research board of the National Marriage Project, an academic-activist organization promoting pro-marriage policy. Waite said she and Gallagher kept their politics separate and out of the book. Others disagreed. Clearly, Waite was moving in a more activist direction, as she acknowledged herself, couching her advocacy for marriage in public health terms, and comparing it to the campaigns about smoking and for exercise. A lively debate ensued. Smith describes an author-meets-critics session at the ASA conference in 2002, and says an eyewitness told him that one of the critics “literally frothed at the mouth” and shouted, “You have betrayed us!

But why is Waite different from the other activists who use social science research to promote social agendas – a similarity hidden by Smith’s selective description? And how is this debate so much more damaging than any other? To show the harm done by the sacred sociologists, Smith reports that Waite, who had been on the ASA Council and chair of the Family Section (incidentally one of Smith’s “vanguard” sacred project sections…), has not since held elective office in ASA. That’s true, and I doubt she would be elected if she ran, because of her politics. She has, however, continued a very successful career, holding a named chair at the University of Chicago and serving in important positions at the National Institutes of Health, among other distinctions. Being president of ASA is a privilege, not a right.

Another anecdote concerns Brad Wilcox’s tenure promotion at the University of Virginia, also hardly anonymized (93-95). As a non-public personnel matter, however, this case is poorly suited for weaponization. I don’t know the facts first-hand, and Smith doesn’t offer any documentation or reveal his source for the story. The gist of it is that Wilcox’s department at the University of Virginia voted to deny him tenure, but they were overruled by the top level of administration (Smith says it was the provost that saved the promotion, while Wilcox colleague Robert George reported it was the president). I don’t know the extent to which Wilcox’s religious affiliation or political positions played a role in the department’s decision, and I certainly wouldn’t take Smith’s word for it. Simply counting the publications on a CV is not enough to judge a tenure decision; the quality and impact of the work matter, too, as do ethics and character. For example, regardless of his publication record I might vote to deny Wilcox tenure on the basis of his dishonesty and incompetence (which I have documented voluminously – although my stories begin after he was tenured).

Regnerus reflux

All this is setup for Smith’s rant about the Regnerus affair (overview here; archive of posts under this tag). When the scandal was unfolding in 2012, Smith made an unintentional appearance in the blogosphere when some of his outraged email to sociologists (including me) was posted on the Scatterplot blog (here and here). He followed that up with an essay defending Regnerus in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which accused academic sociology of perpetrating an auto-da-fé (which is similar to being criticized on blogs, except in every possible way).

Obsessed readers will recall that, in the original version of that essay, Smith wrote, “Full disclosure: I was on the faculty in Regnerus’s department and advised him for some years, but was not his dissertation chair.” That was later corrected to read, “Full disclosure: I was chair of Regnerus’s dissertation committee.” This seems not a minor detail to forget, considering (by his accounting) Smith and Regnerus co-authored eight articles together, and Regnerus was one of only six dissertations Smith chaired at UNC.

Regnerus dissertation signature page.

Regnerus dissertation signature page.

Smith is still having trouble with the details of the story, and forgets again to “fully disclose” this fact.

He also tells this story as if everything Regnerus said initially was true and nothing substantial was subsequently uncovered. For example, it hardly seems relevant anymore that, “Regnerus was clear in his article that his findings did not point in any specific policy direction” (102), now that Regnerus and his colleagues did use his results to press the case against marriage equality, in both briefs and expert testimony. We also now know, confirming the early conspiracy theories, that Regnerus and his colleagues – principally Wilcox – did indeed plan the study as an activist endeavor to influence the courts. (This doesn’t mean they faked the data, only that they were sure they would find a way to find something in the data to make gay and lesbian parents look bad.)

Smith quotes from Regnerus’s paper, “I have not and will not speculate here on causality,” but we now know that Regnerus grossly does exaggerate his results and draw causal conclusions when speaking to like-minded audiences, including by presenting unadjusted results while discussing his statistical controls, and by speculating about mechanisms for the patterns he found. The original published paper, with its caveats and disclaimers, proved irrelevant to how the movement against marriage equality used it for their ideological ends.

In any event, Smith still needs to vent on the ill treatment he believes Regnerus received at the hands of the purveyors of the sacred project. He devotes more than 14 pages to the scandal, of which almost 6 are footnotes in which he schools himself on the legal particulars of the case, condemns the non-academic activists who agitated and sued their way through the process, and takes on some of the wider research on same-sex parenting. Not surprisingly, however, I’m afraid Smith seems to have learned little from the scandal (including the relevant facts).

One odd falsehood Smith commits is claiming there was a “review process by which the [Regnerus] article had been unanimously judged worthy of publication by six double-blind reviewers” (107), which he repeats later (157). If this is an honest error it results from misreading the internal review conducted by Darren Sherkat for the journal, Social Science Research (SSR), in response to the scandal. Sherkat reported that there were six reviewers for two articles that sparked controversy – three each. So, three reviewers, not six. Also, Smith must know that SSR is the only major sociology journal to practice single-blind review. The reviewers always know who wrote the articles they review. In fact, as we now know, two of the three reviewers were directly involved in the research: Paul Amato, who has described his role as a paid consultant on the study; and, far worse, Brad Wilcox, the principal fundraiser and institutional architect of the research, whose role as a reviewer was finally admitted in August 2013. So, not exactly “double-blind,” even nominally.

Smith’s main complaint is that the sociologists criticizing Regnerus have always ignored weak studies and shoddy research methods when people who used them found that gay and lesbian parents don’t harm children. This is the “ideological double standard” that Smith called “pathetic” in an email to me and others, now rehashed at p. 110 of his book. But it’s ridiculous. Neither I nor the others objecting to the Regnerus paper claimed our primary objective was the protection of accurate science in some abstract sense. The paper drew the sustained attention that it did because of the moment and manner in which it appeared – and was deployed – in a raging national debate with important, practical consequences for real life.

Speaking for myself, I of course routinely review and recommend rejection for research articles whose results and apparent worldview are completely consistent with my empirical expectations and normative assumptions (even in cases where rubberstamping them into publication would increase my own citation count). And I often decline to cite relevant research that would support whatever case I’m making if I don’t find it sound or credible. I have standards for quality and I impose them in the routine course of business. But I don’t stand on street corners and holler at passersby every time a poor quality article is published, the way I do when one is that attacks minority civil rights. That’s not hypocrisy, that’s priorities.

