Category Archives: Me @ work

Exceptions overwhelm the rules in economics

I wrote a short essay for the New York Times Room for Debate feature. The question was, “Have we given economists too much authority?” Here’s my answer, as edited by the Times. You can read the other essays and comments here.

rfdecon-sfSpan

Exceptions Overwhelm Economic Rules

There is a lot to be said for the common critique of economists: They see society as the product of freely acting, rationally calculating individuals for whom monetary reward is the primary source of motivation. Free markets, to them, are the pure expression of social function and economic growth through their realization is the only outcome that matters.

But people do not simply act rationally to maximize their economic rewards, because they can have incomplete or inaccurate information, ideological biases, conflicting desires or collective interests. Exploitation, dishonesty, violence, ignorance and demagoguery set vast areas of social life apart outside the model. The multiplying exceptions overwhelm the rule bringing the model’s utility into question.

Group behavior and social structure are central to understanding society. Collective identity yields networks of solidarity that drive social interaction in ways individual self-interest alone cannot determine. Economic growth is one of many legitimate goals.

In reality, many economists don’t hew so firmly to these mainstream dogmas. But economists’ influence is largely proportional to the degree with which their analysis comports with the interests of those who make the most influential decisions. The free market orientation, individualist logic and materialist values of some economists serve well the captains of industry (or, nowadays, of finance), who in turn reward their compliant consultants with privileged perches around the seats of power.

Jeb Bush reflected this alliance in his speech to the Detroit Economic Club on Wednesday, when he asked, “If a law or a rule doesn’t contribute to growth, why do it?” Going out on a limb, other justifications for government action might include reducing inequality, improving social cohesion, reducing conflict, enhancing health or protecting the environment.

If their influence is dependent on their contribution to already-powerful agendas, maybe economists don’t have as much real influence as it seems. On the other hand, people with training in the other social sciences have more impact than we often think, partly because they work not as “sociologists,” say, but under job titles such as analyst, demographer, statistician, consultant, teacher, organizer or survey director.

Of course, the common belief that economists have outsized influence is not wholly false, and they have worked hard to build it, but the uncritical acceptance of that image is part of what makes it a reality.

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Off gender-script art

Fortunately, the hotel we’re stranded at is only a few blocks from the Art Institute of Chicago. Tooling around the museum I was still thinking about sex dimorphism, especially this piece in Time where I referenced ancient art and this one where I compared depictions of Hercules. I have no expertise in art history, so file (or skip) these as random observations of someone interested in cultural depictions of gender.

Dimorphism

I’m intrigued by the idea — recurrent in the comments I get — that because animation for kids exaggerates things, then it is obvious that it will include extreme dimorphism. It seems to me that extreme dimorphism is a more common ideal now than it was in lots of other times and places, which perplexes me. So, in the category of dimorphism they didn’t do in the old days, here’s a Greek jar from 500 BC that shows men and a woman fighting. The caption describes her as “a fair-skinned Amazon, or foreign female warrior.”

vaseThe woman warrior’s body is just about the same as the man’s. “Of course,” they’ll say, “it’s because she’s a warrior.” And this is just super realistic art that happens to be about a female warrior — with no implication for gender ideal types.

Beauty standard

On a different subject, thinness in general, which of course is a historically-recent obsession. Here’s a nice example, an 8th century, Tang Dynasty, earthenware sculpture featuring a “matronly rider” with “ample proportions — conveyed by the folds of her flowing, wide-sleeved robe as well as by her plump cheeks and double chin,” which was “fashionable at the mid-eighth-century Tang court.”

chinahorseThey don’t mention her tiny hands, also in fashion among Chinese elites, and possibly bound feet (footbinding is supposed to date from around this period).

Gender (non-)differentiated children

The Art Institute is all about Impressionism, and there is a recurring theme among the French painters of little boys with long hair and dresses. Here is Jean Renoir, from 1899. The caption says the boy wanted his hair shorter but his father made him keep it long till school rules required him to cut it at age seven.

jeanrenoirThe caption doesn’t say whether he liked sewing.

