Category Archives: Me @ work

How we really can study divorce using just five questions and a giant sample

It would be great to know more about everything, but if you ask just these five questions of enough people, you can learn an awful lot about marriage and divorce.

Questions

First the questions, then some data. These are the question wordings from the 2013 American Community Survey (ACS).

1. What is Person X’s age?

We’ll just take the people who are ages 15 to 59, but that’s optional.

2. What is this person’s marital status?

Surprisingly, we don’t want to know if they’re divorced, just if they’re currently married (I include people are are separated and those who live apart from their spouses for other reasons). This is the denominator in your basic “refined divorce rate,” or divorces per 1000 married people.

3. In the past 12 months, did this person get divorced?

The number of people who got divorced in the last year is the numerator in your refined divorce rate. According to the ACS in 2013 (using population weights to scale the estimates up to the whole population), there were 127,571,069 married people, and 2,268,373 of them got divorced, so the refined divorce rate was 17.8 per 1,000 married people. When I analyze who got divorced, I’m going to mix all the currently-married and just-divorced people together, and then treat the divorces as an event, asking, who just got divorced?

4. In what year did this person last get married?

This is crucial for estimating divorce rates according to marriage duration. When you subtract this from the current year, that’s how long they are (or were) married. When you subtract the marriage duration from age, you get the age at marriage. (For example, a person who is 40 years old in 2013, who last got married in 2003, has a marriage duration of 10 years, and an age at marriage of 30.)

5. How many times has this person been married?

I use this to narrow our analysis down to women in their first marriages, which is a conventional way of simplifying the analysis, but that’s optional.

Data

I restrict the analysis below to women, which is just a sexist convention for simplifying things (since men and women do things at different ages).*

So here are the 375,249 women in the 2013 ACS public use file, ages 16-59, who were in their first marriages, or just divorced from their first marriages, by their age at marriage and marriage duration. Add the two numbers together and you get their current age. The colors let you see the basic distribution (click to enlarge):

2011-2013 agemar figures.xlsx

The most populous cell on the table is 28-year-olds who got married three years ago, at age 25, with 1068 people. The least populous is 19-year-olds who got married at 15 (just 14 of them). The diagonal edge reflects my arbitrary cutoff at age 59.

Divorce results

Now, in each of these cells there are married people, and (in most of them) people who just got divorced. The ratio between those two frequencies is a divorce rate — one specific to the age at marriage and marriage duration. To make the next figure I used three years of ACS data (2011-2013) so the results would be smoother. (And then I smoothed it more by replacing each cell with an average of itself and the adjoining cells.) These are the divorce rates by age at marriage and years married (click to enlarge):

2011-2013 agemar figures.xlsx

The overall pattern here is more green, or lower divorce rates, to the right (longer duration of marriage) and down (older age at marriage). So the big red patch is the first 12 years for marriages begun before the woman was age 25. And after about 25 years of marriage it’s pretty much green, for low divorce rates. The high contrast at the bottom left implies an interesting high risk but steep decline in the first few years after marriage for these late marriages. This matrix adds nuance to the pattern I reported the other day, which featured a little bump up in divorce odds for people who married in their late thirties. From this figure it looks like marriages that start after the woman is about 35 might have less of a honeymoon period than those beginning about age 24-33.

To learn more, I go beyond those five great questions, and use a regression model (same as the other day), with a (collapsed) marriage-age–by–marriage-duration matrix. So these are predicted divorce rates per 1000, holding education, race/ethnicity, and nativity constant (click to enlarge)**:

2011-2013 agemar figures.xlsx

The controls cut down the late-thirties bump and isolate it mostly to the first year. This also shows that the punishing first year is an issue for all ages over 35. The late thirties just showed the bump because that group doesn’t have the big drop in divorce after the first year that the later years do. Interesting!

Sigh

Here’s where the awesome data let us down. This data is very powerful. It’s the best contemporary big data set we have for analyzing divorce. It has taken us this far, but it can’t explain a pattern like this.

