Tag Archives: sociology

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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‘Gay marriage hurts kids,’ zombie edition

Last summer I wrote, “The Supreme Court Kills the ‘Gay Marriage Is Bad for Kids’ Argument.” But now comes this in the New York Times: “Opponents of Same-Sex Marriage Take Bad-for-Children Argument to Court.” So I guess it’s undead, at least long enough to pay a few more expert witness fees.

The NYTimes story covers their approach, which I can’t imagine will get past Anthony Kennedy at the Supreme Court, who has made it clear which direction the harm runs. He wrote in the decision last summer that, under the Defense of Marriage Act,  “same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways,” which “humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples.”

Maze update

Anyway, today’s story leads us back to the Regnerus affairIn a 2010 email (described here) — one that presumably taught the young Mark Regnerus not to put everything in his university emails, the one that would definitively expose that Brad Wilcox lied about his role in the study — Regnerus wrote to Wilcox:

I would like, at some point, to get more feedback from Luis and Maggie about the ‘boundaries’ around this project, not just costs but also their optimal timelines (for the coalition meeting, the data collection, etc.), and their hopes for what emerges from this project, including the early report we discussed in DC.

I knew that referred to Luis Tellez from the Witherspoon Institute, but I couldn’t be sure that “Maggie” was Maggie Gallagher. But it now appears from expert deposition in the upcoming Michigan trial (from David Allen here, and Joe Price here) that the DC meeting was organized by Heritage Foundation staff, who paid for the participants’ travel expenses. And it included Gallagher, David Blankenhorn, Wilcox and Regnerus. This is not surprising, but it’s important, because it puts those experts, who went on to produce research for the cause, in a meeting organized for the purpose of developing the legal case against gay marriage. This could be relevant to their status as expert witnesses, but it’s also relevant to the politics-of-science aspect of this whole thing.

So we can update the Regnerus affair maze, adding Gallagher and Heritage (now I’m out of spots):

regenerus-affair-maze-updated

My opinion

In case it’s not obvious, I would like to express this opinion: honest social scientists do not combine these activities: (1) secret meetings with partisan activist groups to raise money and set political agendas for their research; and, (2) omitting mention of those associations later. If Regnerus, Wilcox, Allen, and Price, had included acknowledgements in their publications that described these associations, then they would be just like anyone else who does research on subjects on which they have expressed opinions publicly: potentially legitimate but subject to closer scrutiny (which should include editors not including people from the same group as reviewers). Failure to disclose this in the publication process is dishonesty.

Funny aside: just the other day I used the NYTimes‘ habit of quoting Andrew Cherlin on family trends as an example of the paper’s narrow reach into the deep bench of publicly engaged sociologists. And here he is again, quoted making the well-known observation that, “The overwhelming evidence so far is that there’s not much difference between children raised by heterosexual or same-sex parents.” What’s disappointing is that he serves as the story’s voice above the fray — the expert who is “not involved in the case” — when they have the American Sociological Association’s report making the same argument with what should be more heft toward the end of the story.

Tell it like it’s not addendum

This issue of the political agenda behind the research has been raised as a possible reason to disqualify the anti-equality expert witnesses. To that end, apparently, the Brigham Young economist Joseph Price took a grant from the Witherspoon Institute off his CV — but not before the plaintiff’s counsel saw it, leading to this funny exchange during his deposition (at tiny-page 15 here; pointed out to me by Neal Caren):

price-lieThis justification, that the grant “doesn’t really fit the category of a grant in the same way others do,” as a reason to completely take it off your CV, is somewhere between highly unusual and just plain ludicrous.

 

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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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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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Suzanne Bianchi

suzannepaa

Suzanne Bianchi died on November 4th. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July. Beyond her family and friends, Suzanne’s death is a tremendous loss for family demography and sociology, to which she contributed so much, and to the network of collaborators, students, and former students that she nurtured during her too-short career.

After completing her PhD at the University of Michigan in 1978, she spent 16 years working at the U.S. Census Bureau before joining the faculty at the University of Maryland in 1994. In 2009 she moved to UCLA. In 2000 she was president of the Population Association of America. (Google Scholar profile, UCLA profile, UMD profile.)

