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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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Nicholas Wade followup, deeper dive edition

I’m very happy with the editing and fact-checking they did at Boston Review for my review of Nicholas Wade’s book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, and I don’t want to undermine their work (thanks to managing editor Simon Waxman and associate web editor Nausicaa Renner). If you only have time to read 4,000 words on it, their version is what you should read. It’s up here for free.

But in the thousands of words that ended up on the cutting room floor, there were a few ideas I’d like to post here, for the very interested reader.

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by epSos.de

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by epSos.de

Human bones

A number of critics have said that Wade’s early chapters are good, and the book only gets crazy-racist in the second half when he starts attributing social behavior to races and tracing global economic disparities to evolution by natural selection. But I did want to stress that he’s got plenty wrong in the early part of the book as well. In particular, I highlighted the question, why did human bones get thinner in the millennia before they settled down? This isn’t something we worry over much, but I think it’s an important clue to his biases and assumptions. From the published review:

To establish that genes determine social behavior, Wade looks to ancient history, when humans first settled in agricultural communities. “Most likely a shift in social behavior was required,” he writes, “a genetic change that reduced the level of aggressivity common in hunter-gatherer groups.” Of course, many elements were involved—climate change and geography, population pressure, the presence of various plants and animals, advances in tools and weapons, and human biological evolution—but there is no evidence that a behavioral genetic change was required.

I actually spent a fascinating few hours reading the scientific literature on evolution and bone structure, and saw no mention of the reduction in human aggressive behavior as a cause of human bones becoming weaker. To elaborate, Wade thinks natural selection gave people genes for thinner bones because strong bones became less necessary for survival as people fought each other less. He thinks genetic change in behavior led to genetic change in bones. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t see any literature at all to back this up (Wade doesn’t cite any).

In fact, if I read it right, we might have thinner bones today than people did 50,000 years ago even though our bone genetics haven’t changed much, as a result of diet and lifestyle changes alone. How is that possible? When the bones of young people bear less weight they don’t grow as thick when they’re adults. This is the issue of tool use and the declining “habitual loads” on human limbs. It might also extend to our skulls because we’re not grinding pre-agricultural superfoods with our teeth all day long. Biological anthropologist Christopher Ruff writes: “In a few years, the strength of a person’s bone structure can change as much as the total average change over the past 2 million years of human evolution.” He cites classic research showing the bones of tennis players’ arms are thicker on the side they hold the racket. There is an alternative view that genetic adaptation did drive changes in bone size, having to do with climate change (here is some of that debate). But nothing about aggression I could find.

This point about the bones not-so-subtly underlies his later argument about Africa’s poverty, which he attributes in part to the genetic propensity toward violence among its people. Rather than aggression being an asset as society evolved, Wade speculates that, in the centuries leading up to the first settlements, “the most bellicose members of the society were perhaps killed or ostracized” (again, no evidence). Cue footage of UN peacekeepers landing in Africa.

Anyway, it’s potentially an important lesson in the malleability of human bodies through life experience rather than (only) through genetic change. The implication is that each generation may still be genetically ready to have thick bones again, but we just keep lucking out and being born into societies with tools and soft foods, so we don’t need to grow them. I find that amazing. I don’t want to push it too far, but I imagine that a lot of behavioral things are like that, too. Evolution has brought us to the point where we have vast potential to grow in different ways, and huge differences between people can emerge as a result our life experiences.

More on the “warrior gene”

In the review I included some discussion of the MAO-A studies:

Wade devotes considerable attention to MAO-A, the gene that encodes the enzyme monoamine oxidase A, which is related to aggression. He singles out studies showing that a rare version of the gene is associated with violence in U.S. male adolescents. Out of 1,200 young men surveyed in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, eleven particularly violent young men carried the 2R version of MAO-A, subsequently known as the “warrior gene.” Nine of those eleven were African American, comprising 5 percent of the black male adolescents in the study.

Sometimes in genetics there is some gene or coding that produces some measureable effect, and that’s how most people seem to think about genetics most of the time – there is “a gene for” something. In the days before today’s genome-wide association (GWA) studies, before scientists had the means to investigate hundreds of thousands of genetic markers at a time, they often looked for effects of such “candidate” genes. This approach was valuable, especially when the role of specific genes was known (as in the case of the BRCA1 gene, associated with higher risk of breast cancer). However, with most diseases, and even more so with behavior, which is presumed to be more complicated than single-gene mechanisms, candidate gene studies were (are) often fishing expeditions, with a high risk of false-positive results, amplified by selective publication of positive findings. It is quite possible that’s at least part of what happened with MAO-A and aggression.

