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Sixteen minutes on The Tumbleweed Society

At the American Sociological Association conference, just concluded, I was on an author-meets-critics panel for Alison Pugh’s book, The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity. The other day I put up a short paper inspired by my reading, on SocArXiv (data and code here).

Here is my talk itself, in an audio file, complete with 6 seconds of music at the beginning and the end, and a lot of the ums and tangents taken out, running 16 minutes. Download it here, or listen below. And below that are the figures I reference in the talk, but you won’t really need them.

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job changing effect 2015 ACS-CPS

Figure 2. Average predicted probability of divorce within jobs (from logistic model in Table 2), by turnover rate. Markers are scaled according to sample size, and the linear regression line shown is weighted by sample size.

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Job turnover and divorce (preconference preprint)

As I was prepared to discuss Alison Pugh’s interesting and insightful 2015 book, The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity, on an author-meets-critics panel at the American Sociological Association meetings in Montreal next week (Monday at 4:30), I talked myself into doing a quick analysis inspired by the book. (And no, I won’t hijack the panel to talk about this; I will talk about her book.)

From the publisher’s description:

In The Tumbleweed Society, Allison Pugh offers a moving exploration of sacrifice, betrayal, defiance, and resignation, as people adapt to insecurity with their own negotiations of commitment on the job and in intimate life. When people no longer expect commitment from their employers, how do they think about their own obligations? How do we raise children, put down roots in our communities, and live up to our promises at a time when flexibility and job insecurity reign?

Since to a little kid with a hammer everything looks like a nail, I asked myself yesterday, what could I do with my divorce models that might shed light on this connection between job insecurity and family commitments? The result is a very short paper, which I have posted on SocArXiv here (with supporting data and code in the associated OSF project shared here). But here it is in blog form; someday maybe I’ll elaborate it into a full paper.


Job Turnover and Divorce

Introduction

In The Tumbleweed Society, Pugh (2015) explores the relationship between commitments at work – between employers and employees – and those at home, between partners. She finds no simple relationship such that, for example, people who feel their employers owe them nothing also have low commitment to their spouses. Rather, there is a complex web of commitments, and views of what constitutes an honorable level of commitment in different arenas. This paper is inspired by that discussion, and explores one possible connection between work and couple stability, using a new combination of data from the Current Population Survey (CPS) and the American Community Survey (ACS).

In a previous paper I analyzed predictors of divorce using data from the ACS, to see whether economic indicators associated with the Great Recession predicted the odds of divorce (Cohen 2014). Because of data limitations, I used state-level indicators of unemployment and foreclosure rates to test for economic associations. Because the ACS is cross-sectional, and divorce is often associated with job instability, I could not use individual-level unemployment to predict individual-divorce, as others have done (see review in Cohen 2014). Further, the ACS does not include any information about former spouses who are no longer living with divorced individuals, so spousal unemployment was not available either.

Rather than examine the association between individual job change and divorce, this paper tests the association between turnover at the job level and divorce at the individual level. It asks, do people who work in jobs that people are likely to leave themselves more likely to divorce? The answer – which is yes – suggests possible avenues for further study of the relationship between commitments and stressors in the arenas of paid work and family stability. Job here turnover is a contextual variable. Working in a job people are likely to leave may simply mean people are exposed to involuntary job changes, which is a source of stress. However, it may also mean people work in an environment with low levels of commitment between employers and employees. This analysis can’t differentiate potential stressors versus commitment effects, or identify the nature (and direction) of commitments expressed or deployed at work or within the family. But it may provide motivation for future research.

Do job turnover and divorce run together?

Because individual (or spousal) job turnover and employment history are not available in the ACS, I use the March CPS, obtained from IPUMS (Flood et al. 2015), to calculate job turnover rates for simulated jobs, identified as detailed occupation-by-industry cells (Cohen and Huffman 2003). Although these are not jobs in the sense of specific workplaces, they provide much greater detail in work context than either occupation or industry alone, allowing differentiation, for example, between janitors in manufacturing establishments versus those in government offices, which are often substantially different contexts.

Turnover is identified by individuals whose current occupation and industry combination (as of March) does not match their primary occupation and industry for the previous calendar year, which is identified by a separate question (but using the same occupation and industry coding schemes). To reduce short-term transience, this calculation is limited to people who worked at least 20 weeks in the previous year, and more than 20 hours per week. Using the combined samples from the 2014-2016 CPS files, and restricting the sample to previous-year job cells with at least 25 respondents, I end up with 927 job cells. Note that, because the cells are national rather than workplace-specific, the size cutoff does not restrict the analysis to people working in large workplaces, but rather to common occupation-industry combinations. The job cells in the analysis include 68 percent of the eligible workers in the three years of CPS data.

For descriptive purposes, Table 1 shows the occupation and industry cells with the lowest and highest rates of job turnover from among those with sample sizes of 100 or more. Jobs with low turnover are disproportionately in the public sector and construction, and male-dominated (except schoolteachers); they are middle class and working class jobs. The high-turnover jobs, on the other hand, are in service industries (except light truck drivers) and are more female-dominated (Cohen 2013). By this simple definition, high-turnover jobs appear similar to precarious jobs as described by Kalleberg (2013) and others.