On the merits of the equivalency claim – bad Regnerus, bad prior research – I also disagree. Much of the previous research on same-sex parenting was essentially in the form of case studies and convenience samples, which are legitimate ways of studying small and hard-to-identify populations, despite the possibility of selection bias and social desirability bias. As Andrew Perrin, Neal Caren and I argued in a response paper, that previous research, in the aggregate, is consistent with the “no differences” view because it fails to falsify the hypothesis that there is a notable disadvantage to being raised by same-sex parents. All those case studies and convenience samples do not prove there is no disadvantage attributable to same-sex parenting – they merely fail to find one. And that is the state of the research today.

Unsurprisingly, Smith draws the wrong conclusion from the Regnerus affair, arguing that the greatest negative outcome was the threat to the peer-review process posed by the criticism of Regnerus:

Most obvious in that episode was the attack on Regnerus himself. Less obvious but no less important was the assault on the integrity of the double-blind peer-review process involved in those attacks. Recall that Regnerus’ paper had been evaluated by six blind reviewers, all of whom recommended publication. Recall that the quality of Regnerus’ sample was, though not perfect, superior to any other that had been used to answer this research question prior to his study. Nothing in the review process was unusual or dubious… (157).

Even if all that were true, and it is demonstrably all not true, I still don’t think protest and criticism of published research – what Smith calls “scholarly review by mob intimidation” – marks “the end of credible social science” (161). This is like saying the problem with the Vietnam War was that it ushered in a new era in which elected politicians can’t even make the decision to go to war anymore without the threat of mob protests and civil disobedience. Who let the public in to this democracy, anyway? (Of course, as I was once instructed by a colleague, academia is not a democracy, it’s a meritocracy.)

His summary of the story takes on this Orwellian character. “I do not mean to suggest that sociology’s journal peer-review system is rampant with corruption,” he says, somehow referring not to the bad decision to publish the article, but rather to the public criticism it sustained.

But I do think it is vulnerable to pernicious influences exerted by some scholars who are driven by some of the less admirable aspects of sociology’s sacred project. The Regnerus debacle shows that it can happen and has happened. The potential for abuse is real (162).

The abuse in the Regnerus case was not in the protest, but in the mobilization of big, private money to generate research intended to influence the courts, infecting the reviewer pool with consulting fees among insider networks, manipulating the journal into relying on reviewers without expertise in gay and lesbian family studies, and then mobilizing the result for harmful political ends. The public criticism, on the other hand, besides making Regnerus professionally toxic – for which I have little sympathy – served only to bring this to the attention of the academic community and the public. I may be in the minority on this among academics who value their privileged social status, but I don’t even object to the public records requests for information on the peer review process (which, although not triggered by sociologists, consume several pages of Smith’s narrative). Rather, I regret that the use of private money and a corporate publisher limited the possibility for more thorough transparency in the process.

Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins.

Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins.

Blame the bloggers

Like he blames politics when he doesn’t like the political outcome, Smith blames communication itself when he doesn’t like the content expressed. In this case, that means the blogs. I find this passage jaw-dropping:

The Internet has created a whole new means by which the traditional double-blind peer-review system may be and already is in some ways, I believe, being undermined. I am referring here to the spate of new sociology blogs that have sprung up in recent years in which handfuls of sociologists publicly comment upon and often criticize published works in the discipline. The commentary published on these blogs operates outside of the gatekeeping systems of traditional peer review. All it takes to make that happen is for one or more scholars who want to amplify their opinions into the blogosphere to set up their own blogs and start writing. … If this were conducted properly, it could provide benefit to the discipline. But, in my observation, the discipline’s sacred project sometimes steers how these sociology blogs operate in highly problematic directions (166).

He calls this “vigilante peer review.” And I guess I’m doing it right now.

No journal or book review editor has asked any of these sociologists to review a paper or book. What publications get critiqued and sometimes lambasted is entirely up to the blog owners and authors (166).

Then, after a three-page excerpt from a Darren Sherkat blog post – which, admittedly, probably was not intended to lower Smith’s blood pressure – he concludes:

The Internet has created new means by which American sociology’s spiritual project … can and does interfere with the integrity and trustworthiness of the social-scientific, journal article peer-review system (172).

Yikes. This might all not seem so embarrassingly wrong if it didn’t follow from holding up Regnerus as the paragon of the peer review system.

I can’t think of exactly the right children’s movie analogy here – a grouchy traditionalist who eventually learns that it’s OK to be free and have fun. It’s not quite The Grinch, because that was just evil for no reason. It’s not quite Captain von Trapp from Sound of Music, because his misplaced need for social order resulted from the injury of his widowhood. Maybe it’s Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins, who is just merrily living his life, benignly assuming that children should be seen and not heard because that’s the way it’s always been. I like the movies where, in the end, the grouch learns that it’s OK to sing and dance.

On the other hand

The most persuasive passage in the book is one that is mostly irrelevant to Smith’s sacred project argument. He believes American sociologists have tended in recent years to separate themselves into disparate groups of like-minded people, so that there is “a tacit peace treaty specifying that everyone should mostly think and do whatever he or she wishes in terms of methods, theory, and intent and not suggest that what anyone else is doing might be a problem” – as long as it’s politically correct (142). If the people we talk and argue with professionally have very similar views, debate over broader intellectual or philosophical issues is too limited.

At the same time, too many grad students are trained as narrow technicians, with not enough “broadly read, thoughtful, intellectually interesting scholars and teachers” (143). He may perhaps overstate that case, but it’s a reasonable thing to worry about:

In sum, most of American sociology has become disciplinarily isolated and parochial, sectarian, internally fragmented, boringly homogeneous, reticently conflict-averse, philosophically ignorant, and intellectually torpid (144).

His greatest error in this part is see activist leftists dominating the prestige game within the discipline, shutting out and shunning anyone who doesn’t conform. It seems obvious to me that technical expertise and empirical problem solving skills are much greater determinants of access to top publications and jobs than is devotion to what Smith calls the sacred project. Whacky leftists who don’t think critically (who are of course only a subset of leftists) might be part of the winning electoral coalition within ASA, but I don’t think they’re running the discipline.