Most studies about MAOA have been gene-environment interaction studies, where some version of MAOA has a statistical association with a behavior only in the presence of a particular social factor, such as a history of child abuse (e.g., this one). This kind of study is tricky and offers a lot of opportunity to fish around for significant effects (which I’m specifically not accusing any particular person of doing). The MAO-A 2R studies he cites weren’t interaction studies. But a couple of cautions are important. First, that 2R version of MAO-A is very rare, and the two studies Wade cites about it (here and here) both used the same sample from Add Health – 11 boys with the variant. Two studies doesn’t mean two independent results. You could never get a drug approved based on that (I hope). Second, as far as I can tell there was no strong reason a priori to suspect that this 2R variant would be especially associated with violence. So that’s a caution. I have to say, as I did in the review, that it may be correct. But the evidence is not there (and you shouldn’t say “not there yet,” either). Those two studies are the entire evidentiary basis for Wade saying that genes that shape social behavior vary by race (“one behavioral gene … known to vary between races”.) I didn’t find any other studies that show MAO-A 2R varies by race (though maybe there are some).

 

Yao Ming and Ye Li

Yao Ming and Ye Li

Modern evolution

Does natural selection still apply to humans? Of course. But I can’t see how it works very efficiently in modern societies, because our demography seems like a poor launching pad for genetic revolutions. Most threats to our survival now occur after we’ve had the opportunity to have children. And it’s getting worse (which means better). The decline in child mortality and the extension of life expectancy beyond the childbearing years means that relatively few people are left of out of the breeding community. That’s how I was raised to understand natural selection: individuals with stronger, better traits breed more than those with weaker, worse traits. In the U.S. today, 97.8% of females born live to age 40, and 85% of those have a birth, so 83% of females born become biological mothers. And a good part of modern childlessness is voluntary, rather than the consequence of a genetic weakness. Even as recently as 1900, in contrast, Census data and mortality statistics show that only 53% of females born lived to be age 40 and had a surviving child. So I don’t know how evolution is working today, but except for really bad health conditions I’m skeptical.

Of course, we have selective breeding producing subpopulations that have concentrations of genetic traits. Yao Ming’s parents were both basketball players, and his wife is 6′ 3″. So they’re on their way to producing a subpopulation of really tall Chinese people. But most social divides we have are not like that — they aren’t based on genetic traits. So I don’t see that being very effective either. To take Wade’s example of Jews and math ability (a chapter I didn’t write about because I was already 3,000 words long), you would need to have Jews not only have good math genes, and only reproduce with each other, but they’d also have to cast out those kids who were relatively bad and math and put the boys and girls who were relatively good at math together. That could happen, but it would be inefficient and very slow, and next thing you know some historical event or trend would come along and mess it all up.

Even the much-discussed increasing tendency of college graduates to marry each other — which gives us about three-quarters of couples today being on the same side of the college/non-college divide — is just sloppy and slow by selective-breeding standards. Maybe it could produce a race of people who like baby joggers and The Economist, but given the low levels of isolation between groups and the length of human generations I just think any progress in that direction would be so slow as to be swamped by other processes pushing in all different directions.

Australia

Wade used Australia to argue against Jared Diamond, whose account of world history, Guns, Germs and Steel, dismisses genetic evolution as an explanation, making him the villain in Wade’s story. How is it, Wade wonders, that Paleolithic Age native Australians were unable to build a modern economy, but Europeans could waltz onto the continent and be successful so easily? He writes:

If in the same environment … one population can operate a highly productive economy and another cannot, surely it cannot be the environment that is decisive … but rather some critical difference in the nature of the two people and their societies.

That’s one of the worst head-scratchers in the book. Does Wade really think that Europeans just dropped in to Australia on an equal footing with the local population, and had to figure out how to thrive there on their raw genetic merits, proving their superiority by their relative success? It can’t be that “the nature of the two people and their societies” means the boats, weapons, technology and modern state social organization the Europeans possessed, because then he has made Diamond’s point. So the “nature” he’s referring to must be genetics. To the reader who has a passing familiarity with modern social science, this is just jarring.

Does cancer genetics help?

To help show the dead-end of Wade’s very mechanical view of genetic influence, I drew out an example from cancer genetics (with a little help from my brother-in-law, Peter Kraft, who is not responsible for this interpretation).

What if we found that genetic factors contributed to social behavior in any of the ways Wade imagines? Speculative as that is at present, it is of course a possibility. Most people are concerned about the implications for genocide and eugenics, for good reason. But even if our scientific motives were pure, the functional utility of such information would be questionable.