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Although the analysis that follows is limited to the CPS years 2014-2016 and the 2015 ACS, for context Figure 1 shows the percentage of workers who changed jobs each year, as defined above, from 1990 through 2016. Note that job changing, which is only identified for employed people, fell during the previous two recessions – especially the Great Recession that began in 2008 – perhaps because people who lost jobs would in better times have cycled into a different job instead of being unemployed. In the last two years job changing has been at relatively high levels (although note that CPS instituted a new industry coding scheme in 2014, with unknown effects on this measure). In any event, this phenomenon has not shown dramatic changes in prevalence for the past several decades.

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Figure 1. Percentage of workers (20+ weeks, >20 hours per week) whose jobs (occupation-by-industry cells) in March differed from their primary job in the previous calendar year.

Using the occupation industry codes from the CPS and ACS, which match for the years under study, I attach the job turnover rates from the 2014-2016 CPS data to individuals in the 2015 ACS (Ruggles et al. 2015). The analysis then uses the same modeling strategy as that used in Cohen (2014). Using the marital events variables in the ACS (Cohen 2015), I combine people, age 18-64, who are currently married (excluding those who got married in the previous year) and those who have been divorced in the previous year, and model the odds that individuals are in the divorced group. In this paper I essentially add the job turnover measure to the basic analysis in Cohen (2014, Table 3) (the covariates used here are the same except that I added one category to the education variable).

One advantage of the ACS data structure is that the occupation and industry questions refer to the “current or most recent job,” so that people who are not employed at the time of the survey still have job characteristics recorded. Although that has the downside of introducing information from jobs in the distant past for some respondents, it has the benefit of including relevant job information for people who may have just quit (or lost) jobs as part of the constellation of events involved in their divorce (for example, someone who divorces, moves to a new area, and commences a job search). If job characteristics have an effect on the odds of divorce, this information clearly is important. The ACS sample size is 581,891, 1.7 percent of whom reported having divorced in the previous year.

Results from two multivariate regression analyses are presented in Table 2. The first model predicts the turnover rate in the ACS respondents’ job, using OLS regression. It shows that, ceteris paribus, turnover rates are higher in the jobs held by women, younger people (the inflection point is at age 42), people married more recently, those married few times, those with less than a BA degree, Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and immigrants. Thus, job turnover shows patterns largely similar to labor market advantage generally.

Most importantly for this paper, divorce is more likely for those who most recent job had a higher turnover rate, as defined here. In a reduced model (not shown), with just age and sex, the logistic coefficient on job turnover was 1.39; the addition of the covariates in Table 2 reduced that effect by 39 percent, to .84, as shown in the second model. Beyond that, job turnover is predicted by some of the same characteristics as those associated with increased odds of divorce. Divorce odds are lower after age 25, with additional years of marriage, with a BA degree, and for Whites. However, divorce is less common for Hispanics and immigrants. (The higher divorce rates for women in the ACS are not well understood; this is a self-reported measure, not a count of administrative events.)

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To illustrate the relationship between job turnover and the probability of divorce, Figure 2 shows the average predicted probability of divorce (from the second model in Table 2) for each of the jobs represented, with markers scaled according to sample size and a regression line similarly weighted. Below 20 percent job turnover, people are generally predicted to have divorce rates less than 2 percent per year, with predicted rates rising to 2.5 percent at high turnover rates (40 percent).

job changing effect 2015 ACS-CPS

Figure 2. Average predicted probability of divorce within jobs (from logistic model in Table 2), by turnover rate. Markers are scaled according to sample size, and the linear regression line shown is weighted by sample size.

Conclusion

People who work in jobs with high turnover rates – that is, jobs which many people are no longer working in one year later – are also more likely to divorce. A reading of this inspired by Pugh’s (2015) analysis might be that people exposed to lower levels of commitment from employers, and employees, exhibit lower levels of commitment to their own marriages. Another, noncompeting explanation would be that the stress or hardship associated with high rates of job turnover contributes to difficulties within marriage. Alternatively, the turnover variable may simply be statistically capturing other aspects of job quality that affect the risk of divorce, or there are individual qualities by which people select into both jobs with high turnover and marriages likely to end in divorce. This is a preliminary analysis, intended to raise questions and offer some avenues for analyzing these questions in the future.

References

Cohen, Philip N. 2013. “The Persistence of Workplace Gender Segregation in the US.” Sociology Compass 7 (11): 889–99. http://doi.org/10.1111/soc4.12083.

Cohen, Philip N. 2014. “Recession and Divorce in the United States, 2008–2011.” Population Research and Policy Review 33 (5): 615–28. http://doi.org/10.1007/s11113-014-9323-z.

Cohen, Philip N. 2015. “How We Really Can Study Divorce Using Just Five Questions and a Giant Sample.” Family Inequality. July 22. https://familyinequality.wordpress.com/2015/07/22/how-we-really-can-study-divorce/.