We can control for education, but that’s just the education level at the time of the most recent survey. We can’t know when she got her education relative to the dates of her marriage. Further, from the ACS we can’t tell how many children a person has had, with whom, and when — we only know about children who happen to be living in the household in 2013, so a 50-year-old could be childfree or have raised and released four kids already. And about couples, although we can say things about the other spouse from looking around in the household (such as his age, race, and income), if someone has divorced the spouse is gone and there is no information about that person (even their sex). So we can’t use that information to build a model of divorce predictors.

Here’s an example of what we can only hint at. Remarriages are more likely to end in divorce, for a variety of reasons, which is why we simplify these things by only looking at first marriages. But what about the spouse? Some of these women are married to men who’ve been married before. I can’t how much that contributes to their likelihood of divorce, but it almost certainly does. Think about the bump up in the divorce rate for women who got married in their late thirties. On the way from high divorce rates for women who marry early to low rates for women who marry late, the overall downward slope reflects increasing maturity and independence for women, but it’s running against the pressure of their increasingly complicated relationship situations. That late-thirties bump may have to do with the likelihood that their husbands have been married before. Here’s the circumstantial evidence:

2011-2013 agemar figures.xlsx

See that big jump from early-thirties to late-thirties? All of a sudden 37.5% of women marrying in their late-thirties are marrying men who are remarrying. That’s a substantial risk factor for divorce, and one I can’t account for in my analysis (because we don’t have spouse information for divorced women).

On method

Divorce is complicated and inherently longitudinal. Marriages arise out of specific contexts and thrive or decay in many different ways. Yesterday’s crucial influence may disappear today. So how can we say anything about divorce using a single, cross-sectional survey sample? The unsatisfying answer is that all analysis is partial. But these five questions give us a lot to go on, because knowing when a person got married allows us to develop a multidimensional image of the events, as I’ve demonstrated here.

But, you ask, what can we learn from, say, the divorce propensity of today’s 40-year-olds when we know that just last year a whole bunch of 39-year-olds divorced, skewing today’s sample? This is a real issue. And demography provides an answer that is at once partial and powerful: Simple, we use today’s 39-year-olds, too. In the purest form, this approach gives us the life table, in which one year’s mortality rates — at every age — lead to a projection of life expectancy. Another common application is the total fertility rate (watch the video!), which sums birth rates by age to project total births for a generation. In this case I have not produced a complete divorce life table (which I promised a while ago — it’s coming). But the approach is similar.

These are all synthetic cohort approaches (described nicely in the Week 6 lecture slides from this excellent Steven Ruggles course). In this case, the cohorts are age-at-marriage groups. Look at the table above and follow the row for, say, marriages that started at age 28, to see that synthetic cohort’s divorce experience from marriage until age 59. It’s neither a perfect depiction of the past, nor a foolproof prediction of the future. Rather, it tells us what’s happening now in cohort terms that are readily interpretable.

Conclusion

The ACS is the best thing we have for understanding the basic contours of divorce trends and patterns. Those five questions are invaluable.


* For this I also tossed the people who were reported to have married in the current year, because I wasn’t sure about the timing of their marriages and divorces, but I put them back in for the regressions.

** The codebook for my IPUMS data extraction is here, my Stata code is here. The heat-map model here isn’t in that code file, but this these are the commands (and the margins command took a very long time, so please don’t tell me there’s something wrong with it):

logistic divorce i.agemarc#i.mardurc i.degree i.race i.hispan i.citizen
margins i.agemarc#i.mardurc

8 Comments

Filed under Me @ work

Gender and the sociology faculty

In an earlier post, I reported on gender and the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) leaders, PhDs received, subject specialization, editors and editorial boards. Here is a little more data, which I’ll add to that post as well as posting it here.

Looking at the gender breakdown of PhDs, which became majority female in the 1990s, I wrote: “Producing mostly-female PhDs for a quarter of a century is getting to be long enough to start achieving a critical mass of women at the top of the discipline.” But I didn’t look at the tenure-ladder faculty, which is the next step in the pipeline to disciplinary domination.

To address that a little, I took a sample from the ASA’s 2015 Guide to Graduate Departments of Sociology, which I happened to get in the mail. Using random numbers, I counted the gender and PhD year for 201 full-time sociology faculty in departments that grant graduate degrees (that excludes adjuncts, affiliates, part-time, and emeritus faculty). This reflects both entrance into and attrition from the professoriate, so how it relates to the gender composition of PhDs will reflect everything from the job market through tenure decisions to retirement and mortality rates.