I met her at Maryland in 1995, where I took her seminar, Demography of the Labor Force, and she served on my dissertation committee in 1999. We wrote an article together in 1999, and I contributed to another one in 2004. But those bio details don’t tell the story of her impact on my life and career, or those of so many other students.

From my own first job at Census to my move back to Maryland, I haven’t made a major career decision in the last 20 years without consulting her, and for good reason — for a smart, selfless, well-centered interpretation of what was going on, no one was better. Hers was the rare ability to do great social science and great personal interaction, and she cared deeply about both.

suzanne-group

Back: Ching-Yi Shieh, Rose Kreider, Aparna Sundaram, Suzanne Bianchi, Liana Sayer, Philip Cohen. Front: Soumya Alva, Chunnong Saeger, Lekha Subaiya, Jane Lawler Dye, Marybeth Mattingly

This picture, probably from the 2000 Population Association conference, hints at her influence on the students with whom she worked (this CV lists her students through 2011). In academia, policy and demographic practice, the field is littered with people who learned from her and worked with her, directly or indirectly. These are 57 of her co-authors:

Katharine Abraham
Mary Allard
Christine Bachrach
Michael Bittman
Caroline Bledsoe
Lynne Casper
Lindsay Chase-Lansdale
Philip Cohen
Diana Colasanto
Thomas DiPrete
Jane Dye
Paula England
Reynolds Farley
Javier Garcia-Manglano
Shirley Hatchett
Howard Hayghe
Sandra Hofferth
Joseph Hotz
Kristin Hunt
Joan Kahn
Sarah Kendig
Laurent Lesnard
Judith Lichtenberg
Aaron Maitland
Marybeth Mattingly
Kathleen McGarry
Brittany McGill
Melissa Milkie
Kristin Moore
Philip Morgan
Tiziana Nazio
Kei Nomaguchi
Pia Peltola
Joseph Pleck
Joe Price
Tetyana Pudrovska
Yeu Qiu
Sara Raley
John Robinson
Carolyn Rogers
Nancy Rytina
Seth Sanders
Liana Sayer
Howard Schuman
Judith Seltzer
Daphne Spain
Jay Stewart
Charles Strohm
Jeffrey Stueve
Lekha Subaiya
Duncan Thomas
Betsy Thorn
Robert Wachbroit
Wendy Wang
David Wasserman
Vanessa Wight
Jenjira Yahirun

Suzanne’s presidential address was titled, “Maternal Employment and Time with Children: Dramatic Change or Surprising Continuity?” If you’re reading this you are probably familiar with it. She reported that, despite dire warnings of imminent harm to children — and countless empirical searches for that harm — the evidence was that women’s employment did not harm their children, perhaps because it wasn’t leading to parents spending less time with them. Instead, lower fertility, changing definitions of ideal childhood, time juggling by parents, and increasing father time had kept parental time with children roughly constant. Plus, parents didn’t spend as much time with their kids in the old days as researchers generally assumed anyway. Her address changed the field, and helped open up research into the dynamics of family time use, which had often been black-boxed as simply non-employed time.

As I thought about her own time cut suddenly short and reread that article, I caught on the last paragraph. With her typical balance of clear-eyed yet completely compassionate, she concluded:

My one concern is that I have given the impression that women have found it quite easy to balance increased labor force participation with child rearing, to reduce hours of employment so as to juggle childcare, and to get their husbands more involved in child rearing; and that fathers have found it easy to add more hours with children to those they already commit to supporting children financially. I do not think these changes have been easy for American families, particularly for American women. Why have women so increased their hours of paid employment? Many observers would emphasize constraints — men’s poor labor force prospects — and this is probably part of the story. But this explanation is not sufficient, for it gives too little attention to the dramatic change in opportunities for women and in women’s own conceptions of what a successful, normal adulthood should entail. Yet I suspect that every mother has felt self-doubt about the path taken, and has been concerned about whether she has done the best thing for herself and/or her children, and that these feelings continue to give women pause and to slow change both in the marketplace and at home.

