Beyond Regnerus

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.


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.

17 thoughts on “Beyond Regnerus

  1. the idea of difference intrinsically implies a value judgment

    If this is what sociologists think, then — since neutrally looking for and studying the differences between specimen A and specimen B and why they are so is a fundamental task of many branches of science; otherwise, we wouldn’t know the difference between frogs and trees — sociology is not a science.

    This video (Feynman on Scientific Method) is salient, I think:
    [search “Feynman on Scientific Method” on YouTube -pnc]


  2. I’m with RonJohn on this one. Observing difference does not “intrinsically imply a value judgment,” at least not in the way that Dr. Meadow’s implies. If I ask, “do men’s wages differ from women’s, conditional on comparable skills and experience?” I’m not implying that men are better than women (or vice versa), nor even that men’s experiences should be the same as women’s (or vice versa). The value judgment comes in because by choosing to study gender, I’m assuming that gender may have some power to predict variance in wages, and I assume this because I think differences between men and women are more socially significant than, say, differences between people who are lactose tolerant and lactose intolerant.

    But the alternative — not studying difference — leads to absurdity. Take, for example, Dr. Meadow’s first preferred question, “How can we ensure that children receive the social supports they need to thrive?” Setting aside that “thrive” can only be defined by imposing a particular value system (ironic, given the context), this question can’t be answered without first understanding why some kids “thrive” and others don’t, or why kids in some families or neighborhoods or types of schools thrive and others don’t, or why some policies increase the chances that kids will “thrive” while other policies don’t, or why kids in country X are more likely to thrive than kids in country Y. These are all “difference” questions.

    Sociologists study differences because if we didn’t, we’d be nothing more than a bunch of ideologues trying to impose our uninformed opinions on the world. That’s not science. It’s also not a sociology that I can support, regardless of whether the opinions being pushed are liberal or conservative, radical or centrist.


    1. I agree with the above comments. Imagine substituting racial categories for sexuality and gender categories. Studying whether or not there are differences between black and white achievement gaps is not a value judgment. There is a lot of sociological research that does this, and (1) knowing whether or not there are differences is an important first step, and (2) as sociologists we emphasize the importance of social structure in shaping outcomes – in the aforementioned example, black students do more poorly not because they are “less intelligent” but rather because of historical legacies, lack of socio-economic resources, and institutional barriers for success.


      1. There seems to be a terminology confusion here. Naturally sociologists study all kinds of difference, and the essay makes reference to some (such as who thrives and who does not and why). The difference hierarchy referred to here I think is the question of how gay families are different from straight families, instead of the reverse. Because in this discourse the assumption has been that a finding of difference will be equal to a finding of deficit, and at least for some people this has, or should have, implications for the extension of legal rights. Consider maybe the classic statement on difference and dominance by MacKinnon:


  3. Phil — I’m reminded of a job talk I once gave (at a top tier department) where I was accused of sexism because I coded gender 0=men, 1=women, making men the referent category, instead of 0=women, 1=men, making women the referent category. (The commenter — a tenured professor — also insisted that the choice of a reference category biased the other estimated coefficients in the model. When ideology meets ignorance, idiocy is the result.) Would Dr. Meadow be happier if instead of studying how children raised by gay parents may or may not differ from children raised by straight parents, we studied how children raised by straight parents may or may not differ from children raised by gay parents? Um, OK…


    1. The language is confusing, and it gets more so when statistical terms are overlaid. One old feminist criticism of statistical work on gender, for example, is the complaint that some sociologists treat gender “as a variable” — partly because the data don’t recognize that gender can take on more than two values (so, what’s a variable?). Or, maybe the criticism means that you need to run separate models, which of course is something one does with variables — not just any variables, though, only very important ones. The deeper-logic version of the critique, which is important, is that gender is not (just) an individual quality but a social system, or structure (a perspective that may be confirmed by showing the ubiquitous “effects” of the gender “variable” in many models). Anyways.

      In this case, in the politics of gay marriage, the progressive side has been happy when “no differences” was supported in the research. Like it or not, this debate has reinforced the concept of the “normal” family as the “gold standard.” It’s not just a question of coding your dummy variables, but of establishing the basis of cultural and political normalcy.