Cohen, P. N., and M. R. L. Huffman. 2003. “Individuals, Jobs, and Labor Markets: The Devaluation of Women’s Work.” American Sociological Review 68 (3): 443–63. http://doi.org/10.2307/1519732.

Kalleberg, Arne L. 2013. Good Jobs, Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarized and Precarious Employment Systems in the United States 1970s to 2000s. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Pugh, Allison J. 2015. The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Steven Ruggles, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Josiah Grover, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 6.0 [dataset]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2015. http://doi.org/10.18128/D010.V6.0.

Sarah Flood, Miriam King, Steven Ruggles, and J. Robert Warren. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, Current Population Survey: Version 4.0. [dataset]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2015. http://doi.org/10.18128/D030.V4.0.

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Book review: Labor’s Love Lost by Andrew Cherlin

I previously wrote some comments about Andrew Cherlin’s most recent book here, in preparation for a launch event I attended. Here is a full review for submission to Contemporary Sociology.


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Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in Americaby Andrew J. Cherlin. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2014. 258 paper. ISBN: 9780871540300.

Andrew Cherlin’s latest book is a concise history of U.S. family trends since the late 19th Century. The history builds a well-argued case for policies to improve family stability, to address the problems of children facing “the chaos of postmodern culture and the constraints of the hourglass economy” (p. 195). The book should serve as a staple in the debate over the causes and consequences family change, offering the most reasonable case for the downside of contemporary trends.

Cherlin frames the history around the post-War 1950s-1960s as a period of peak stability and conformity among working-class families, surrounded by periods of greater instability and inequality in the decades before and after. Peak conformity meant the smallest social-class gap in marriage rates between rich and working-class families, compared with the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, when rich people were much more likely to be married than those in working-class occupations. Cherlin sees the trend in the current period as perilous for children because family instability – concentrated among working-class families – is accompanied by high levels of income inequality and poor support for social mobility from institutions outside the family.

Thus, Cherlin argues, we should consider policies to “lessen the effects of the fall of the working-class family on children” by finding ways to “support stable partnerships without returning to the gender imbalances of the past” (p. 176). He favors policies that would disseminate cultural messages in favor of delaying childbearing, bolster education and training for working-class children and young adults, and raise incomes for those with less than a four-year college degree.

This book should be widely read and taught. It is compellingly written, making a sophisticated set of arguments with original evidence; I recommend it for undergraduate as well as graduate courses. Cherlin’s treatment of the “rise of the working-class family” in the industrial era is well-crafted and original. Especially welcome is the extensive discussion of gender norms and the “masculinity imperative” (p. 30) in the construction of the working-class family ideal. He has a non-superficial view of culture, and incorporates evidence from qualitative research and linguistic trends as well as Census data and economic trends. He also pays considerable attention to Black workers, from their historical emergence from slavery to the effect of declining blue-collar opportunities on their families after the post-War economic peak.

Cherlin’s treatment of the era of peak family conformity addresses the abuse, alcoholism, and women’s alienation that are too-often swept under the rug in accounts that privilege family stability and draw not just from historical nostalgia but “male nostalgia” (p. 92). That includes a revealing and enlightening description of his own family upbringing (he was born to White, working-class parents in 1948), in which his father was happy but his mother – whose abilities were underutilized during her time out of the labor market, and who was prescribed opiates to treat allergies – probably was not. But in the end he had a “happy childhood” (p. 99), and his conclusion about the era returns to the privileging of stability: “All things considered, children received good upbringings in these [1950s] families and experienced stable, two-parent environments while growing up” (p. 100). In the decades that followed, marriage become less common, and less stable, for people with less than a four-year college education, in what Cherlin calls the “fall of the working-class family” (which, as he notes, undermined the very notion of social-class identity for families as opposed to individuals).

Cherlin concludes that the 1950s “was a good era for children,” who “benefited from this familistic culture” (pp. 115-116). But the evidence we have for this is based on the fortunes of a generation which, although born to those families, turned against their norms as adults, riding a wave of prosperity into the women’s movement and abandoning universal early marriage, shotgun weddings, and enforced domesticity. It is ironic that so many people (Cherlin is certainly not alone here) attribute the success of the Baby Boom children to a style of upbringing that they themselves largely rejected at the first opportunity.

Cherlin ably represents the growing chorus of social scientists concerned that poor and working-class parents today are “creating complex and unstable family lives that are not good for children” (p. 5). To his credit, Cherlin’s prescriptions for improving family stability mostly focus on education and the labor market, but the stated goal is the promotion of family stability. Why? For all the research into effects of family instability on children, we know that this factor is not more decisive than its economic precursors; that is, it’s more valuable to have one or more parents with adequate education and income (regardless of their marital status) than it is to have stably married parents, many of whom are time-and resource-poor in our economic and policy environment. This point of contention is important because Cherlin’s case for aiming interventions at family stability – which have, as he acknowledges, no record of success – assumes that the parameters of our stingy and ineffective welfare system are constant.