The greater culprit here, in my opinion, is not political homogeneity but rather pressure to specialize and develop technical expertise early in our graduate training in order to publish in prestigious journals as early as possible to get hired and promoted in tenure-track jobs. I would love it if sociology had more interaction and debate between, say, family scholars and criminologists, network sociologists and gender scholars, demographers and theorists. (One workaround, at least for me, has been devoting time in my career to blogging and social media, which generates excellent conversation and exposure to new people away from my areas of expertise.)

Don’t just stand there

I agree there are sociologists who see it as their mission to be “essentially the criminal investigative unit of the left wing of the Democratic Party” (21). From the thousands of graduate applications I’ve reviewed, it’s clear that many of our students enter sociology because they are looking for a way to attack social problems and move society in the direction determined by their moral and political views and values. And they’re usually not political conservatives or evangelical Christians.

Why fault people for doing that? What are people with such convictions and talents supposed to do? Sometimes it doesn’t work out as an academic career, but it’s often worth a try. In sociology training, meanwhile, they have the opportunity to learn a lot of facts and theories along with everyone else. And they might also learn to avoid some common intellectual problems. Some things students learn – or learn to appreciate further – include: Things do not always automatically get worse for oppressed people; not all state institutions are harmful to subordinate groups; some facts undermine our prior understandings and political views, and it’s OK to discuss them; and, no matter how oppressed your people are, if you’re in an American sociology graduate program, chances are there are people somewhere who are even more oppressed.

I don’t mean to be condescending to people who enter academia with activist intentions – although I’m sure I seem that way. Personally, I am happier working in such company than I would be surrounded by people who only have faux-value-neutral, technocratic ambitions and no righteous outrage to express. That doesn’t mean I’ll rubberstamp comprehensive exams or dissertations, or ignore errors in the peer-review process, because I like someone’s politics. I like the discipline that social science offers to activism. And I like that our discipline offers a career path for (among others) people whose passion is for changing the world in a good way – the meaning of which I’m happy to argue about further.

* I am not getting into personalism, critical realism, Aristotle, Karol Wojtyla, or other obscure stuff, much of which Smith puts in an appendix.

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Quote that sociologist, 124 in the Times edition

Nicholas Kristof’s infamous takedown of professors for marginalizing themselves included this dismissive description of sociology’s dismal record of dismissal:

Many academic disciplines also reduce their influence by neglecting political diversity. Sociology, for example, should be central to so many national issues, but it is so dominated by the left that it is instinctively dismissed by the right.

There is a nice roundup of responses to Kristof by Jessie Daniels here. I have just two small things to add. First, “instinctively” is clearly the wrong word here. I might say “reflexively,” but really it’s “conveniently,” and that convenience partly results from stereotypes like this.

Second, much of what sociologists do to bring their expertise to the public (besides, of course, teach) is not part of such an explicit left-right debate in which rational policymakers and economists casually dismiss hysterical leftist sociologists. Rather, it’s part of the general work of bringing research results and interpretation to the public, largely through the media, including, occasionally, the New York Times.

sociologist

The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t instinctively dismiss sociologists.

Many of us in our own corners of the discipline feel that the NYT and the other big media always quotes the same small set of experts in our areas: (e.g., Andrew Cherlin on family trends). So I was surprised to see that my Lexis-Nexis search for “sociology or sociologist” within 10 words of “professor” in the NYT in 2013 turned up 124 sociology professors quoted in news articles, reviews, or op-eds (I excluded letter writers and the subjects of wedding announcements and obituaries).

These are them:

Yasin Aktay
Khalid al-Dakhil
Elizabeth Armstrong
Robert Aronowitz
Jacob Avery
Jere Behrman
Andrew Beveridge
Roberto Biorcio
Vern Bullough
Deborah Carr
Hector Carrillo
Camille Charles
Andrew Cherlin
Margaret Chin
Philip Cohen
Dalton Conley
Thomas Cushman
Sarah Damaske
Michele Dauber
Nikos Demertzis
Justin Denney
Fiona Devine
Larry Diamond
Gail Dines
Mitch Duneier
Riley Dunlap
Nina Eliasoph
Irma Elo
Paula England
Thomas Espenshade
Yang Fenggang
Sujatha Fernandes
Nancy Foner
Menachem Friedman
David Gartman
Kathleen Gerson
Todd Gitlin
Nathan Glazer
Jeff Goodwin
Ross Haenfler
Jack Halberstam
David Halle
Laura Hamilton
Roger Hammer
Melissa Hardy
Samuel Heilman
William Helmreich
Darnell Hunt
Margaret Hunter
Richard Ingersoll
Hahm In-hee
Michael Jacobson
Colin Jerolmack
Arne Kalleberg
John Kattakayam
James Kelly
Shamus Khan
Michael Kimmel
Stephen Klineberg
Eric Klinenberg
Hans-Peter Kohler
Jerome Krase
Jack Levin
Harry Levine
Robert Lilly
Douglas Masey
Leslie McCall
David Meyer
Richard Miech
Ruth Milkman
Joya Misra
Phyllis Moen
John Mollenkopf
Ann Morning
Katherine Newman
Andrew Noymer
Aaron Pallas
Wes Perkins
Julie Phillips
Janet Poppendieck
Gerard Postiglione
Samuel Preston
Gretchen Purser
Jill Quadagno
Sean Reardon
Mark Regnerus
Jonathan Rieder
Jake Rosenfeld
Michael Rosenfeld
Preston Rudy
Robert Sampson
Nandini Sardesai
Mike Savage
Rachel Schurman
Morrie Schwartz
Greg Scott
David Segal
Markus Shafer
Mimi Sheller
Elizabeth Shove
Theda Skocpol
Sanjay Srivastava
Kevin Stainback
Pamela Stone
Kregg Strehorn
David Stuckler
Shruti Tambe
Pelin Tan
Thomas Tierney
Donald Tomaskovic-Devey
Zeynep Tufekci
Shiv Visvanathan
Alex Vitale
Jane Waldfogel
Oliver Wang
Mary Waters
Frederick Weil
Saundra Westervelt
JeffriAnne Wilder
William Julius Wilson
James Witte
Linda Woodhead
Brian Wynne
Cristobal Young

Without doing a whole content analysis, it looks to me that most (or at least a lot) of these stories were not quoting sociologists as part of an ideological debate, but rather as experts describing developments in their subject areas.