I’m sure she was reflecting in part on her own life and career as she delivered that speech — at the pinnacle of her career, with her family in attendance. Her life embodied that transformation — those opportunities, and that self-reflection — and in her career she made an indelible contribution both to our understanding of this newer world, and to the lives of many people making their way within it.

Update: Since I wrote this, other obituaries and tributes have appeared. Here are a few:

 

 

 

 

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What’s with the historical trend juxtapositions?

When is it OK to juxtapose historical trends?

You have to watch out for this (via Boing Boing):

There is no reason to suspect that the rise in autism is linked to the rise in organic food sales.

But other times it seems reasonable to me, like this:

fert-wlfp-trend

There are lots of reasons the long-run decline in fertility is related to the rise in women’s employment rates. We know from lots of research that women with more children are less likely to have jobs; women with jobs are less likely to have children; and over time the proportion of women in the second group has grown relative to the first.

So it’s OK to use eyeballed historical trends when you have good research backing up the association. Your conclusions, then, don’t rely on the simple trend comparison. The trends are an illustration.

But trends need not have have a simple cause-and-effect relationship — or a unidirectional relationship — for it to be important to compare them. Sometimes the relationship is just descriptively important. So, looking at the graph above, it would be reasonable to say, “Women’s lives sure have changed. They have fewer children and more jobs, on average, than they used to.”

And then there is the negative case. The other day I complained when Kay Hymowitz implied that the rise in father-absent families caused an increase in crime among boys. And I offered this simple trend comparison to undermine that story:

It was not my intention to say there is no connection between father absence and boys’ criminal behavior. (I’ve sketched out some possible links in this old post; and made essentially the same comparison about single mothers and crime before.) But the lack of a strong correlation in the trends over time is a challenge. That’s what I’ve been arguing about cell phones and traffic accidents:

Of course driving and texting is dangerous. And of course single parents have a harder time (on average) supervising and disciplining their children than married parents. But if there is a big discordance between the trends — texting and driving, single parents and crime — then that’s a problem for the story that one trend is driven by the other. Causal relationships may be apparent in a lab, or at the margins, but to explain large-scale social change is more difficult — and that’s often what we’re trying to do when we draw from specific research to make political, policy, or theoretical arguments.

So, it’s OK to use discordant trends to take potshots at a proposed causal story, to express skepticism. The discordant trends are a hurdle for the theory to overcome.

If you have good research showing that single parenthood, and especially father absence, is harming boys more than girls, then it would be to OK to use trends as an illustration. It just can’t be your main evidence. So Kay Hymowitz could reasonably include a graph like this to accompany her extensive review of the research on family structure and trouble for boys:

hymowitz-response2

Yes, women’s advantage in high school and college completion has accompanied the trend toward father-absent living arrangements for young boys. That doesn’t fulfill her need to present more direct evidence, but it’s a piece of supporting evidence.

Conclusion: Juxtaposing historical trends is not how you prove a theory. It is a great tool for illustrating known associations, for describing social change, and for challenging theories or narratives.

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The remarkable centrality of Unequal Childhoods

I had the privilege of introducing Annette Lareau at our department’s annual Rosenberg Forum. She is the current president of the American Sociological Association and the author of the book Unequal Childhoods: Race, Class, and Family Life.

Her talk was about exciting new research into the reproduction of social class through parents’ selection of schools and neighborhoods. But to set it up I showed the place of Unequal Childhoods in the citation network of sociology journals created by Neal Caren. The network includes the works most cited in 5,471 articles in sociology journals in the years 2008-2012, with lines connecting works cited in the same articles, and colors for the clusters of works commonly cited together. The size of the nodes represents times cited.

In this version I labeled the bigger clusters either with a term for the subfield (e.g., Religion) or key work (e.g., Bowling Alone). Click on the image to enlarge my version, or see it in full here, with the details and data.