Consider a comparison to the much better understood genetics of disease. Take prostate cancer, which is known to have a family history component. Genome wide association studies have identified some genetic markers that are significantly associated with the risk of developing prostate cancer, such that a genetic test can identify which men are at highest risk. However, a review of the statistical evidence in the journal Nature Reviews Genetics pointed out that, even among the high-risk group only about 1.1% of men would come down with prostate cancer in a five-year period. That’s much higher than the 0.7% expected in the general population, but what do you do with that information? Invasive procedures, medications, or preventative surgery on millions of men would not be worth it in order to prevent a small number of cases of prostate cancer – the side effects alone would swamp the benefits. On the other hand, we don’t need any genetic tests to tell smokers to quit, or urge people to eat better and exercise.

This is just one example. Risk factors for this and other diseases are the subject of intense research, and there are actionable results out there, too. But I suspect that genetic influences on social behavior, if discovered, would present an extreme version of this problem: slight genetic tendencies implying tiny increases in absolute risks – and interventions with huge costs and side effects – all while more effective solutions stare us in the collective face.

To complete the analogy: In other words, if – big if – we could identify them, should we incarcerate, surveil, or segregate a subpopulation with a small increased odds of committing crime – thereby preventing a tiny number of crimes while harming a large group of innocent people? And should we isolate and elevate the children of some other subpopulation because of their slightly higher odds of success in some endeavor? Or should we instead devote our resources to improving education, nutrition, employment and health care for the much larger population, based on the well-established benefits of those interventions? We know lots of effective ways to affect social behavior, including against “natural” inclinations.

I’m really not against scientific exploration of behavioral genetics. But the risk of exaggerated results and inflated importance seems so high that I doubt the research will be useful any time soon.

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Reviewing Nicholas Wade’s troublesome book

boston-review-frontpage

I have written a review of Nicholas Wade’s book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, for Boston Review. Because there already are a lot of reviews published, I also included discussion of the response to the book. And because I’m not expert in genetics and evolution, I got to do a pile of reading on those subject as well. I hope you’ll have a look: http://www.bostonreview.net/books-ideas/philip-cohen-nicholas-wade-troublesome-inheritance

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Book review: The Rise of Women, by DiPrete and Buchmann

Originally published on TheAtlantic.com.

banner_pcohen rise of women AP.jpg

(Charles Dharapak/AP Images)

The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools is both ambitious and modest in its goals: Sociologists Thomas DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann provide an ambitious analysis of why and how girls are outperforming boys in high school and going on to get a disproportionate share of college degrees. However, the authors modestly remain within their subject matter and avoid the unsupported claims about women’s looming social dominance that have inflated much of the conversation about gender dynamics today.

This allows us to have a reasonable, valuable conversation about an important problem: the failure of the education system to help a majority of students to reach their academic potential. We clearly do not have a problem of over-education among women. Even among Whites alone, women as well as men are graduating college at rates lower than those in the most educationally advanced societies (which used to include the United States). Rather, we have a dysfunctional system that underperforms for men more than for women.

Rather than focusing on the full range of educational failures, DiPrete and Buchmann focus on a low-hanging fruit policy question: How can we improve college degree attainment for the approximately one-third of students who are ready to graduate college but do not, because they do not have the resources, they change their minds for some reason, or they are not adequately supported in the endeavor?

Women up

Since the 1980s, women have gotten the majority of bachelor’s degrees. That’s mostly because they also perform better in high school, getting better grades and taking more advanced courses. DiPrete and Buchmann set aside the issue of the potential cognitive advantages of girls, which may or may not be “innate.” Such differences are too small and stable to account for the rapid change and large advantage in educational attainment women now hold. The reasons we do not have more people completing college—and gaining more skills and knowledge to enrich their lives—are not genetic or biological, but rather social and economic. We can do better, for both men and women.

While women have continued their upward historical educational trajectory since World War II, men’s achievement of college degrees stagnated—coinciding historically with the growing necessity of having higher education for economic security. If you ever needed proof that majorities of people do not respond in predictably self-interested ways to economic incentives, it is the stagnation of male college graduation rates even as the returns to a college degree spiked upward.

DiPrete and Buchmann’s sensible policy suggestions draw from this key insight: The difference between men and women, and how it has changed, can best be understood by studying differencesamong men and women—within genders. That means we don’t just study what family, school, and environmental effects matter, but who is most strongly affected by such differences in the social context.

One important lesson: Schools with high overall performance have a smaller female advantage. That leads to the straightforward conclusion that we can address the gender gap partly by increasing the quality of schools across the board. Easier said than done, but no less important—or less true—for it.

Men up

It is important to connect women’s educational rise with the other trends that have upended gender relations in the U.S., and the authors do an admirable job of tying these in. In particular, the rise in women’s employment opportunities, the decline or delay in marriage, and falling fertility rates have all increased the incentives for (and ability of) women to complete college. And, of course, the rise in education has in turn fueled these other developments as well. For example, college graduate women as well as men are more likely to get (and stay) married than those who completed high school only. Maybe by getting a college degree they improve their marriage-market options—and reduce the odds that they will divorce by increasing the educational parity in their marriages.