In addition, the Times published op-eds by at least 15 sociology professors in 2013:

Rene Almeling
Andrew Cherlin
Philip Cohen
Matthew Desmond
Jennifer Glass
Jeff Goodwin
Erin Hatton
Shamus Khan
Michael Kimmel
Monica Prasad
Sean Reardon
Jonathan Rieder
Scott Schieman
Juliet Schor
Patrick Sharkey
Wang Feng

I’m sure there are better ways to do this more accurately, but you can consider this a conservative estimate, since it omits those sociologists who go by another identification (like Brad “intact, biological marriage is still the gold standard” Wilcox, who sells himself as Director of the National Marriage Project), those randomly described as sociologists (such as Charles Murray), people who are said to “teach sociology,” and graduate students. These are just people specifically described as professors.

You don’t have to be an economist to know that economists are quoted more. But is this a lot of representation? I don’t know.

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Who likes public intellectuals?

One simple answer to a big question, in one chart.

Using the method of gathering demographic data described by Neal Caren, I asked Facebook for the “audience size” of an ad targeting people who “like” some famous academics, and then specified men or women to get the gender composition of the (U.S.) audience.

I started with Camille Paglia, after this old quote of hers surfaced: “Masculinity is aggressive, combustible, unstable. It is also the most creative cultural force in history.” I thought it was dumb as well as offensive, and wondered how many women like that stuff. Her Facebook “like” audience is quite small at 7,600, and it turns out 45% of them are female.

From there I tried comparing her to some feminists, and then some people to compare feminists with. Next thing I knew I had 15 scholars, 5 of them largely known for feminism (if you don’t count Paglia, the least popular person on the list). They are living people who interest me, who have academic jobs and didn’t become famous with major media jobs (like Paul Krugman) or political jobs (like Robert Reich). I seem to have forgotten about historians. And I accidentally included Barbara Ehrenreich, who doesn’t have an academic job.

Here are the results:

who likes public intellectuals

Note that some people don’t report a gender to Facebook. People with observable numbers of gender-abstainers (the numbers are rounded to the nearest thousand) include: bell hooks 7%, Judith Butler 6%, Cornell West 5%, E. O. Wilson 4%, Angela Davis 3%, Henry Louis Gates 3%, Barbara Ehrenreich 2%, Noam Chomsky 2%, and Jared Diamond 1%.

Lots of interesting people — like, sociologists — didn’t turn out to have enough likes to register. Feel free to add others in the comments.

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Academic puffery watch: ‘Utilizing’ edition

If you split hairs, you can argue there is a use for utilize that differentiates it from use. In the Oxford English Dictionary it’s all pretty circular:

  • Utilise: To make or render useful; to convert to use, turn to account.
  • Use: To put to practical use; esp. to make use of in accomplishing a task.

You could get into variants, inflections, and origins. But it’s not worth it. In academic writing I don’t think people do that. I think they use utilize when they are committing puffery (“The action or practice of ‘puffing’ someone or something; extravagant or undeserved praise, esp. for advertising or promotional purposes; writing, etc., intended to have this effect.”)

So it is with heavy heart that I report what could be a comeback for utilize, or at least a stall in the course of its demise. I have this from two sources. First, from the JSTOR academic database:

utilize-coming-back.-jstor

And second, from the general corpus of published material (mostly books) that is in Google Books, using the American English collection for a longer period:utilize-coming-back.

Both show a rise of utilize from obscurity to a peak in the 1970s. Note the peak in academia is about twice as high as the peak in the general collection, at 10.7% compared with 5.3%. But both showed very promising declines until the early 2000s. In retrospect, we see the decline was slowing already in the 1990s. We should have been more vigilant.

Maybe this is just a reversal of progress toward pretending we are above excessive puffery. Which I think is a shame.

This all has something to do with this passage from the chapter titled, “Is a Disinterested Act Possible?” in Practical Reason by Pierre Bourdieu (including the length of the sentence itself):

bourdieu-disinterested

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Sociology citing Becker

Which comes first, the Nobel prize or the citations in sociology journals?

Neal Caren produced a list of the 52 works most cited in sociology journals in 2013, which included two Nobel prize winning economists:

  • Heckman, James J. “Sample selection bias as a specification error.” Econometrica: Journal of the econometric society (1979): 153-161.
  • Gary S. Becker. A Treatise on the Family. Harvard university press, 1981.

I assume those Heckman citations are the result of sadistic journal reviewers or dissertation committee members impressive their colleagues by requiring people to add selection corrections to their regressions.

The Becker citations were applauded by economists. I assumed they were usually cursory mentions in the literature review, representing neoclassical economics in the study of families. And that is basically right. In the 10 most recent citations to Treatise in top-three sociology journals, the book is always mentioned only once. See for yourself. Here are the passages out of context (citations at the end):

  1. A great deal of work in sociological theory addresses the determinants of marriage and the bases of divorce. Some of this work posits marriage as a form of social exchange, whereby internal benefits (sex) and costs (time) are calculated and weighed relative to external costs (money) and benefits (social approval) (Becker 1991).

  2. According to the negotiation framework known as intra-household bargaining (Agarwal 1997), rather than households behaving as cohesive units (Becker 1991), household members’ bargaining and decision making over the allocation of resources (e.g., income, health, education, time use) are conditioned by gender-based power differentials.

  3. In the classic economic and game theoretic models of partner matching and mate selection (Becker 1991; Gale and Shapley 1962), the relative value of every potential mate is assumed to be already known or can easily be determined (Todd and Miller 1999).

  4. Generally used to explain behavior during the waking hours, the time availability perspective suggests that because men spend more time in paid work, they have less time to do caregiving; the related specialization hypothesis suggests that women have the time and incentive to specialize in caregiving and unpaid work (Becker 1991[1981]).

  5. A second means by which household wealth is accrued is by means of family transfers. Economic assets, whether financial or real, are transferred from family members to others, both within and across generations (Becker 1991; Mulligan 1997; Wahl 2002).