Who knew Claude Monet also had a son named Jean? Here he is at age five or six, in 1873, playing hoop while his mother watches. The scene depicts the well-being of a period of “financial security” for the family, so it’s not like they couldn’t afford boy’s clothes.

jeanmonet

Finally, Camille Pissarro’s Woman with Child at the Well, part of a series “depicting peasant girls taking a break from their chores.” The model for the little boy was the painter’s fourth son, Ludovic-Rodolphe, who was four at the time.

ludovicNone of this is surprising to people who’ve seen this portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at age two, in 1884:

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Syllabus supplements for spring family sociology

Photo by Ryan Tyler Smith from Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Ryan Tyler Smith from Flickr Creative Commons

If you’re using my book for your class, you’ve got all kinds of excellent teaching materials from Norton to use. But if you’re not (yet), or you want more recent posts to choose from, here’s an updated list of blog posts to supplement your course.

This is organized according to my table of contents, but I hope some of you will find it useful even if you’re teaching something else. These aren’t the best posts for each topic, but recent posts and some older favorites. The previous lists are here for 2013, and here for 2014. As always, I appreciate feedback on what works and what doesn’t.

1. Introduction

2. History

3. Race, ethnicity, and immigration

4. Social class

5. Gender

6. Sexuality

7. Love and romantic relationships

  • Is dating still dead? The death of dating is now 50 years old, and its been eulogized so many times that its feelings are starting to get hurt.
  • Online dating: efficiency, inequality, and anxiety: I’m skeptical about efficiency, and concerned about inequality, as more dating moves online. Some of the numbers I use in this post are already dated, but this could be good for a debate about dating rules and preferences.
  • Is the price of sex too damn low? To hear some researchers tell it in a recent YouTube video, women in general — and feminism in particular — have ruined not only sex, but society itself. The theory is wrong. Also, they’re insanely sexist.

8. Marriage and cohabitation

9. Families and children

10. Divorce, remarriage, and blended families

11. Work and families

12. Family violence and abuse

13. The future of the family

  • Tripping on tipping points: Minority births are now the majority. Is this a tipping point, a milestone, or a watershed? On the importance of accurately representing trends.
  • Dependency futures: An NPR story (linked here) on retirement prompts a look at how US demographic trends may be moving toward a future with more old-age dependency.
  • Marriage is declining globally: Can you say that? Yes, you can say that. But will it continue? We should be careful with predictions, but lots of demographic evidence suggests it will.

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Year-end report and most popular posts, 2014

A few days ago Family Inequality reached 1 million total views.

After more than doubling in 2011 and 2012, average daily traffic on Family Inequality only grew 41% in 2013, and now in 2014 it grew only another 25%. The declining growth rate may in part reflect slower growth in the number of American Internet users The blog’s traffic grew faster than Facebook (8% growth in North American active users) and Twitter (14% growth in timeline views) in their last 12-month periods.

Facebook and Twitter are the greatest click-contributors after search engines, with Facebook bringing 1.7-times more readers than Twitter. Sociologists in particular come from, and share to, Facebook.

Here’s the word cloud of search words used to find the blog this year. This time I broke up the phrases so, for example, “unbelievable sex” yields two separate entries. I deleted family and inequality, which were the most popular (click to enlarge).

2014cloud

These were most popular posts I wrote this year:

10. Turns out marriage and income inequality go pretty well together. Inequality among married-couple families is high, and it’s rising faster than inequality among single-parent families.

9. The less things change, the more they stay the same: Michigan edition. The representation of Black students at the U. of Michigan has fallen 50%.

8. The most comprehensive analysis ever of the gender of New York Times writers. Analysis of more than 21,000 NYT articles found that women wrote 34% of them. And you’ll never guess what sections they’re in (actually, you will).

7. Movie dimorphism update: How to Train Your Dragon 2 edition. Another year, another hand-size dimorphism extravaganza in animated movies.

6. Getting beyond how the ‘Factual Feminist’ is wrong about the prevalence of rape. On the idea that feminists exaggerate the problem of rape, and a deeper critique.

5. It’s modernity, stupid (Book review of The Sacred Project of American Sociology, by Christian Smith). 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.

4. What a recovery looks like (with population growth by age). The simple observation that you need to adjust for population growth and change when evaluating the recovery. With graphs.

3. Is the price of sex too damn low? A critique of the very wrong and extremely sexist video by Mark Regnerus.

2. Especially if they’re Black: A shortage of men for poor women to marry. The left-right debate about marriage stays away from race. It shouldn’t.

