Citizen Scholar: new book under contract

PN Cohen photo

My new book, Citizen Scholar, is under contract with Columbia University Press (thanks to the support of editor, and Editorial Director, Eric Schwartz).

Some of the writing I’ve been doing here is part of the book’s development, including the piece on “policy implications,” essays on transparency and accountability in research, as well as talks and materials about preprints, open science and the pandemic, politics and science, and others. It’s time for a book (and also more talks, if you’d like to invite me!). I will post essays and excerpts as I go, here, and I welcome your critiques, suggestions, and ideas. The first post describes my ambitions, and plan, for the book.

I love Family Inequality and everyone here but it seemed awkward to repeatedly post stuff for the new book under this heading. So I set up a blog style page, and I’ll post links here, too (and I’ll figure out you can subscribe, for those who want their blog posts via email).

Wish me luck!

Author meets critic: Margaret K. Nelson, Like A Family

Like Family

These are notes for my discussion of Like Family, Narratives of Fictive Kinship, by Margaret K. Nelson. Author Meets Critics session at the Eastern Sociological Society, 21 Feb 2021.

Like A Family is a fascinating, enjoyable read, full of thought-provoking analysis and a lot of rich stories, with detailed scenarios that let the reader consider lots of possibilities, even those not mentioned in the text. It’s “economical prose” that suggests lots of subtext and brings to mind a lot of different questions (some of which are in the wide-ranging footnotes).

It’s about people choosing relationships, and choosing to make them be “like” family, and how that means they are and are not “like” family, and in the process tells us a lot about how people think of families altogether, in terms of bonds and obligations and language and personal history.

In my textbook I use three definitions: the legal family, the personal family, and the family as an institutional arena. This is the personal family, which is people one considers family, on the assumption or understanding they feel the same way.

Why this matters, from a demographer perspective: Most research uses household definitions of family. That’s partly because some things we have to measure, and it’s a way to make sure we only get each person once (without a population registry or universal identification), and correctly attribute births to birth parents. But it comes at a cost – we assume household definitions of family too often.

We need formal, legal categories for things like incest laws and hospital rights, and the categories take on their own power. (Note there are young adult semi-step siblings with semi-together parents living together some of the time or not wondering about the propriety of sexual relationships with each other.) Reality doesn’t just line up with demographic / legal / bureaucratic categories – there is a dance between them. As the Census “relationship” categories proliferate – from 6 in 1960 ago to about 16 today – people both want to create new relationships (which Nelson calls a “creative” move) and make their relationships fit within acceptable categories (like same-sex marriage).

Screenshot 2021-02-22 105117

Methods and design

The categories investigated here – sibling-like relationships among adults, temporary adult-adolescent relationships, and informal adoptions – are so very different it’s hard to see what they have in common except some language. The book doesn’t give the formal selection criteria, so it’s hard to know exactly how the boundaries around the sample were drawn.

Nelson uses a very inductive process: “Having identified respondents and created a typology, I could refine both my specific and more general research questions” (p. 11). Not how I think of designing research projects, which just shows the diversity among sociologists.

Over more than one chapter, there is an extended case study of Nicole and her erstwhile guardians Joyce and Don, who she fell in with when her poorer family of origin broke up, essentially. Fascinating story.

The book focuses on white, (mostly) straight middle class people. This is somewhat frustrating. The rationale is that they are understudied. So that’s useful, but it would be more challenging – I guess a challenge for subsequent research – to more actively analyze their White straight middle classness as part of the research.

Compared to what

A lot of insights in the book come from people comparing their fictive kin relationships to their other family or friend relationships. This raises a methodological issue: These are people with active fictive kin relationships, so it’s a tricky sample from which to draw for understanding non-fictive relationships – it’s select. It would be nice in an ideal world to have a bigger sample without restriction and ask people about all their relationships and then compare fictive and non-fictive. Understandable not to have that, but needs to be wrestled with (by people doing future research).

Nelson establishes that the sibling-like relationships are neither like friendships nor like family, a third category. But that’s just for these people. Maybe people without fictive kin like this have family or friend relationships that look just like this in terms of reciprocity, obligation, closeness, etc. (Applies especially to the adult-sibling-like relationships.)

Modern contingency

Great insight with regard to adult “like-sibling” relationships: It’s not just that they are not as close as “family,” it’s that they are not “like family” in the sense of “baggage,” they don’t have that “tarnished reality” – and in that sense they are like the way family relationships are moving, more volitional and individualized and contingent.

Does this research show that family relationships generally in a post-traditional era are fluid and ambiguous and subject to negotiation and choice? It’s hard to know how to read this without comparison families. But here’s a thought. John, who co-parents a teenage child named Ricky, says, “To me family means somebody is part of your life that you are committed to. You don’t have to like everything about them, but whatever they need, you’re willing to give them, and if you need something, you’re willing to ask them, and you’re willing to accept if they can or can’t give it to you” (p. 130). It’s an ideal. Is it a widespread ideal? What if non-fictive family members don’t meet that ideal? The implication may be they aren’t your family anymore. Which could be why we are seeing so many people rupturing their family of origin relationships, especially young adults breaking up with their parents.

It reminds me of what happened with marriage half a century ago, where people set a high standard, and defined relationships that didn’t meet it as “not a marriage.” Or when people say abusive families aren’t really families. Conservatives hate this, because it means you can “just” walk away from bad relationships. There are pros and cons to this view.

Nelson writes at the end of the chapter on informal parents, “The possibility is always there that either party will, at some point in the near or distant future, make a different choice. That is both the simple delight and the heartrending anxiety of these relationships” (p. 133). We can’t know, however, how unique such feelings are to these relationships – I suspect not that much. This sounds so much like Anthony Giddens and the “pure” relationships of late modernity.

This contingency comes up a few times, and I always have the same question. Nelson writes in the conclusion, “Those relationships feel lighter, more buoyant, more simply based in deep-seated affection than do those they experience with their ‘real’ kin.” But that tells us how these people feel about real kin, not how everyone does. It raises a question for future research. Maybe outside this population lots of people feel the same way about their “real” kin (ask the growing number of parents who have been “unfriended” by their adult children).

I definitely recommend this book, to read, teach, and use to think about future research.

Note: In the discussion Nelson replied that most people have active fictive-kin relationships, so this sample is not so select in that respect.

Santa’s magic, children’s wisdom, and inequality (a timeless holiday classic essay!)

This is a preprint version of an essay in Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible, by Philip N. Cohen. Oakland, California: University of California Press. It is revised from previous essays about Santa. Read this one instead.

Eric Kaplan, channeling Francis Pharcellus Church, writes in favor of Santa Claus in the New York Times. The Church argument, written in 1897, is that (a) you can’t prove there is no Santa, so agnosticism is the strongest possible objection, and (b) Santa enriches our lives and promotes non-rationalized gift-giving, “so we might as well believe in him” (1). It’s a very common argument, identical to one employed against atheists in favor of belief in God, but more charming and whimsical when directed at killjoy Santa-deniers.

All harmless fun and existential comfort-food. But we have two problems that the Santa situation may exacerbate. First is science denial. And second is inequality. So, consider this an attempted joyicide.


From Pew Research comes this Christmas news:

“In total, 65% of U.S. adults believe that all of these aspects of the Christmas story – the virgin birth, the journey of the magi, the angel’s announcement to the shepherds and the manger story – reflect events that actually happened” (2).

On some specific items, the scores were even higher. The poll found 73% of Americans believe that Jesus was born to a virgin mother – a belief even shared by 60% of college graduates. (Among Catholics agreement was 86%, among Evangelical Protestants, 96%.)

So the Santa situation is not an isolated question. We’re talking about a population with a very strong tendency to express literal belief in fantastical accounts. This Christmas story may be the soft leading edge of a more hardcore Christian fundamentalism. For the past 20 years, the General Social Survey (GSS) has found that a third of American adults agrees with the statement, “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word,” versus two other options: “The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word”; and, “The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.” (The “actual word of God” people are less numerous than the virgin-birth believers, but they’re related.)

