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Family Inequality year-end review

This blog has enhanced my working life in so many ways, so let me start by thanking you for reading, sharing, and commenting here. The writing I do here — 909 posts so far — led to my textbook (working on the second edition now), and the new collection of essays I have under contract (and now under review at U. of California Press). Because of the visibility I have here, I got to be co-editor of Contexts magazine for the last two years (one more to go), and got elected to leadership positions in the American Sociological Association’s Family and Population sections. And the engagement I get here, with the discipline of sociology and academia generally, led to this year’s major initiative, SocArXiv, an open access archive of social science research (read about it, share your work, watch videos, @follow). This is all very rewarding work with an expanding group of great colleagues and collaborators.*

All of these things took me away from the daily work of writing here this year. As a result, I wrote fewer posts — 77, compared with an average of 130 per year since 2010. And for the first time this blog saw a decline in readership in 2016. Even with a self-serving new measure — visitors per new piece posted, which deflates the hit count by an indicator of effort — there was a drop this year:

2016traffic

As long as blog traffic was increasing, I was of course delighted to report on my success on that metric. Now that it’s not I stress other key indicators, such as those I listed above. Obviously I won’t be measuring success by my interventions into politics. But more fundamentally, all of us in the knowledge and truth business have more serious problems to consider than impact metrics.

The most popular posts I wrote this year fall into four categories: Trump, the academic publishing problem, regular demography, and debunking.** This is a good reflection of my priorities over the year, and I have no strategic adjustments planned for 2017. But who knows?

Here are the top 10 posts written in 2016. Thanks again for reading!

  1. No Black women are not the “most educated group in the US”. How do you debunk a false meme when it says something positive about people you want to support?
  2. Black men raping White women: BJS’s Table 42 problem. A lot of clicks on this post came from people Googling things like “black man rape white woman.” I hope they stay to read it.
  3. Life table says divorce rate is 52.7%. There is no one “divorce rate.” This is an underappreciated method, with a non-surprising result.
  4. How broken is our system (hit me with that figure again edition). And see also Eran Shor responds. Our academic publishing system once again revealed to be poorly designed for the task of providing information to people.
  5. Perspective on sociology’s academic hierarchy and debate. Follow up to the Shor et al. debate. Academics are going to have to get thicker skins.
  6. The one big thing that might doom Trump in November. Race, I figured. I stuck with this message all year. Maybe it helped a little.
  7. Must-know current demographic facts. Updating a list of the basics, especially for teaching.
  8. How the left can win the general election. Some suggestions for how to win in a two-party game. The focus on “social” versus “economic” issues was incorrect. (This one just made the list because Chris Hayes called it “fascinating” on Twitter, a quote I plan to put on the back of all my books from now on.)
  9. Looks like racist Southern Whites like Trump. Sure do.
  10. For (not against) a better publishing model. How the American Sociological Association is not getting it right. Written the day I registered the SocArXiv domains.

* Note this year I started posting data and code on the Open Science Framework, a collaboration and sharing platform on which SocArXiv also runs. Here are my public projects. I hope you’ll consider using it, or something like it.

** Not included on this list, but probably tops among my essays this year, is the post that was picked up by the LSE Impact blog about the formation of SocArXiv. 

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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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Family Inequality wins Charm Quark

I’m pleased to report that the blog has been awarded the Charm Quark, which is third place in the Politics and Social Science category for 2014, from 3 Quarks Daily.

charmquark

The write-up for the award is here. The judge was Mark Blyth, and the post he read was my debunking of the State of Utah’s claim that banning same-sex marriage would make it more likely for kids to be raised by straight married parents. Blyth put my post in the category of “Bullshit Police,” writing:

If social science has a public function this is it. Theory generation and hypothesis testing and all that grad school stuff is all fine and well, but at the end of the day the job is to take the claims of those that want us to think X is Y and sniff it to see if its bullshit. … the winner in this pot is Philip Cohen for his Family Inequality piece on the state of Utah and same sex parenting. Take a causal argument. Test it. Test it again. Pronounce it bullshit. Move along. Move along. Fantastic stuff and first class ‘bullshit police’ work.

It’s very nice to have my work recognized this way. It’s especially gratifying that it was a piece that included original data analysis (and even fixed-effects regressions). I hope I did it right!

3 Quarks is a filter blog that presents posts on “science, design, literature, current affairs, art, and anything else we deem inherently fascinating” six days a week, and original pieces on Mondays. I hope you will visit the site and see what they have to offer.

Thanks to Mark Blyth and the 3 Quarks folks for the boost.

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The couple-height story

My post the other day on height differences between married men and women, which appeared here and on The Atlantic site, drew record clicks to the blog. They mostly originated from this Jezel post by Tracy Moore, which reports about 100,000 readers and more than 1,000 comments on their post.