      The same argument can arise in the question of sexual orientation, when people ask, “when did you know you were gay?” as if straight people never needed to figure out their sexual orientation; or in ethnicity, when only non-BLANKS are considered to *have* an ethnic identity (as in, “I like ethnic food”). It’s not just semantic. Straight people really don’t often have to figure out they’re straight, in those terms, and BLANKS may rarely think about their ethnicity. That’s the privilege of membership in the dominant category.

      (Aside to the aside: I actually think turning it around — “when did you know you were straight” — is not helpful, because it plays into the anti-gay position that homosexuality is not natural while heterosexuality is. The right Christian Right answer to that challenge would be (not to help them make good arguments): straights *don’t* have to figure it out, cuz it’s just the way normal people are.)


      1. Phillip,

        I think you are missing the point of the reversal – “when did you know you were straight” – it is not meant to make some philisophical or ideological arguement about nature vs nurture, it is meant to be an exercise in empathy. It is amazing how often straight people take this for granted and when confronted with the reverse, alot of them will realize why the question is so wrong to begin with.

        Below is a cute video someone put out a few years ago that demonstrates the purpose of the reversal:


  4. Let’s remember that Regnerus was not the one who came up first with the “no differences” paradigm. It was actually proposed by gay marriage advocates. Regnerus himself borrows it from, and responds to, these scholars. I quote from Regnerus 2012:

    “Suffice it to say that versions of the phrase “no differences” have been employed in a wide variety of studies, reports, depositions, books, and articles since 2000 (e.g., Crowl et al., 2008, Movement Advancement Project, 2011, Rosenfeld, 2010, Tasker, 2005, Stacey and Biblarz, 2001a, Stacey and Biblarz, 2001b, Veldorale-Brogan and Cooley, 2011 and Wainright et al., 2004).”

    How would Meadow explain that this “conservative political ploy” was first devised and used by liberal gay advocates?

    And I also agree (and find Dr. Cohen’s counter-arguments quite weak) that finding differences between groups is at the core of the scientific enterprise. Switching reference categories is irrelevant to the results and, even thought there could be ideological implications in the choice of categories, criticizing the fact that one particular family form is used as reference does nothing to invalidate the results. Meadow’s remarks are very problematic scientifically -they are of the sort that could only convince those who already agree with her premises…


  5. [snip]
    To correct way to comprehend the “no differences” phrase is within the larger context of the body of research done, i.e. parents’ sexual orientation per se is not predictive of a child outcome. Regnerus and his anti-gay backers isolated the “no differences” phrase from the overall understanding of the phenomenon of gay parenting from the literature, and they abused that phrase with gay-bashing political intent, (not with a true scientific motive).


  6. I think enough is enough about Mark Regnerus. His 5 mins of fame should end. All the debate going back and forth is merely feeding the troll. As a gay person myself, I am disgusted by his constant attack against me and my community. As a sociologist, I am embarrassed that the peer review process (as rigged as it appears to be) did not catch his methodologically flawed paper. Be that as it may, it is time to lay this issue to rest. But we must never forget to be ever vigilant both in LGBT organizing and sociology as a scientific enterprise. Let sleeping dogs lie.


    1. NOM blog just made a post promoting the Regnerus paper, calling it a “landmark” study of children raised by “same sex parents. ” Regnerus has given interviews to anti-gay Russian venues. There is no sleeping dog to let lie. That is what Dr. Meadow was saying, in part.


    2. I cannot give up an move on until all relavent information on the study itself and the publication of the study has been exposed. […snip…] Whereas you in academia may think you have dealt with it, the reality is, it is being used far and wide outside of academia and it NEEDS to be RETRACTED.


  7. Phil,

    While I appreciate your impulse to tie yourself into knots here to defend Meadow, I would ask you to step back and take a deep breath. On its face, the argument is silly – to say nothing of the fact that, taken seriously, it would put your excellent blog out of business! Meadow has not scored one for the team here.


  8. Isn’t this just basic critical theory applied to sociology? I know there is/was a “critical psychology” sub-field in psychology proper that embraced social constructionism in general, and foucault critique of psychiatry/psychology in particular, so I assume there is a similar development in sociology? Just curious – never have seen the value in critical theory myself but to each his own….


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