Using the GSS, I analyzed people’s social attitudes according to their view of the Bible for the years 2010-2014 (see Figure 9). Controlling for their sex, age, race, education, and the year of the survey, those with more literal interpretations of the Bible are much more likely than the rest of the population to:

  • Oppose marriage rights for homosexuals
  • Agree that “people worry too much about human progress harming the environment”
  • Agree that “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family”

In addition, among non-Hispanic Whites, the literal-Bible people are more likely to rank Blacks as more lazy than hardworking, and to believe that Blacks “just don’t have the motivation or willpower to pull themselves up out of poverty” (3).

This isn’t the direction I’d like to push our culture. Of course, teaching children to believe in Santa doesn’t necessarily create “actual word of God” fundamentalists – but there’s some relationship there.

Children’s ways of knowing

Margaret Mead in 1932 reported on the notion that young children not only know less, but know differently, than adults, in a way that parallels the evolution of society over time. Children were thought to be “more closely related to the thought of the savage than to the thought of the civilized man,” with animism in “primitive” societies being similar to the spontaneous thought of young children. This goes along with the idea that believing in Santa is indicative of a state of innocence (4). In pursuit of empirical confirmation of the universality of childhood, Mead investigated the Manus tribe in Melanesia, who were pagans, looking for magical thinking in children: “animistic premise, anthropomorphic interpretation and faulty logic.”

Instead, she found “no evidence of spontaneous animistic thought in the uncontrolled sayings or games” over five months of continuous observation of a few dozen children. And while adults in the community attributed mysterious or random events to spirits and ghosts, children never did:

“I found no instance of a child’s personalizing a dog or a fish or a bird, of his personalizing the sun, the moon, the wind or stars. I found no evidence of a child’s attributing chance events, such as the drifting away of a canoe, the loss of an object, an unexplained noise, a sudden gust of wind, a strange deep-sea turtle, a falling seed from a tree, etc., to supernaturalistic causes.”

On the other hand, adults blamed spirits for hurricanes hitting the houses of people who behave badly, believed statues can talk, thought lost objects had been stolen by spirits, and said people who are insane are possessed by spirits. The grown men all thought they had personal ghosts looking out for them – with whom they communicated – but the children dismissed the reality of the ghosts that were assigned to them. They didn’t play ghost games.

Does this mean magical thinking is not inherent to childhood? Mead wrote:

“The Manus child is less spontaneously animistic and less traditionally animistic than is the Manus adult [‘traditionally’ here referring to the adoption of ritual superstitious behavior]. This result is a direct contradiction of findings in our own society, in which the child has been found to be more animistic, in both traditional and spontaneous fashions, than are his elders. When such a reversal is found in two contrasting societies, the explanation must be sought in terms of the culture; a purely psychological explanation is inadequate.”

Maybe people have the natural capacity for both animistic and realistic thinking, and societies differ in which trait they nurture and develop through children’s education and socialization. Mead speculated that the pattern she found had to do with the self-sufficiency required of Manus children. A Manus child must…

“…make correct physical adjustments to his environment, so that his entire attention is focused upon cause and effect relationships, the neglect of which would result in immediate disaster. … Manus children are taught the properties of fire and water, taught to estimate distance, to allow for illusion when objects are seen under water, to allow for obstacles and judge possible clearage for canoes, etc., at the age of two or three.”

Plus, perhaps unlike in industrialized society, their simple technology is understandable to children without the invocation of magic. And she observed that parents didn’t tell the children imaginary stories, myths, and legends.

I should note here that I’m not saying we have to choose between religious fundamentalism and a society without art and literature. The question is about believing things that aren’t true, and can’t be true. I’d like to think we can cultivate imagination without launching people down the path of blind credulity.

Modern credulity

For evidence that culture produces credulity, consider the results of a study that showed most four-year-old children understood that Old Testament stories are not factual. Six-year-olds, however, tended to believe the stories were factual, if their impossible events were attributed to God rather than rewritten in secular terms (e.g., “Matthew and the Green Sea” instead of “Moses and the Red Sea”) (5). Why? Belief in supernatural or superstitious things, contrary to what you might assume, requires a higher level of cognitive sophistication than does disbelief, which is why five-year-olds are more likely to believe in fairies than three-year-olds (6). These studies suggest children have to be taught to believe in magic. (Adults use persuasion to do that, but teaching with rewards – like presents under a tree or money under a pillow – is of course more effective.)

Children can know things either from direct observation or experience, or from being taught. So they can know dinosaurs are real if they believe books and teachers and museums, even if they can’t observe them living (true reality detection). And they can know that Santa Claus and imaginary friends are not real if they believe either authorities or their own senses (true baloney detection). Similarly, children also have two kinds of reality-assessment errors: false positive and false negative. Believing in Santa Claus is false positive. Refusing to believe in dinosaurs is false negative. In Figure 10, which I adapted from a paper by Jacqueline Woolley and Maliki Ghossainy true judgment is in regular type, errors are in italics (7).

We know a lot about kids’ credulity (Santa Claus, tooth fairy, etc.). But, Woolley and Ghossainy write, their skepticism has been neglected:

“Development regarding beliefs about reality involves, in addition to decreased reliance on knowledge and experience, increased awareness of one’s own knowledge and its limitations for assessing reality status. This realization that one’s own knowledge is limited gradually inspires a waning reliance on it alone for making reality status decisions and a concomitant increase in the use of a wider range of strategies for assessing reality status, including, for example, seeking more information, assessing contextual cues, and evaluating the quality of the new information” (8).

The “realization that one’s own knowledge is limited” is a vital development, ultimately necessary for being able to tell fact from fiction. But, sadly, it need not lead to real understanding – under some conditions, such as, apparently, the USA today, it often leads instead to reliance on misguided or dishonest authorities who compete with science to fill the void beyond what we can directly observe or deduce. Believing in Santa because we can’t disprove his existence is a developmental dead end, a backward-looking reliance on authority for determining truth. But so is failure to believe in vaccines or evolution or climate change just because we can’t see them working.

We have to learn how to avoid the italics boxes without giving up our love for things imaginary, and that seems impossible without education in both science and art.

Rationalizing gifts

What is the essence of Santa, anyway? In Kaplan’s New York Times essay it’s all about non-rationalized giving, for the sake of giving. The latest craze in Santa culture, however, says otherwise: Elf on the Shelf, which exploded on the Christmas scene after 2008, selling in the millions. In case you’ve missed it, the idea is to put a cute little elf somewhere on a shelf in the house. You tell your kids it’s watching them, and that every night it goes back to the North Pole to report to Santa on their nice/naughty ratio. While the kids are sleeping, you move it to another shelf in house, and the kids delight in finding it again each morning.

In other words, it’s the latest in Michel Foucault’s panopticon development (9). Consider the Elf on a Shelf aftermarket accessories, like the handy warning labels, which threaten children with “no toys” if they aren’t on their “best behavior” from now on. So is this non-rationalized gift giving? Quite the opposite. In fact, rather than cultivating a whimsical love of magic, this is closer to a dystopian fantasy in which the conjured enforcers of arbitrary moral codes leap out of their fictional realm to impose harsh consequences in the real life of innocent children.


My developmental question regarding inequality is this: What is the relationship between belief in Santa and social class awareness over the early life course? How long after kids realize there is class inequality do they go on believing in Santa? This is where rationalization meets fantasy. Beyond worrying about how Santa rewards or punishes them individually, if children are to believe that Christmas gifts are doled out according to moral merit, than what are they to make of the obvious fact that rich kids get more than poor kids? Rich or poor, the message seems the same: children deserve what they get.

I can’t demonstrate that believing in Santa causes children to believe that economic inequality is justified by character differences between social classes. Or that Santa belief undermines future openness to science and logic. But those are hypotheses. Between the anti-science epidemic and the pervasive assumption that poor people deserve what they get, this whole Santa enterprise seems risky. Would it be so bad, so destructive to the wonder that is childhood, if instead of attributing gifts to supernatural beings we instead told children that we just buy them gifts because we love them unconditionally and want them — and all other children — to be happy?