The median PhD year in my sample is 2000, and women are 47% of the sample. In fact, women earned 52% of sociology PhDs in the 1990s, but they are only 40% of the faculty with 1990s PhDs in my sample. After that, things improved for women. Women earned 60% of the PhDs in the 2000s, and they are 62% of current faculty with PhDs from the 2000s in this sample. So either we’re doing a better job of moving women from PhD completion into full-time faculty jobs, or the 2000s women haven’t been disproportionately weeded out yet.

Here is the breakdown of my sample, by PhD year and gender:

soc-prof-gender

With 15 years or so of women earning 60% of the PhDs, they should be headed toward faculty dominance, and that yet may be the case. If men and women get tenure and retire at the same rate, another decade or so should do it, but that’s a big “if.” I don’t read much into women’s slippage in the last few years, except that it’s clearly not a slam-dunk.

3 Comments

Filed under Me @ work

Proposed rule change for the American Sociological Association Dissertation Award

open science can

Dear Prof. Janoski and members of the ASA Dissertation Award Committee,

I am writing to suggest a rule change for the Dissertation Award. Jordan Robison at ASA told me:

Any rule change for an award committee is usually voted on by the same award committee, presented to Committee on Awards. If Committee on Awards approves any rule change it is then brought to Council, who makes the final vote.

So it is my hope to persuade you to take this rule change up the chain to the Committee on Awards (currently chaired by Jane Sell at Texas A&M), and from there to Council (where the current liaison to the Committee on Awards is Adia Harvey Wingfield at Georgia State, moving to Washington University in St. Louis).

Background

The issue has been raised with regard to 2011 winner Alice Goffman’s dissertation at Princeton. That dissertation is not available at the Princeton library. A query from me to the library produced this response from Martin A. Mbugua, Director of Media Relations & University Spokesperson:

Alice Goffman was granted an exemption from submitting her dissertation to the University Archives, so we do not have a copy of her dissertation in our collection. The Graduate School in 2012 instituted a dissertation embargo policy under which no dissertation would be exempted from the submission requirement. Thus, a dissertation may be embargoed for a period of time to allow for publication in other forms, but it must be submitted to the University’s Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library.

Rationale

Goffman’s case is extreme in that her dissertation apparently may never be available, but it remains the case that people at Princeton (and at other schools) may choose to embargo their dissertations, to keep them out of public circulation, while they publish them commercially. Perhaps other schools also allow a complete exemption. If that is their privilege, and they choose to exercise it, then I believe they should be ineligible for the ASA Dissertation Award. My logic is that, if ASA holds up a dissertation as the best of the year, the purpose of that honor is partly to inspire and inform other sociologists about what constitutes the best doctoral research. If the dissertation is not publicly available, that purpose is undermined. Further, I think it would be a welcome – albeit small – signal in support of emerging norms of open science for the association to affirm the principle that dissertation research should be publicly available.

Proposal

I propose the following rule be added:

In order to be considered for the ASA Dissertation Award, a nominee must commit to making his or her dissertation publicly available through a suitable academic repository by the time of the ASA meeting at which the award is granted.

Thank you for considering this request. I welcome your response, and would be happy to work with you on getting this rule – or something like it – passed by the ASA Council. Please let me know if there is anything else you need.

Sincerely,

Philip Cohen

19 Comments

Filed under Me @ work

Sociologists asking me questions

A few weeks ago I participating in an Ask Me Anything session on the Sociology Job Market Rumors board, a mostly anonymous board devoted to gossip and chatter about sociology and its subjects. It’s posted here (with some responses), but I’ve copied it below.

We thank renowned family and gender scholar, Dr. Philip Cohen, for participating in SJMR’s inaugural AMA. Below are Philip’s responses. You can learn more about his research by visiting his website and his blog.

1. What was your answer when, at the age of 9, people asked you: “what will you do when you grow up?”

At age 9 my plan was to be a writer. Then, in chronological order: artist, prophet, rock star, and eventually journalist.

