Is the Moynihan-backlash chilling effect a myth?

Recently we have seen the revival of the idea that some faction of the political left (liberal, progressive, or radical) is silencing debate through “political correctness,” as retold, for example, by Jonathan Chait. Similarly, there is a push by those reviving the 1965 Moynihan Report (neo-Moynihanists?) to advance a narrative in which venomous race police attacked Moynihan with such force that liberal social scientists were scared off the topic of “cultural explanations” (especially about marriage) for Black poverty and inequality.

This Moynihan chilling effect narrative got a recent boost from Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. As Kristof tells it, “The taboo on careful research on family structure and poverty was broken by William Julius Wilson, an eminent black sociologist.” Kristof lifted that description from this recent article by McLanahan and Jencks (which he cites elsewhere in the column). They wrote:

For the next two decades [after 1965] few scholars chose to investigate the effects of father absence, lest they too be demonized if their findings supported Moynihan’s argument. Fortunately, America’s best-known black sociologist, William Julius Wilson, broke this taboo in 1987, providing a candid assessment of the black family and its problems in The Truly Disadvantaged.

This narrative, which seems to grow more simplistic and linear with each telling, is just not true. In fact, it’s pretty bizarre.

Herbert Gans in 2011 attributed the story to William Julius Wilson’s first chapter of The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), in which he said that, after the criticism of Moynihan, “liberal scholars shied away from researching behavior construed as unflattering or stigmatizing.” Wilson told a version of the story in 2009, in which the ideology expressed by “militant black spokespersons” spread to “black academics and intellectuals,” creating an atmosphere of “racial chauvinism,” in which “poor African Americans were described as resilient and were seen as imaginatively adapting to an oppressive society” when they engaged in “self destructive” aspects of “ghetto life.” (These aren’t scare quotes, I’m just being careful to use Wilson’s words.) In this vein of research,

…this approach sidesteps the issue altogether by denying that social dislocations in the inner city represent any special problem. Researchers who emphasized these dislocations were denounced, even those who rejected the assumption of individual responsibility for poverty and welfare, and focused instead on the structure or roots of these problems.

Accordingly, in the early 1970s, unlike in the middle 1960s, there was little motivation to develop a research agenda that pursued the structural and cultural roots of ghetto social dislocations. The vitriolic attacks and acrimonious debate that characterized this controversy proved to be too intimidating to scholars, particularly to liberal scholars. Indeed, in the aftermath of this controversy and in an effort to protect their work from the charge of racism, or of blaming the victim, many liberal social scientists tended to avoid describing any behavior that could be construed as unflattering or stigmatizing to people of color. Accordingly, until the mid-1980s and well after this controversy had subsided, social problems in the inner-city ghetto did not attract serious research attention.

Wilson includes this very strong causal statement: “the controversy over the Moynihan Report resulted in a persistent taboo on cultural explanations to help explain social problems in the poor black community.” I would love to see any direct evidence — eyewitness accounts or personal testimony — of this chilling effect on researchers.

If you read it generously, Wilson is mostly saying that there was a fall-off in the kind of argument that he preferred, one that “pursued the structural and cultural roots of ghetto social dislocations,” and showed how ghetto lifestyles were harming Black fortunes. It’s one thing to say a certain perspective fell out of favor, but that’s a far cry from claiming that “few scholars chose to investigate … the black family and its problems,” the McLanhan and Jencks assertion that Kristof repeats.

What is the evidence? To make that causal story stick, you’d have to rule out other explanations for a shift in the orientation of research (if there was one). If attitudes like Moynihan’s fell out of favor after 1965, can you think of anything else happening at that time besides vicious academic critiques of Moynihan that might have provoked a new, less victim-blamey perspective? Oh, right: history was actually happening then, too.