1. Kaplan, Eric. 2014. “Should We Believe in Santa Claus?” New York Times Opinionator, December 20.

2. Pew Research Center. 2014. “Most Say Religious Holiday Displays on Public Property Are OK.” Religion & Public Life Project, December 15.

3. The GSS asked if “people in the group [African Americans] tend to be hard-working or if they tend to be lazy,” on a scale from 1 (hardworking) to 7 (lazy). I coded them as favoring lazy if they gave scores of 5 or above. The motivation question was a yes-or-no question: “On the average African-Americans have worse jobs, income, and housing than white people. Do you think these differences are because most African-Americans just don’t have the motivation or willpower to pull themselves up out of poverty?”

4. Mead, Margaret. 1932. “An Investigation of the Thought of Primitive Children, with Special Reference to Animism.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 62: 173–90.

5. Vaden, Victoria Cox, and Jacqueline D. Woolley. 2011. “Does God Make It Real? Children’s Belief in Religious Stories from the Judeo-Christian Tradition.” Child Development 82 (4): 1120–35.

6. Woolley, Jacqueline D., Elizabeth A. Boerger, and Arthur B. Markman. 2004. “A Visit from the Candy Witch: Factors Influencing Young Children’s Belief in a Novel Fantastical Being.” Developmental Science 7 (4): 456–68.

7. Woolley, Jacqueline D., and Maliki Ghossainy. 2013. “Revisiting the Fantasy-Reality Distinction: Children as Naïve Skeptics.” Child Development 84 (5): 1496–1510.

8. Woolley, Jacqueline D., and Maliki Ghossainy. 2013. “Revisiting the Fantasy-Reality Distinction: Children as Naïve Skeptics.” Child Development 84 (5): 1496–1510.

9. Pinto, Laura. 2016. “Elf et Michelf.” YouTube.

The blog’s decade

Blogging is dead. Long live the blog!

At 268,000, visits to this blog are now down 37% from the peak year of 2015. At the same time, this year I had the fewest number of new posts, just 39. On the other hand, this year I had 25 million impressions on Twitter. Whatever that means.


In my case, and probably many others, the role of the blog has changed with the growth of Twitter. A lot of what the blog did was provide an immediate outlet for daily chatter and work in progress thoughts, a way to get feedback, check in with colleagues, learn new things and meet new people. That’s a lot of what I use Twitter for now, more efficiently (if more noisily).

The other squeeze on the blog is the imperative to do open science more systematically, for which I use the Open Science Framework to post data and code — in projects, which may include multiple files, and quick files for single documents. And of course I use SocArXiv for more formal working papers, reviews, and preprints (mine are here).

So what is the role of the blog? It’s the place for official news and announcements about new work — including notifications of stuff I’m publishing elsewhere — longer arguments, and informal work. It’s a way for people to subscribe to my news via email (it also goes on Facebook, which a lot of sociologists use).

In several talks I have tried to illustrate the total information strategy in something like this pentagulation:


For a wider perspective, I also wrote a report on Scholarly Communication in Sociology, which is intended especially for grad students and early career scholars.

I’m happy to hear suggestions (on any platform) for how to handle communication strategy.

Book aside

The tricky relationship between platforms and different media came home to roost in my book, Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible. That book was inspired by the success of this blog, which is what enticed University of California Press to consider it. Unbeknownst to the vast majority of my readers on other platforms, I worked pretty hard on it, selecting the best blog posts, and then combining, updating, and adding to them to make a collection of essays, with data. I don’t know how successful the book is compared with other academic books generally, but, with almost no marketing beyond my social media platforms, it has generated basically no buzz for me (media, invitations, etc.). That’s in contrast to working papers, tweets, and blog posts, which continue to bring in wider attention. I know other people have done amazing blog-to-book projects, but this experience definitely showed me that the successful translation is far from automatic. Live and learn! Maybe in the long run the book will be what persists from the first decade of this blog.

Tone policing: Am I allowed to put Regnerus, Wilcox, and Hitler in the same headline?

Sir, are you aware you were using a caustic tone back there? (photo: Thomas Hawk)

Nicholas Wolfinger reviewed my book Enduring Bonds for Social Forces (paywalled [why paywall book reviews?]; bootlegged). It would be unseemly of me to argue with a two-page book review instead of letting my life’s work stand on its own, so here goes — but just on one point: tone policing.

This is the opening of the review:

Philip Cohen has a lot of beefs. Hanna Rosen is an ”antifeminist” (p. 134) prone to “errors and distortions” (p. 146), and a “record of misstating facts in the service of inaccurate conclusions” (p. 185); W. Bradford Wilcox offers an “interpretation not just wrong but the opposite of right” (p. 76) and elsewhere gives a “racist” interview (p. 175); Ron Haskins, a “curmudgeon” (p. 175), presents a meme that’s “stupid and evil” (p. 47); David Blankenhorn is the author of a “deeply ridiculous” article (p. 80); Christina Hoff Sommers speaks in “[a] voice [that] drips with contempt” (p. 200) and is deemed to be an “antifeminist” (p. 155), even though she’s later identified as a
feminist (p. 197).*

He adds:

Also making the list: Paula England, for her “disappointingly mild” review of Cohen’s Public Enemy Number One, the “obtuse, semi-coherent” (p. 106) and “simply unethical” (p. 91) Mark Regnerus. Indeed, 29 of the 209 pages of Cohen’s book are spent excoriating Regnerus for two different studies.

This makes up his argument that, “Cohen writes so tendentiously that the useful bits get carried away in a torrent of ad hominem asperity,” and his conclusion, “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

Over my many years as a caustic person, I have heard this a lot, mostly from academics, bless their hearts. Which is cool, that’s my career choice and it would be unseemly to complain about it now, so here goes.

Listing the bad words I used doesn’t mean anything. And telling me I spent 29 pages on Regnerus (Wolfinger doesn’t mention that his frequent co-author, Brad Wilcox, is featured heavily in those 29 pages, or even that Wilcox is his frequent co-author), is not a meaningful critique unless you explain why these people don’t deserve it. I’ve heard, for example, that people have written very good whole books about specific individuals and the bad things they’ve done — including, off the top of my head, Hitler. The meaningful question is, am I wrong in those assessments, and if I am, why? In other words, you catch more flies by telling the reader why it would not be unacceptably harsg to write a whole book about Hitler but the same cannot be said about 29 pages on Regnerus and Wilcox. Or why it’s wrong to criticize Rosin, Haskins, Blankenhorn, Sommers and (lol) England in harsh terms.

If you want to enjoy a world where entire reviews are written about the use of harsh words, reviews that don’t even give a hint — not even a mention — as to the content of the issues and disputes that prompted those harsh words, then I can only suggest a career in academia.

Ironic aside

I tweeted a link to Wolfinger’s review, even though it is completely negative, because I’m scrupulous and fair-minded.


This led him to go on a multitweet journey, complaining that “he took words like ‘formidable’ out of context to suggest a much more positive review,” and exploring my motivations — responding to someone who said, “That was clearly a joke” with, “You see a joke, I see mendacity,” and concluding, “‘‘Just a joke’ is a weak, all-purpose way to cover up a fuck up like getting caught twisting the evidence.”

I hate to bring up Hitler again (not really), but the last time someone spent so much time pretending to not understand I was joking it was actual nazis, quoting a tweet where I joked that Jews were devoted to “eradicating whiteness and undermining its civilizations” (not linking, but you can google it). This led to a lot of online grief and some death threats, including posting my address on Reddit. So it irritated me.

The online nazi mob technique is to pretend things Jews say aren’t jokes, then pretend they themselves are joking when they talk about genocide. I’m sure many Jewish readers will recognize that failure to understand sarcastic humor is actually a common trait among rank-and-file anti-Semites — the people who have a hard time differentiating “New York” from “Jewish” — something that leading anti-Semites are very adept at manipulating. So that resonated with me.

(The above is labeled “aside” to make it boringly over-clear that I’m not saying Wolfinger is anti-Semitic.)

* Correction: Sommers is not “identified as a feminist” on p. 197, I just reported the name of her video series which is, absurdly, the The Factual Feminist.