2. If you could do your career over, what would you do differently? What would you *definitely not* do differently?

I would have learned more broadly earlier, starting in college: I should have taken more math and statistics, and natural sciences. A decision I would not change would be moving into demography. My original inclination was much more theoretical and historical (My MA thesis was on the women’s suffrage movement and intersectionality). But when I took my UMass MA to the University of Maryland the demographers there were very strong (and supportive): Harriet Presser, Suzanne Bianchi, Sonal Desai, and my advisor, Reeve Vanneman, and I got pulled in. That was great luck.

3. As one of the most prominent public sociologists, how do you balance your traditional scholarship with your public blog, media appearances/writings, etc. How do you decide which issue merits which approach? And how, if at all, do you think these roles can come into conflict?

There is not much method to my priorities, I’m afraid – I’m just not that well organized. But on the balance question, usually when people ask this they are concerned about academic productivity – real productivity – peer-reviewed research and grants. Sometimes when I’m chatting with someone who’s a regular research academic, we talk about the blog, and media stuff, and my textbook, and then they say, “So what are you working on these days?” I would – or at least could – have done more peer-reviewed research if I hadn’t written 760 blog posts and a textbook in the last 5 years. On the other hand, maybe I would have just been less productive altogether. Because all my research ideas now come from interaction around my public work, or from students I work with.

A lot of people worry that if they blog or get on Twitter or try to write op-eds they won’t be able to do research anymore. And for some people this could be a problem – if it doesn’t suit you, don’t do it. But if it does suit you it may make you more, not less, productive. You learn to write better, and faster, with more practice. And you might learn how to make your work more effective from the interactions you have.

On the other hand, the social media side is endlessly distracting, and this can be a serious problem. The only way I get anything else done is by making commitments and then forcing myself into fulfilling them. I’ve made some big commitments which help me focus by regularly imposing deadlines: writing my textbook, editing Contexts, and working with the Council on Contemporary Families – these all make deadlines for me. And working with students provides a steady stream of commitments (I have seven PhD student advisees) since we’re always co-authoring papers and meeting various deadlines.

Finally, as for topics, I’m very impressionable. I got heavily into the Regnerus affair because there was a need for organization and it was timely (my blog hosted the “200 researchers” letter that Gary Gates organized), and I was on the ASA Family Section council; I got into critiquing marriage promotion because I had the expertise and data necessary to debunk the nutty stuff those people were doing. And so on. In each of these cases I got positive reinforcement from a community of sociologists and others who appreciate my efforts.

On the conflict question, I don’t think I’ve had a problem with roles coming into conflict – though my critics might disagree. The fact is that the different kinds of work I do have overlapping audiences, so someone reviewing my article for a journal might know what I’ve written on the blog, and political critics have access to my scholarly work. That potential scrutiny is mostly good – my peer-reviewed work should be more carefully scrutinized if it relates to strongly-held value positions that I have made public.

4. How, if at all, should we study the role that culture may play in reproducing inequality? The sort of relevant cultural things (like in Lareau’s work, for instance) seem maddeningly difficult to measure and put into conventional regression models. Yet, simultaneously, there do seem to be strong cultural elements in play in addition to the well-established structural ones. Methodologically, epistemologically, politically, is it possible to move from either/or approaches to culture and structure to both/and approaches?

This is really important. Theoretically, this is all about capitalism, modernity, and social change – the core questions of sociology. What drives change? What defines our era and its identities? Etc. Politically, this is all about all the policy questions of inequality: Head Start versus welfare, K-12 versus community college versus Pell grants, the minimum wage and skyrocketing executive pay. And of course race, poverty, and crime. (The political discourse around this stuff is depressingly impoverished in either/or terms; “culture” usually means something is poor people’s fault, versus “structure” or “the economy,” which refer to the unquestioned behavior of elites, with their unassailable motivation for self-interest.)

To study it is of course very difficult, for the reasons you say. I am a big fan of Lareau, as well as some other book writers on the qualitative side in my area, like Kathryn Edin, Marianne Cooper, Shamus Khan, and Sarah Damaske (a non-exhaustive list off the top of my head), as well as historians. Not good for regression models, but great for getting a feel for inequality and generating hypotheses. In my stratification seminar I assigned some neighborhood work (Sharkey), as well as some work from audit studies of discrimination – showing the wide range of things you might lump under “culture.” Often, like with racism, “culture” lives in the residual of your regression model, or is proxied with unknown validity by variables such as education, race, nativity, family structure, and so on (though credit to Michael Gaddis and others who have tried to put this stuff right in the model).