While the title of DiPrete and Buchmann’s book is overly dramatic, the subtitle is appropriately limited: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools. Because although women are more likely to graduate college and get some advanced degrees than men are today, there is nothing in this trend that implies women will surpass men in overall earnings or economic (much less political) power in the foreseeable future.

Education, especially measured at the bachelor’s degree level, is merely one indicator in a whole suite of gender dynamics in which men overwhelmingly dominate. Further, women’s educational advantage is not so great that they will overcome the labor-market advantages that men have at all educational levels, the imbalances within families that persist today, or the tendency of women to end up in less lucrative fields of study and thus occupations.

The biggest problem for gender inequality among the college-educated remains the lack of gender integration across fields of study, which stalled in the 1980s. Men and women still largely educate themselves in different fields, with dramatic implications for their career trajectories and earnings throughout their lives. Segregation in fields of study is closely related to the issue of occupational segregation in the labor market. Both reflect a complex combination of choices and constraints made in varying social contexts—with decisions made early in life producing irreversible effects. In the latest reports, women are just 26 percent of workers in computer and math-related professional occupations and 14 percent of those in architectural and engineering professions.

And DiPrete and Buchmann’s analysis helps understand this stubborn problem. They report that high school is the key location to understand major-field segregation. Among high school boys and girls with strong interest in science and technology fields, there is no gender gap in the likelihood of completing such a major. The difference is in the rates of intention to major in those areas. Between 8th and 12th grade, girls lose interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM fields, for short) much more than boys do.

Women’s desire for people-oriented work, for work that is intrinsically interesting, and for occupations that permit work-family balance cannot fully explain their lower rates of majoring in STEM-related fields. Rather, the major source of the difference is that women do not express interest in STEM-related careers while in high school—and that is not because high school girls are not as good at math and science. Instead, the difference may be that boys believe they are better at math and science, especially math. The key policy insight in this area is that science-intensive high school environments greatly increase girls’ interests in physical science and engineering-related careers.

This is an important book, and although somewhat technical in its analysis sections it deserves a wide readership.

I have two minor complaints about The Rise of Women. The first is over its insistent focus on the four-year college degree and the economic benefits it brings. The fact that women receive more bachelor’s degrees than men but continue to earn less money confirms that a bachelor’s degree is not a first-class ticket to labor-market success. Although this helps to focus the book, it also distracts from the more universal problems we have, including an obsession with the material benefits of education.

DiPrete and Buchman conclude that we need to find ways to motivate students in middle and high school to devote more energy to their studies, by improving the quality of education as well as the quality of information students have to make the connection between what they learn in school and their future career ambitions. Too many boys don’t cognitively grasp that the difference between merely making it versus excelling through high school is measured in higher education success and potential career satisfaction. Finding ways to get this across might really help their motivation to work harder, the authors argue. But truly high-quality education takes students beyond such material calculations into the realm of the intrinsic beauty of discovery, the power of wonder, and the search for knowledge as a key to life, the universe and everything.

My second knock is that the authors seem not to notice the broad trend of slowing advances for women. For example, even though their charts show it, they don’t mention that the share of law and medical degrees earned by women slowed and then peaked in the early 2000s—and has declined since. Naturally, that is not the central concern of a study devoted to understanding women’s advantages. But in the context of the general gender stall, it’s important to realize that women’s progress across many areas is highly interrelated.

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Jonathan Last could live with barefoot-and-pregnant

I was replaced on the guest list for KCRW’s To the Point discussion about Jonathan Last’s book, What To Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster. But before I was cut I did some preparation — read some of the book and made some notes.

Last is a writer for the Weekly Standard (in which capacity he recently suggested that, rather than try to reach out to single people, the GOP should instead work on convincing more people to get married), who also wrote for First Things, a Christian conservative website. His essay in the Wall Street Journal sparked my initial post, but the book is more extreme than that column was.

Last doesn’t add substantively to the general concern that below-replacement fertility causes problems, except to exaggerate it cartoonishly for the U.S. (“The root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate”). The historical perspective is so weak here I feel the need to remind him that caring for aging Baby Boomers is a problem not of low fertility but high fertility. Were it not for the high fertility of the Baby Boomers’ parents, we would have had gradually declining long-run fertility levels and a working-age population much more up for the task of funding Medicare and Social Security.