Review of Relational Inequalities: An Organizational Approach, with audio

cover of Relational Inequalities

I had the privilege of sitting on an author-meets-critics panel for the the book Relational Inequalities: An Organizational Approach, by Donald Tomaskovic-Devey and Dustin Avent-Holt, at the Eastern Sociological Society meetings this weekend. The panel was organized by Steven Vallas, and included Adia Harvey Wingfield. Because two other panelists canceled, I had a lot of time and ended up speaking for 25 minutes. We had a great discussion after the formal remarks, which only deepened my appreciation for the book. I recorded my remarks. Here is audio, with 4 minutes of ums and dead ends edited out:


And here is a lightly edited transcript:

I want to thank Steve, as well as Don and Dustin, for organizing and writing, respectively. It’s really been a pleasure. In the same way that once upon a time I used to run faster when I played competitive sports, because someone was yelling at me to run faster, reading a book knowing that I’m going to offer commentary on it to an audience of people whose opinions I respect makes me try harder and pay more attention, and focus more on it. So it’s a privilege to have this be one part of my job. I don’t normally read books all the way through and think about them carefully and sketch out my thoughts, so I really learned a lot doing that.

In the process, you know, it’s 10 months ago whenever we got this invitation, and then finally the book comes, and then I skim through it, then I put it down, and then you know it comes down to the last couple of days in my room reading the book carefully, and it’s been great. And fresh. Very fresh, right through breakfast.

I want to start by talking about my own work. Just kidding.

I have an outline. I start with praise. And then questions about what’s the relationship between organizations and inequality, as far as creating, reflecting, reproducing inequality; discussion of the role of education, as one of the things that it is external to organizations; and then a discussion of inequality within and between organizations, and where this fits in with the path of social change.


It’s a really really good book. And I look forward to putting it on our comprehensive exam reading list for the inequality reading group, I think it teaches this stuff really well – the literature on organizations and inequality. A great audience for it is people who are designing research projects having to do with inequality, and what is the role of organizations going to be in the work.

One of the things that’s really important, and you have to get to it right away, is the disconnect between the method of most research which is individual observation, and mostly surveys, and the theorized mechanisms about how inequality works, which are largely relational. And so we look at individuals and we say, oh look people with more education have more income, or we say we have racial inequality and we have immigration, and we have all these measures which are usually at the individual level, and then the mechanisms which we think are producing these are schools and segregation and discrimination, and things that are all interactional, or relational, between people within and around organizations. And so that’s just a sociological take that is very important here.

I love the mezo/contextual way of thinking in the analysis, between the individual and the country or the state or something like that, and at the organizational level that complexity and variation – how there is so much difference in the patterns of inequality within organizations. Yes, men make more money than women, but how that works is very different across different organizations and places and times, and the dispersion is different, and the patterns of dispersion change, and all that variation gives us leverage to understand how inequality works, but also where policy and law can intervene. Because if you have a range of practices, and you can see the consequences of the range of practices, that’s where you get something like the idea for a policy – we should do more of this and less of this, and so on. So that variation is key, and having it at the organizational level is important.

They set out a really useful research agenda. They talk a lot about workplace ethnographies and surveys, and various ways that organizational dynamics of inequality have been studied, and the research agenda that emerges has to do with comparative organizational studies, with attention to the role of external influences on organizations. So the gold standard is sort of multi-organizational research where the context is carefully considered between the different organizations and the workings of the relations within the organizations, and hopefully between them.

The relational framework they have here is sort of Charles Tilly’s Durable Inequality plus Cecilia Ridgeway – that’s my background reading on this, which is kind of thin, admittedly. And so it’s categories and the durableness of them within institutions and organizations, and putting people into cognitive categories and how that represents the integration of social structure into personality and interaction and so on. So that’s sort of the frame, which I think is really useful.

And then the moral framework they have is very clear, at the end; and the policies they give us to talk about, both “what about worker cooperatives,” and, “what about a universal basic income” – sort of state level and organizational level policies that address the variety of problems and inequalities that we have.

Organizations and inequality

A key question, and a motivating question for them, is what is the role of organizations in the wider system of inequality – that is, are they creating inequality, are they reflecting inequality that comes to them from the outside of the organization, what’s their role in the reproduction of inequality. And so you have the organization – it’s a workplace, which is mostly what they talk about – and there are things coming at it from the outside: cognitive categories and hierarchies, status between groups, privilege groups, esteem groups, minority groups that are less privileged and so on. And then there’s a law and regulatory policy environment that they’re working within, there are market conditions that they’re working within, and then there are the workers that are coming to them with their range of unequal skills and education, their health, their social capital, their histories of incarceration – everything that workers bring to the organization. So you could ignore organizations and say, look we have all this inequality out there, outside the organization, and the organization is basically just sort of applying formulas to this: “Well, men are privileged over women, so we pay them a little bit more, we discriminate against people with criminal records, if you don’t have the skills to do the job you’re out, if you’re health is not good, if you have children, if you can’t show up…” You could think of organizations as just sort of administering the system of inequality, the structures of inequality that they’re in, or you can think of them as implementing or enacting the inequality. So until the organization gets its hands on it, all that inequality is sort of not really operationalized, it’s not really functioning – the status inequality between men and women doesn’t really happen until somebody decides to pay the man more than the woman. That’s sort of their view, not necessarily – [Don: “I agree”] – not necessarily true, but that’s the question, are organizations doing that, or they just sort of receiving that.

And the authors point out – I’ll give you a little taste of this (p. 14): “Most inequalities are generated through the relationships in and around workplaces.” That’s a very strong statement, although “most” is a little bit vague, it’s 51% to 99%. That clearly gives you a strong reason to focus on workplaces, and it’s somewhat debatable.

And they point out in a footnote (p. 58): “Obviously, power can be exercised as violence in addition to discursive claims-making [so it’s not just people debating over rewards within organizations]. Strong-armed robbery and colonial conquest are examples of violent exploitation, genocide, ethnic cleansing, political suppression via arrest of social movements’ claims of dignity and access are the violent faces of closure.” Well, none of that stuff is happening within workplaces. So if you think colonial conquest, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and political suppression are important parts of inequality, and we know that those aren’t happening within workplaces, you know the field is generating a lot of inequality outside workplaces. You have to weigh that up against their, “most of inequality comes from within workplaces,” And to their credit, it’s an empirical question, which they note. It’s hard to quantify and it’s kind of pointless to quantify but the question is where should our focus be?

By the time they’re to their conclusion, they write, “We are not arguing that only organizations matter for inequality,” ok, they are definitely not arguing that – but if you have to say that, it’s obviously relevant, so that’s a question. It really is an organizations manifesto, the book, the importance of organizations, and it makes the case very strongly. It’s extremely useful and valuable and informative. And the fact that they make the claims really strongly helps motivate it and make it clear. And whether I want to argue about whether it’s 51% or 80% of inequality that comes from workplaces, for most uses of it that’s not the point.

Related to the question of what organizations do – whether they’re creating or reflecting – is inequality, unequal what? What are we talking about? Most obviously money, some people have more money than others. But especially when you’re talking about intersectional questions, are race and class and gender just three different ways of deciding who’s going to have how much money? No, it’s much more than money, it’s cultural in terms of who’s valued and esteemed, and who gets to set the discourse, and it’s status in terms of whose opinions get respected, and voice within organizations, and it’s also geographic with segregation, and so on. And so they talk a lot about “organizational resources” being what’s at issue. Whenever I teach inequality I push sociology grad students to get beyond thinking of all these status inequalities as being different ways of deciding how much money we get. And especially, what is the content of the inequality. Unequal amounts of what are we actually talking about? And that’s why I think the feminist discourse over sexuality is so important. Because control over sexuality is sort of orthogonal to the amount of money that you have – it’s obviously related, but it’s a different quality. So that stuff is really important and there’s a lot of food for thought on that here.

