Tag Archives: books

On the ropes (Goffman review)

westphilly

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.”

37 Comments

Filed under Research reports

Book reviews: Sex & Unisex, among others

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

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

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

sears69

Here’s a taste of the review:

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

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

Help an essayist out

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

Magazines (or their websites)

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

On the blog

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

Academic journals

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

3 Comments

Filed under Me @ work, Research reports

Evolved: Nicholas Wade critique trilogy complete

Photo by Philip Cohen from Flickr Creative Commons.

Photo by Philip Cohen from Flickr Creative Commons.

After writing a book review, and further critique of Nicholas Wade’s book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, I have completed the trilogy with a piece forthcoming in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

The final article includes much of what was in the earlier pieces but edited, with more sources, and with additional material on the social science context. I have posted a pre-publication version here as, “Troubling race in the social sciences.”

Here is the conclusion:

It may be the case, as Freese (2008:S1) claims, that “the vast majority of individual-level outcomes of abiding sociological interest are genetically influenced to a substantial degree.” And it may be true that the historical migration and dispersion of people around the planet has resulted in genetically identifiable clusters that sometimes follow the contours of commonly understood races. But it does not follow that genetics explains the relative status and wellbeing of today’s racially-identified groups or their societies. In fact, these two lines of inquiry – the genetics of behavior and the geographic variation in human genetics – do not depend upon each other; the strong case linking them is the contemporary expression of scientific racism. The publication of Wade’s Troublesome Inheritance serves as a potent warning of the continued resonance of racially deterministic narratives of social inequality.

I’ve learned a lot from working on this. I hope you find it helpful.

13 Comments

Filed under Research reports

Cherlin interview, with my unsolicited responses

Lois Collins at the Deseret News has published a very nice interview with Andrew Cherlin around the release of his new book, Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America. Cherlin is a fellow member of the Council on Contemporary Families, and he is a committed truth-teller. I don’t have my whole review of his book yet, but I surely recommend it, although I disagree with him on some things.

Here are three excerpts from the interview, with unsolicited responses from me. I really don’t have a fundamental beef here, and the parts I’m not quoting are the parts I agree with more. But I think these bits are important, too.

DN: What happens to kids when their family life isn’t stable?

Cherlin: We know that kids who experience family instability tend to have more behavior problems and act out at school and at home. That’s especially true for boys. Having unstable family life seems to be more problematic for boys than for girls and more problematic in the emotional domains than in the acquisition of knowledge. So the trends we see matter for kids because unstable family life increases the risk of behavior problems and therefore decreases the rate of graduating from high school.

I understand that unstable family life is a risk factor for the problems he’s discussing. However, we have to keep it in perspective — how bad are the problems, what are their other causes, and what can we do about them? In this quote especially, he mentions decreasing high school graduation rates. But we know that high school graduation rates are much higher now than they were in the 1950s, when family life was much more stable. Here are the trends:

how are kids doing these days.xlsx

There was a period of stagnation for several decades, but since 2001 high school graduation rates are climbing again. This is at the same time that family instability has increased more or less continuously. So whatever the increased risks associated with that, at the aggregate level at least we have been able to overcome that effect. Solving problems like failure to graduate high school can come from reducing risk factors — like family instability — or by overcoming them through other efforts. The need to consider the costs and benefits of both approaches.

DN: What do we do about it? We’re not going to get everybody to go to college.

Cherlin: No, we’re not going to get everybody to go to college. But we could do a better job of educating people for the jobs that do exist. There still are some jobs in the middle of the labor market, such as in the health care field — I’m thinking of medical technicians or medical records specialists. I think we could do a better job of supporting education and training for people who are not going to get a four-year degree. I think education is a big part of the solution. I don’t think it’s the whole solution by any means, but it could help. I think we need to give up the dream of having a four-year college education for every American and realize that we might be better off training some people for reasonable-skill jobs that still exist in the job market.