As for the idea people simply stopped researching Black poverty, “culture,” and family structure, that’s just wrong. Here, mostly drawn from Frank Furstenberg’s review, “The Making of the Black Family: Race and Class in Qualitative Studies in the Twentieth Century,” are some of the works published during this time when researchers were supposedly avoiding the topic:

  • Billingsley A. 1968. Black Families in White America. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall
  • Williams T, Kornblum W. 1985. Growing up Poor. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books
  • Chilman CS. 1966. Growing Up Poor. Washington, DC: USGPO
  • Liebow E. 1968. Tally’s Corner. Boston: Little, Brown
  • Hannerz U. 1969. Soulside: Inquiries into Ghetto Culture and Community. New York: Columbia Univ. Press
  • Stack C. 1974. All Our Kin. Chicago: Aldine
  • Schultz DA. 1969. Coming up Black: Patterns of Ghetto Socialization. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall
  • Staples R. 1978. The Black Family: Essays and Studies. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 2nd ed.
  • Ladner JA. 1971. Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: The Black Woman. Garden City, NY: Doubleday
  • Furstenberg FF. 1976. Unplanned Parenthood: The Social Consequences of Teenage Childbearing. New York: Free Press

In Furstenberg’s account, many of the themes in these studies were reminiscent of research done earlier in the century, when social science research on poor Black families first emerged:

…the pervasive sense of fatalism among the poor, a lack of future orientation among youth, early parenthood as a response to blocked opportunity, sexual exploitation, tensions between men and women, the unswerving commitment to children regardless of their birth status among mothers, and the tenuous commitment among nonresidential fathers.

In addition, as Alice O’Connor notes in her intellectual history, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History, there was a shift around this time to more quantitative, technocratic research, using individual microdata. In particular, the highly influential Panel Study of Income Dynamics began producing studies at the start of the 1970s, and many scholars published research comparing social and economic outcomes across race, class, and family type using this data source. Here is a small sample of journal articles from 1971 to 1985, when the Moynihan taboo supposedly reigned:

  • Datcher, Linda. 1982. “Effects of Community and Family Background on Achievement.” Review of Economics and Statistics 64 (1): 32–41.
  • Greenberg, David, and Douglas Wolf. 1982. “The Economic Consequences of Experiencing Parental Marital Disruptions.” Children and Youth Services Review, 4 (1–2): 141–62.
  • Hampton, Robert L. 1979. “Husband’s Characteristics and Marital Disruption in Black Families.” Sociological Quarterly 20 (2): 255–66.
  • Hofferth, Sandra L. 1984. “Kin Networks, Race, and Family Structure.” Journal of Marriage and Family 46 (4): 791–806.
  • Hoffman, Saul. 1977. “Marital Instability and the Economic Status of Women.” Demography 14 (1): 67–76.
  • McLanahan, Sara. 1985. “Family Structure and the Reproduction of Poverty.” American Journal of Sociology 90 (4): 873–901.
  • Moffitt, Robert. 1983. “An Economic Model of Welfare Stigma.” American Economic Review 73 (5): 1023–35.
  • Smith, Michael J. 1980. “The Social Consequences of Single Parenthood: A Longitudinal Perspective.” Family Relations 29 (1): 75–81.

At least three of these scholars survived the experience of researching this subject and went on to become presidents of the Population Association of America.

Finally, an additional line of research pursued the question of family structure impacts on education or economic attainment, specifically aimed at assessing the impact of family structure on racial inequality. These studies were highly influential and widely cited, including:

  • Duncan, Beverly, and Otis Dudley Duncan. 1969. “Family Stability and Occupational Success.” Social Problems 16 (3): 273–85.
  • Featherman, David L., and Robert M. Hauser. 1976. “Changes in the Socioeconomic Stratification of the Races, 1962-73.” American Journal of Sociology 82 (3): 621–51.
  • Hauser, Robert M., and David L. Featherman. 1976. “Equality of Schooling: Trends and Prospects.” Sociology of Education 49 (2): 99–120.

I don’t know how you get from this rich literature to the notion that a liberal taboo was blocking progress — unless you define research progress according to the nature of the conclusions drawn, rather than the knowledge gained.