Cherlin makes a strong case for economic policy to promote employment and wage growth, expanded access to education at all levels, and institutional reforms such as financial regulation and a higher minimum wage. Absent from this discussion, however, is any consideration of our welfare system, including any treatment of family leave policy, child tax credits, guaranteed basic income, or access to health care – all part of the current (albeit lopsided) policy debate. There are a lot of proven policy levers to mitigate the effects of family change. Given this range of options, it is unclear why, even as Cherlin records the abject failure of marriage promotion programs, he nevertheless believes “the message of pregnancy postponement may be worth trying,” in conjunction with efforts to improve the labor market at the low end (p. 183).

In conclusion, Labor’s Love Lost is an important, valuable book, from which many sociologists and their students can learn, and over which many fruitful arguments should emerge.

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Book review: One Marriage Under God

The following are notes for my remarks at an author-meets-critics session at the Social Science History Association yesterday in Baltimore. The book is One Marriage Under God: The Campaign to Promote Marriage in America, by Melanie Heath.

  

The book is well researched, elegantly argued, easily read, and deeply thought-provoking. I highly recommend it.In the study, Heath analyzes many aspects of the marriage promotion movement, including marriage classes and training and organizing, using participant observation, and interviews and focus groups, in Oklahoma.

I have forgotten that it was from this book that I learned that the welfare reform law of 1996 begins with the sentence, “Marriage is the foundation of a successful society.” This explains so much about why marriage promotion and welfare reform are one project, how futile they both are, and how reactionary, in my opinion. Heath makes this very clear when she describes the use of welfare money to teach marriage education to white, middle-class couples, ultimately probably widening the “marriage gap between lower and middle-class families.”

I usually criticize marriage promotion for spending poor peoples money on convincing them to get married, but it’s actually often spent helping middle-class people with their marriages altogether. But that makes perfect sense: welfare, just like welfare reform, is made to build up the normative white middle-class family. Thus, when, as Heath observes, poor single mothers resented their useless workshops on the importance of marriage, the program was actually serving its purpose.

Instead of a safety net, in the United States we have marriage – but we have less and less of it. That means it is a privilege and a necessity, and excluding people from it is a form of inequality.

And driving people toward marriage is what we substitute for welfare – how we give people a choice between conformity and destitution for them and their children – and justify that forced choice with Christian morality. 

The passages describing the presence of same-sex couples in marriage education classes are excruciating and extremely revealing. And yet she discovers that even the conservatives in these situations recognize the lesbian couples “have needs too” — a reality that necessitated additional boundary work to protect the core concept at hand. The lesbians literally had to play the roles of heterosexuals in class exercises.

Marriage promotion uses marriage to bolster the gender difference and its hierarchy simultaneously. And it elevates marriage through the contrast with welfare dependency which it sees as “an assault on freedom and responsible citizenship.” Both positions reinforce the gender hierarchy. And this helps to answer why the marriage promotion movement has never embraced same-sex marriage rights (despite a halfhearted and ultimately unsuccessful rearguard effort by David Blankenhorn and a few other washed up marriage promoters).

She presciently includes the campaign to ban same-sex marriage in the research. This is entirely fitting because these two movements have been united from the start — but that connection blossomed in the years since she wrote this book (published in 2012). We see this in the political history and the interlocking organizational leadership networks between marriage promotion and the movement against marriage equality: David Blankenhorn, Maggie Gallagher, Brad Wilcox, Mark Regnerus, the National Marriage Project, the National Organization for Marriage, the Institute for American Values, the Heritage Foundation, The National Fatherhood Initiative, the Family Research Council. (This movement, incidentally, and especially its research and public relations arms, formed the context in which the Council on Contemporary Families, of which I am now a board member, was organized.) Add William Galston, also Ron Haskins, Marco Rubio, now and the GOP debate over the larger child tax credit (and debate over its refundability).

Heath puts it well when she writes of their “shared ideology that relies on an ideal heterosexual family as a way to manage and organize the diverse and often contradictory threads of market fundamentalism, religion, and morality.”
An important original contribution of this book is Heath’s description of the nationalist and patriotic underpinnings of the marriage promotion movement, which I had not fully appreciated (something also seen in the marriage promotion efforts among American Indians in Oklahoma and the so-called Native American Healthy Marriage Initiative.) Fighting same-sex marriage, and fighting the culture of poverty, are both efforts to shore up the family bulwark of American citizenship.

Marriage promotion, as embodied in the trainings and educational materials that she studies, was built on the program to enhance inherent differences between men and women, which are of course also the pillars upon which opposition to marriage equality stands. And a basis for Christian morality and traditional nostalgic American patriotism — as well as capitalism, or more properly market fundamentalism, because this marriage structure stands in opposition to dependence on the welfare state and in support of the family wage and the patriarchal family economy.

She writes: “this punitive individualism, and the lack of an alternative narrative in the American ethos, enables coalitions of various stripes (conservative Christians, economic conservatives, and centrist liberals) to join together in promoting marriage. In this way marriage ideology connects Americas market fundamentalist corporate culture with moral/religious traditions.”