I really don’t agree with this, but it’s become a popular thing to say. What about this trend suggests we are at some kind of ceiling?

college completion trends.xlsx

At less than 40%, I see no reason to assume we can’t send more people to college. There are two really bad reasons to think we can’t do more, which I wrote about at some length in this post. The first is that people aren’t smart enough to benefit from real college education. The chief purveyor of this idea is Charles Murray, who thinks we shouldn’t try to educate people beyond high school unless they have an IQ of 115 or higher. The second bad reason is the idea that the government just spends too much on poor people already. One purveyor of this idea is Brad Wilcox, who says, “the U.S. spends a ton of money and devotes unparalleled attention to college. But the reality is that only one-third of adults, even today, will get a college degree, a B.A. or B.S.” That’s just ridiculous — lots of countries send more people through college than the U.S. does:

college graduation rates OECD.xls

 

If young people knew they were going to college, many more of them would wait to have their kids. Which brings me to the last excerpt:

DN: Are there changes to be made on the culture side [to improve family stability]?

Cherlin: I’m not sure we can do things culturally. I think we need to try. I would acknowledge that others feel that, too. What might one do? We could try getting out a cultural message that says to young adults, ‘Don’t have children until you’re sure you’re in a lasting relationship.’ We’d have to make a cultural change in the acceptability of having children outside of marriage. That change has not been entirely positive. Could we have a social messaging campaign that tries to get young adults to postpone childbearing until they’re in a relationship, rather than going ahead and having kids outside of a stable relationship? Whether we can do that successfully, I don’t know, but I really think we ought to try.

This refers indirectly to the recent book by Isabel Sawhill, Generation Unbound, in which she argues for a cultural campaign to discourage childbearing outside of stable, long-term relationships. Of course, we have had non-stop cultural campaigns — formal and informal — pouring shame and stigma on single mothers (and fathers) for at least 30 years. I’m glad Cherlin and Sawhill are in favor of expanding the message beyond marriage to include stable relationships, but I think it amounts to much the same thing.

I have several points of disagreement. The first is over the idea that single people shouldn’t have children. Yes, on average children of single parents have more of some kinds of problems than children of married parents, especially problems related to shortages of money and time. But we also know that many children of single parents do fine — it’s not moon-shot difficult, it’s tough-challenge difficult. Given that, do you really want to tell a 20-year old woman who has no prospect of finishing college and no “stable relationship” that she should just postpone having children? Till when? Most people think having children is one of the most important things they will ever do, it’s a goal in life, it literally gives life meaning (I recommend Children of Men). For those of us with money, power, and privilege to tell poorer people that they should just shelve this fundamental source of purpose and meaning in their lives because it will be difficult and might inconvenience us just rubs me the wrong way.

My second point of disagreement is less visceral and more practical. I don’t see how this is going to work. There is no evidence, especially not with promoting marriage. Sawhill and Wilcox like to point to the campaign to prevent teen pregnancy, but that’s mostly misplaced (as I wrote here): the teen birth rate is mostly down because women are postponing births at all ages — because they have better opportunities, especially for education and careers. So rather than continue to promote the idea of “doing things culturally,” which has a proven record of failure, why not promote higher education, which we know we can do successfully, and which has demonstrated effects on delaying childbearing, increasing family stability, and improving the economy?

If we can promise people access to an affordable college education I would be much more willing to encourage them to delay having their children. That would be useful, practical advice — not empty moralizing.

 

5 Comments

Filed under In the news

Christian Smith responds to my review of The Sacred Project

Please welcome guest blogger Christian Smith, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. His post is a reply to my review of his book, The Sacred Project of American Sociology, originally posted here. He also posted a reply to Andrew Perrin’s review over on Scatterplot today (but because that is just in the comments section, he doesn’t get the CV line “guest blogger” from that appearance). I have added a few comments of my own at the end.

Reply to Phil Cohen’s “It’s Modernity, Stupid”

by Christian Smith

When Phil Cohen’s response to my book, The Sacred Project of American Sociology, was first published on his website, various colleagues alerted me to it, but also suggested it was not worth reading, much less engaging, so lopsided and noxious they said it was. I took their advice. However, over this holiday weekend I thought for fun I might disregard their advice and read Phil’s piece.

My informants turned out to be right. Offering a point-by-point reply to Phil’s review seems fruitless, given where he and I stand. But I will venture a few general observations and leave it at that.