  6. The compensating differentials argument suggests that mothers are more willing than non-mothers to trade wages for family-friendly employment. For example, Becker (1991) suggests that mothers may choose jobs that require less energy or that have parent-friendly characteristics, such as flexible hours, few demands for travel or nonstandard shifts, or on-site daycare.

  7. Differences in life course patterns between men and women may reflect the influences of traditional gender roles in the family and corresponding intermittent labor force attachment among women relative to men, particularly during childbearing years (Becker 1991; Bianchi 1995; Mincer and Polachek 1974).

  8. One of the primary ways in which education leads to lower fertility is by changing the calculation of the costs and benefits of childbearing and rearing (Becker 1991).

  9. As has long been recognized in both economics and sociology, an adequate explanation of gender inequality in the labor force therefore requires the researcher to go beyond discrimination and productivity-related attributes (i.e., human capital) and to consider the role of the family (Becker 1973, 1974, 1991; Mincer and Polachek 1974; many others). … First, it is assumed that economic resources are a family-level utility that is shared equally between the spouses (Becker 1973, 1974, 1991; Lundberg and Pollak 1993; Mincer and Polachek 1974).

  10. Fathers’ economic contributions are an important resource for children in all types of families (Becker 1991; Coleman 1988).

I noticed, incidentally, that we may have hit Peak Becker. The Web of Science citation count for his work in journals coded as Sociology peaked in 2011. Maybe the 2012 data just aren’t complete yet.

peak-becker

Out of curiosity, I also checked the citations in major economics journals to the most highly-cited sociology article on the household division of labor known for a theoretical argument, Julie Brines’s 1994 article in the American Journal of Sociology. Just kidding; there aren’t any.

No, that’s not true. The article has been cited once in the top 40 economics journals, in Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice:

The higher wage earner enjoys a superior bargaining position, and thus can use that power to demand less household responsibility – a proposition that has been the focus of substantial empirical research among sociologists (Heer, 1963, Brines, 1994, Greenstein, 2000, Bittman et al., 2003, Parkman, 2004 and Gupta, 2007).

References

  1. Rose McDermott. and James H. Fowler. and Nicholas A. Christakis. “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else Is Doing It Too: Social Network Effects on Divorce in a Longitudinal Sample.” Social Forces 92.2 (2013): 491-519.
  2. Greta Friedemann-Sánchez. and Rodrigo Lovatón. “Intimate Partner Violence in Colombia: Who Is at Risk?” Social Forces 91.2 (2012): 663-688
  3. Michael J. Rosenfeld and Reuben J. Thomas. 2012. Searching for a Mate: The Rise of the Internet as a Social Intermediary. American Sociological Review August 2012 77: 523-547. doi:10.1177/0003122412448050
  4. Sarah A. Burgard. “The Needs of Others: Gender and Sleep Interruptions for Caregivers.” Social Forces 89.4 (2011): 1189-1215.
  5. Moshe Semyonov. and Noah Lewin-Epstein. “Wealth Inequality: Ethnic Disparities in Israeli Society.” Social Forces 89.3 (2011): 935-959.
  6. Michelle J. Budig and Melissa J. Hodges. 2010. Differences in Disadvantage: Variation in the Motherhood Penalty across White Women’s Earnings Distribution. American Sociological Review October 2010 75: 705-728, doi:10.1177/0003122410381593.
  7. Jennie E. Brand and Yu Xie. 2010. Who Benefits Most from College?: Evidence for Negative Selection in Heterogeneous Economic Returns to Higher Education. American Sociological Review April 2010 75: 273-302, doi:10.1177/0003122410363567.
  8. Brienna Perelli-Harris. “Family Formation in Post-Soviet Ukraine: Changing Effects of Education in a Period of Rapid Social Change.” Social Forces 87.2 (2008): 767-794.
  9. Emily Greenman. and Yu Xie. “Double Jeopardy?: The Interaction of Gender and Race on Earnings in the United States.” Social Forces 86.3 (2008): 1217-1244.
  10. Daniel N. Hawkins, Paul R. Amato, and Valarie King. 2007. Nonresident Father Involvement and Adolescent Well-Being: Father Effects or Child Effects? American Sociological Review December 72: 990-1010, doi:10.1177/000312240707200607.
  11. Sirui Liu, Pamela Murray-Tuite, Lisa Schweitzer. 2012. Analysis of child pick-up during daily routines and for daytime no-notice evacuations, Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, Volume 46, Issue 1, Pages 48-67.

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How many Black scholars does it take to have any Black scholars?

I had a very nice time at the 21st Annual Symposium on Family Issues at Penn State University, where I presented remarks in response to a paper by Sara McLanahan and Wade Jacobsen. The theme of the symposium was “Diverging Destinies,” or the growing differences in family experiences by social class in the US. The event has lots of time for discussion and debate, and much of that focused on poor people and their families, around contested terms such as choices, parenting, behavior, attitudes, orientation, and so on. I had plenty to agree and disagree with, there were lots of good talks, and it was a good conversation.

The scenic Nittany Lion Inn (photo by me)

The scenic Nittany Lion Inn (photo by me)

Here are two observations.

The first was a moment when Ron Haskins from the Brookings Institution, a long-time member of the welfare policy establishment (his bio describes him as “instrumental in the 1996 overhaul of national welfare policy”), responded to Harvard professor Kathryn Edin’s response to his presentation. She had spent most of her time talking about her new book, Doing the Best I Can: Fathering in the Inner City. For the book, Edin undertook years of ethnographic fieldwork and interviews, and emerged with a very sympathetic yet sobering description of the poor young men she studied, men who want more than anything to be good fathers — according to the contemporary ideals of both economic provision and emotional togetherness — but for many reasons usually can’t meet their own goals.

When they were both on the dais, Haskins said she was “too optimistic” about her subjects, in describing them as eager to do the right thing for their children. “I know these guys!” he said, before describing some anecdotal experiences from his (apparently distant) personal past. It struck me because it seemed profoundly disrespectful of not only her work, but of her kind of research. Of course ethnographers can do bad studies or misinterpret their data. But I would only discount a serious work of ethnography based on my personal experience if that experience were pretty deep. I suspect Haskins wouldn’t have struck that note if her work had been a quantitative demography, but I could be wrong. (Earlier, I had pointed out that welfare reform failed at its stated goal of making poor single mothers get married, and he countered that it had been successful at getting them to work, so “behavior modification does work” — and we should use that program as a model for future work-mandating reforms.)