In the book he relies heavily on Phillip Longman, the author of “The Empty Cradle,” whom I’ve written about before, but also summons (without mentioning it) Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, which bemoans the divergent family structures of middle- and working-class White America and chastises the rich for being too self-absorbed and pleasure-driven to keep up their responsibilities as moral compasses. Thus, he tuts:

The bearing and raising of children has largely become the province of the lower classes.

Last and Longman are helping the American patriarchal right get its desire for “traditional” family structures in sync with corporate America’s amoral economic growth obsession, and it turns out boosting fertility is a message they can all get behind (plus it pleases both evangelical Protestant and conservative Catholic culture warriors).

last-cover-adapt

My adaptation of the book cover art.

Gender

Of course, fertility rates in the U.S. fell after the Baby Boom as women’s employment rates and educational  attainment increased. And those women with better opportunities have fewer children, on average. (However, this relationship is not universal or inevitable — see developments in Norway, for example.) But Last doesn’t want to create the impression that his wish for higher fertility implies opposition to women’s progress.

I’d also like to offer a preemptive defense against readers who may take this book to be a criticism of the modern American woman. Nothing could be further from my intent. … The more educated a woman is, on average, the fewer children she will have. To observe this is not to argue that women should be barefoot, pregnant, and waiting at home for their husbands every night with a cocktail and a smile.

But that he suggests we have more children — without taking steps to reconcile our endemic work-family conflicts and persistent gender imbalances (he’s not advocating universal childcare or healthcare, better welfare, paid family leave or a shorter workweek) – means that even if he’s not arguing for a return to barefoot-and-pregnant status, he’s at least willing to live with it.

Innovation

His passing nod to Esther Boserup was interesting to me. Writing in the 1960s and 1970s (which Last carelessly calls “a century ago,” after apparently skimming her Wikipedia entry), Boserup argued that population pressure spurred agricultural innovation. That is, farmers figured out how to rotate land more efficiently, for example, when there was more demand for farmland (and food). I don’t know how well this theory is holding up in the historical scholarship (I don’t think it explains European divergence from China, for example) but it is interesting — and we’ve now spent as much time thinking about it as Last did).

From this Last declares that the reverse is also true, that postindustrial societies suffer a lack of innovation when populations shrink. That is a question Boserup was unlikely to have troubled herself with (but let me know if I’m missing something she wrote on it). However, I could conjure the opposite hypothesis – that a rapidly shrinking population would spur a different kind of innovation in postindustrial society. For example, we may face pressure for old people to be more productive, as they delay retirement; and to invest more wisely (and heavily) in the smaller cohorts of children’s education and skill development.

Immigration

Last goes out of his way to say (perhaps too much) that he’s not against immigration, without which American fertility rates would be much lower.  He is just against the immigration of people who don’t assimilate into America’s Christian majority. He writes:

A reasonably liberal program of immigration is necessary for the longterm health of our country. Yet at the same time, this liberal approach to immigration should be coupled with a staunchly traditionalist view of integration. America has been lucky in the way it has assimilated most of its immigrants. Europe—and France in particular—has not. “Europe” as we have known it for 15 centuries is almost certain to fade away in the next 50 years, replaced by a semi-hostile Islamic ummah. All that will remain of what we traditionally know as “Europe” is the name [It's not clear why the hostile Islamic majority of 2063 would retain the name "Europe" -pnc]. This change was not inevitable; it is the result of a policy choice made by adherents of a truly radical faith: multiculturalism. … Tolerance need not be surrender and a certain amount of cultural chauvinism is necessary for societal coherence.” (p. 169)

“Racism” is the wrong term for this attitude. I guess his term “cultural chauvinism” is accurate because it assumes a cultural superiority. But that doesn’t quite capture the animus. Anyway: If the problem is falling fertility, why worry about the culture that the fertile immigrants bring? It’s just possible that Last’s problem is not just with fertility.

Religion

Like Longman, Last is sad about the demise of religion in the “public square,” which reduces fertility. In this he reveals his apocalyptic Christian moorings:

Of all of the evolutions in twentieth-century America, the most consequential might be the exodus of religion from the public square.

Really. More consequential than civil rights, women’s rights, science, public health, militarism and Wall Street? And isn’t exodus a strong word for what’s happened? There’s only one reason to believe a moderate decline in religiosity is more important than anything else: Because God said so. Anyway, besides ending the War on Christmas, Last also wants us to give credit for births where it is due (to God).

America is the most demographically healthy industrialized nation; it is also the most religiously devout. This is not a coincidence. … There is no reason for wishing the United States to be a theocracy. That said, it is important we preserve the role of religion in our public square, resisting those critics who see theocracy lurking behind every corner. Our government should be welcoming of, not hostile to, believers—if for no other reason than they’re the ones who create most of the future taxpayers. After all, there are many perfectly good reasons to have a baby. (Curiosity, vanity, and naïveté all come to mind.) But at the end of the day, there’s only one good reason to go through the trouble a second time: Because you believe, in some sense, that God wants you to.