PowerPoint PresentationI am amazed by the centrality of Unequal Childhoods, which isn’t part of a big cluster but has thick ties to a bunch of different ones, which is why it’s in the center. These are the works that Unequal Childhoods was cited with five times or more:

Hays S 1996 Cultural Contradicti 16
Blau P 1967 Am Occupational Stru 14
Bianchi SM 2006 Changing Rhythms Ame 13
Stone P 2007 Opting Out Why Women 12
Blair-loy M 2003 Competing Devotions 12
Bourdieu P 1977 Reprod ED Soc Cultue 12
Dimaggio P 1982 Am Sociol Rev 11
Lamont Michele 1988 Sociological Theory 10
Farkas G 2003 Annu Rev Sociol 9
Edin K 2005 Promises I Can Keep 9
Bourdieu P 1984 Distinctions Social 9
Hochschild Arlie R 1989 2 Shift Working Pare 8
Mclanahan Sara 1994 Growing Single Paren 8
Hochschild AR 1997 Time Bind Work Becom 8
Swidler A 1986 Am Sociol Rev 8
Townsend NW 2002 Package Deal 8
Bourdieu P 1986 Hdb Theory Res Socio 8
Bowles S 1976 Sch Capitalist AM 7
Bourdieu P 1990 Logic Practice Trans 7
Jacobs JA 2004 Time Divide Family G 7
Sewell W 1975 ED Occupation Earnin 7
Downey DB 1995 Am Sociol Rev 7
Jencks Christopher 1972 Inequality Reassessm 7
Raftery AE 1995 Sociol Methodol 5

* * *

That’s some reach!

 

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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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Paul Amato on reviewing Regnerus

I recently discussed Paul Amato’s role in the Regnerus Affair. I offered my opinion that, if Amato was a reviewer of the Regnerus article, he should not have been, mostly because he had served as a paid consultant on the study. (My long version of the Affair is here, a critique of the paper I co-authored is here.)

I regret that before writing that post I didn’t directly ask Amato if he wanted to discuss his role and whether he served as a reviewer. After the post appeared he sent me this statement, which I agreed to post. I added some more comments of my own below. (He also reminded me that he had voted for the Family Section Council resolution asking ASA to respond to the Regnerus study, which they did.)

Amato is President Elect of the National Council on Family Relations and a Distinguished Professor at Penn State University.

Thoughts on the Mark Regnerus (2012) study, by Paul Amato

One year has passed since Mark Regnerus (2012) published a highly controversial article on the children of parents who have same-sex relationships. Given that time tends to improve one’s perspective, this seems like a good time to reflect on the study and its aftermath.

My involvement

I worked for two days at the University of Texas as a consultant on the New Family Structures Study (NFSS). As I recall, seven consultants were at the meeting, along with a statistician from the survey research organization that later collected the data. I consulted primarily on sampling and measurement issues, and I was paid for two days of my time, plus travel expenses for myself (and my wife, who accompanied me). I charged for two days at my usual fee, which is $150 per hour. So I earned about $2,400. I received no further compensation after that.

About six months later, the editor of Social Science Research (SSR) asked me to review a manuscript written by Mark Regnerus. I informed the editor that I had worked as a paid consultant on the survey on which the manuscript was based. The editor said that he would like to have my views on the paper anyway, so I shared my views as honestly as I could.

This situation comes up now and then in my experience. When reviewing manuscripts for journals, I occasionally discover that I know the author and have some sort of relationship with the author or the study. In one case, for example, the author was a friend and colleague of mine, and I had read an earlier version of the paper and provided comments to the author. In this and every other case in which I have brought information like this to the editor’s attention, the editor has asked me to do the review anyway. Journal editors often have a difficult time getting reviews, and I assume they treat these reviews as one more data point. So the editor of SSR was doing what other editors do, as far as I know.

Was this particular case a conflict of interest for me? The American Sociological Association (ASA) defines a conflict of interest in the following manner:

Conflicts of interest arise when sociologists’ personal or financial interests prevent them from performing their professional work in an unbiased manner.

