A conversation with me

It’s not exactly the interview I practiced in the mirror in high school, but it’s a thrill nonetheless.

Here is the text of the interview that Norton Sociology‘s Andrea Lam did with me for their Featured Sociologist column. I’ve added some links to relevant posts and articles for background or followup, and some pictures. Thanks to Karl Bakeman for setting it up (follow his great sociology feed here).

Q: In a number of your articles, you discuss gender and race inequality as it occurs in the workplace. What are your thoughts on how social and cultural factors encourage these inequalities to be reproduced and/or enforced? Have you observed any recent trends that might indicate improvement in these areas?

One of the incredible features of modern society is how certain kinds of work are so strongly associated with certain kinds of people. In fact, the very categories of people (such as man and woman) and of jobs (janitor / housecleaner) are partly reproduced by these associations. Modern workplaces don’t have formal, 100% exclusive rules about who does what work, but the patterns are very strong — and they are always implicated in inequality, because I know of no systematic division of labor without inequality in its rewards as well.

As ubiquitous as these divisions are, however, how exactly they are reproduced is not completely clear. Sociologists remain divided, for example, over how the different actions and ideas of men and women on the “supply” (employee) and “demand” (employer) sides influence the segregation of men and women into different jobs. In terms of recent trends, we are witnessing gradual changes in some areas toward integrating jobs by gender and race/ethnicity, but the progress is slow. One of the things we try to do is look at the rates of change in different places, or in different kinds of work, to understand what drives those changes. Is it law and policy, politics and social movements, globalization, technology? These are some of the pressing research questions now.

Q: You recently co-authored with Claudia Geist an article on contemporary gendered divisions of housework (“Headed Toward Equality? Housework Change in Comparative Perspective”, in Journal of Marriage and Family 73, August 2011). What methods did you use in gathering the data for this study? What did your findings indicate about the future of gender inequality within the family?

One of the great advances in data collection has been the development of big comparative surveys. We used one such survey – the International Social Survey Program — which has gathered information about how couples divide housework in about a dozen countries since the 1990s (and it now includes more than 30 countries). From previous research (some of it with former students Jeanne Batalova and Makiko Fuwa), we know that there are big differences in the how couples negotiate over unpaid housework, with very different patterns across nations. Claudia and I wanted to know whether countries with less equal divisions of labor between men and women were catching up or falling behind in the global trend toward more equality — and that is what we found, although the pattern is not that strong, so “convergence” is a long way off at this rate.

Q: You are a strong proponent of using the terms “homogamy” and “heterogamy” in discussions of unions such as marriage and cohabitation, rather than “same-sex” and “opposite-sex” or “different-sex,” respectively. Could you talk a bit about your decision to use these terms and why you feel that they should be adopted?

Classification of categories — and their names — is a core function of science, and the decisions we make toward that end matter a lot. With family types, there is a long history of classification using Greek and Latin terms — such as “monogamy” and “polygamy” for the number of spouses people (men, originally) have, “hypergamy” for marriage between people of unequal statuses, “exogamy” for marrying outside the group, and so on.

I became concerned about our language for same-gender marriage when I noticed a double-standard in which people talked about “marriage” (unmodified) when they were referring to couples including a man and a woman, but “same-sex marriage” when they were talking about gay or lesbian couples. When pressed, people usually say “opposite-sex,” which I think reinforces the dichotomization of men and women in harmful ways.

Anyway, in trying to decide what to do about this, I looked at “homosexual” and “heterosexual,” and realized “hetero” means “different” rather than opposite — which is good. And if you look back at the history of the terms “homogamy” and “heterogamy,” you see they have come to be used for similarity and difference within couples (such as ethnicity or education level) in which the partners are already presumed to be of different genders. But in the 19th century “homogamy” was used for same-sex reproduction among plants. So I am pretty sure that if marriage rights had been extended to gay and lesbian couples 150 years ago, social scientists would have called them “homogamous.”

My main goal is to promote serious scientific consideration of our categories and terms for families and relationships. If we end up with “homogamy” and “heterogamy” I think that would be progress. That’s the argument I made in the article “Homogamy Unmodified” in the Journal of Family Theory and Review this year.

Q: On your blog, Family Inequality (www.familyinequality.com), you analyze a wide variety of articles and data that discuss the complex relationships between families and inequality. How do you select what articles to analyze?

I am very suggestible. And one of the ways I try to integrate things that I am learning myself is to replay them verbally and represent them visually — to myself, my students, and now, thanks to the blog, anyone who will listen. So must of what I write is a description of something I have learned — even if it’s just new evidence for something I already understood (or thought I understood). The great thing about a blog — although it’s sad, too — is that it’s so ephemeral. I don’t have to worry about being comprehensive and covering everything, since it’s just a small stream feeding the river of information (and other things) that everyone sees.

Q: On Family Inequality, you occasionally make use of Google Correlate (correlate.googlelabs.com), which “uses web search activity data to find queries with a similar pattern to a target data series”. What are your thoughts on the relationship between sociology and Internet search data?

What I like about looking at search patterns is it’s a representation of what people really do, not what they say they do or think. I think it offers great opportunities to measure behavior in something like real time. Google realized this when they came out with the flu tracker — which uses searches for flu symptoms as an indicator of infection rates. I think we could do the same thing, for example, with fertility rates. It takes many months to get real birth data counted up and released by the government. But Google knows how many people searched for “pregnancy workout” and “baby shower gifts” yesterday.

Beyond such practical uses, though, I am always looking for ways to see and understand regularities in social behavior. For example, how is it possible that out of the 2 million girls born last year, my prediction for how many would be named Mary was only off by 22? I didn’t do anything fancy, just tracked the trend in the number of Marys over time. Most people don’t like to think of themselves as so predictable, but the relationship between predictability and individuality is one of the sweet spots of sociology.

Q: Are there other sociologists, living or dead, whom you particularly admire? If so, what about them or their work do you find inspiring?

I am very inspired by a group of feminist social scientists who got their PhDs around the 1970s. I wrote a blog post describing a few of them, including Judith Stacey, Harriet Presser, Ruth Sidel, Phyllis Andors and Janet Salaff (whose death inspired the post) — it’s not an exhaustive list. They emerged at a time when feminism had a very up-for-grabs gestalt, in which anything seemed possible, and it shows in their work. Their coming of age was a historical breakthrough for women and for sociology, and their work has taught me a lot.


Filed under Me @ work

2 responses to “A conversation with me

  1. Hi Phil,
    So what familyinequality readers might really want to know is — what WAS the interview you practiced in high school? (And how were those aspirations tempered by expectations, etc?) dc


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