I think it’s really important to shake up the either/or thing. For example, with regard to marriage, it doesn’t make sense to use “culture” to attribute blame to poor people for not marrying any more than it does to call failure to raise the minimum wage a cultural issue (which it is). Individuals act under the impositions of “culture,” which appears as structural to them as the economy – I’m thinking of norms that essentially force people into shotgun weddings or divorce. (When I’m in the mood, I actually love Bourdeiu’s structured structures and structuring structures.) Good luck with this in politics.

5. In the last few years, there has been growing numbers of economists studying traditionally sociological topics like the family and even gender. What do you think will be the impact of this influx on the way sociologists study these topics? Has it modified your own research in any way?

I don’t agree with the premise of the question. Gary Becker won a Nobel Prize for his work on subjects like that going back to the 1970s. When I was studying gender inequality in grad school in the 1990s, Claudia Goldin’s Understanding the Gender Gap (1990) and the work by Blau and Kahn from 1992-2000 was central. In fact, my own work on the gender gap in earnings is all based on assumptions from the human capital model. Economists of course cause all kinds of problems for sociologists, but that’s not a recent phenomenon. It takes real training for sociologists to learn how to understand what economists are doing – and why we might disagree with their approach – and I don’t think most of us get that training.

6. If you had free reign to recreate a grad program in sociology, what would the curriculum look like?

In my experience being in grad school in two departments and on the faculty in three, everyone has their own ideas of how the training should be – and we mostly want it to be like our training. I generally come down on the side of people who want the training to be more broad than narrow, more theoretical than not, and more demographic than not. The best seminars (and the ones that are hardest to teach) combine theory and methods around a substantive theme (one of the reasons demography is such great training is that their seminars do this). I also think grad students should learn how to write – including for different audiences – and (for those heading that direction) how to teach.

7. What’s the most important advice you give your grad students?

I have no idea. Read and write a lot. Go to talks. Support each other. Have a life. There’s no shame in leaving academia behind, but if you want to give it a try we’ll give it our best shot.

8. What is the current and future state of Maryland sociology given the deep budget cuts?

Deeply troubled. We have some great people and we’ll get through it. Pray for us.

9. Do you prefer Philip or Phil? I hear you refer to yourself as Philip, but others always seem to call you by Phil.

I prefer Philip – thanks for asking – but not enough to correct people. It’s just one of those names people shorten without asking. (In writing it has to do with not knowing how many L’s to use.)

10. What do you think of SJMR? Any theories as to why “right” wing posts and sentiments often dominate? What should it look like in the future?

I have no way of understanding what goes on because I have no idea who anyone is. People routinely lie about their status and affiliations, tell lies about other people, impersonate people, and spread misinformation. You can argue the benefits of anonymity, but it makes some awful stuff possible on here.

11. Almost all of your work focuses on the US (obvious exception: “Headed Toward Equality? Housework Change in Comparative Perspective”). Almost all of your blog focuses just on work done in the US (occasional exceptions: global comparisons). Michele Lamont said in her ASA presidential candidate personal statement:

“My intellectual agenda will be to promote a greater internationalization of American sociology, with a focus on cultural and social processes of inequality and stigmatization in the United States and abroad.”

Do you consider yourself a scholar of “inequality” or a scholar of “inequality in America”? What do you think the relationship should be between the study of inequality in the U.S. and the study of inequality globally? For instance, you often speak in your blog about inequality processes that are very specific to the US (say, mass incarceration or even the racial system more generally). While country-specific processes are interesting to study in the US, the only non-American work that seems to catch most people eye is more global, multi-country comparisons. What should be the role of (possibly) country-specific processes that take place in another country in the study of inequality? Beyond trite truisms like “I think it’s important to have a global perspective” that often get repeated (without that “global perspective” making much of an impact in citation networks), is there any way that American sociology can ever become less self-obsessed and provincial in its research interests?