What is most striking about Phil’s response in general is how indeed obviously lopsided it is. If what his readers wanted was the pulling out of context of everything that could possibly be construed to seem to be the worst in a book and framing it in a most damning light, then Phil delivered, entertainingly. His “documented personal animosity” toward me clearly showed in his tone and analysis.

However, if what readers wanted was a careful, reflective, and balanced evaluation of my book, they will have to look elsewhere. Maybe or maybe not such a review will be forthcoming in an academic journal.

Phil’s is the sort of response designed to get a book dismissed early on (within 24 hours of its release in July, in my case) before it is taken seriously by too many potentially interested readers. Throw the damn thing under the bus before it causes trouble. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” is the larger genre of rhetoric to which it belongs. This may be effective ideological activism, but it doesn’t really count as a serious review.

Phil’s reaction is a lot of distraction, mostly. He casts me as an anti-modern grump who can only think anecdotally. He discusses my case as if it were just another round in the Regnerus debacle. He picks away at this and that issue with lots of cute jabs. But those are diversions from my book’s larger argument about sociology’s sacred project and its problematic consequences. The subtext is this: Keep your eye on the ball of the game that Phil wants you to be playing, and ignore Smith’s actual argument. But not everyone is distracted. “I haven’t followed this closely, but it seems like Phil’s reaction just provides more evidence substantiating your thesis,” is what one sociology colleague (a secular, politically progressive, full professor) recently emailed me.

Phil’s view is that sociology’s mission simply = “modernity, stupid.” But that reflects a convergence-toward-uniformity view of modernity inherited from 1950s-style modernization theory. It does serve the rhetorical purpose of branding anyone as anti-modern as a “vaccine denier” who may not agree with Phil’s view of the world.

Unfortunately, Phil’s view about modernity is outdated, specifically concerning the empirical fact of “multiple modernities,” that is, about the massive cultural and institutional pluralism that characterizes real modernity today across and within societies and global regions, which numerous scholars have documented and theorized. There exists an important literature on multiple modernities that Phil might wish to consult to get this point: just as there is not only one modernity, so sociology need not be dominated by one sacred project. Phil’s cloaking of that project with the mantle of an allegedly inexorable singular modernity reflects in yet another way the parochial imagination of sociology’s sacred project that his piece seems intent on defending.

One theme in my book (among many) that Phil’s response obscured is that I am not recommending that American sociology be purged of its sacred project. Most social groups have sacred projects and sociology is entitled to its own sacreds. As I say in my book, sociology would be horrendously boring without a sacred project. Furthermore, when it comes to the particular features of sociology’s sacred project, I personally embrace and endorse many of them. My argument, then, is not to eliminate sociology’s sacred project, but rather to be more honest about our sacred project and its consequences and to allow a greater pluralism of sacred projects within the discipline. That Phil understood that basic point is not at all clear.

I continue to hear reports from various kinds of sociology colleagues around the country who have read my book and say they think it is essentially right, even if they do not agree with all the details. None of them, however, will ever say that in public. Why? Fear, intimidation, self-preservation. They know there is a price to be paid for speaking their minds on these matters, so they keep quiet. American sociology, in other words, has managed to create an environment of uncoordinated self-censorship.

Is everyone okay with that? If so, then let’s be satisfied with the kind of personal-animosity-driven writings like Phil Cohen’s piece. My only request, then, is, as I wrote in my book, that we be completely honest about what is going on and ready to live with the problematic consequences.

scream-sxc924206_32902585

Reply from Philip Cohen

Four short points.

1. I didn’t say, and don’t believe, that my review was driven by any personal animosity. What I said in the original post was that, because I once used a profanity in an email to Smith, I didn’t want to get some editor in trouble if they were to publish my review and then Smith produced my email as evidence of bias. That’s why I published the review myself.

2. If my review was really just a lot of diversions, and out-of-context jabs, which obscured “many” themes from the book, then I really wonder what I missed. Where is there any actual evidence for his argument about contemporary American sociology, which is not subject to “framing … in the most damning light”? Maybe he should provide us with another appendix that clarifies which evidence we should evaluate seriously and which we should avoid lest we accidentally cherry pick anecdotes to make him look bad. The book is very short.