Who's on that dais?

Who’s on that dais?

Anyway, the second observation was about the composition of the speakers. None of our 16 speakers this year was Black. When I grumbled about that on Facebook, someone said he felt the same way last year. That got me to check the previous programs. (Each year the organizers of the symposium produce a book from the papers — you can see previous editions here, where the contributors are all listed.) I had to go back to 2008 to find an African American speaker, according to my reading of their photos and bios (which is not the best way to identify race/ethnicity, obviously, so I maybe wrong). Overall, of the last 114 speakers going back to 2007, I think only one was Black.

I don’t know who decides on the topics or the invitations, or how the event has unfolded over time, so I can’t comment on the process or motivations of those involved. But I think this is not good. The symposium is a substantial endeavor, with grant money from various sources. An invitation to speak there is a line on your CV, it comes with a small honorarium and travel expenses, and it’s a chance to network with other family researchers, grant-makers, and policy people. There also are a lot of students attending the talks. So whatever the reasons, it’s a shame more Black scholars haven’t been there.

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Beyond Regnerus

20130814-214303.jpg
At the American Sociological Association meetings just concluded, Tey Meadow spoke on a panel entitled “When the Professional Becomes Political: Responding to the New Family Structures Survey.” The text of her remarks, “Queer Numbers: Social Science as Cultural Heterosexism,” is now online at the Social (In)Queery blog.

As someone who has, in Meadow’s phrase, “taken the bait” (with limited regrets), I recommend it. She writes:

This “difference versus no difference” debate is itself a conservative political ploy, aimed at a mass media landscape. It’s not a value-neutral empirical question. By posing that very question political conservatives frame the issue as one of social desireability rather than basic human rights.

And,

If what we want is better child outcomes, and more solid and enduring connections between parents and children, our energies would be better spent studying different questions, questions like: How can we ensure that children receive the social supports they need to thrive? How can we, as a culture, nurture people through difficult life transitions, like divorce, so they can keep their relationships to their children intact? How can we mitigate the forces of social intolerance on the fragile emotional lives of vulnerable youth?

And finally,

We are called upon to respond, reply, critique and engage Regnerus and his colleagues, and in so doing, to accept the terms of the debate his research sets forth. The publication of this study and the subsequent efforts to debate its mandates are instances of the ways social science itself can become a dangerous instrument of cultural homophobia.

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Intersectionality interrupted

When I was in college a lot of people were reading Black Feminist Thought, by the sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, which came out in 1990 (it’s now pushing 11,000 citations in Google Scholar, and Prof. Collins is a colleague in my department). That book helped popularize intersectionality, from the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal scholar.

Thinking about and acting on intersecting inequalities was a big issue in the 1990s. It motivated me to do my only research on social movements (the women’s suffrage movement), as well as my dissertation, which included an article on the intersection of race, class and gender in U.S. labor markets (related to work my advisor Reeve Vanneman and colleagues were doing back then).

highway-intersection-in-shanghai-lars-ruecker

Signs

Anyways, long story short: I was interested to see that the latest edition of the journal Signs (paywalled) is devoted to intersectionality, or the critical analysis of how different kinds of inequality and identity occur simultaneously. I haven’t kept up with the theoretical side of this work, which has drifted away from the statistical modeling vein we were mining.

First I read the essay by Catharine MacKinnon, whose work I’ve been teaching for years in courses on gender, theory, and inequality. Since I last paid attention, she did a lot of work on women and international law, and in the essay here she discusses rape and genocide in the Balkan wars. Just as she once asked some feminists (paraphrasing), “if rape is about violence and not sex, why doesn’t he just hit her?”, she now asks (paraphrasing), “if genocide is about wiping people out, why do they commit mass rape against women instead of just killing them?” Thanks in part to her legal and theoretical work, the idea of genocide as a national, racial or ethnic crime is linked to sex-based atrocities such as forced prostitution and impregnation.

Although it’s hard to read, I am a sucker for MacKinnon’s wordplay (and always hear her phrase, “Man fucks woman; subject verb object,” when I talk about subjects and objects). So I was drawn in by her introduction to intersectionality as a method, which included, “Talking about thinking about the way one thinks is complicated, in that one is doing what one is talking about doing at the same time one is talking about doing it.”

For example, as we think about how we think, she wants us to avoid confusing the products of inequality for their causes. She writes,

No question about it, categories and stereotypes and classifications are authentic instruments of inequality. And they are static and hard to move. But they are the ossified outcomes of the dynamic intersection of multiple hierarchies, not the dynamic that creates them. They are there, but they are not the reason they are there.

Anyway, I recommend the essay, which, in addition to rape and genocide, also discusses the conundrums of intersecting inequality in U.S. law, where race and gender discrimination each are illegal, but discrimination by race-and-gender simultaneously is somehow sometimes left out.

That last point draws heavily off the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, who, along with Sumi Cho and Leslie McCall, guest-edited the special issue.

Interruption

And here, after recommending the issue and praising its authors, I offer a criticism: intersectionality has a writing situation. Everyone in academia has their jargon. But in this area there is a common aesthetic preference for extra words and clauses — including long words and clauses — that is a real barrier to entry for those who don’t spend a lot of their time reading it.

Here is the opening paragraph of the introductory essay, by the guest editors:

As intersectionality has emerged in a number of discursive spaces, the projects and debates that have accompanied its travel have converged into a burgeoning field of intersectional studies. This field can be usefully framed as representing three loosely defined sets of engagements: the first consisting of applications of an intersectional framework or investigations of intersectional dynamics, the second consisting of discursive debates about the scope and content of intersectionality as a theoretical and methodological paradigm, and the third consisting of political interventions employing an intersectional lens.

That’s 86 words. I think not much would be lost cutting it down to 42 words, like this:

In the growing field of intersectional studies, we identify three categories of work. First, there are applications of the intersectional framework and studies of intersecting inequalities. Second, there are debates about intersectionality itself as a paradigm. And third, there are intersectional politics.