1. Does sleeping with a guy on the first date make him less likely to call back? A simple data simulation shows how the popular admonishment — he won’t call because he thinks you’re disgusting, so shame on  you — may be completely wrong.

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Why I called it The Family, and what that has to do with Cosby

First, a note on language

In American English books from 1910 to 1950, about 25% of the uses of “family” were preceded by “the.” Starting about 1950, however, “the family” started falling out of fashion, finally dropping below 16% of “family” uses in the mid-2000s. This trend coincides with the modern rise of family diversity.

In her classic 1993 essay, “Good Riddance to ‘The Family’,” Judith Stacey wrote,

no positivist definition of the family, however revisionist, is viable. … the family is not an institution, but an ideological, symbolic construct that has a history and a politics.

The essay was in Journal of Marriage and the Family, published by the National Council on Family Relations. In 2001, in a change that as far as I can tell was never announced, JMF changed its name to Journal of Marriage and the Family, which some leaders of NCFR believed would make it more inclusive. It was the realization of Stacey’s argument.

I decided on the title very early in the writing of my book: The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. I agreed with Stacey that the family is not an institution. Instead, I think it’s an institutional arena: the social space where family interactions take place. I wanted to replace the narrowing, tradition-bound term, with an expansive, open-ended concept that was big enough to capture both the legal definition and the diversity of personal definitions. I think we can study and teach the family without worrying that we’re imposing a singular definition of what that means.*

It takes the unique genius that great designers have to capture a concept like this in a simple, eye-catching image. Here is how the artists at Kiss Me I’m Polish did it:

cover-amazon

What goes in the frame? What looks like a harmless ice-breaker project — draw your family! — is also a conceptual challenge. Is it a smiling, generic nuclear family? A family oligarchy? Or a fictional TV family providing cover for an abusive, larger-than-life father figure who lectures us about morality while concealing his own serial rape behind a bland picture frame?

Whose function?

Like any family sociologist, I have great respect for Andrew Cherlin. I have taught from his textbook, as well as The Marriage Go-Round, and I have learned a lot from his research, which I cite often. But there is one thing in Public and Private Families that always rubbed me the wrong way when I was teaching: the idea that families are defined by positive “functions.”

Here’s the text box he uses in Chapter 1 (of an older edition, but I don’t think it’s changed), to explain his concept:

cherlinpubpriv

I have grown more sympathetic to the need for simplifying tools in a textbook, but I still find this too one-sided. Cherlin’s public family has the “main functions” of child-rearing and care work; the private family has “main functions” of providing love, intimacy, and emotional support. Where is the abuse and exploitation function?

That’s why one of the goals that motivated me to finish the book was to see the following passage in print before lots of students. It’s now in Chapter 12: Family Violence and Abuse:

We should not think that there is a correct way that families are “supposed” to work. Yes, families are part of the system of care that enhances the lived experience and survival of most people. But we should not leap from that observation to the idea that when family members abuse each other, it means that their families are not working. … To this way of thinking, the “normal” functions of the family are positive, and harmful acts or outcomes are deviations from that normal mode.

The family is an institutional arena, and the relationships between people within that arena include all kinds of interactions, good and bad. … And while one family member may view the family as not working—a child suffering abuse at the hands of a trusted caretaker, for example—from the point of view of the abuser, the family may in fact be working quite well, regarding the family as a safe place to carry out abuse without getting caught or punished. Similarly, some kinds of abuse—such as the harsh physical punishment of children or the sexual abuse of wives—may be expected outcomes of a family system in which adults have much more power than children and men (usually) have more power than women. In such cases, what looks like abuse to the victims (or the law) may seem to the abuser like a person just doing his or her job of running the family.

Huxtable family secrets

Which brings us to Bill Cosby. After I realized how easy it was to drop photos into my digital copy of the book cover, I made a series of them to share on social media — and planning to use them in an introductory lecture — to promote this framing device for the book. On September 20th of this year I made this figure and posted it in a tweet commemorating the 30th anniversary of The Cosby Show:

huxtables-myfamilyphoto

Ah, September. When I was just another naïve member of the clueless-American community, using a popular TV family to promote my book, blissfully unaware of the fast-approaching marketing train wreck beautifully illustrated by this graph of internet search traffic for the term “Cosby rape”:

cosbyrapetraffic

I was never into The Cosby Show, which ran from my senior year in high school through college graduation (not my prime sitcom years). I love lots of families, but I don’t love “the family” any more than I love “society.” Like all families, the Huxtables would have had secrets if they were real. But now we know that even in their fictional existence they did have a real secret. Like some real families, the Huxtables were a device for the family head’s abuse of power and sexuality.