3. “None of them, however, will ever say that in public.” Really? Come on, o ye fearful anonymous colleagues of Christian Smith! Do you who think he is “essentially right” really plan to go through your careers without ever expressing your true opinions in public? What kind of intellectual coward does that (especially when they have tenure)? Coincidentally, this is exactly the tactic Nicholas Wade used in the other book I wrote a long review of this summer. “The less academics defend me,” they say, “the more evidence this is that I am courageous and alone in my maverick stance against the all-powerful academic establishment.” While Smith has an endowed chair at a wealthy private university — with zillions of dollars in foundation grants for his research projects — maybe the next person who agrees with his opinions will be the victim of harsh retribution and face some career-ended “price to be paid.” Or maybe this is baloney.

4. Sure, multiple modernities. However, some contemporary modernities are really postmodern pre-modernities.

Note: I tried to find the source for the screaming man image, but it’s been used too many times without attribution, going back at least to 2008, for me to figure out the source.

9 Comments

Filed under Me @ work

Post-summer reading list: The Family, gender, race, economics, gayborhoods, insecurity and overwhelmed

I was extremely fortunate to have a real vacation this summer — two whole weeks. I feel like half a European. In that time I read, almost read, or thought about reading, a number of things I might have blogged about if I’d been working instead of at the beach:

beach-reading-2

The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change

Yes, my own book came out. I never worked on one thing so much. I really hope you like it. Look for it at the Norton booth at the American Sociological Association meetings in San Francisco this week. Info on ordering exam copies here.

About that gender stall

The Council on Contemporary Families, on whose board I serve, published an online symposium titled, After a Puzzling Pause, the Gender Revolution Continues. It features work by the team of David Cotter, Joan Hermsen, and Reeve Vanneman on a rebound in gender attitudes; new research on sex (by Sharon Sassler) and divorce (by Christine Schwartz) in egalitarian marriages; and how overwork contributes to the gender gap (by Youngjoo Cha). For additional commentary, see this piece by Virginia Rutter at Girl w/ Pen!, and an important caution from Joanna Pepin (who finds no rebound in attitudes in the trends for high school students). If I had written a whole post about this I would have found a way to link to my essay on the gender stall in the NYTimes, too.

Gender and Piketty

How Gender Changes Piketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’.” A discussion hosted by The Nation blog between Kathleen Geier, Kate Bahn, Joelle Gamble, Zillah Eisenstein and Heather Boushey

Scientists strike back at Nicholas Wade

Geneticists decry book on race and evolution.” More than 100 scientists signed a letter to the New York Times disavowing Wade’s use of population genetics. This story quotes Sarah Tishkoff, whose work Wade specifically misrepresented (as I described in my review in Boston Review). The article in Science also includes Wade’s weak response, in which he repeats the claim, which I do not find credible, that their objections are “driven by politics, not science.” He repeats this no matter how scientific the objections to his work.

Here comes There Goes the Gayborhood?

Amin Ghaziani’s new book has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention in the last few weeks. Here’s one good article in the New Yorker.

Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times

Marianne Cooper’s book is out now. From the publisher: “Through poignant case studies, she reveals what families are concerned about, how they manage their anxiety, whose job it is to worry, and how social class shapes all of these dynamics, including what is even worth worrying about in the first place.” Cooper led the research for Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, and the book is from her sociology dissertation.

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time

Brigid Schulte, a Washington Post journalist, has written a really good book about gender, work, and family. (I was happy to listen to it during the drive to our vacation, because it helped me let go and ignore work more.) I’ll write a longer review, but let me just say here it is very well written and researched on the issues of time use, the household division of labor, and work-family policy and politics, featuring many of your favorite social scientists in this area. Well worth considering for an undergrad family course. (Also, helps explain why there are so many Europeans on American beaches.)

3 Comments

Filed under In the news

It’s modernity, stupid (Book review of The Sacred Project of American Sociology, by Christian Smith)

Book review: The Sacred Project of American Sociology, by Christian Smith. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Smith Confounding

Christian Smith Confounding Philip Cohen: With (left to right) Brad Wilcox, Mark Regnerus, C. Wright Mills, and Talcott Parsons (Original source: Giovanni di Paolo, St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroës, from Wikimedia Commons)*

Note: I am self-publishing this review rather than trying to find another outlet for it because I once (in response to Smith’s email described below) used a single profanity in an email reply, and I don’t want to get some editor in trouble for allowing me to write a review when I have a documented personal animosity against the author. Unfortunately, it’s much longer than it would be if someone else published it. Sorry!