I mentioned genocide and ethnic cleansing, and there are other things which are happening outside organizations that are relevant. Things that happen outside workplaces, that may be in other organizations: welfare, taxation, the education system, residential segregation, incarceration – these are all things that are packaging inequality that arrive at the doorstep of the workplace. So I’ll give two possible policy ideas that are totally outside workplaces: if we had a 90% marginal tax rate on upper incomes, you might say, “who cares about inequality within organizations?” You get rich, and the government takes your money and gives it to poorer people. And so that lowers the stakes. And partly they focus on organizations because in the United States we don’t do that. And so that question of how much empirically are organizations creating of the system of inequality, is partly that number is higher because we don’t have that kind of society. So it’s not a statement about how inequality will always forever work, it’s really driven by the reality that we have now. And the other policy challenge to thinking organizationally is reparations. If the government stepped in and had a big reparations program and orientation, that is totally outside of individual workplaces, what would that do? So those are just things to think about.


Their attitude toward education is interesting. And it’s – what do you call that when it’s not traditional, it’s not “heretic,” it’s very challenging. [The word I was looking for is “heterodox.”] They basically treat education as a proxy for claims-making resources. So the amount of education people have, when they get to the workplace, allows them to essentially bargain for or demand more or less money. Which, if you’ve ever had surgery, from a doctor, you want your surgeon to have gone to medical school. [Don: “You want your surgeon to be a good surgeon.”] Right, exactly. In our system, the proxy for that is that they’ve gone to medical school, and the board certifying and all that. So their issue is how much doctors are paid, not who gets to be a doctor. They’re not talking about inequality in the education system, all the things that create the unequal distribution of medical education.

Consider this also: there are limits to the organizational variation in this. There are no organizations in the United States that let people perform surgery without medical degrees. So that’s something very strong coming from the external reality that workplaces have to deal with. They can only hire people with medical degrees to do surgery, and surgery is very valued, it commands a lot of money in the market. So if they’re going to say “wages and jobs are organizational phenomena,” which they say, and education is this way of making claims on those things, then it’s interesting to push them on this issue of who gets to have the education. They say, sort of grudgingly in my opinion, yes, sometimes educational credentialing has to do with the skills required to do the job, but basically it’s about how much money you can extract from your employer. That’s why I focus on surgery, because lots of other education is just a cruder proxy for particular skills and whatnot.

They review literature on how factories work in Mexico and the U.S., including within the same multinational company, and the gender difference between maquiladoras. But if you think globally, the difference between a doctor in the U.S. and a factory worker in Mexico, and the vast inequality in resources they command, is not determined by the practices of their organizations, right? And an interesting thing about doctors in particular, is we pay a fortune in this country because the government (because of doctors) doesn’t let foreign doctors come practice here. Our doctors get paid ridiculously high amounts (Dean Baker, the economist, has written very compellingly about this). If we allowed foreign doctors to come here, foreign doctors would make a lot more money than they’re making, our doctors would make less money, and we would all pay less for equally good healthcare. So that’s a state policy, and not something that the hospitals can address.

While we’re thinking about the external factors, and I’m pushing them on this, they do a little review of Devah Pager’s work, “the mark of a criminal record” – employers don’t hire people with criminal records – so is that a problem of employer practices or is that a problem of mass incarceration and the distribution of criminal records? It’s both, but you couldn’t understand it by only studying the practices of employers, because that’s not a fixed quantity of a randomly distributed stigma.

So when you get to the intersectional stuff – consider race, class, and gender in our system of inequality. They point out gender and race integration in education “led to a weakening of gender and race based closure” (and that shows up in Don and Kevin’s previous book, and that’s reviewed here). So there’s less job segregation by race and gender than there used to be, and less exclusion, “while leaving unchallenged, or perhaps even strengthening, education based closure.” Well, by one way of thinking, of course, if race and gender are becoming less determinative of workplace outcomes, and education is becoming more determinative, that’s literally the goal of rational modern society, is to stop with the ascriptive criteria, and start using rational educational criteria, for skills and productivity. So they’re all up in arms about this, but it’s interesting to say, well, wait a second isn’t that kind of the point, like meritocracy. “There is an intersectional reality weakening closure on the basis of race and gender even as closure rules around education remain hegemonic.” So it would be worth it to explain, and I guess they do explain, why they think this is not the definition of progress. I’m being provocative. It’s not like education is fairly distributed, so it’s still all about ascriptive inequalities through the education system.

Between and within organizations

So what about inequality between and within organizations. And here it’s interesting because the world has changed while they were writing this book. In making their case for why organizations are so important, they write, “We are born and die in organizations.” OK, I like that, they obviously think it’s very important. “We spend a great deal of our lives working alongside others in organizations” – and then listen to this list of sort of other things: “We go to one organization to be educated (schools), to another to get income (workplaces), which we then spend in another (stores), in order to bring food and clothing to a fourth (households).” So they’re telling your other organizational fields. What’s interesting is that in schools, stores, and households, there’s more inequality between than within organizations. And so they’re very focused on workplaces, where probably you find more inequality within the organizations. They’re interested in those dynamics: What causes inequality within organizations, why do CEOs make so much, why is there gender segregation in the division of labor, and so on. Interestingly, and the trend over time is probably toward more inequality between. And if you think about families, in the old days, if you had an employed man and three children and a woman who had no income, then you have a tremendous amount of inequality within that organization, within that family. Nowadays if you have two children and the parents both have jobs, you have fewer people with no income and more people with income, and so there’s less within-household inequality, and that’s a trend over time.

In their second-to-last chapter they have a very good discussion about how this is also happening with firms and workplaces in the U.S. So if General Motors outsources their custodial service (I’m just making this up), some big company outsources lower status, or higher status, work, there’s a firm that is less hierarchical somewhere, that’s just all custodians. And there’s a firm that’s just all engineers. And General Motors is like bundling those services. So the inequality is increasingly between organizations there, rather than within. So instead of hierarchy within Amazon being from Bezos to the drivers, the drivers are all contracted, and so on. And Uber, and self-employment, and the gig economy, and all that stuff is sort of like if every Uber driver is an organization the way Uber thinks they are, then the inequality is all between organizations.

And so that’s the direction of social change, and it’s a challenge for their theory. If their theory is focused on inequality within firms, and organizations, then what’s happening in world, and how does their theory address this? And they say, “even if there were no internal inequalities within firms, there still might be considerable inequality between firms, as a function of firm resource inequality.” So they’re sort of already projecting to a world where every company had no inequality within it. We’re not there at all, but their answer to that is maybe more aspirational than empirical, and I think it’s debatable, and it’s worth debating, it’s: “The processes governing inequality between organizations is fundamentally the same as that governing inequality within organizations: relational claims-making, exploitation, and social closure.” OK, that’s a very strong statement. It says we’ve sketched out this whole theory about how inequality works within organizations, we see that the world is moving toward inequality between organizations, and we’re going to apply the concepts that we’ve developed to this new reality also. And that is a challenge for future work in this area. And so I’m not expecting them to have established this empirically before they do it, but that’s their case.

That’s one of the many examples of the great research agenda that comes out of this really interesting and important work. And with that I close. Thank you.

I read dozens of books this year and the resulting list will surprise and delight you

I am wrapping up a 12-month sabbatical leave from my professor job, which means I didn’t teach or go to a lot of meetings on campus, and instead got to spend more time on the other parts of my job (at home, in loungewear), and try some new things as well.

At the beginning of the year I decided to read more books, and used Goodreads to set a reading goal of 42 (one per week, less 10 for slower books). One goal was to improve my Twitter-degraded attention span [just spent 5 minutes randomly flitting around, now I’m back], or at least expose myself to the feeling of having a longer attention span. And honestly, it was great. I hope this made me more of a book reader forever.

So this year, my year-end book post is about books I read, rather than just books that came out this year. Feel free to make suggestions for gift books in the comments (including your own!). Also, feel free to judge me for anything about this list.

Trump Era

I read a series of books processing Trump and Trumpism. I really liked The Death of Truth (2018) by Michiko Kakutani, which I reviewed here:

Kakutani is a great writer, and this little book of 11 chapters in 170 small pages flies by. Since she left the New York Times, where she was book critic for many years, her Twitter feed has been a chronology of political crisis and social decay under Trump; reading it all together induces anxiety at the pace and scale of the descent, but also, surprisingly, some optimism that the situation remains decipherable with the tools of intellectual incision that Kakutani wields so well.