It’s a really important question and a great subject, but I don’t know what to do about it. At Contexts, Syed Ali and I are really trying to recruit more writers from outside the U.S., with some success, but that’s just one editorship at one journal (where the editors have a lot of discretion).

American provincialism among sociologists is a big problem. We did a survey of people teaching family when I was preparing my textbook proposal, and very few teachers wanted global material. Which was fine with me, because most of the global comparisons you get in intro-level textbooks are obvious or cliché, like arranged marriages in India, polygamy in Africa, cohabitation in Sweden – things that make the superficial (though important) sociological point that it doesn’t have to be this way. I don’t know enough to write for real about societies other than this one, at least not without collaborators.

About 10 years ago some China scholars made a push, led by Wang Feng and Deborah Davis, to integrate studies of inequality in China and the U.S. They had some meetings and published an edited volume with Stanford called Creating Wealth and Poverty in Postsocialist China, that I was part of. They were tired of there being a China session at ASA, instead of having the papers on China spread around the substantive sessions that they were writing about. That was a great idea.

It’s difficult. There are institutional barriers, linguistic barriers. How much should a grad student risk studying in another country, learning a new language? What if the project doesn’t work out? There are some established comparative traditions, such as US/Scandinavia, or US/West Europe, so if you do one of those you can get funding, maybe a postdoc or a job. And there are demography opportunities in specific places. But what if you want to do less well-trodden cases? Picking a project is always the hard part. But when you’re choosing between Add Health and PSID then the harm from being wrong – and the cost of switching – is much less than if you’re choosing between Botswana and Cambodia. It’s just hard to promote that kind of risk-taking when funding is so precarious.

I have great respect for those sociologists who have developed projects in other countries, and trained students on them. (That includes my colleagues at Maryland doing the India Human Development Survey – these are often demographers.)

12. What’s the biggest mistake you see sociologists make? (You can interpret this in any way you wish.)

I don’t know whether it’s a mistake, but I don’t think a lot of academic sociologists take advantage of the privilege we have of studying whatever we want. My dissertation was on labor market inequality. Since then, I’ve written academic papers on children’s disability rates, divorce, gender and color preferences, Regnerus, race and genetics, and pornography – none of which I studied in grad school. And for my textbook I researched and wrote 15,000-word chapters on subjects I knew nothing about to start, such as family violence and sexuality. Wow! I love my job.

Thanks for inviting me to do this!

2 Comments

Filed under Me @ work

Book reviews: Sex & Unisex, among others

Or, why your important editor friend should publish my book reviews

I love writing book reviews. In fact, one occupation I really aspire to is “essayist.” How do I get that job? (Wait, I think I figured it out.) Getting a book review assignment is what makes me read a whole book carefully, something I always enjoy but rarely do.

My latest is a review of the excellent Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution, by Jo Paoletti, published online by Boston Review. And they found this great example of unixex fashion from the 1969 Sears catalog:

sears69

Here’s a taste of the review:

But if fashion has a hierarchy, it also has a social context. In the newly released book Sex and Unisex, Jo Paoletti tries to understand that context as it gave rise to a revolution that almost was—the unisex fashion trend that, in hindsight, appears awkwardly sandwiched between the conservative, gender-conformist 1950s and the Disney princess tidal wave of the 1990s. For a brief time, little boys and girls wore the same cowboy shirts tucked into identical blue jeans, some men and women wore the same ponchos and turtlenecks, and male and female TV space travelers wore identical outfits.

To the Rick Santorums of today’s culture wars, the 1960s were, in Paoletti’s words, “self-indulgent and aimless—just a bunch of free-love hippies waving protest signs and getting high.” But the unisex moment that era begat was actually “emblematic of a very complicated—and unfinished—conversation about sex, gender, and sexuality.” That conversation encompassed freedom and individualism, yes, but also civil rights, sexual orientation, and the emerging science of gender identity. In Paoletti’s telling, the unisex movement generated unprecedented clothing options for women, men, and children as well as a fascinating series of lawsuits in which the wayward enemies of conformity—mostly men—put their feet down against the arbitrary, controlling ways of an establishment that was temporarily back on its heels.