The UK’s Daily Mail Online also picked up the story, which is understandable since the original research came from a British sample. But I was most impressed by their re-purposing of the figures I made — until I realized they botched it. I don’t know how they made these, since I didn’t include the numbers behind the charts. Here is my figure (on the left), with their adaptation.

dm-height1

I like the bathroom icons showing which spouse is taller. Anyway, that’s the actual distribution, and it seems right. They did the same thing with the randomized height distribution:

dm-height2And that seems OK, too. But then for superimposing them, they shrunk the actual distribution down to the scale of the randomized one — I guess not realizing that the y-axis went higher on the actual distribution. As a result, the point was totally lost:

dm-height3It’s a lot of trouble to go through in order to get it wrong in the end. I wonder why they didn’t just rip off the original figures, like they did with the text, re-writing most of the post like this:

I said: I made 10 copies of all the men and women in the data, scrambled them up, and paired them at random. Most couples are still husband taller, but now 7.8 percent have a taller wife – more than twice as many.

They said: To do this he made 10 copies of all the men and women in the data, scrambled them up, and paired them at random. Most couples still had a taller husband, but 7.8 per cent had a taller wife – nearly twice as many…

And so on through most of the post. (I also don’t know why they changed my “more than twice as many” to “nearly twice as many,” since I was comparing 3.8 with 7.8. I have checked this a couple of times now and I’m pretty sure 3.8 * 2 = 7.6.)

It’s an interesting (unimportant) case of the blogosphere’s frequently-encountered overlap between free publicity (they publicized the post), plagiarism (they claimed words written by others as their own) and copyright infringement (they republished someone else’s work without permission).

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Year-end stats

This year Family Inequality again doubled its hit count, which means treading water in Internet space-time.

The most popular 36 posts this year, reduced to key words looked like this:

topposts2012

Those hits were partly the result of links from other blogs, Facebook and Twitter. But a lot came from search engines. These are the 50 most common search engine searches that brought people to the blog (not including “family inequality”):

search-terms-2012

Specifically, from all sources, these were the top 10 most-viewed posts of the year (some of which weren’t written this year):

10. The richer sex (is men). A critique of Liza Mundy’s Time cover story, with some of the figures I gave her that got left out.

9. Time travel: Regnerus study timeline suggests superhuman abilities. Double-take on the infamous paper, which was submitted for review before the data collection was finished.

8. Do Asians in the U.S. have high incomes? Asked a simple question, but got not such a simple answer. (This post gets a lot of visitors from Europe. Why?)

7. Single parents, crime and incarceration. How I came to believe that “incarceration causes single-parent families more than single-parent families cause crime.”

6. Stop that feminist viral statistic meme. This one from 2011 is served up over and over, often with links from anti-feminist sites. To repeat: I’m a feminist, and women own more than 1% of world property.

5. 200 researchers respond to Regnerus paper. The blog hosted this group-effort letter to flag Mark Regnerus’s paper and the process that got it published.

4. Poverty, single mothers and mobility. Childhood poverty matters more than family structure for upward mobility; and the U.S. punishes single-mother families more than other countries.

3. One case of very similar publications, with some implications and suggestions. Two articles published in good journals, with not much daylight between them. What can we do about the academic publication problem(s)?

2. Smurfette? How do they get away with this stuff? OK, most people who click on this seem to be just looking for a list of Smurf names, but I hope some of them read the post.

1. The bathroom icon has no clothes. This one is from 2010, but never stops getting clicked. Some people may be looking for bathroom porn, some looking for the iconic icons to copy. But some read it for what one person called it’s “Exquisite, provocative analysis of sexism in symbols.” Shucks.

Thanks for another year, folks. Stay in touch!

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Women at the top: comment for Orgtheory

Over at Orgtheory, Isabel Fernandez-Mateo has a comment on why there are so few women at the top of the work hierarchy – and her research to look into it further. They invited me to offer a comment in response, which you can see there as well.

I wrote, in part:

We especially need to consider the role of state policy in shaping family-career interactions over the life course. When adequate family leave is not available, when health care is too expensive, when high-quality preschool education is inaccessible or too expensive, when the state-sanctioned workday is too damn long – all that increases the pressure that women’s family obligations place on their career trajectories.

If you don’t already read Orgtheory, I hope you will check them out.

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Should every sociologist blog?

I recently heard someone (Nathan Jurgenson) advise first-year sociology graduate students that they should all blog and tweet.

I blog to read the sound of my own sociological voice, to contribute to the community of social scientists thinking about the questions that move me, to provide information and ideas to the public and hear their responses, and to organize my own thoughts on research and writing. This project may have reduced my peer-reviewed scholarly output in the last several years. But it has enriched my sociological thinking, enhanced my intellectual environment, improved my writing, and made my job more fun.

But every sociologist blogging might seem like overkill. Who is going to read all those blogs, and how would we have time for anything else if we all wrote and read blogs all day? The wired cacophony we endure already competes with academic reading and writing, as we struggle to wade through a growing stream of random chit-chat (or, as Andy Borowitz put it, “Twitter would be a great way of telling people what we’re doing if we were doing something instead of being on Twitter”).