In that review I juxtaposed Kakutani’s intellectual rigor with Jonah Goldberg’s cartoonish simulacrum of erudition in the deeply awful Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy (2018). I reviewed that latter book in some depth in an essay titled “How conservatism makes peace with Trump.” I wrote:

Unfortunately, I found the book to be an extended screed against leftism with but a few pages of anti-Trump material grafted in here and there, which ultimately amounts to blaming leftism and immigration for Trump. And that might sum up the state of the anemic conservative movement. Goldberg’s own weak-kneed position on Trump is not resolved until page 316, when he finally concludes, “As much as I hold Trump in contempt, I am still compelled to admit that, if my vote would have decided the election, I probably would have voted for him” (316). In the end, Goldberg has charted a path toward a détente between his movement and Trump’s.

The Goldberg essay proved quite popular (almost 1200 downloads on SocArXiv) after a Twitter thread listing some of his errors took off:

Anyway, Kakutani pairs nicely with another small book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (2018) by philosopher Jason Stanley. He described 10 features of fascist politics, drawing from Nazi Germany and contemporary Hungary, Poland, India, Myanmar, and connecting them to Trumpism. I see Kakutani and Stanley as setting out framing for the moment, in light of history but without facile parallels. Having read these, for example, made Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House (2018), which wasn’t very insightful, more interesting to read.

Semitism: Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump (2018), by Jonathan Weisman, made a good addition to the contemporary fascism collection. It’s a personal reflection and description of alt-Right anti-Semitism, and a call for Jewish solidarity with other groups targeted by Trump and his movement, especially those with fewer institutional defenses. For both me and Weisman, the explosion of anti-Semitism inspired by Trump’s campaign and presidency reinforced our sense of both Jewishness and American otherness. Like me, only much more, Weisman was also the victim of anti-Semitic social media pile-ons when he spoke out against Trump. I never seriously considered myself a minority in America, or applied a consciously Jewish identity to my work, but there are a lot of anti-Semites around, and they think I’m neither White nor American.


In the wake of all this, I found myself staring at this picture from 1920s Poland of my great-great-grandparents, the Patinkins, with their grandaughter, my grandmother’s cousin (later the wife of my grandmother’s brother). And I grew my beard longer.

chai gittel and grandparents

Anyway, the Trumpism book series was kicked off by We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (2017), by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is a brilliant and wrenching retelling of Coates’ own career as a journalist through the arc of Obama’s presidency, the era that made Coates a household name and also, now seemingly inevitably, birthed Trumpism.

The Women’s March, January 21, 2017. PNC photo.

It’s hard to believe I read Coates in the same year as Rebecca Traister’s excellent new book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger (2018). Although Traister does a good bit of history, especially about women’s suffrage, labor, and civil rights, it’s a post-2016 election book, inspired by the Women’s March in particular. The books is a dense but powerfully written treatise on all the ways women’s anger makes the world better — and its suppression is a mechanism of patriarchy. It was written fast, and you can read it fast, moving back and forth between 1848 and 2018, Trump and #MeToo, with interesting dives into intrafeminist debates about sex, intersectionality, and other topics.


In the category of feminist debates, but no longer about Trumpism, I also liked Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (2017) which was quite polarizing in feminist sociology circles. Even if you don’t buy her account of the excesses of campus feminism and the overreach of Title IX bureaucracy, you have to at least wrestle with it. Kipnis herself overreaches a little, in my view, but I agree that much of the rape-culture talk on campus is disempowering for women — even though rape culture is real. (Incidentally, Kipnis didn’t like Traister’s book, and I didn’t agree with her review.)


In April I wrote a review essay titled, “Public engagement and the influence imperative,” for Contemporary Sociology.  The essay covered The Public Professor: How to Use Your Research to Change the World (2016), by M. V. Lee Badgett; The Social Scientist’s Soapbox: Adventures in Writing Public Sociology (2017), by Karen Sternheimer; and Going Public: A Guide for Social Scientists (2017), by Arlene Stein and Jessie Daniels. All three books had good advice for using your research to reach more people and different audiences. In the essay I pressed for more reciprocal engagement, in which our “audiences” help shape the research itself.


In the sociology of population section of the American Sociological Association, I was on the award committee that gave the book prize to The Genome Factor: What the Social Genomics Revolution Reveals about Ourselves, Our History, and the Future (2017), by Dalton Conley and Jason Fletcher. The book is excellent as an introduction to contemporary genetic analysis of social traits, which is completely taboo among many social scientists but is still real and not all bullshit. Conley and Fletcher offer compelling explanations of what current techniques can reveal and what they can’t (including race). For the non-expert social scientist, they also offer a review of the history of genetic analysis, from the now-discredited quests for target genes (e.g., the “warrior gene”), to twin studies, to polygenic scores, which use genome-wide analysis to generate propensities for both biological and social traits.

Also on the sociology shelf, I finally read Elizabeth Popp Berman’s 2012 book, Creating the Market University: How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine. It’s one of those books in sociology where the substance of the research is important an interesting even if you don’t know anything about the theories or disciplinary debates that comprise the immediate context for the book. Why did universities and researchers generally start to pitch themselves as primarily drivers of economic growth? The answer is important, and it’s in this excellent book. (Beth is a friend and colleague in the SocArXiv project.)

I was invited read, for an author-meets-critics session, The Triple Bind of Single-Parent Families: Resources, Employment and Policies to Improve Well-being (2018, also free), edited by Rense Nieuwenhuis and Laurie Maldonado. The book contains a series of comparative demographic studies related to the “triple-bind” experienced by single mothers in many countries: resource disadvantage, inadequate employment, and weak supportive policies. Specialized, but if this is for you, it’s very good.

In response to an invitation to participate in a meeting on Israeli demography and the environment, I read The Land Is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel (2016), by Alon Tal (who organized the symposium). The book is really interesting. I wrote about the whole thing at some length, with graphs and photos from my eye-opening trip, and audio of my talk, here.


Not sociology, but sociological, I rate highly I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street (2017), by Matt Taibbi. It’s an in-depth investigation into the killing of Eric Garner by New York City police, including much of his life and community, in the context of larger processes such as community policing, stop-and-frisk, mass incarceration, and urban redevelopment — and how that all led to the gaping wound of injustice after his death.

Also sociological, and recommended, is Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer (2018). It’s an irreverent takedown of various wellness fads, but also preventative screenings, and the quest for longevity itself. In the process, she digs back into her microbiology roots to explore the self-destructive tendencies of our own cellular programming, which make an internal mockery of our futile attempts to forestall the inevitable. A very 2018 book.

Finally, in the category of truly terrible sociology, I put Mark Regenerus’s book, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy (2017). From my review:

Cheap Sex is an awful book that no one needs to read. The book is an extended rant on the theme, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” wrapped in a misogynist theory about sexual exchange masquerading as economics, and motivated by the author’s misogynist religious and political views.

Last and not quite least, I read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016). Parts of it were interesting, but on the whole I just never found the qualities that made it so original or insightful or important as to justify the phenomenon it became. Not worth it.



You didn’t make it all this way to read my thoughts on fiction, so I’ll just say that books are a medium, a category of experience, and mixing in fiction affected the quality of the whole project. So I read some classics I never read before, like Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin, and The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger. I read the Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French, which are on the literary side of murder mysteries; as well as a handful of Michael Connelly novels and the one Carl Hiassen novel I had missed. Lucky Jim, a 1954 academic satire by Kingsley Amis, is great if you like that sort of thing (which I do — ask me about my novel in progress.) Finally, I loved The Humans, by Matt Haig, which is funny and dark and thought-provoking.

Before the end of the year I need to finish Becoming, by Michelle Obama (sigh); Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the Twenty-First Century, by Tey Meadow; and a couple more novels.


The Death of Truth rings true

real enemy tweet

Michiko Kakutani’s book, The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, is the second-best Trump book I’ve read, second to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power, more trenchant than Jonathan Weisman’s (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in the Age of Trump, and infinitely less completely wrong than Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy (review essay). Those are the only ones I’ve read (open to suggestions).