I guess that means atheists don’t have a good reason to have more than one child. (Are there multiple-child atheists out there to respond to this?) Anyway, it’s usually not a good sign when an author follows “There is no reason for wishing the United States to be a theocracy,” with, “That said…”

Transportation

We can see the depth of Last’s commitment to the long term in his discussion of transportation. One reason New Englanders and other liberals don’t have enough children, he believes, is because land is too expensive where they live. So they have small houses and long commutes, which aren’t conducive to child-rearing.

The answer is not more public transportation. Light rail might work for the child-free. (Or it might not; there is a stark divide in the literature on mass transit.) But parents trying to balance work and children need the flexibility automobiles provide; they cannot easily drop a child at a babysitter or school, then take a train to work, then train home, and then fetch the child. (If you don’t believe me, you try it.) The solution is building more roads.

That’s our destiny? A more efficient suburban sprawl to nurture our larger families? Doesn’t he care about climate change? Maybe, maybe not. He writes in a footnote:

The only environmentalist concern that population [growth] might legitimately affect is climate change, a subject so fraught with theological division that I’ll leave it be.

What courage, refusing to genuflect the climate-change authorities like that. And yet what cowardice to refuse to take a position in the face of “theological division.” That’s some combination.

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Teaching family inequality: Some posts by subject

Getting started with a new semester.

As I’m preparing my undergraduate Families and Society course, I’m pulling together some short readings for discussions, including posts from this blog. Here are some you might find helpful for your own teaching, organized according to the chapters of my forthcoming textbook, The Family: Diversity, Inequality and Society Change.

Introductory

  • Why don’t parents name their daughters Mary anymore? Sociology helps explain how things that seem intimate, like a baby’s name, reflect broader social patterns and trends. In the case of names, individuality is increasingly valued and traditional names suddenly seem boring.
  • Good woman child language: Basic concepts of male and female, good and bad, are linguistically related to gender and family relationships. For example, the word for “good” in Chinese is a combination of the words for “woman” and “child,” and the word for “man” is made from “field” plus “strength.”
  • Take my words for it: homogamy and heterogamy: What we call things matters. As marriage people  people of the same sex becomes legal in more and more places, does it matter how we refer to different forms of marriage?

History

Race/ethnicity

Social class

Gender

  1. 12 minutes in segregationland. How much gender division of labor can you spot in 12 minutes at the train station? A statistical photo essay.
  2. Tangled up in Disney’s dimorphism. What does it mean when they exaggerate the differences between men’s and women’s bodies?
  3. What if women were in charge? When women get management jobs, some things change. But it hasn’t been enough to complete the push toward gender equality.

Sexuality

Love and romantic relationships

Cohabitation and marriage

Families and children

Divorce and remarriage

Work and families

Violence and abuse

Wow, looking back at all these posts, I feel as if I better have written a book by now. Just one more chapter to go! Your feedback is always welcome, whether you are a teacher using these posts in class or just reading.

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Quick book review: The Price of Inequality

The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, by Joseph E. Stiglitz (W. W. Norton, 2012)

My economics training as a sociologist — with a background in American Culture studies — has been spotty and roundabout. I got a healthy dose of Marxist economics in college, and then some feminist economics, a little human capital theory and some dated econometrics in grad school and since.

All that made reading made it interesting, and also frustrating, to read The Price of Inequality, by Joseph Stiglitz – a winner of the Nobel Prize for economics and an “insanely great economist,” according to Paul Krugman.

On the plus side, I am glad to see someone within mainstream economic theory freely discussing all the ways that common assumptions simply do not predominate in the modern economic scene. Especially helpful in this category is his discussion of how “rents” accumulate vast resources at the upper end of the income distribution, with perverse effects on economic development and politics alike. At the very top — in the finance sector especially, but also in energy and big manufacturing — there is nothing like free-market competition. And the beneficiaries of those distortions are the most powerful players in the economy and political system.

It is refreshing to see this concentration of wealth described as waste and distortion, as their vast profits provide little gain to anyone else. In fact, dumping vast wealth on the 1% creates a drag on the macroeconomy while fueling the historic run-up in economic inequality. This is all very timely and takes you right through the financial crisis up to early 2012.

So if you want to understand from an economic perspective how “the market” in America isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, this book may be for you.

Top 1% income shares, including capital gains, for the U.S. and Sweden. From the World Top Incomes Database.