And yet we all know there is no better general advice for young intellectuals than to read and write a lot. Setting aside tweeting, which I’m too old to call writing, blogging can be an important part of your process – even before you become another tenured blowhard.

The file

Like many sociologists of my generation, I came to see myself practicing a craft when I read the appendix to C. Wright Mills’s 1959 book The Sociological Imagination, titled, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship.” Applying some of his ideas has made me a more productive and satisfied sociologist, and my blog is a big part of that – playing the role of “the file” in his model.

“By keeping an adequate file and thus developing self-reflective habits,” he wrote, “you learn how to keep your inner world awake.”

Whenever you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them for your files and in so doing draw out their implications, show yourself either how foolish these feelings or ideas are, or how they might be articulated into productive shape. The file also helps you build up the habit of writing. You cannot ‘keep your hand in’ if you do not write something at least every week. In developing the file, you can experiment as a writer and thus, as they say, develop your powers of expression.

In Mills’s practice, the file was a set of topical folders, the organization of which was itself an intellectual exploration (“the topics, of course, change, sometimes quite frequently”) – these are the blog topic tags. As the file develops, the list of potential projects and research ideas outruns one’s ability to pursue them, providing the impetus to review and prioritize. If that review is part of a “widespread, informal interchange of such reviews … among working social scientists,” the result is collaborative agenda-setting.

Doing it with a blog

Writing a blog – as well as reading and contributing to the blogs of others – seems the most practical and engaging means of achieving the intellectual ideal that Mills described, which requires “surrounding oneself by a circle of people who will listen and talk.” Today’s blog platform is ideal for that.

There is a difference between Mills’s idea of “the file” – which is written and curated in private, punctuated by episodic exchange with select social scientists – and blogging a stream of notes and commentary, broadcast to anyone who will read it. The result is noisier than what he had in mind, but I think it’s an improvement, especially because it encourages one of the other practices he thought so important: developing a jargon-free intellectual voice and readable writing style.*

There are other ways that a blog can achieve, and improve on, the craftspersonship model Mills proposed, some of which are dear to me. For example, making many visual representations of data:

Charts, tables and diagrams of a qualitative sort are not only ways to display work already done; they are very often genuine tools of production. … Most of them flop, in which case you have learned something. When they work, they help you to think more clearly and to write more explicitly.

This process surely is only enhanced when such work-product is shared with the community of readers which the blog permits. For me, the cost of moderating the few less constructive comments is outweighed by the benefit of receiving feedback from the many more constructive.

Objections

There are reasonable objections to the suggestion that all sociologists blog – from the time they begin their careers in graduate school.

Some people are not intellectual extroverts. Not everyone wants to shout their every idea into the Internet tube. That’s fine. But although academia may be kinder to introverts than some other professions, developing a public voice is an important part of being a successful sociologist. Like speaking up in a graduate seminar, the only way to grow more comfortable is to do it. In fact, what’s good advice for seminars works here as well – speak up every time, early in the discussion, to break your ice and get it over with. For blogging, remember there is no need to write everything. You can post selectively your reading lists, discussion questions, minor observations, and annotated links to the writing of others. Save the political declarations, scathing takedowns of your department chair, and obscenity-laced poetry for after you have tenure.

Having few readers will be discouraging. It shouldn’t be. A few friendly readers – such as fellow students or people in the same subfield – might be all you need to motivate your writing habit. No need for a massive following to achieve your goals. Consider getting together with a few others and each posting to a group blog once per week. (Departments or graduate student associations would do well to facilitate this.)

Bad ideas or immature writing today is a job opportunity blown six years from now. If your potential future department Googles you and hates your blog, maybe they won’t hire you. But that risk has to be weighed against the benefit of having richer ideas and more mature writing later as a result of all that practice. Plus, anticipating the possible negative consequences of your writing is an important skill to develop. And you can always delete (if not completely expunge) those posts you later regret.

Personal history addendum

I came to sociology with an identity as a writer. And some of the best training I had was in my writing jobs. I wrote for daily radio news (arrive at work at 5 AM, call the police and fire departments, write up accidents and DWIs, on the air by 5:30); for the Ithaca Times (find a band worth reviewing every weekend, review due Tuesday morning); and for the Michigan Daily (editorial board decided positions, editorials due within a day or two).

Each job required writing whether I felt like it or not, on a quick deadline. So a big part of my blogging advice is because it’s a straightforward way to get yourself writing. If you have others, that’s great, too.

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Photo by Harvey Ferdschneider, circa 1988.

* That doesn’t mean all scientific writing must be comprehensible to everyone. Mills admired the clear writing of Paul Lazarsfeld, even though it was sometimes highly mathematical: “When I cannot understand his mathematics, I know it is because I am too ignorant; when I disagree with what he writes in non-mathematical language, I know it is because he is mistaken.”

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