Marriage promotion — true to the long history of the American welfare system — becomes an inequality reproduction machine, serving race, gender and sexuality divides, and building the ideological supports for widening economic inequality. In the end they don’t increase the amount of marriage, or decrease the amount of poverty, and that does not mean they have failed.

One Marriage Under God belongs in the pantheon of classic historical work on marriage in the United States, including works by Nancy Cott and Stephanie Coontz, as well as Gwendolyn Mink, Linda Gordon, and Ruth Sidel — just off the top of my head. Now that marriage promotion has been demonstrated to be a failure on its own formal terms by the extensive and well-funded and well-conducted studies paid for by the welfare program, and now that the Supreme Court has effectively ended the movement against marriage equality, the book is thankfully more historical then it was just three years ago. But, as a reading of those historical works I just mentioned clearly shows, this thing just will not die. So this book remains essential.

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Goffman dissertation followup

I previously reviewed Alice Goffman’s book On The Run, and wrote a critique of the survey that was part of that project (including a formal comment sent to American Sociological Review). Then I complained that her dissertation was not made public, despite being awarded the American Sociological Association’s dissertation prize. I proposed a rule change for the association, requiring that the winning dissertation be “publicly available through a suitable academic repository by the time of the ASA meeting at which the award is granted.”

Here’s a quick followup.

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I was interested in Goffman’s 2010 dissertation because I thought it might have more information about the survey she conducted than the 2014 book did. When I inquired about the dissertation on June 4 of this year, Princeton’s director of media relations, Martin Mbugua, told me she “was granted an exemption from submitting her dissertation to the University Archives, so we do not have a copy of her dissertation in our collection.”

Jesse Singal at New York magazine reported yesterday that they now have the dissertation, and he’s read it. Not only does it not have more methodological information than the book, Singal reports, it actually has less, as the methodological appendix that’s in the book is not in the dissertation. In a saved-you-a-trip-to-Princeton email to me, Singal says the dissertation’s description of her survey is “basically identical” to what is in ASR. That speaks to my critique of her survey, which seems unaffected by the release of the dissertation. (I’m not in charge of dissertations at Princeton, so I’m not critiquing the dissertation anyway.)

With regard to the open-science-inspired rule change for ASA dissertation awards, Singal’s article just reinforces my desire to see the rule adopted. Mbugua told Singal that Princeton now allows up to two two-year embargo periods for PhD students who don’t want their dissertations publicly released. But why embargo it? I think most people do this because they don’t want to undermine their book deals. The need for this may be overstated, but it’s a thing. (Eric Schwartz who acquires sociology books for Columbia University Press, tweeted: “No problem. Book and dissertation are for different audiences.”)

Anyway, Singal quotes Goffman giving a quite different reason:

The dissertation contained very sensitive material about people who were vulnerable to arrest and incarceration. … I wanted to think through the ethical and human subjects issues of making it available beyond the committee members and I wanted some time to go by between the actual events and a public reading. That felt safer for the people who had granted me permission to write about their lives, and for me, than publishing right away.

Apart from the fact that this concern did not prevent Goffman from submitting her book to a reading by an awards committee — “beyond the [dissertation] committee members” — I do not find this very credible, and I don’t like that rationale. If it was wrong to release it in 2010 because it would endanger her subjects, then it was wrong to publish a book in 2014 with the same — actually, more — incriminating information. In fact, as we now know, identifying the individuals mentioned in the book was trivial using Google, and of course the police knew who they were anyway. By this rationale, I cannot understand why the dissertation would not be given to the library until 14 months after the book was published — or until three months after the commercial paperback edition was published. Oh, wait.

Look, if people want to embargo their dissertations for financial gain, and their elite private universities allow it, then so be it. But that doesn’t have to be ASA’s problem. We can add one small piece to that calculation: giving up the ASA Dissertation Award.

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On the ropes (Goffman review)

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First a short overview, then my comments.

Alice Goffman’s book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, is one of the major events in sociology of the last few years. How unusual is it for a book based on a sociology dissertation to get this treatment?

Cornel West endorsed it as “the best treatment I know of the wretched underside of neoliberal capitalist America.”  Writing in theNew York Times Book Review, Alex Kotlowitz said it was “a remarkable feat of reporting” with an “astonishing” level of detail and honesty.  The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell called it “extraordinary,” and Christopher Jencks, in the New York Review of Books, predicted that it would “become an ethnographic classic.”  Tim Newburn, a highly regarded criminologist at the London School of Economics, hailed On the Run as “gloriously readable” and “sociology at its best.”