With respect to the Regnerus manuscript, I had no personal or financial interest in whether the paper was published. So by this definition, there was not a conflict of interest. Of course, sometimes there is the appearance of a conflict of interest. In these cases, the ASA code states:

Sociologists disclose relevant sources of financial support and relevant personal or professional relationships that may have the appearance of or potential for a conflict of interest…

As noted earlier, I disclosed to the editor that I had worked as a paid consultant on the NFSS. I also disclosed my role as a paid consultant in the commentary that I wrote for the Regnerus article, which appeared in SSR. I never attempted to hide the fact that I was part of the team that consulted on survey design.

In retrospect, I understand that providing a review was not a good idea, because one should avoid even the hint of impropriety in matters like this. At the time, however, I simply felt that I was helping the editor and being a good colleague.

Contrary to the views of some (but not all) of my colleagues, I thought the Regnerus manuscript was worth publishing. My key recommendation, however, was that the editor should publish the paper with commentaries from authors who hold a variety of perspectives, including gay and lesbian scholars who had published in this area. I believed that the Regnerus paper, accompanied by a diverse set of commentaries, could represent a useful contribution to the literature on LGBT families. Unfortunately, the editor was unable to recruit any gay or lesbian scholars to contribute commentaries, so my idea for an exchange of views fell flat. (The subsequent issue of SSR devoted to the controversy came closer to what I had envisioned.)

Almost everyone got it wrong

When the study was published, criticism from the political left was swift and harsh. Unfortunately, some commentary devolved into ad hominem attacks, accusations of fraud, and name-calling. Rather than intellectually engage the findings, the goal of some critics was to thoroughly discredit the study—and the author. While they were at it, many critics also attacked the editor, the reviewers, the consultants, those who wrote commentaries—even the survey research firm that collected the data! Anyone with any form of contact with the study became an enemy of the people.

This is unfortunate, because the political left could have benefitted from a strategic appropriation of the findings. The study involved a national sample of young adults with an LGBT parent. As the study noted, few of these young adults spent long periods of time in households with two parents of the same sex. Instead, most were born into heterosexual families that later broke up, presumably when one parent came out as gay or lesbian. Many of these youth went on to experience a variety of other family structures before reaching adulthood. One out of seven spent time in foster care. Previous research shows that instability in the family of origin increases the risk of a variety of long-term social and psychological problems for offspring. Consistent with this research, young adults in the study had modestly elevated problem profiles. It is reasonable to conclude that the elevated number of problems observed in these young adults was due to family instability rather than the sexual orientation of parents. For this reason, most observers have noted correctly that this study contributes nothing to our understanding of how children fare when raised by same-sex parents in stable households

Rather than dismiss these finding as being irrelevant, however, it’s useful to dig more deeply into the results. Why did these marriages end in divorce? More importantly, why did gays and lesbians wind up in heterosexual marriages in the first place? The explanation probably would go something like this: Like heterosexuals, many gays and lesbians wish to have families and raise children. But a generation ago, intolerance was the rule and discrimination against gays and lesbians was endemic. For many, forming heterosexual unions appeared to be the only way to achieve the dream of family and children. But these unions tended to be unstable, with problematic consequences for adults and children. Presumably, as our society becomes more accepting of LGBT families, the unfortunate circumstances of children and parents described in the Regnerus study will become less common. The freedom to marry, in particular, should increase stability in the lives of children with gay and lesbian parents.

In short, findings from the Regnerus study can be interpreted as strong evidence in support of same-sex marriage. The American Psychological Association and ASA research briefs emphasized the fact that almost all prior studies found no differences between children with heterosexual parents and children with gay or lesbian parents. The “no difference” perspective suggests that children will not be harmed by same-sex marriage. The lesson from the Regnerus study, however, is that children thrive on family stability, including children with gay and lesbian parents. We know that marriage tends to stabilize relationships, yet same-sex marriage is not allowed in most states. Given that children benefit from the stability provided by marriage, it is unfair and unkind to deny children the right to live with married parents. In contrast to the “no difference” perspective, a “family stability” perspective implies that we need to change our laws NOW to protect and benefit children.