Kakutani is a great writer, and this little book of 11 chapters in 170 small pages flies by. Since she left the New York Times, where she was book critic for many years, her Twitter feed has been a chronology of political crisis and social decay under Trump; reading it all together induces anxiety at the pace and scale of the descent, but also, surprisingly, some optimism that the situation remains decipherable with the tools of intellectual incision that Kakutani wields so well. With lots of good reviews out there, I’ll just briefly point out some things I appreciated.

Kakutani does the disturbing relevant history without histrionics. So there’s Hannah Arendt and Margaret Atwood, Adolf Hitler and Richard Hofstadter, George Orwell and Aldus Huxley, but not with facile linkages and great leaps. Also, she delves into postmodernism and its influences, but doesn’t simplistically blame postmodernism for creating the “post-truth” world (which rightfully concerns Andrew Perrin); rather she acknowledges the cynical uses to which its language may be put, including among some of its proponents, without the casual lumping of Foucault, Baudrillard, Derrida, and “multiculturalism” or “relativism,” etc., that you see so often. (One thing you know about Kakutani is that she reads a lot.) Although leftist anti-science attitudes play a role in her story (along with anti-institutionalism generally, anti-vaxxers, and so on), she has no interest in the false equivalency that, for example, blames all kinds of identity politics for injecting subjectivism into politics (the way Goldberg does so absurdly), or puts campus no-platforming on the same plane as the Iraq war.

This is an early first pass at a history of the moment, and Kakutani’s wide reading of relevant history connects tightly with the today’s news from Putin’s Russia to Wikileaks, fake news and Cambridge Analytica, to the “culture wars” debates, the “me generation” and today’s information silos, to political polarization, and the siege of journalism. You may as well read it in one sitting.

One good example: In my essay on Goldberg (now updated) I noted that he falsely described Lee Atwater’s maxim, “perception is reality” as “a cliché of the left.” I was glad to see Kakutani bring that up, in the proper context, because it is a moment that still matters. The contrast between their descriptions is telling, so I’ll lay it down here.

Goldberg writes:

“It is a cliché of the left to say that, ‘perception is reality.’ Well, the perceived reality for millions of white, Christian Americans is that their institutional shelters, personal and national, are being razed one by one. They do not like the alternatives they are being offered. Some fraction may indeed be racists, homophobes, or Islamaphobes, but most simply don’t like what they are being offered because they do not know it or because they do know it but prefer what they perceive to be theirs. And yet people like Sanders insist that resistance to their program is not just wrong but evil. The grave danger, already materializing, is that whites and Christians respond to this bigotry and create their own tribal identity politics.”

Goldberg falsely attributes the “perception is reality” approach to the left, then blames the left for making whites into racists. (With anti-Trumpists like these progressives don’t need enemies.) An accurate reading of that history in its proper context links today’s “perceived reality” to Atwater and the GOP itself, to decades of racist propaganda which the GOP generated and then gleefully weaponized. Here’s Kakutani:

“When the Republican strategist Lee Atwater observed in the 1980s that ‘perception is reality,’ he was bluntly articulating an insight about human psychology that Homer well knew when he immortalized Odysseus as a wily trickster, adept at deception and disguise. But Atwater’s cold-blooded use of that precept in using wedge issues to advance the GOP’s southern strategy – and to create the infamous Willie Horton ad in the 1988 presidential campaign – injected mainstream American politics with an alarming strain of win-at-all-costs Machiavellianism using mass media as a delivery system.” (p. 79)

My historical quibble is in the brief handling of China, where Kakutani includes Mao along with Hitler in the Orwell section on the co-optation of language. The Hitler material is excellent, and ties in well with Putin and then Trump’s big lies. But Mao’s “plan of linguistic engineering” does not fit that pattern. China was mostly illiterate, there was no mass media, and the state that was so forcefully imposing fixed terms and meanings, with simple slogans, was also expanding basic education to hundreds of millions of people, and literally reformed the language to make it more accessible, a change that still pays dividends. No need to spare China the criticism, but the early socialist years doesn’t belong in the category as advanced capitalist countries using the tools of fascism against their own democracies.

How bad is it? If Brave New World was warning us about capitalism, and 1984 was warning us about Soviet communism, as Kakutani has it, then it’s ironic that we’re now speeding toward a 1984 scenario even as the capitalist Russian kleptocracy literally parades around the White House (details on Putin’s upcoming visit to be determined). So, it’s bad. (Her conclusion, that only journalism and education can save us, is mercifully brief.) Every week is a crazy unprecedented crisis. Kakutani’s ability to get it down to an organized, linear narrative, with carefully chosen, relevant facts, makes The Death of Truth bracing and clarifying, and well worth a read.

How conservatism makes peace with Trump


Jonah Goldberg telling his Howard Zinn story to John Podhoretz on CSPAN.

I  wrote a long essay on Jonah Goldberg’s book, Suicide of the West. Because it has graphs and tables and a lot of references, I made it a paper instead of a blog post, and posted it on SocArXiv, here. If you like it, and you happen to edit some progressive or academic publication that would like to publish it, please let me know! I’m happy (not really, but I will) to shorten it. There, I pitched it. Feedback welcome.

First paragraph:

This essay is a review of Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy, by Jonah Goldberg (Crown Forum, 2018), with a few data explorations along the way. I read the book to see what I could learn about contemporary conservative thinking, especially anti-Trump conservatism. Opposing Trump and the movement he leads is suddenly the most pressing progressive issue of our time, and it’s important not to be too narrow in mobilizing that opposition. Unfortunately, I found the book to be an extended screed against leftism with but a few pages of anti-Trump material grafted in here and there, which ultimately amounts to blaming leftism and immigration for Trump. And that might sum up the state of the anemic conservative movement. Goldberg’s own weak-kneed position on Trump is not resolved until page 316, when he finally concludes, “As much as I hold Trump in contempt, I am still compelled to admit that, if my vote would have decided the election, I probably would have voted for him” (316). In the end, Goldberg has charted a path toward a détente between his movement and Trump’s.

That thing where you have a lot of little graphs (single-parent edition)

Yesterday I was on an author-meets-critics panel for The Triple Bind of Single-Parent Families: Resources, Employment, and Policies to Improve Well-Being, a new collection edited by Rense Nieuwenhuis and Laurie Moldonado. The book is excellent — and it’s available free under Creative Commons license.

Most of the chapters are comparative, with data from multiple countries. I like looking at the figures, especially the ones like this, which give a quick general sense and let you see anomalies and outliers. I made a couple, too, which I share below, with code.


Here’s an example, showing the proportion of new births to mothers who aren’t married, by education, for U.S. states.  For this I used the 2012-2016 combined American Community Survey file, which I got from I created an sample extract that included only women who reported having a child in the previous year, which gives me about 177,000 cases over the five years. The only other variables are state, education, and marital status. I put the raw data file on the Open Science Framework here. Code below.

My first attempt was bar graphs for each state. This is easiest because Stata lets you do graph means with the bar command (click to enlarge).

marst fertyr educ by state

The code for this is very simple. I made a dummy variable for single, so the mean of that is the proportion single. Edcat is a four-category education variable.

gr bar (mean) single [weight=perwt], over(edcat) bar(1,color(green)) yti(“Proportion not married”) by(state)

The bar graph is easy, and good for scanning the data for weird cases or interesting stories. But maybe it isn’t ideal for presentation, because the bars run from one state to the next. Maybe little lines would be better. This takes another step, because it requires making the graph with twoway, which doesn’t want to calculate means on the fly. So I do a collapse to shrink the dataset down to just means of single by state and edcat.

collapse (mean) single psingle=single [fw=perwt], by(state edcat)

Then I use a scatter graph, with line connectors between the dots. I like this better:

marst fertyr educ by state lines

You can see the overall levels (e.g., high in DC, low in Utah) as well as the different slopes (flatter in New York, steeper in South Dakota), and it’s still clear that the single-mother incidence is lowest in every state for women with BA degrees.