On the other hand, the book has lots of critics — here’s James Forman in the Atlantic — who think Goffman’s research subjects aren’t representative of the poor Black communities she wants to describe. And then there’s the exploitation/privilege/outsider argument, summarized by Claude Fischer (I added the links):

A typical line of criticism charges that outsiders cannot accurately describe their subjects of study. For example, one highly circulated review of Goffman’s book, alarmed at her white privilege, describes the study as “theft,” abetting “fantasies of black pathology,” and possibly causing harm by revealing to police the tricks of hiding. “Inner city Philadelphia isn’t Alice Goffman’s home,” another reviewer writes, “and it’s not her job to turn it into a jungle that needs interpreting.” A Buzzfeed writer simply tweeted, “Ban outsider ethnographies.”

Comments

On the morals and ethics, I’m not going to draw conclusions, except to say that I agree Goffman was wrong to help try to find and kill the guy who killed her friend, if what she says is true.

On the social science, I also have a limited perspective, because I don’t really read the book as social science; I think it’s much more a sociological memoir — and I don’t mean that as a criticism of ethnography, to which I would not apply that label in general.

In fact, the book is least persuasive when she tries to be most dispassionate. On the issue of representativeness, for example, Goffman clearly is wrong when she writes:

Initially I assumed that Chuck, Mike, and their friends represented an outlying group of delinquents: the bad apples of the neighborhood. After all, some of them occasionally sold marijuana and crack cocaine to local customers, and sometimes they even got into violent gun battles. I grew to understand that many young men from 6th Street were at least intermittently earning money by selling drugs, and the criminal justice entanglements of Chuck and his friends were on a par with what many other unemployed young men in the neighborhood were experiencing.

That’s a non sequitur, with the typical slippery use of “many” (which I have probably fallen into myself). The fact is her entire project was shaped by the guy she initially fell in with, and his friends, and they were by any measure an “outlying group.” If you don’t see people who have multiple running gun battles as unusual, your perspective may be a little skewed.

Patrick Sharkey’s review puts their outlier status in the context of declining violent crime — including in Philadelphia’s most violent neighborhoods:

The decision to engage in violence can be thought of as a rational response to the pressures and threats that young men perceive in this environment. But the decision to fire a gun in public space is one that is now universally rejected by every segment of American society, and it is a decision that comes with clear, long-term consequences that are understood by all of the young men in the neighborhood that Goffman studies. … As callous as it sounds given the hardships faced by this young man and the lack of choices available to him in this situation, my sense is that most residents of the block where he chose to fire his weapon would consider attempted murder to be an appropriate charge and would have been happy if he were located by the police and sentenced to prison.

In a number of passages it’s impossible to differentiate what Goffman knows versus what she was told. When the facts are wrong, that’s unfortunate. For example, she writes, “By the time Chuck entered his senior year of high school in 2002, young women outnumbered young men in his classes by more than 2:1.” Was that his perspective? People are reliably bad at estimating group sizes. The actual ratio of women to men among Black 17-year-olds living below the poverty line and enrolled in school in Philadelphia was skewed, but only 1.65-to-1.

Nevertheless, her description of the many ways the incarceration empire impinges on the daily lives of poor Black people in Philadelphia is sometimes insightful and useful. I mostly agree with Goffman’s political description and conclusions about the injustices here, and if the book does some harm it also will do some good. I would be happy to see the volume come down in this discussion and for us to treat this is a regular book — despite the inordinate attention it gets outside of academia. It’s deeply flawed but it’s worth reading. Its systematic evidence is weak but it’s thought-provoking and offers lots of food for thought in research and policy debates. It’s well-written and its topic is important. I have nothing against her and look forward to what she will do next.

That said…

My extremely shallow expertise in qualitative research is unfortunately not balanced by a vast knowledge of survey research methods. But that is my relative strength here, and on that I’d like to register an objection to Goffman’s study — both the book and her 2009 article in American Sociological Review (official link here, Google for a free copy).

There is an understandable problem with reproducibility even in the best ethnographies. As evidence for her conclusions, I simply discount her ostensibly meticulous counting of events, like this:

In that same eighteen-month period, I watched the police break down doors, search houses, and question, arrest, or chase people through houses fifty-two times. Nine times, police helicopters circled overhead and beamed searchlights onto local streets. I noted blocks taped off and traffic redirected as police searched for evidence— or, in police language, secured a crime scene— seventeen times. Fourteen times during my first eighteen months of near daily observation, I watched the police punch, choke, kick, stomp on, or beat young men with their nightsticks.

To me this just means “a lot.” First, there is no denominator. That is, no way to gauge how prevalent these events were compared with anything else. “A lot” is a fine metric for this kind of observation, because all the insights come from the details that follow, not from the recitation of frequencies. (There also is a frustrating lack of precision in these passages. Consider: “I watched the police break down doors, search houses, and question, arrest, or chase people through houses fifty-two times.” What exactly happened 52 times? What do “and” and “or” mean in that sentence?) However, if you think of it as sociological memoir, those numbers mean something because they tell you about her evolving perspective and experience. Wow, I think, if I witnessed 14 police beatings first-hand that would really affect me.