If the political left missed an opportunity by failing to understand the full implications of the Regnerus study, the political right made even more serious blunders. Many conservative observers have cited the Regnerus study as if it provided evidence that being raised by gay or lesbian parents is harmful to children. This claim is disingenuous, because the study found no such thing. A noteworthy example came from Regnerus himself, who signed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court citing his study as evidence against same-sex marriage. This is curious because on page 766 in his 2012 article, Regnerus stated that his study was not intended to either affirm or undermine the legal right to same-sex marriage. And on page 768 of his response to the commentaries in the same issue, he stated that his data should not be used to press any political program. Given these cautious early statements, it is exasperating to see Regnerus later cite his own study as evidence against same-sex marriage.

Concluding thoughts

Many observers have argued that the Regnerus study should never have been published. It is important, however, to focus on what the study actually showed, and not on what people claim that it showed or wanted it to show. The study showed that family instability is not good for children, and many children with gay and lesbian parents, a generation ago, experienced a lot of family instability. It is not difficult to see how the personal problems of these families were affected by the restrictive social milieus in which they lived.

Since the Regnerus study was published, studies by Potter (2012) and Allen, Pakuluk, and Price (2013) have shown associations between having same-sex parents and child problems. Like the Regnerus paper, both of these articles survived the peer review process and, in fact, were published in top-tier social science journals. Rather than try to discredit these studies (and any future studies that may show similar results), it is better to examine the findings carefully and figure out what is going on. In fact, both studies are entirely consistent with the family stability perspective described earlier.

In conclusion, the political left discredited the Regnerus study without fully considering its findings, and the political right used the study disingenuously to further their political goals. Few people have focused thoughtfully on what the data actually show and what we can learn from the study. The controversy over the Regnerus study provides a sobering illustration of what can go wrong when ideology distorts social research.

References

Allen, Douglas W., Catherine Pakaluk, and Joseph Price. (2013). “Nontraditional Families and Childhood Progress through School: A Comment on Rosenfeld.” Demography 50:955-961.

Amato, Paul R. (2012). “The Well-Being of Children with Gay and Lesbian Parents.” Social Science Research 44:771-774.

American Sociological Association. (undated). American Sociological Association Code of Ethics (http://www.asanet.org/images/asa/docs/pdf/CodeofEthics.pdf)

Potter, Daniel. (2012). “Same-Sex Parent Families and Children’s Academic Achievement.” Journal of Marriage and Family 74:556-571.

Regnerus, Mark (2012). “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study.” Social Science Research 41:752-770.

Regnerus, Mark (2012). “Response to Paul Amato, David Eggebeen, and Cynthia Osborne. Social Science Research 41:786-787.

wilcox-echo-chamber

Philip’s followup comments

I don’t think it was a gross ethical violation for Amato to review the paper, in which material or ideological gain lay behind his decision to do the review and led him to recommend publishing the paper against his better professional judgment. Rather, he thought it was a reasonable paper and offered that opinion when asked — which is unsurprising given his involvement in the project. So my real disagreement with Amato is over the value of the paper. I think it’s a worthless paper, done wrong, and only advanced because of the author’s ideological attachment to its results; that it accidentally helps reveal something true about family instability does not make it worth publishing.

Being a consultant on a small project like the NFSS is not like being a consultant on a giant project like the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Consulting on Add Health, which has yielded thousands of publications and involved dozens of experts at many agencies, does not disqualify a person from reviewing a study using that data. In contrast, the NFSS has so far yielded one paper, solo-authored by the PI, who personally invited the several consultants. With only a few people involved, being one of them matters more.

Anyway, beyond the appearance of conflict, the problem with Amato serving as a reviewer is that it did not provide an outside perspective to the editor, James Wright. How could Amato’s review help Wright make the decision? Getting the input of a consultant on the project might help an editor shape a revision or build a special issue, but given Amato’s involvement his endorsement should not have counted as part of the peer review process. When Amato revealed his role, Wright should have declined his review.

Taking for granted the unethical behavior of Regnerus, and Brad Wilcox, on whose behalf Regnerus acted, the real failure here is by Wright. Instead of seriously reviewing the paper, he essentially whispered into an echo chamber of backers and consultants, “We should publish this, right?”