Christian Smith in this book reminds me of a vaccine denier. He is convinced the whole modern world is a Big Lie but, except for a few fellow travelers, he can’t find a way to convince everyone else that they’re the ones who are crazy. Inevitably, out of desperation, he starts to write in italics.

…the secular enterprise that everyday sociology appears to be pursuing is actually not what is really going on at sociology’s deeper level. Contemporary American sociology is, rightly understood, actually a profoundly sacred project at heart. Sociology today is in fact animated by sacred impulses, driven by sacred commitments, and serves a sacred project (x).

(In his frustration, he also clutters up a very short and simple book with endless redundant phrases like “in fact,” “rightly understood,” and “actually.” I haven’t added italics to any of his quotes in this review.)

He’s not being “tricky” with the term sacred: he means it in the strictly Durkheimian sense of, “things set apart from the profane and forbidden to be violated,” things “hallowed, revered, and honored as beyond questioning,” things that “can never be defiled, defied, or desecrated by any infringement or desecration” (1-2). This is not a metaphor, this is “exactly the character of the dominant project of American sociology” (2). Literally.

The book is not just the familiar diatribe against leftist groupthink in academia. What sets this apart is that Smith’s real problem is modernity itself, which I’ll return to. However, this particular expression of modernity – the one that happens to surround him in his chosen academic discipline – is especially grating. So we’ll start with that.

Like a vaccine denier, Smith is more and more convinced of his theory the more all the sociologists around him deny it. In fact, actually, rightly understood, rampant denial is literally evidence that he’s right. By the end of the book he concludes, “Many American sociologists will … find it impossible to see the sacred project that sociology is – precisely because my argument above is correct” (199). This treads uneasily close to the line where common arrogance tips over into a lack of grip on reality.

In the text of the American Sociological Association (ASA) description of the discipline, for example, “none of it admits to advancing a sacred project” (6). Aha! Why not? Two reasons, he figures. First, the sacred project “is so ubiquitous and taken for granted … that it has become invisible to most sociologists themselves” (6-7). Why would we discuss something universal and uncontroversial? Second, admitting its existence “would threaten the scientific authority and scholarly legitimacy of academic sociology,” so it must be “misrecognized, implicit, and unexamined” to maintain “plausible deniability,” and therefore “sociologists carefully exempt their own discipline from their otherwise searching sociological gaze” (7). So, we “carefully” keep secret for strategic reasons that which we cannot even know exists. The devil does work in mysterious ways.

Sacred is as sacred does

What is the content of the sacred project? In a bizarre throwback to the 1950s – he even puts red-scare quotes around “the people” [12] – Smith describes “the project” as

about something like exposing, protesting, and ending, through social movements, state regulations, and government programs all human inequality, oppression, exploitation, suffering, injustice, poverty, discrimination, exclusion, hierarchy, constraint and domination by, of, and over other humans (and perhaps animals and the environment (7).

For convenience, we could reasonably shorten this to, “communism.”

But this veneer of egalitarianism “does not go deep enough.” The project is

more fully and accurately described as … the visionary project of realizing the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire, by constructing their own favored identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures (7-8).

We might call this deeper goal, “decadence.”

After that, it’s only a matter of a few lines before he starts putting “(so-called)” before “the Enlightenment” (8) and stringing together terms like this: “modern liberal-Enlightenment-Marxist-social-reformist-pragmatist-therapeutic-sexually liberated-civil right-feminist-GLBTQ-social constructionist-poststructuralist/postmodernist” (11). Did I mention this guy was Mark Regnerus’s dissertation committee chair at UNC? (Funny, he forgot to mention that, too.)