Help an essayist out

Writing book reviews, especially as part of my job, is a real privilege. If a friend of yours is the editor of another important periodical that publishes book reviews (or if you are such an editor), I hope you’ll recommend me. Here’s a list of the ones I’ve done, to help the cause.

Magazines (or their websites)

  • Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution, by Jo Paoletti (Boston Reviewlink)
  • A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, by Nicholas Wade (Boston Review  | link)
  • The Richer Sex, by Liza Mundy, and The End of Men, by Hanna Rosin (Boston Reviewlink)
  • The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools, by Thomas DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann (The Atlantic | link)

On the blog

  • The Sacred Project of American Sociology, by Christian Smith | link
  • What To Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster, by Jonathan Last | link
  • The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, by Joseph E. Stiglitz | link
  • A roundup of good books from 2011 | link

Academic journals

  • Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times, by Marianne Cooper (Gender & Society | preprint)
  • Documenting Desegregation: Racial and Gender Segregation in Private-Sector Employment Since the Civil Rights Act, by Kevin Stainback and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey (Work and Occupations | preprint)
  • Occupational Ghettos: The Worldwide Segregation of Women and Men, Maria Charles and David B. Grusky (Contemporary Sociology | JSTOR).
  • Glass Ceilings and Asian Americans: The New Face of Workplace Barriers, by Deborah Woo (Review of Radical Political Economics | link)
  • The Ties That Bind: Perspectives on Cohabitation and Marriage, edited by Linda J. Waite et al. (Contemporary Sociology  | link)
  • Persistent Disparity: Race and Economic Inequality since 1945, by William A. Darity, Jr. and Samuel L. Myers, Jr. (Review of Radical Political Economicslink)
  • The Racial Contract, by Charles W. Mills. (Review of Radical Political Economicslink)

3 Comments

Filed under Me @ work, Research reports

Not all trigger warnings are the same

Print

I follow the debate over trigger warnings only loosely. Please feel free to add information in the comments.

In what I see, the debate over trigger warnings is hampered by ill-defined terms and unhelpful hyperbole. I want to give a very basic description of what I think should be a relatively simple approach to the issue, call out a gender problem, and then offer my own example.

To show you where I’m coming from: What prompted me finally to write this was the combination of this popular op-ed by Judith Shulevitz, this essay about the problem of teaching about rape in law school, and the flap over Christina Hoff Sommers’s anti-anti-rape-culture campus tour. I noted that a letter to the editor in the Oberlin Review about her upcoming talk began with this: “Content Warning: This letter contains discussion of rape culture, online harassment, victim blaming and rape apologism/denialism.”

Impending discourse

There are three kinds of relevant warnings that I would group together under the category of “impending discourse notification.” That is, warnings that take the form: something is about to be discussed or displayed. Keeping these three things straight would be really helpful.

1. Warnings of content likely to be disturbing to many people in the audience.

For example, graphic images of violence during a regular TV news program, descriptions of rape on NPR’s Morning Edition, or sociology classroom lectures that contain images of Blacks being lynched. In these cases, a warning of the impending discourse is something like common courtesy. It says, “we are about to see or hear something important enough to risk disturbing the audience, and potentially disturbing enough that you should gird yourself.” In these discrete cases warnings are not controversial in principle, though of course individual applications may be off target or offensive. Many settings carry an implied warning: A horror film can be expected to surprise you with specific acts of violence, but you know something bad is coming; a sociology class on racial inequality should be expected to include discussions of lynching, though some students have no idea about lynching; a history documentary on war is expected to show people being killed. Warnings in these cases seem optional.

2. Warnings of content that may trigger post-traumatic stress responses.

I am not expert on this, obviously, but my understanding (from, e.g., here) is that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was included in the DSM III in 1980, partly based on the experience of Vietnam War veterans. The condition was understood to involve reliving memories of trauma, avoiding reminders of trauma, and hyperarousal that can lead to high levels of distress. There are many kinds of traumas that can lead to PTSD, but some are much more common than others, especially violence, sexual abuse, and existential threats. You can’t expect to prevent all triggering events, but you can take steps to avoid common ones, or warn people when you are going to show or discuss something to an audience likely to be include people with PTSD. Again, war movies are expected to show graphically violent war scenes, but lectures to audiences of combat veterans about disability benefits should not. This is a question of sensitivity and awareness, not blanket prohibitions and censoring. And this is about shocking or graphic imagery, not mere mention of a topic. We just can’t have a democratic discourse without mentioning bad things, sometimes spontaneously. The Oberlin newspaper warning above is wrong. And I don’t agree with another Oberlin essayist who says trigger warnings should be treated as disability accommodations, “as common as wheelchair ramps.” (Of course, I would make an accommodation for a specific student — and I have — who asks to opt out of a specific class session based on the topic).