That’s just an example chosen for convenience — there are worse and better passages in the various essays, and I don’t want to belabor it. I suspect that to many outsiders this problem seems obvious, but I don’t know how these writers see it. I think academics should try to say what they want to say as clearly and directly as possible. If this principle were directly weighed against the loss of nuance — and aesthetic satisfaction — it might entail, I hope the balance would tip in the direction of readability.

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200 researchers respond to Regnerus paper

This is a letter signed by 200 researchers, including me. The effort was organized by Gary Gates, a scholar (acting in an individual, not institutional capacity) at the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute.

Letter to the editors and advisory editors of Social Science Research

As researchers and scholars, many of whom with extensive experience in quantitative and qualitative research in family structures and child outcomes, we write to raise serious concerns about the most recent issue of Social Science Research and the set of papers focused on parenting by lesbians and gay men. In this regard, we have particular concern about Mark Regnerus’ paper entitled “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study.”

LGBT parenting is a highly politicized topic. While the presence of a vibrant and controversial public debate should in no way censor scholarship, it should compel the academy to hold scholarship around that topic to our most rigorous standards. We are very concerned that these standards were not upheld in this issue or with this paper, given the apparently expedited process of publication and the decision to publish commentaries on the paper by scholars who were directly involved with the study and have limited experience in LGBT parenting research. We also have serious concerns about the scholarly merit of this paper

In this letter, we detail the specific concerns that lead us to request that you publicly disclose the reasons for both the expedited peer review process of this clearly controversial paper and the choice of commentators invited to submit critiques. We further request that you invite scholars with specific expertise in LGBT parenting issues to submit a detailed critique of the paper and accompanying commentaries for publication in the next issue of the journal.

We question the process by which this paper was submitted, reviewed, and accepted for publication. The paper was received by the journal on February 1, 2012. A revision was received on February 29, and the paper was accepted on March 12. This suggests that the peer review process and substantive revisions occurred within a period of just five weeks. According to the peer review policy of the Social Science Research website hosted by Elsevier, the first step of the review process is an initial manuscript evaluation by the editor. Once deemed to meet minimum criteria, at least 2 experts are secured for a peer review. The website states that, “Typically manuscripts are reviewed within 2-3 months of submission but substantially longer review times are not uncommon” and that “Revised manuscripts are usually returned to the initial referees upon receipt.” Clearly, Dr. Regnerus’ paper was returned to him very quickly, because he had time to revise the manuscript and get it back to the journal by February 29th. Further, it appears that a second substantive peer review may not have occurred as the paper was accepted just two weeks after the revision was submitted.

The five-week submission to acceptance length was much shorter than all of the other articles published in the July 2012 issue. The average period of review for papers published in this issue was more than a year and the median review time was more than ten months. As we note below, there are substantial concerns about the merits of this paper, and these concerns should have been identified through a thorough and rigorous peer review process.

We further question the selection of commenters for the Regnerus paper. While Cynthia Osborne and Paul Amato are certainly well-respected scholars, they are also both active participants in the Regnerus study. According to her curriculum vitae, Dr. Osborne is a Co-Principal Investigator of the New Family Structure Survey. Dr. Amato served as a paid consultant on the advisory group convened to provide insights into study design and methods. Perhaps more importantly, neither Osborne nor Amato have ever published work that considers LGBT family or parenting issues. A cursory examination of this body of literature would reveal a wide range of scholars who are much more qualified to evaluate the merits of this study and were neither directly involved in the study design nor compensated for that involvement.

We have substantial concerns about the merits of this paper and question whether it actually uses methods and instruments that answer the research questions posed in the paper. The author claims that the purpose of the analysis is to begin to address the question, “Do the children of gay and lesbian parents look comparable to those of their heterosexual counterparts?” (p. 755). He creates several categories of “family type”, including “lesbian mother” and “gay father” as well as “divorced late,” “stepfamily,” and “single-parent.” But, as the author notes, for those respondents who indicated that a parent had a “same-sex relationship,” these categories were collapsed to boost sample size:

That is, a small minority of respondents might fit more than one group. I have, however, forced their mutual exclusivity here for analytic purposes. For example, a respondent whose mother had a same-sex relationship might also qualify in Group 5 or Group 7, but in this case my analytical interest is in maximizing the sample size of Groups 2 and 3 so the respondent would be placed in Group 2 (LMs). Since Group 3 (GFs) is the smallest and most difficult to locate randomly in the population, its composition trumped that of others, even LMs. (There were 12 cases of respondents who reported both a mother and a father having a same-sex relationship; all are analyzed here as GFs, after ancillary analyses revealed comparable exposure to both their mother and father).

By doing this, the author is unable to distinguish between the impact of having a parent who has had a continuous same-sex relationship from the impact of having same-sex parents who broke-up from the impact of living in a same-sex stepfamily from the impact of living with a single parent who may have dated a same-sex partner; each of these groups are included in a single “lesbian mother” or “gay father” group depending on the gender of the parent who had a same-sex relationship. Specifically, this paper fails to distinguish family structure and family instability. Thus, it fails to distinguish, for children whose parents ever had a same-sex relationship experience, the associations due to family structure from the associations due to family stability. However, he does attempt to distinguish family structure from family instability for the children of different-sex parents by identifying children who lived in an intact biological family. To make a group equivalent to the group he labels as having “lesbian” or “gay” parents, the author should have grouped all other respondents together and included those who lived in an intact biological family with those who ever experienced divorce, or whose parents ever had a different-sex romantic relationship. That seems absurd to family structure researchers, yet that type of grouping is exactly what he did with his “lesbian mother” and “gay father” groups.

It should be noted that the analyses also fail to distinguish family structure from family stability for single mothers; this group included both continuously single mothers and those single mothers who had previously experienced a divorce.

The paper employs an unusual method to measure the sexual orientation of the respondents’ parents. Even if the analyses had distinguished family stability from family structure, this paper and its accompanying study could not actually directly examine the impact of having a gay or lesbian parent on child outcomes because the interpretation of the measurement of parental sexual orientation is unclear. The author acknowledges as much when he states:

It is, however, very possible that the same-sex romantic relationships about which the respondents report were not framed by those respondents as indicating their own (or their parent’s own) understanding of their parent as gay or lesbian or bisexual in sexual orientation. Indeed, this is more a study of the children of parents who have had (and in some cases, are still in) same-sex relationships than it is one of children whose parents have self-identified or are ‘‘out’’ as gay or lesbian or bisexual.