Of course, Smith has to admit that the sacred project is not something that all sociologists are into. “Most are, I think, being more or less conscious and activist on behalf of it [the project]. But some are not” (23). Who are those more innocent ones? He grudgingly lists five groups of exceptions (23-24):

  • “believers in sociology as purely a scientific study of society … often very fine people”;
  • “just commonplace ‘institution improvers,'” trying practically to make modern society work better;
  • “professional data collectors” who work in various bureaucracies and companies;
  • “ordinary, middle-America college professors who simply like to learn and teach about the family, criminal justice, or what have you”, and, finally;
  • “old-school liberals who genuinely believe in tolerance, fairness, and pluralism.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking this comprises is an important slice of American sociology, however, because they don’t represent “the discipline’s dominant culture, sensibilities, interests, discourse, and project.” And anyway, they are a very small minority. Excluding these five groups, in fact, Smith estimates that 30 to 40 percent are “true believers” and another 50 to 60 percent are “essentially on board, but are circumspect in how they express it” (24). Doing a quick calculation 100-(30+50) and 100-(40+60), it appears that those five groups of exceptions sum to between 0 percent and 20 percent of American sociologists. But it’s worse than even that, because some of the moderates, “when scratched hard enough,” do “show their true colors as sympathizers” with the project (25).

Hardly evidence

It seems shocking that that such an overwhelming majority of American sociologists could be so deeply into something so radical. To make such an extreme claim in a book published by a leading, highly reputable university press, surely one must have some pretty damning evidence? No.

It doesn’t help his case much, but the chapter titled “Evidence” is packed with ammunition for any grad student who ends up with Smith on his or her dissertation committee. Keep these defensive lines handy:

  • “the evidence I can offer is not ‘conclusive,’ at least when the standards of proof are set as the types that count for, say, publication in the top journals” (28). (No offense intended to Oxford University Press, I’m sure.)
  • What is “personally most convincing” is his own experience of many years, which he hopes will help readers “intuitively grasp the truth of my thesis” (28).
  • “There is no practical way to ‘test’ my thesis with standard sociological measures; the issues involved are too subtle and elusive to be ‘verified’ by such means” (29).
  • “I cannot conduct a systematic investigation to ‘prove’ that [some random claim], but I am confident that one well conducted would validate my claim” (66).
  • “Again, nobody, I am sure, has conducted or could conduct a systematic study of such features and reactions to empirically ‘prove’ my point” (87).

Honestly, the required survey design seems pretty simple. First, ask a sample of sociologists if they “are now or have ever been an activist on behalf of the sacred project.” Then, provide them with a list of their friends and colleagues, and ask for them to identify the individuals who would or should answer affirmatively to the first question.

Rather than follow such a straightforward approach, Smith presents “an array of semi-systemic evidence,” beginning with a “stroll through the ASA’s annual convention book exhibit” (29) (presumably senior professors with endowed chairs conducts “strolls” to collect their data, while junior faculty might feel the need to at least jog). From his stroll, he constructs 12 generic categories into which “most” of the books there “could be translated.” I won’t list them all, but these give you a feel:

  • People are Not Paying Enough Attention to Social Problem X, But if They Read this Book they Will Realize that They Have To
  • Women, Racial Minorities, and Poor People are Horribly Oppressed and You Should Be Really Angry About That!
  • Gays, Lesbians, Transsexuals, and other Queers are Everywhere and Their Experiences are Some of the Most Important Things Ever to Know About

After establishing the categories, he reprints the titles of about 30 books from NYU Press (which he doesn’t name because “a look at the sociology lists of virtually every other university press and trade publisher would produce a list very similar” [34]). The book list supports his hypothesis that there is a “narrow range of themes and perspectives.”

This is confusing. When you use concepts like, “Social Problem X,” and then put most books into that category, the question really is how many values does X take? This is like saying many history books are the same because they fit into the category, “Something happened during Period X in Place Y.”

The actual list of books he includes covers topics as diverse as factory farming, GLBT people in Islam, mass incarceration, paganism, breastfeeding, fair trade, donor conception, the NRA, school discipline, hip-hop culture, marriage promotion, immigrant health care, deliberate self-injury, and homeless youth. To Smith these are all “these type of books” produced by “activist disciples of the sacred project.” And, without opening a single one of them, he concludes, “So much for celebrating diversity, the proactive inclusion of social others, and welcoming differences” (34). (I’m thinking, “What an interesting body of work!”)

To supplement the NYU list, Smith adds 30 books reviewed in one issue of Contemporary Sociology. And now he’s in the territory of Sen. Tom Coburn – just listing research topics which, if you already think social science is stupid, sound stupid.