3. Warnings of obnoxious, offensive, disagreeable, or dangerous ideas.

These warnings are unnecessary and wrong. If someone wants to say the problem of campus rape is exaggerated, that Black men are genetically aggressive, the Holocaust is a myth, or Creationists are stupid — let them. Hand out flyers or picket at their talk, discredit them in the Q&A, denounce them on Twitter, or ignore them. If they are receiving honorary degrees or other accolades (or money) from governments or universities, that’s political fair game to protest. But protecting people from hearing bad ideas is a bad idea (outside of incitement to violence). On campus or in the classroom, exposure to bad ideas is essential to critical intellectual development. If you’re never offended in college you aren’t learning enough.

A gender problem

I have complained elsewhere that the non-criminal procedure for responding to campus rape “downgrades sexual violence from a real crime to a women’s issue.” Something similar is going on with trigger warnings. Although PTSD-type responses can be triggered by many kinds of experiences, it looks like sexual violence is the main arena of debate over campus trigger warnings. Why? This should not be reduced to a “women’s issue.” My admittedly limited exposure to this debate often makes me cringe at what seems like a demand for special protection — from discourse — for women. Women are in fact more likely to experience PTSD than men, but that’s only partly because they are more likely to be sexually assaulted. Men are more likely to experience other potentially traumatic events, including accidents, nonsexual assaults, combat, or witnessing violence, all of which can lead to PTSD. People with sensitivity to trauma-related triggering deserve respect and sensitivity. But women — like any subordinate group — need to exert leadership in the discourse surrounding that inequality, and that doesn’t come from avoiding the topic or silencing their opponents. If the only people discussing rape are people who have never been raped, the dialogue is likely to be male-dominated. We have to work on maintaining the line between offensive and unpleasant on the one hand and truly trauma-inducing on the other. If it’s necessary to avoid the latter, it’s all the more important for those who are able to engage the former.

How did I do addendum

I think we can learn a lot from these discussions. They have raised the question, “What if we acted like sexual assault is actually common?” That reality is hard to grasp — for people who are victims or not — because the experience is so often private.* In the chapter in my book about family violence and abuse, I didn’t include an impending discourse notification, but — after opening with a detailed story of violent abuse — I raised the issue of how discussing the topic might affect students:

The subject of family violence and abuse is personal and painful. Instructors and students should pause at this point to consider the possible effects of discussing these topics, especially for those who have experienced abuse in their own lives. Because this kind of victimization still is so common in the United States, most of us will know someone who has been touched by it in one way or another. However, because families often are protected by a cultural—and sometimes legal—expectation of privacy and a shroud of secrecy, those who suffer usually do so in isolation. That leaves us with the complexity of a problem that is widespread but experienced alone and often invisibly. Such isolation can make the experience of abuse even worse. One benefit of addressing the issue in this book is that we can help pierce that isolation and encourage victims to realize that they are not alone.

I think advising people in the classroom to “pause to consider” before launching into the topic is reasonable — it’s a common experience with a known risk of traumatic effects. But I didn’t write that just to protect people who might have a traumatic reaction to the topic, I did it because it’s a learning opportunity for everyone.

* In the book I tried to put rape in normal-experience terms: experiencing rape (18% of women by one reasonable estimate) is more common than using the Pill for contraception (17% of women currently), but less common than smoking cigarettes for young-adult women (22%, ages 25-34). Does that help?

11 Comments

Filed under In the news, Me @ work

Vox interview on the Moynihan chilling effect

Jenée Desmond-Harris from Vox.com interviewed me about the Moynihan backlash post. The piece is here. In it she links to this blog, but not to the specific post. If you’re looking for that, it’s here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Me @ work