That part of the study is not reproducible. But if you do a survey while you’re doing an ethnography, you’re still doing a survey. The survey is not an ethnography. That means you should (my opinion, not a rule) make available your instrument, methods employed, and the data. Goffman has said she destroyed her field notes so they couldn’t be subpoenaed, but I don’t see why that should apply to her survey data, which could have been stripped of identifying information and processed like any other survey with sensitive material. Unlike the recitation of event counts, the survey is potentially reproducible. She reports (a few) percentages. Other researchers could conceivably conduct similar research in a different place or time and draw useful comparisons; someone might even attempt to reproduce her survey just to see if they get the same result.

Let me back up. I can, without violating the copyright rules regarding quotation length, reproduce everything she wrote about the survey portion of her study. (The much remarked upon 50-page “methodological note” at the end of the book never mentions the survey.) Here I will compare what she said in ASR versus the book, not as a gotcha exercise but because there is so little information in either that the variation between the two may be informative.

In ASR (passages excerpted across several pages of the article):

The five blocks known as 6th Street are 93 percent Black, according to a survey of residents that Chuck and I conducted in 2007. … Of the 217 households surveyed, roughly one fourth received housing vouchers. In all but two households, members reported receiving some type of government assistance in the past three years. … In the survey that Chuck and I conducted in 2007, of the 217 households that make up the 6th Street neighborhood, we found 308 men between the ages of 18 and 30 in residence. Of these men, 144 reported that they had a warrant issued for their arrest because of either delinquencies with court fines and fees or for failure to appear for a court date within the past three years. Also within the past three years, warrants had been issued to 119 men for technical violations of their probation or parole (e.g., drinking or breaking curfew).

The footnote to that last passage clarifies that “in residence” doesn’t really mean living there:

I counted men who lived in a house for three days a week or more (by their own estimates and in some cases, my knowledge) as members of the household. I included men who were absent because they were in the military, at job training programs (like JobCorp), or away in jail, prison, drug rehab centers, or halfway houses, if they expected to return to the house and had been living in the house before they went away.

From this we learn that the survey included 217 households — and also that those 217 households make up the entire 6th Street neighborhood (not its real name). That seems to imply a 100% response rate, because the 217 households surveyed corresponds to the 217 that “make up” the neighborhood. (That is an excellent response rate.) That is also important because of what comes next. If there were 217 households in the neighborhood, but she had only done interviews with, say, half of them, it would have been very surprising to find 308 men ages 18-30 living there. As it is, it’s extremely unlikely there were 308 men 18-30 living in all 217 households. The footnote says she included men who only lived there part time, or who were away for prison or other institutional spells. Frustratingly, it doesn’t say how many in the sample this applied to.

Here’s what tripped me up about that: 308 men 18-30 in 217 households is 1.4 per household — too many, I thought. So I looked at the 45 census tracts in West Philadelphia that are 75% Black or more (based on this map) in the 2005-2009 American Community Survey, and calculated the average number of men in that age range as .57 per household. (Actually I did the estimate for 18-29 because of how the data are published.) There is one tract with 1.04 men per household, but that’s an outlier. If she’s getting almost 2.5-times more than the average in her sample (1.4 versus .57), there must be a lot of missing men living in the neighborhoods not counted by the Census Bureau. Besides wondering if that’s accurate, you also ought to wonder who answered the questions about those men who weren’t actually residing in their residences.

The book’s version, unfortunately, doesn’t help clear that up:

In 2007 Chuck and I went door to door and conducted a household survey of the 6th Street neighborhood. We interviewed 308 men between the ages of eighteen and thirty. Of these young men, 144 reported that they had a warrant issued for their arrest because of either delinquencies with court fines and fees or failure to appear for a court date within the previous three years. For that same period, 119 men reported that they had been issued warrants for technical violations of their probation or parole (for example, drinking or breaking curfew).

This says they interviewed all 308 men, which seems like just an editing mistake. But then of the 144 who “reported that they had a warrant,” was that out of 308 or out of some smaller number of men whom they actually interviewed? Did someone else answer for the men who weren’t there?

Later in the book she describes the women she interviewed in the same survey:

In our 2007 household survey of the 6th Street neighborhood, 139 of 146 women reported that in the past three years, a partner, neighbor, or close male relative was either wanted by the police, serving a probation or parole sentence, going through a trial, living in a halfway house, or on house arrest. Of the women we interviewed, 67 percent said that during that same period, the police had pressured them to provide information about that person.

If she had limited the sample of women to the same age range as the men (which there’s no indication she did) then you would expect, based on the Black West Philadelphia census tracts, about 1.2 men for every woman, or about 250 women in the sample. However, if she included women of all ages, it should have been even more. Why are there only 146 women? Without any more information — and there is no more information in the book — it’s impossible to figure this out.

The last thing you might like to know if you wanted to pursue these very interesting and potentially important results, is what the survey instrument was like, and how it was administered. This was more than 450 people, a decent size survey, with good potential to yield useful results. We know they asked race, housing and other government assistance, warrant status (including the type of warrant) for the men, and criminal justice status for the partner/neighbor/relative (asked separately?) of the women. What strikes me as challenging here is asking these very sensitive questions and getting such a high response rate. Especially given all we learn from the book, knocking on doors and asking people if they have any warrants seems like it wouldn’t always be welcome. How long were the interviews? Did they make multiple visits when people weren’t home? So knowing how they did it would be very helpful for future work.