The resilience of this narrative reflects the success of conservative critics in building an image of leftist academics as ideological bullies who suppress any research that doesn’t toe their line. Such critics have a right to their own perspectives, but not to their own facts.

[Thanks to Shawn Fremstad for pointing me to some of these readings.]

Exceptions, suggested reading, and counterarguments welcome in the comments.


Filed under Research reports

22 responses to “Is the Moynihan-backlash chilling effect a myth?

  1. I think the key difference is that the backlash stifled any research that might be construed as being critical of poor black culture. You’re looking for a quantitative difference but its really a qualitative difference. Think about some of the books you mention. They focus on the more positive aspects of culture. The women in Stack’s study are smart and heroic in the ways they come up with ways to cope with poverty. Hannerz and Liebow both directly challenge Moynihan. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Rather than stifle the amount of research on culture and poverty, its safer to say that it stifled the kind of research on culture and poverty that researchers could undertake.


    • Except the only evidence (I’ve seen) that it’s a Moynihan backlash effect is chronological. Isn’t it possible those scholars adopted that perspective because they thought it was accurate based on their research? And in the intellectual environment, might Civil Rights and Black Power influenced them as well? I don’t know how you can justify “the backlash stifled…” as an empirical statement.


      • I have no doubt that they adopted those positions based on their research but the issue with the backlash is that it would have discouraged folks from undertaking or trying to publish research in the first place if it didn’t jive with the intellectual climate. You’re always going to have your Edward Banfields or Charles Murrays who just don’t give a hoot about status concerns but this is important to many (most?) researchers.

        As WT points out below, I think the best evidence from from folks who study culture and poverty back then and today. Massey says this was an issue. Wilson says this was an issue. It is mentioned in the Small, Lamont, and Harding (2010) piece. Etc. I’m not sure what sort of threshold you would need to establish it as an empirical fact but listing a few articles seems like a similarly low threshold for establishing that it was a “myth” (not to mention the fact that you claim that this demonstrates the success of conservative narratives without similarly establishing this fact).

        Liked by 1 person

  2. smithea1

    If you want to make this type of argument then simply acknowledge the book by Robert Hill “The Strengths of Black Families” (New York: Emerson Hall Publishers, 1972), it includes a preface by Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., then Executive Director of the Urban League, and a foreword by Andrew Billingsley.
    Earl Smith


  3. WT

    This blog post doesn’t quite work, in two separate ways.

    The original claim is that family structure and culture are at least part of an explanation for ill effects (economic, crime, etc.), but that scholars tended to avoid such explanations not because the explanations are false but because they were afraid of being unfairly criticized and demonized.

    In response, you wrote out a list of 21 publications, less than one per year during the time period at issue.

    This doesn’t even begin to refute the original claim.

    First, it is entirely unclear that even one of the 21 publications actually takes the position that family/culture is partly to blame for ill effects.

    Second, even if all of the 21 publications took that position, it still would not refute the original claim. The original claim isn’t that the number of such publications was zero, but that due to the prospect of unfair ideologically-based criticism, the number was far lower than it otherwise would have been. Given the many thousands of articles that were written over an entire generation of sociologists, economists, and public policy scholars, perhaps the number of such articles in a state of open-mindedness and tolerance would have been 500 but in the actual world it was 21. In that case, producing a list of the 21 would in no way suffice to refute the point that censorship had indeed occurred.

    Finally, it is not clear what evidence you would take as sufficient. When people like Douglas Massey point out that the “field actively discouraged” exploration of such questions (, why doesn’t that count for something?

    Liked by 1 person

    • vijay

      However, note that Douglas Massey does not show that “the field actively discouraged” such research, anywhere in that paper. The problem in throwing Bell Curve as an answer to every problem of poverty is that it raises the question “then what”. Are people with an IQ of 85 not allowed to lead a normal life?

      At least, Murray went forward and noted that the white (working class) america is coming apart in subsequent books, even if they were possessed with a normal distribution of IQ centred around 100. Others who throw the Bell curve as an explanation/response simply ignore the economic and immigration tsunami that has ripped apart the poorer classes over the last 40 years. IQ does not explain family formation failure, economics does.