Here’s the code for that graph. Note the weights are now baked into the means so I don’t need them in the graph command. And to add the labels to the scatter plot you have to specify you want that. Still very simple:

gr twoway scatter single edcat , xlab(1 2 3 4, valuelabel) yti(“Proportion not married”) lcolor(green) msymbol(O) connect(l) by(state)

Sadly, I can’t figure out how to put one title and footnote on the graph, rather than a tiny title and footnote on every state graph, so I left titles out of the code and I then added them by hand in the graph editor. Boo.

Here’s the full code:

set more off

quietly infix ///
 byte statefip 1-2 ///
 double perwt 3-12 ///
 byte marst 13-13 ///
 byte fertyr 14-14 ///
 byte educ 15-16 ///
 int educd 17-19 ///
 using "[PATHNAME]\usa_00366.dat"

/* the sample is all women who reported having a child in the previous year, FERTYR==2 */
replace perwt = perwt / 100

format perwt %10.2f

label var statefip "State (FIPS code)"
label var perwt "Person weight"
label var marst "Marital status"
label var educd "Educational attainment [detailed version]"

label define statefip_lbl 01 "Alabama"
label define statefip_lbl 02 "Alaska", add
label define statefip_lbl 04 "Arizona", add
label define statefip_lbl 05 "Arkansas", add
label define statefip_lbl 06 "California", add
label define statefip_lbl 08 "Colorado", add
label define statefip_lbl 09 "Connecticut", add
label define statefip_lbl 10 "Delaware", add
label define statefip_lbl 11 "District of Columbia", add
label define statefip_lbl 12 "Florida", add
label define statefip_lbl 13 "Georgia", add
label define statefip_lbl 15 "Hawaii", add
label define statefip_lbl 16 "Idaho", add
label define statefip_lbl 17 "Illinois", add
label define statefip_lbl 18 "Indiana", add
label define statefip_lbl 19 "Iowa", add
label define statefip_lbl 20 "Kansas", add
label define statefip_lbl 21 "Kentucky", add
label define statefip_lbl 22 "Louisiana", add
label define statefip_lbl 23 "Maine", add
label define statefip_lbl 24 "Maryland", add
label define statefip_lbl 25 "Massachusetts", add
label define statefip_lbl 26 "Michigan", add
label define statefip_lbl 27 "Minnesota", add
label define statefip_lbl 28 "Mississippi", add
label define statefip_lbl 29 "Missouri", add
label define statefip_lbl 30 "Montana", add
label define statefip_lbl 31 "Nebraska", add
label define statefip_lbl 32 "Nevada", add
label define statefip_lbl 33 "New Hampshire", add
label define statefip_lbl 34 "New Jersey", add
label define statefip_lbl 35 "New Mexico", add
label define statefip_lbl 36 "New York", add
label define statefip_lbl 37 "North Carolina", add
label define statefip_lbl 38 "North Dakota", add
label define statefip_lbl 39 "Ohio", add
label define statefip_lbl 40 "Oklahoma", add
label define statefip_lbl 41 "Oregon", add
label define statefip_lbl 42 "Pennsylvania", add
label define statefip_lbl 44 "Rhode Island", add
label define statefip_lbl 45 "South Carolina", add
label define statefip_lbl 46 "South Dakota", add
label define statefip_lbl 47 "Tennessee", add
label define statefip_lbl 48 "Texas", add
label define statefip_lbl 49 "Utah", add
label define statefip_lbl 50 "Vermont", add
label define statefip_lbl 51 "Virginia", add
label define statefip_lbl 53 "Washington", add
label define statefip_lbl 54 "West Virginia", add
label define statefip_lbl 55 "Wisconsin", add
label define statefip_lbl 56 "Wyoming", add
label define statefip_lbl 61 "Maine-New Hampshire-Vermont", add
label define statefip_lbl 62 "Massachusetts-Rhode Island", add
label define statefip_lbl 63 "Minnesota-Iowa-Missouri-Kansas-Nebraska-S.Dakota-N.Dakota", add
label define statefip_lbl 64 "Maryland-Delaware", add
label define statefip_lbl 65 "Montana-Idaho-Wyoming", add
label define statefip_lbl 66 "Utah-Nevada", add
label define statefip_lbl 67 "Arizona-New Mexico", add
label define statefip_lbl 68 "Alaska-Hawaii", add
label define statefip_lbl 72 "Puerto Rico", add
label define statefip_lbl 97 "Military/Mil. Reservation", add
label define statefip_lbl 99 "State not identified", add
label values statefip statefip_lbl

label define educd_lbl 000 "N/A or no schooling"
label define educd_lbl 001 "N/A", add
label define educd_lbl 002 "No schooling completed", add
label define educd_lbl 010 "Nursery school to grade 4", add
label define educd_lbl 011 "Nursery school, preschool", add
label define educd_lbl 012 "Kindergarten", add
label define educd_lbl 013 "Grade 1, 2, 3, or 4", add
label define educd_lbl 014 "Grade 1", add
label define educd_lbl 015 "Grade 2", add
label define educd_lbl 016 "Grade 3", add
label define educd_lbl 017 "Grade 4", add
label define educd_lbl 020 "Grade 5, 6, 7, or 8", add
label define educd_lbl 021 "Grade 5 or 6", add
label define educd_lbl 022 "Grade 5", add
label define educd_lbl 023 "Grade 6", add
label define educd_lbl 024 "Grade 7 or 8", add
label define educd_lbl 025 "Grade 7", add
label define educd_lbl 026 "Grade 8", add
label define educd_lbl 030 "Grade 9", add
label define educd_lbl 040 "Grade 10", add
label define educd_lbl 050 "Grade 11", add
label define educd_lbl 060 "Grade 12", add
label define educd_lbl 061 "12th grade, no diploma", add
label define educd_lbl 062 "High school graduate or GED", add
label define educd_lbl 063 "Regular high school diploma", add
label define educd_lbl 064 "GED or alternative credential", add
label define educd_lbl 065 "Some college, but less than 1 year", add
label define educd_lbl 070 "1 year of college", add
label define educd_lbl 071 "1 or more years of college credit, no degree", add
label define educd_lbl 080 "2 years of college", add
label define educd_lbl 081 "Associates degree, type not specified", add
label define educd_lbl 082 "Associates degree, occupational program", add
label define educd_lbl 083 "Associates degree, academic program", add
label define educd_lbl 090 "3 years of college", add
label define educd_lbl 100 "4 years of college", add
label define educd_lbl 101 "Bachelors degree", add
label define educd_lbl 110 "5+ years of college", add
label define educd_lbl 111 "6 years of college (6+ in 1960-1970)", add
label define educd_lbl 112 "7 years of college", add
label define educd_lbl 113 "8+ years of college", add
label define educd_lbl 114 "Masters degree", add
label define educd_lbl 115 "Professional degree beyond a bachelors degree", add
label define educd_lbl 116 "Doctoral degree", add
label define educd_lbl 999 "Missing", add
label values educd educd_lbl

recode educd (0/61=1) (62/64=2) (65/90=3) (101/116=4), gen(edcat)

label define edlbl 1 "<HS"
label define edlbl 2 "HS", add
label define edlbl 3 "SC", add
label define edlbl 4 "BA+", add
label values edcat edlbl

label define marst_lbl 1 "Married, spouse present"
label define marst_lbl 2 "Married, spouse absent", add
label define marst_lbl 3 "Separated", add
label define marst_lbl 4 "Divorced", add
label define marst_lbl 5 "Widowed", add
label define marst_lbl 6 "Never married/single", add
label values marst marst_lbl

gen married = marst==1 /* this is married spouse present */
gen single=marst>3 /* this is divorced, widowed, and never married */

gr bar (mean) single [weight=perwt], over(edcat) bar(1,color(green)) yti("Proportion not married") by(state)

collapse (mean) single psingle=single [fw=perwt], by(state edcat)

gr twoway scatter single edcat , xlab(1 2 3 4, valuelabel) yti("Proportion not married") lcolor(green) msymbol(O) connect(l) by(state)