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How I engaged my way to excellent research success and you can too

kid on string phone in front of computer screen

Kid photo CC from MB Photography; collage by pnc.

Too often sociologists think of social media, or online communications generally, primarily as a way of broadcasting their ideas and building their audience, instead of as a way of deepening their engagement with different people and perspectives. You see this when academics start a twitter account right when their book is coming out. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s very limited. A crucial part of being a public scholar, public intellectual, or a public sociologist, etc., is reading, listening, and learning through engagement, and digital communication can enhance the metabolism of that process. Especially important is the chance to learn from people you don’t normally interact with. For all the complaints about social media bubbles, some true, social media also offers huge efficiencies for meeting and learning from new people.

As I’m writing an essay about this, I thought of my work on divorce as an example. So here’s that thread, condensed.

A divorce story

In 2008 I was teaching an undergraduate Family Sociology course at the University of North Carolina, and included a section on divorce based on other people’s research. I was also developing a proposal for my own textbook, which at the time framed family structures and events, including divorce, as consequences and causes of inequality. I was reading research about divorce along with many other family issues that were outside of my formal training and experience (the closest I had come to a family demography or family sociology course was a seminar on Gender, Work & Family in grad school).

Then in 2009, I wrote a post on my pretty new blog criticizing something bad the Brad Wilcox had written about divorce. I was trying to be newsy and current, and he was claiming that the recession was lowering divorce rates because hard times pulled people together. We didn’t yet know what would happen in the recession. (In the comments, Louise Roth suggested it would take time for divorces “caused” by the recession to show up, which turned out to be true.)

I kept on that path for a while, criticizing Wilcox again for similar work in 2011. By then — prompted by the combination of my reading, the blog debates, and the news coverage around families and the recession — I was working on a paper on divorce using the American Community Survey. I presented it at a demography meeting in the summer of 2011, then revised and presented it at the Population Association of America the following spring. I blogged about this a couple more times as I worked on it, using data on state variation, and Google searches, each time getting feedback from readers.

A version of the paper was rejected by Demography in the summer of 2011 (which generated useful reviews). Although now discredited as not peer-review-publishable (which no one knew), my commentary on divorce and the recession was nevertheless featured in an NPR story by Shankar Vedantam. Further inspired, I sent a new version of the paper (with new data) to Demographic Research, which also rejected it. I presented on the work a couple of times in 2012, getting feedback each time. By August 2012, with the paper still not “published,” I was quoted describing my “divorce/recession lull-rebound hypothesis” in New York magazine.

The news media pieces were not simply my work appearing in the news, in a one-directional manner, or me commenting on other people’s research, but rather me bringing data and informed commentary to stories the reporters were already working on. Their work influenced my work. And all along that news coverage was generating on- and offline conversations, as I found and shared work by other people working on these topics (like the National Center for Marriage and Family Research, and the Pew Research Center). Looking back over my tweets about divorce, I see that I covered divorce and religion, disabilities, economics, and race/ethnic inequality, and also critiqued media coverage. (Everything also got discussed on Facebook, in a smaller semi-private circle.)

By 2014 I finally got the paper — now with even newer data — published in a paywalled peer-reviewed journal, in Population Research and Policy Review. This involved writing the dreaded phrase, “Thank you very much for the opportunity to revise this paper again.” (Submitted October 2012, revision submitted August 2013, second revision submitted January 2014, final revision April 2014.) The paper, eventually titled, “Recession and Divorce in the United States, 2008-2011,” did improve over this time as new data provided better leverage on the question, and the reviewers actually made some good suggestions.

Also in 2014 the descriptive analysis was published in my textbook. The results were reported here and there, and expanded into the general area of family-recession studies, including this piece in the Conversation. I also developed a method of projecting lifetime divorce odds (basically 50%), for which I shared the data and code, which was reported on here. Along the way I also did some work on job characteristics and divorce (data and code, working paper). When I posted technical notes, I got interesting responses from people like economist Marina Adshade, whom I’ve never met.

So that’s an engagement story that includes teaching, the blogosphere and social media, news media, peer-reviewed publishing, conference presentations and colloquium talks. I did research, but also argued about politics and inequality, and taught and learned demography. It’s not a story of how I used social media, or the news media, to get the word out about my research, although that happened, too. The work product, not just the “publications,” were all public to varying degrees, and the discussions included all manner of students, sociologists, reporters, and interested blog or Twitter readers, most of whom I didn’t know or wouldn’t have met any other way.

So I can’t draw a line dividing the “engagement” and the “research,” because they weren’t separate processes.

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Family Inequality year-end review

It’s been another year online. Here’s my report. Feel the excitement, because it’s 2017.

This year I only wrote 54 Family Inequality blog posts, down from 77 last year; the 2010-2016 average was 130 per year. On the plus side, despite a 30% decline in posts, I only had a 7% decline in visits to the blog. Thanks!

On the third hand, while the blog had a little less than 300,000 visits this year (down from a peak of 428,000 in 2015), my tweets had more than 25 million views in 2017, according to Twitter analytics. Yikes. The peak in Twitter hits was May, with 4.8 million views. President Trump blocked me on Twitter on June 6, and I haven’t hit more than 2 million views in a month since. Who among us a year ago could have predicted our current relationship to the president of the United States (and his truth-and-soul crushing army of minions)? Our lawsuit against the president and his staff proceeds; the latest news is posted here.

2017 twitter impressions

The big blog news for the year is actually offline, the publication of my new book, Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible. I selected the best of the 900 blog posts on here, then revised them, updated them, and combined and organized them. The result is eight chapters of surprisingly (to me) fresh essays. I’m super happy with it, and hope you (and maybe your students) are, too. Order an exam copy or buy it from University of California Press or Amazon.

So here are the top 10 blog posts written this year:

1. Prince Charles and Princess Diana height situation explained. I’ve been covering this issue since 2010, because someone has to. It finally got the attention it deserves with this, my most blockbuster tweet ever, so I wrote a post putting it all together. Yes, they really were the same height.

sameheight

2. Demographic facts your students should know cold. This one led to lots of good discussion about teaching and learning demography in relation to other subjects, fake news, and so on.

3. More bad reporting on texting and driving, and new data. For years the New York Times has been publishing hysterical pieces about texting and driving, apparently in the service of selling Matt Richtel’s book. When David Leonhardt jumped with more nonsense in I updated my series. (Also, don’t text and drive.)

4. Sexual harassment: Et tu, Sociology? My colleague Liana Sayer and I made an offer. If you have first-hand knowledge of sexual harassment in sociology, tell us about it. We’ll collect information and report on it. Some people have contacted us. I hope more will. We’ll report back as we can.

5. Kids these days really know how to throw off a narrative on gender and families. What’s going on with young men’s gender views? Trying to tell the story as new data comes out (with code).

6. How I choose sides like it’s 1934. If I’m wrong — a false-positive read on the catastrophicness of the situation — that’s a better mistake to make than the false-negative mistake of not taking Trumpism and all this seriously enough until it’s too late.

7. Teaching Black family history in sociology, student resistance edition. A teachable moment about a teaching moment, about what happened to Black families during slavery, and how that relates to the present.

black children married parents 1880-2015

8. Race/ethnicity and slacking at work. Does new research show Black workers slack off more, and is working harder for the man really a sign of good character? Modern economics and a history lesson from Robin D. G. Kelley.

9. Marriage update: less divorce, and less sex. Married Americans are having less sex, and divorcing less. Go figure!

10. On artificially intelligent gaydar. My problems with that paper demonstrating a method of identifying sexual orientation from people’s profile pictures.

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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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