    • The publications I listed are highly select. The books are from Furstenberg’s review of qualitative studies. The articles are from hundreds listed on the PSID website.


      • WT

        My two points remain unanswered, though — we don’t know how many (if any) of these publications actually took the position that was allegedly censored, and even if they all took that position, the counterfactual number of such publications could have been far higher without the censorious attitude that Douglas Massey critiqued.


        • vijay


          1. What was censored?
          2. Who censored it?
          3. Is there like a big group of people going around censoring research in sociology for the last 50 years (and only as a response to Moynihan) that only Douglas Massey has critiqued.

          Separately what is this about IQ and family formation? throughout the world, for a hundred generations, people with high and low IQs have been forming families, living in poverty and raising children. Why is suddenly an IQ of 100 is needed to raise a family with your wife?


  4. Angry Duckling

    Another problem with the “Liberal political correctness” argument is that there is no way to prove a negative. Maybe the cultural argument simply fell out of favor, rather than being pushed out. There is also the fact that cultural factors are harder to quantify.


  5. I’d say that it is amazing that despite study showing that a fair proportion of liberal academics is willing to actively discriminate against conservatives, despite conservatives leaving academia in droves, despite rising proportion of liberals in academia, despite evidence that the same paper would be graded differently based on conclusion it reaches, all this had absolutely no impact on research, on what was and is considered interesting/not interesting and so on.


    • vijay

      Do you have any published evidence of the above, namely:
      1. a fair proportion of liberal academics is willing to actively discriminate against conservatives (I do not know what fair means)
      2. conservatives leaving academia in droves
      3. rising proportion of liberals in academia (“rising” with respect to what datum)
      4. evidence that the same paper would be graded differently based on conclusion it reaches (by who? papers by students? )
      what is “and so on”? How is this relevant to the problem statement “Moynihan publication caused a chilling effect on research pertaining to areas that he commented (conclude?) in the 1965-2015 period”?


    • Vijay, yes, of course. Start with and follow the citations, especially Abramowitz study, and Inbar et all study.
      All your points are adressed there.

      ad 1) quote from the paper above:
      “Inbar and Lammers (2012) found that most social psychologists
      who responded to their survey were willing to explicitly state
      that they would discriminate against conservatives.
      Their survey posed the question: “If two job candidates (with equal qualifications) were to apply for an opening in your department, and you knew that one was politically quite conservative, do you think you would
      be inclined to vote for the more liberal one?” Of the 237
      liberals, only 42 (18%) chose the lowest scale point, “not at all.” In other words, 82% admitted that they would be at least a little bit prejudiced against a conservative candidate, and 43% chose the midpoint (“somewhat”) or above.
      ad 2) and Ad 3), from the same paper, see section “Psychology
      is Less Politically Diverse than Ever”. In short, over the years social sciences become more and more liberal. E.g one quote from the paper:
      “the trend toward political homogeneity seems to be
      continuing: whereas 10% of faculty respondents self-identified
      as conservative, only 2% of graduate students and postdocs did
      so (Inbar, 2013, personal communication). This pattern is
      consistent with the broader trends throughout psychology
      illustrated in Figure 1: the field is shifting leftward,
      the ratio of liberals to conservatives is now greater than 10:1,
      and there are hardly any conservative students in the pipeline”

      ad 4) quotes from the paper:
      “Abramowitz et al. (1975) asked
      research psychologists to rate the suitability of a manuscript for publication. The methods and analyses were held identical for all
      reviewers; however, the result was experimentally varied between
      – subjects to suggest either that a group of leftist political
      activists on a college campus were mentally healthier —
      or that they were less health y

      than a comparison group of non- activists. When the leftist activists were said to be healthier,
      the more liberal reviewers rated the manuscript as more publishable, and the statistical analyses as more adequate, than when the otherwise identical manuscript reported that the activists were less mentally healthy. The less liberal reviewers showed no such bias . (Abramowitz et al . did not identify any conservative reviewers.)”