I believe the paper should be retracted because the conclusions are demonstrably wrong, because the author lied in the paper about the involvement of the institute that funded it, and because the peer review process was compromised by conflicts of interest. As long as this remains uncorrected, and James Wright remains editor, the integrity of the journal is indelibly tarnished.

While Wright is editor, I will no longer review for or submit to Social Science Research. I hope others will join me in that decision.

Comments that rehash well-known opinions or make person attacks will be shortened or deleted.

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Paul Amato, Regnerus postscript

Scott Rose has a new post excoriating Paul Amato as a “villain” in the Regnerus Affair (here is the background).

Amato was arguably the most prominent sociologist involved in scandal: He is the President Elect of the National Council on Family Relations, the leading professional association for family scholars; he has been chair of the Family Section of the American Sociological Association; and he has a named chair at Penn State University, where he is a Distinguished Professor.

We know from his own commentary on the study in Social Science Research that Amato was a paid consultant to Regnerus (confirmed by UT-released documents). In that commentary, he cautioned that Regnerus’s results shouldn’t be used to undermine gay and lesbian civil rights, but he also lent legitimacy to the study and did not criticize its obvious flaws. I have seen the emails between Amato and Mark Regnerus that Scott Rose writes about here, which were obtained through public records document requests. I’m not revealing anything Rose hasn’t.

There are three new things in the emails:

  1. Amato apparently asked for, and received, money from Regnerus to bring his wife with him to Austin in addition to his own travel expenses and fees (“…about that second ticket…”, “…consider it done.”)
  2. Regnerus says he suggested Amato to Social Science Research editor James Wright as a reviewer for the study, and flatteringly urged Amato to accept the request if asked. (“I’d hope that if you’re asked to review it, you would consider doing so. I think you’re one of the fairest, level-headed scholars out there in this domain.”)
  3. Amato told Regnerus he defended Regnerus’s credibility after the study was published, and asked for access to the data for additional research.

However, Rose goes further and asserts that Amato also was a peer reviewer of the study for the journal Social Science Research, which he has said before. I believe I have seen the evidence Rose has for that and, although suggestive, it is not conclusive: Amato’s name is on a list that seems to be of reviewers for the Regnerus paper and the paper that accompanied it in the journal, which Darren Sherkat used for his investigation on behalf of the journal).

IInsist

It is already well established that Regnerus acted shamelessly and unethically. We now know that extended to not only suggesting his own consultant Amato as a reviewer to SSR, but also telling Amato he had done that and urging him to agree to do the review. I’m not sure what rule that breaks, but it’s wrong in my book. The fact that he had previously agreed to give Amato tickets for his wife’s travel just makes it a little worse, because it seems like calling in a favor. I assume Witherspoon, which bankrolled the study, didn’t care about that kind of slush, although the University of Texas Population Research Center might not appreciate that use of money they were managing. (At my state university, even money I have discretion over can’t be spent on things like family travel. If I want to pay for my family to travel, I can take the money as summer salary, pay taxes on it, and then spend it on whatever I want.)

Anyway, Regnerus isn’t an issue anymore. But what about Amato? Based on the new emails and the rest of the background, I have drawn these conclusions about so far:

  1. If Amato wants to take conservative foundation money from Regnerus for his family’s travel, that’s fine with me (I recommend he check with his tax adviser, however).
  2. If Amato wants to defend Regnerus’s credibility and use the data for additional research, that’s up to him.
  3. But if Amato was a reviewer for the paper in SSR, I believe he should not have been, even if he disclosed this to James Wright. Unless the anti-Regnerus activists are successful in getting SSR‘s files through public records requests we may never know for sure, unless Amato publicly discloses it. I hope he will.

I have no beef with Paul Amato, and no personal relationship with him. I served as a member of the Family Section council for some of the time he was the chair. Under his leadership, the Family Section accepted my proposal to request an amicus brief from the American Sociological Association on the Regnerus study claims. I don’t remember if he voted or abstained on the decision to make the request, but he didn’t block it, anyway.

Comment briefly, please.

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