The other good thing about the book for many readers will be its cogent and comprehensive economic rationale for the liberal reforms that many of you probably supported already. Stiglitz makes the case that a suite of reforms – an agenda Rachel Maddow, Elizabeth Warren and Robert Reich probably agree on – would, by (directly or indirectly) increasing taxes (or reducing subsidies) on the wealthy and redistributing wealth downward, reduce the federal debt, increase economic growth, and reduce economic inequality all at the same time.

Round numbers: if the richest 1% earn about 20% of all income, then taxing them another 10% would generate government revenue equivalent to 2% of GDP. (And it wouldn’t hurt anything, since they just hoard or waste their extra cash anyway rather than “creating jobs” with it, and they’re so greedy they wouldn’t be discouraged by the disincentive effect of higher taxes.) That’s an amount of money that could actually be useful for poor people.

The frustration I feel reading the book is more amorphous. I think there have to be better ways of describing this whole system than using the language of mainstream economics, which ends up painting a picture of an entire system that does not work according to the rules as imagined. Concepts like power, social class, social networks, elites and reification do not figure heavily in this story. In fact, Stiglitz’s apparent ignorance of sociology is sometimes funny as in this passage:

Social sciences like economics differ from the hard sciences in that beliefs affect reality: beliefs about how atoms behave don’t affect how Adams actually behave, but beliefs about how the economic system functions affect how it actually functions. George Soros, the great financier, has referred to this phenomenon has “reflexivity,” and his understanding of it may have contributed to his success.

I guess after what people like me have made of econometrics it’s only fair that economists would attribute the idea of reflexivity to Soros. (The discussion of reflexivity in Anthony Giddens’s book The Consequences of Modernity is very approachable.)

Anyway, the book is easy to read and informative, and has lots of footnotes and references.

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2011 books for the Family Inequality reader in your life

One book forward, two books back.

The list of books I’d like to read pulled way ahead of the books I’ve read this year. Here is a partial list of books published in 2011 that I have read, or that I want to, of potential interest to Family Inequality readers.


Kathleen Gerson’s book, Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Family, is based on life history interviews with 120 or so young adults to look back at their family lives growing up — and look forward to the families they hope to form.  Having grown up between a gender revolution (women’s independence, employment) and a hard place (divorce, economic insecurity), they evaluate the parents that separated and those that didn’t, the breadwinner-homemakers and the dual-earners, and then set out their own ideals — which they simultaneously doubt they can achieve. The book is well written and organized, good for undergrads willing to read and grad students learning how to design their own research projects.

Mara Hvistendahl is a science journalist who has written a critical and compelling account of the origins and implications of sex-selective abortion and the skewed sex ratios it creates, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men. It’s a journalistic account that gets the demographic science right, but also pushes out (beyond the data) to make alarming predictions that provoke great discussion.

Annette Lareau has updated her important book Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (Second Edition with an Update a Decade Later). When using the first edition in a stratification class years ago, I cautioned my students that Lareau couldn’t say how the parenting differences she documented would actually affect the children she studied. Now we know quite a bit more, and her new analysis is insightful. One of the big differences between the “concerted cultivation” of the middle-class parents and the “accomplishment of natural growth” of the poor and working-class parents is their interactions with the institutions that stand between childhood and adulthood, especially schools. If you read or teach this book, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by the update.

Sadly, those are the only ones one this list I’ve really read yet. So this is much more a wish list than a recommendation list. Here are the others near the top of my pile:

A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. Stephanie Coontz’s social history of the Betty Friedan classic and its impact on American society.

The Inequalities of Love: College-Educated Black Women and the Barriers to Romance and Family. Sociologist Averil Y. Clarke’s study of personal narratives and demographic data aims to uncover “how race and class create unequal access to ‘love,’ serious relationships, and marriage,” according to Paula England’s blurb.

Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School. Sociologist Shamus Khan returns to St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire to update the story of how elite schools teach the embodiment of privilege in a new era.

Social Class and Changing Families in an Unequal America. Marcia Carlson and Paula England are the editors of this new collection, which features contributions by such leading lights as, among others, Philip Morgan (on fertility and inequality), Kathryn Edin (low-income urban fathers), Annette Lareau (see above) and Frank Furstenberg (wrapping up).

Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China. Judith Stacey is a feminist, a sociologist, and a postmodernist with something actually relevant to say (those are my terms — I hope she doesn’t mind). According to the blurb, she “decouples the taken for granted relationships between love, marriage, and parenthood,” and “undermines popular convictions about family, gender, and sexuality held on the left, right, and center.” Just what I would expect, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

Markets and Bodies: Women, Service Work, and the Making of Inequality in China. Sociologist Eileen Otis presents a comparative ethnography of formal and informal service workplaces in two Chinese cities, looking for the “interactive hierarchies” between customers and the women who serve them, and the organizational contexts the shape their interactions. I’ve heard her present some of this, and she’s a compelling story-teller. Looks good.

Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World. Sociologist Ceclia Ridgeway argues that cultural frames in social interactions imbue uncertain situations with traditional gender beliefs and standards, making social change a sticky and uneven process. If Joan Williams thinks it’s “the most important book on gender I have read in decades,” and Barbara Risman says, “If you only read one book about inequality this decade, make it this one,” then it’s worth a look.

Finally, allow me to plug two books by friends at UNC. I’ve seen them working away on these books for years, and to have them finally out is a thrill — especially given the positive reception they’re both getting.

Karolyn Tyson has published Integration Interrupted: Tracking, Black Students, and Acting White after Brown, which uses students own voices to examine “how our schools are implicated in the creation of oppositional culture among all students, white as well as black,” in the words of James Rudy. The book “offers no comfort to those quick to blame black students for their disadvantages,” says Samuel Lucas.

Lisa Pearce and Melinda Denton have written A Faith of Their Own: Stability and Change in the Religiosity of America’s Adolescents, which uses a large survey and in-depth interviews with 120 adolescents to find out how religion changes in their lives over these pivotal years. After reading this, we should know not to refer to “religiosity” or “religiousness” as a something that can be simply quantified for young people. Religion splashes a colorful social and ideological collage through their developing practices and identities.

This list is very incomplete. Please feel free to add any additional suggestions in the comments.

Note: I haven’t gotten any promotional “consideration” for endorsing these books, and I don’t get any money if you follow the Amazon links to buy them. However, if you would like me to review your book, feel free to send it to me with no strings attached.

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New to-reads

After the American Sociological Association meeting, there are always new books to read. Here are a couple I put on my own list.

First is Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture, by Allison Pugh. This won the annual book award from ASA’s Family Section.

From the publisher:

Even as they see their wages go down and their buying power decrease, many parents are still putting their kids’ material desires first. These parents struggle with how to handle children’s consumer wants, which continue unabated despite the economic downturn. And, indeed, parents and other adults continue to spend billions of dollars on children every year. Why do children seem to desire so much, so often, so soon, and why do parents capitulate so readily? To determine what forces lie behind the onslaught of Nintendo Wiis and Bratz dolls, Allison J. Pugh spent three years observing and interviewing children and their families. In Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture, Pugh teases out the complex factors that contribute to how we buy, from lunchroom conversations about Game Boys to the stark inequalities facing American children. Pugh finds that children’s desires stem less from striving for status or falling victim to advertising than from their yearning to join the conversation at school or in the neighborhood. Most parents respond to children’s need to belong by buying the particular goods and experiences that act as passports in children’s social worlds, because they sympathize with their children’s fear of being different from their peers. Even under financial constraints, families prioritize children “feeling normal”. Pugh masterfully illuminates the surprising similarities in the fears and hopes of parents and children from vastly different social contexts, showing that while corporate marketing and materialism play a part in the commodification of childhood, at the heart of the matter is the desire to belong.

Another book I’ve seen of but haven’t read yet: When Gay People Get Married: What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-Sex Marriage, by M. V. Lee Badgett:

In order to find out the impact of same-sex marriage, M. V. Lee Badgett traveled to a land where it has been legal for same-sex couples to marry since 2001: the Netherlands. Badgett interviews gay couples to find out how this step has affected their lives. … In the end, Badgett compellingly shows that allowing gay couples to marry does not destroy the institution of marriage and that many gay couples do benefit, in expected as well as surprising ways, from the legal, social, and political rights that the institution offers.

Also, one of the panelists I heard contrasted the work of Eva Illouz on families with that of Anthony Giddens on the Transformation of Intimacy and his idea of late modernity’s “pure relationship.” I’ve read a little of her book Consuming the Romantic Utopia from 1997, but I’m thinking to take up her 2007 book, Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism:

It is commonly assumed that capitalism has created an a-emotional world dominated by bureaucratic rationality; that economic behavior conflicts with intimate, authentic relationships; that the public and private spheres are irremediably opposed to each other; and that true love is opposed to calculation and self-interest. Eva Illouz rejects these conventional ideas and argues that the culture of capitalism has fostered an intensely emotional culture in the workplace, in the family, and in our own relationship to ourselves. She argues that economic relations have become deeply emotional, while close, intimate relationships have become increasingly defined by economic and political models of bargaining, exchange, and equity. This dual process by which emotional and economic relationships come to define and shape each other is called emotional capitalism. Illouz finds evidence of this process of emotional capitalism in various social sites: self-help literature, women’s magazines, talk shows, support groups, and the Internet dating sites.

I like the cover. If you have other ideas, from the conference or otherwise, feel free to share in the comments.

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