      “Ceci et al . (1985) found a similar pattern .
      Research proposals hypothesizing either “reverse discrimination”
      (i.e., against White males) or conventional discrimination (i.e., against
      ethnic minorities) were submitted to 150 Internal Review Boards.
      Everything else about the proposals was held constant. The “reverse discrimination” proposals were approved less often than
      the conventional discrimination proposals. “


    • Wrt to the moynihan effect: I admit I don’t think any effect on limiting divesrity of opinions in this particular case was an effect of Moynihan paper and reaction to it. By I also I would find it erally, really amazing if despite the trends identified by Heidt et al, there would be not effect at all – it would be quite strange that this one subject of interests would be free of biases present in the whole field, and it would be really amazing if this biases would not influence what was addressed in a reasearch and what was not.


  6. Anna

    Whether conservative or leftist, intellectually dishonest, agenda-driven academics do not like facts that inconvenience their ideologies. One of the most damaging impediments to research at the moment is the suppression on further research on the differences between the cognition of various biological groups. There is a suppression of further research on IQ and other forms of measuring intelligence as a massive correlative metric, far more than socioeconomic status or family structure, of health behaviors, social mobility, education, criminality, and much more. It would appear that intellectually dishonest academics also enjoy making up facts when it conveniences their ideologies, as in the case of the Black Athena fiasco, that continues to fester because of political correctness. To this day, classicists who speak out against its preposterous lack of evidence and poor scholarship are labelled racist, and it is still widely taught material in “African” Studies. Speaking out against made up cultural irredentism is either silenced or attacked by accusations of racism, but meanwhile social scientists have their pitchforks at the ready of anything that could be mildly construed as cultural appropriation, and even had the time to manufacture a new form of grievance, “micro-aggressions”. And in addition to making up “facts”, there is also evasion of facts, which is just as pervasive and harmful. At some point, political correctness somehow managed to make exploring culture – in sociology – a taboo subject. The only focus on the truancy, illiteracy, and dropping out of school of some American minorities, including black people, is run-down schools, poverty, and some all-pervasive racist forces. If sociologists did a shred of cross-national research, they would find minorities living in far more wretched circumstances and worse prospects for the future who fare brilliantly in education. The only different variable is that their culture values learning, reading, and all sorts of intellectual pursuits. I suspect sociologists have compared the research, and suppressed that too, because it’s too “victim-blamey”, a cute new silencing word tactic, right alongside “rapey” and “triggering”.


  7. Jeff Guinn

    Recently we have seen the revival of the idea that some faction of the political left (liberal, progressive, or radical) is silencing debate through “political correctness,” …

    Napoleon Chagnon.


    • vijay

      A terrible example; Patrick Tierney’s book and Sahlin’s review in Washington Post, nearly 15 years of ostracizing by anthropology, did considerable damage to Chagnon’ s reputation. It took nearly ten years for AAAS to censure the book. That was an excellent example of attempting to silence a debate with extraordinary accusations. Read Povinelli’s review in NYTimes to see how the cult.anthropology is still braying for Chagnon’s blood.


      • Jeff Guinn

        Your wording left me a little confused. Is Chagnon a good example of academics suppressing dissenting opinion, or a bad one?

        Here is a similar example (although perhaps OT, in that it doesn’t directly involve academia), a longish piece in The Nation: Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars.


        • vijay

          Chagnon is an excellent example of a university academic atmosphere trying to poison “Unfavorable” research. People often point to Ferguson as an example of correct conclusions, but Ferguson could not have written without what Chagnon’s research showed. Sahlins, Sponsel, Terry turner and a buncxh of others used Patrick Tierney’s Book to pile on Chagnon. Changnon responded after being cleared by AAAS, and then Povinelli bloviated on Times.


  8. Pingback: Vox interview on the Moynihan chilling effect | Family Inequality

  9. Reblogged this on Charm City Social Critic and commented:
    Learned something new!


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