In the end, besides what we learn from On the Run itself, I hope we learn from the debate over it how we can better balance the need for protecting research subjects — while learning a lot from them — with the imperative to conduct research that is transparent, verifiable, and (as much as possible) reproducible.

ADDENDUM: The importance of the survey

The survey plays a very small part in the book and ASR article, only mentioned a few times, but it is important because it does offer a  hint of generalizability to her research. James Forman wrote in the Atlantic:

The fact that Goffman’s subjects have serious criminal histories impairs our ability to generalize from some of her findings. For example, her central characters are all wanted on warrants at one time or another, some of them repeatedly (Mike has 10 warrants altogether). To Goffman, this indicates that Philadelphia’s criminal-justice system issues too many warrants. But it may simply indicate that Mike and his friends are unusually criminally active.

Perhaps anticipating this challenge, Goffman extends her inquiry beyond the most criminally active members of the community. When she conducts a door-to-door survey of Sixth Street, she finds that about half the men there were wanted on warrants over a three-year period. This is astounding; no previous researcher has reported such a high concentration of fugitives living in one community. This raises questions that Goffman doesn’t answer with precision, but that I hope she and others will explore in the future: How many of these warrants were for failure to pay court costs—which should rarely if ever be imposed on poor people in the first place—versus something more serious, such as skipping a court date? Does fugitive status affect the lives of less criminally involved young men in the same ways it affects the lives of Mike and his friends? If it does, and if other communities harbor equally large proportions of fugitives, Goffman has discovered a profound social problem that deserves further research and a policy response.

The survey thus represents an important avenue for the book’s impact on future research.

ADDITIONAL ADDENDUM: Goffman’s response

In a statement on her website, Goffman responds to several of the recent criticisms. The first is that she participated in a conspiracy to commit murder. Her description there doesn’t change my impression of the scene she describes. But it is interesting for what it reveals about her sense of the men at the core of her story: Chuck and Mike. She writes:

In the months before he died, Chuck was actively working to preserve a precarious peace between his friends and a rival group living nearby. His sudden death was a devastating blow not only to his friends and family, but to the whole neighborhood. After Chuck was shot and killed, people in the neighborhood were putting a lot of pressure on Mike and on Chuck’s other friends to avenge his murder. It seemed that Chuck’s friends were expected to fulfill the neighborhood’s collective desire for retribution. Many of the residents were emphatic that justice should be served, and the man who killed Chuck must pay.

This surprises me, because I did not get the sense from the book that the gang rivalry Goffman described had motivated a collective conflict between entire neighborhoods. That contradicts the comment from Patrick Sharkey above, which speculates that most people in the neighborhood would have been glad to see the police arrest and incarcerate the people who conduct running gun battles in the street. Maybe Skarkey and I are victims of do-gooder liberal attitudes, and really there are neighborhoods in Philadelphia that see themselves at war with whole other neighborhoods and clamor for more shooting.

As an aside, I recently read Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, in which journalist Jill Leovy argues that poor Black communities are at once over-policed — as innocent people are harassed, violated, prosecuted, and incarcerated for minor (or no) offenses — and under-policed such that murderers in Black communities are much less likely to be arrested and convicted than are those who kill Whites. This latter neglect by police contributes to the real problem of violence because it encourages informal (violent) means of addressing conflict in the community. By Leovy’s reasoning, and Sharkey might agree, majorities of people in violent Black neighborhoods would like fewer drug users incarcerated, but more of the people like Mike and whoever killed Chuck incarcerated.

Of course, I don’t know the situation in the “6th Street” neighborhood. But it’s one thing for an activist or community leader to say, “Our neighborhood stands united!”, and another for a sociologist to speak of “the neighborhood’s collective desire.” The former may be effective politics, but the latter is likely an overly-simplified research conclusion.

Which brings me finally back to the issue of Goffman’s survey. In her response, Goffman says Chuck was actively working on neighborhood peace in the months before his death, which occurred in the summer of 2007. Remarkably, that is the same time that she and Chuck conducted their survey of all 217 households in the neighborhood, with a reported 454 interviews. The timing of the survey is not completely clear, but she wrote that it was in 2007. and in an interview she said the survey was in the summer (“Yeah, so we did this survey, Chuck and I, one summer. We interviewed the households in this four-block radius…”). So it’s either a head-scratching story or an incredibly impressive image: Chuck and Goffman conducting a door-to-door household survey at the same time that he’s negotiating a delicate gang truce, interviewing every single household in the neighborhood in the weeks leading up to Chuck’s death, gathering the information that would allow Goffman to in fact accurately speak of their “collective desire.”

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Book reviews: Sex & Unisex, among others

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

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

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

sears69

Here’s a taste of the review:

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

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

Help an essayist out

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

Magazines (or their websites)

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

On the blog

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

Academic journals

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

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