Respondents were asked whether their parents had ever had a same-sex relationship. The author then identifies mothers and fathers as “lesbian” or “gay” without any substantiation of parental sexual orientation either by respondents or their parents. Given the author’s stated caveats, it is both inappropriate and factually incorrect for him to refer to these parents as “gay” or “lesbian” throughout the paper.

We are very concerned about the academic integrity of the peer review process for this paper as well as its intellectual merit. We question the decision of Social Science Research to publish the paper, and particularly, to publish it without an extensive, rigorous peer review process and commentary from scholars with explicit expertise on LGBT family research. The methodologies used in this paper and the interpretation of the findings are inappropriate. The publication of this paper and the accompanying commentary calls the editorial process at Social Science Research, a well-regarded, highly cited social science journal (ranking in the top 15% of Sociology journals by ISI), into serious question. We urge you to publicly disclose the reasons for both the expedited peer review process of this clearly controversial paper and the choice of commentators invited to submit critiques. We further request that you invite scholars with specific expertise in LGBT parenting issues to submit a detailed critique of the paper and accompanying commentaries for publication in the next issue of the journal.

Signatories

Sociology and family studies: Silke Aisenbrey, Katherine R. Allen, Eric Anderson, Nielan Barnes, Amanda K. Baumle, Debbie Becher, Mary Bernstein, Natalie Boero, H.M.W Bos, Lisa D Brush, Neal Caren, Mary Ann Clawson, Dan Clawson, Philip N. Cohen, D’Lane Compton, Shelley J. Correll, David H. Demo, Catherine Donovan, Sinikka Elliott, Louis Edgar Esparza, Laurie Essig, Myra Marx Ferree, Tina Fetner, Jessica Fields, Melissa M. Forbis, Gary J. Gates, Naomi Gerstel, Katherine Giuffre, Gloria González-López, Theodore Greenstein, Jessica Halliday Hardie, Mark D. Hayward, Melanie Heath, Amie Hess, Melanie M. Hughes, Shamus Rahman Khan, Michael Kimmel, Sherryl Kleinman, Charles Q. Lau, Jennifer Lee, Jean Lynch, Gill McCann, Tey Meadow, Sarah O. Meadows, Eleanor M. Miller, Debra Minkoff, Beth Mintz, Dawne Moon, Mignon R. Moore, Chandra Muller, Nancy A. Naples, Peter M. Nardi, Alondra Nelson, Jodi O’Brien, Katherine O’Donnell, Ramona Faith Oswald, Joseph M. Palacios, C.J. Pascoe, Dudley L. Poston Jr., Nicole C. Raeburn, Kimberly Richman, Barbara J. Risman, Sharmila Rudrappa, Stephen T. Russel, Virginia Rutter, Natalia Sarkisian, Saskia Sassen, Liana C. Sayer, Michael Schwalbe, Michael Schwartz, Christine R. Schwartz, Pepper Schwartz, Denise Benoit Scott, Richard Sennett, Eve Shapiro, Eran Shor, Wendy Simonds, Sarah Sobieraj, Judith Stacey, Arlene Stein, Verta Taylor, Debra J Umberson, Suzanna Danuta Walters, Jacqueline S. Weinstock, Amy C. Wilkins, Cai Wilkinson, Kristi Williams, Kerry Woodward. Psychology: Nancy Lynn Baker, Meg Barker, Joel Becker, Steven Botticelli, Petra M Boynton, Mark Brennan-Ing, Alice S. Carter, Carol A. Carver, Armand R. Cerbone, Kirstyn Y.S. Chun, Victoria Clarke, Gilbert W. Cole, M. Lynne Cooper, Howard H. Covitz, Dennis Debiak, Rachel H. Farr, Herb Gingold, Abbie E. Goldberg, Carla Golden, Robert-Jay Green, Beverly Greene, Harold D. Grotevant, Sarah A. Hayes-Skelton, Stacy S. Horn, Sharon G. Horne, Harm J. Hospers, Steven E. James, Darren Langdridge, Chet Lesniak, Heidi Levitt, William D. Lubart, Carien Lubbe-De Beer, Tasim Martin-Berg, James P. Maurino, Ximena E. Mejia, Roger Mills-Koonce, Lin S. Myers, Jo Oppenheimer, Susan M. Orsillo, David Pantalone, Jeffrey T. Parsons, Maureen Perry-Jenkins, Madelyn Petrow-Cohen, Todd R. Poch, Scott D. Pytluk, Damien W. Riggs, Lizabeth Roemer, Ritch C. Savin-Williams, J. Greg Serpa, Louise Bordeaux Silverstein, Bonnie R. Strickland, Karen Suyemoto, Lance P. Swenson, Fiona Tasker, Marcus C. Tye, Richard G. Wight. Other scholars: Paula Amato, Ellen Ann Andersen, Mary Barber, Judith Bradford, Robert P Cabaj, Ryan M. Combs, Christopher Conti, Russel W. Dalton, John D’Emilio, Anne Douglass, Jack Drescher, Oliva M. Espin, Nanette Gartrell, Patti Geier, Alan Gilbert, Ann P. Haas, Ellen Haller, Nicole Heilbron, Tonda Hughes, Daniel Hurewitz, Jesse Joad, Debra Kaysen, Sang Hea Kil, Martha Kirkpatrick, Holning Lau, Arlene Istar Lev, Lisa W. Loutzenheiser, Michael F. Lovenheim, Catherine A. Lugg, Gerald P. Mallon, Laura Mamo, Sean G. Massey, Kenneth J. Meier, Stephen O. Murray, Douglas NeJaime, Henry Ng, Julie Novkov, Loren A. Olson, Donald L. Opitz, Katherine Parkin, Jessica Peet, Victoria Pollock, Jesus Ramirez-Valles, Nancy J. Ramsay, Paul J. Rinaldi, Barbara Rothberg, Esther Rothblum, Ralph Roughton, Leila J. Rupp, Shawn Schulenberg, Ken Sherrill, Vincent M. B. Silenzio, Stephen V. Sprinkle, William J. Spurlin, Carole S. Vance, Angelia R. Wilson.

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