So I don’t regret putting them in the picture frame. Not everything in there is good. And when it’s bad, it’s still the family.

* Of course, I’m also the crank sociologist who doesn’t like to pluralize the terms sexuality, masculinity, or identity when used as objects of study. There are lots of different identities, I reckon, and I study any number of them when I’m studying identity. So call me the new old fashioned.

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Campus sexual assault op-ed

chron14

I have an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled, “College Sex-Assault Trials Belong in Court, Not on Campus,” and there’s already a lively discussion in the comments. I would welcome your thoughts, on this site or that one.

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Marriage rates among people with disabilities (save the data edition)

Cross posted on the Families as They Really Are blog.

Disability is a very broad concept, representing a wide array of conditions that are not easily captured in a simple demographic survey. However, disabilities are very prevalent, especially in an aging society, and the people who experience disabilities differ in important ways from those who do not. Previously I reported — in a preliminary way — that people with disabilities are much more likely to divorce than those without. Here I present some numbers on marriage rates.

This isn’t the kind of thorough, probing analysis this subject requires. But I have two reasons to do it now. First is that I hope to motivate other people to pursue this issue in greater depth. And second, I want to highlight the importance of the data I’m using — the American Community Survey (ACS) — because it might be not available for much longer. These questions have been slated for demolition by the U.S. Census Bureau on cost-saving grounds. I put details about this issue — and how to register your opinion with the federal government — at the end of the post.

Disabilities

The ACS asks five disability questions (I put the shorthand label after each):

  1. Is this person deaf or does he/she have serious difficulty hearing? (Hearing)
  2. Is this person blind or does he/she have serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses? (Vision)
  3. Because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition, does this person have serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions? (Cognitive)
  4. Does this person have serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs? (Ambulatory)
  5. Does this person have difficulty dressing or bathing? (Independent living)

These aren’t perfect questions, but they cover a lot of ground, and the ACS — which involves about 3 million households — can’t get into too much detail.

One great thing about having these questions on the giant ACS is you can use the data to get all the way down to the local level, or into small race/ethnic groups. And with the marital events questions, you can combine disability information and marriage information.

First-marriage rates

Using marital events (did you get married in the last year), marital history (how many times have you been married), detailed race and ethnicity breakdowns, and the disability questions above, I produced the following figure. This uses the combined 2008-2012 ACS data because these are small groups, but even with five years of data these groups get quite small. There are about 90,000 non-Hispanic Whites with a cognitive disability in my sample, but only 356 people who are both White and American Indian with a hearing disability (the smallest group I included). This sample is people ages 18-49 who have never been married (or just got married).

disab-marriage-rates

The overall first-marriage rate for people ages 18-49 is 71.8 per 1,000. For people with disabilities it’s 41.1 (shown by the blue line). So that’s much lower than for the general population. But there is a very wide variation across these groups, from 15.5 per thousand for Blacks with disabilities in independent living all the way up to above the national average for Whites and White/American Indians with hearing disabilities. (For every condition, Blacks with disabilities have the lowest marriage rates.)

I don’t draw any conclusions here, except that this is an important subject and I hope more people will study it. Also, we need data like this.

In previous posts demonstrating the value of this data source, I wrote about:

Whether you are a researcher or some other member of the concerned public, I hope you will consider dropping the government a line about this before the end of the year.

The information about the planned cuts to the American Community Survey is here: https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2014/10/31/2014-25912/proposed-information-collection-comment-request-the-american-community-survey-content-review-results:

Direct all written comments to Jennifer Jessup, Departmental Paperwork Clearance Officer, Department of Commerce, Room 6616, 14th and Constitution Avenue NW., Washington, DC 20230 (or via the Internet at jjessup@doc.gov).

Comments will be accepted until December 30.

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