While one cannot always judge a book from its cover (title), my discussion above provides the right interpretive context for knowing what these books are about. Collectively, they are focused on threatening social problems (about which sociologists are the prophetic experts), injustices committed (about which sociologists are the whistle blowers), abuses by economically and politically (especially ‘neo-liberal’) powerful elites (ditto on whistle blowing), and mobilizing social and political movements for sociopolitical and economic change (about which sociologists are the experts and cheerleaders) (40).

To supplement his evidence, because titles don’t tell you everything, he includes five “exemplar” books, into which he delves more deeply – which means quoting from the book jackets and random reviews posted on Amazon.

And then Smith spends four pages – more than he spends on any other research in the book – attacking one book (which he didn’t read) about religion: Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches. He writes, “Between the book itself and the reviewer’s presentation of it, American sociologists are generally confirmed in their standard stereotypical fears about and negative mental associations with evangelicalism” (43). He refers to the book as a “sociological ethnography,” which reflects attitudes held by “sociologists” and the practices of “sociologists far and wide.” He doesn’t even show the courtesy of identifying the author (Omri Elisha) and citing the book properly. If he had, he might have noticed a slight problem with his evidence: the author is an anthropologist! Details.

To analyze research articles, Smith turns to American Sociological Review, based on the method of reading the next issue that arrives (Vol 78, No 3) for evidence of the “sacred project.” Except for one methodological piece, “the raft of articles in this issue tilted clearly in the supportive direction of the sacred project to which, explicitly or implicitly, subtly or obviously, the ASR, the ASA, and American sociology as a whole are committed” (58-59). The evidence he finds is basically that most of the articles study inequality, and when they do they sometimes describe it in negative terms. In essence, the existence of any sociological work describing any aspect of inequality confirms his hypothesis. (And somehow he thought this was too subtle to study empirically.)

Mo’ better modernity

The extent of his disillusionment finally becomes clear in a brief discussion of Horne et al’s, ASR article on bridewealth in Ghana. They investigated “normative constraints on women’s autonomy in the reproductive domain.” Smith objects to the value-laden perspective by which autonomy for women is assumed to be a good thing. He virtually sneers, “Here ‘improving the lives of African women’ is equated, as a good western feminist presupposition, with expanding ‘women’s reproductive autonomy'” (57).

Smith may not know that reproductive autonomy usually refers to a broad suite of decisions about childbearing within families, and it’s an important predictor of such vital outcomes as seeking medical care during pregnancy and delivery (e.g., in Ethiopia, Tajikistan, Bangladesh, and India), reduced unintended pregnancies (e.g., in Bangladesh), and children’s adequate nutrition (in India). If the big problem with sociology is that we assume those are positive outcomes, then I think I’m OK with that.

But Smith is presumably thinking of autonomy in the modern American sense of, “I’m bored, let’s get a divorce”; or, “I love myself, I think I’ll masturbate instead of volunteering at a soup kitchen.” And in that he has reason to worry, as it appears the majority of the world may be headed that direction.

smith-wvs

But surely – given the weak influence of sociology on global culture – he misdirects his irritation over modern life in general onto the sociologists who merely reflect it. This is especially clear in the discussion of sociology’s roots, which reveals the origins of the sacred project he is trying to describe:

As a project, sociology [originally] belonged at the heart of a movement that self-consciously and intentionally displaced western Christianity’s integrative and directive role in society. It was a key partner in modernity’s world-historical efforts to create a secular, rational, scientific social order … Sociology was not merely about piecemeal reforms but world transformation guided by a radically new sacred vision of humanity, life, society, and the cosmos (122).

Indeed, the latest version of the sacred project focuses on “the moral centrality of the autonomous, self-directing, therapeutically oriented individual,” but “this is merely a new emphasis, the seeds of which were planted long ago and have been growing along with the progressive unfolding of western modernity” (130). Thus, “the sacred project that dominates mainstream sociology today is a natural, logical development of the inheritance of liberal, Enlightenment modernity” (131).

Given the worldwide magnitude of this project, and its global success over several centuries, in which American sociology has played such a small role, its seems useless to single out today’s idealistic graduate students and young researchers for blame. They are mere cogs in the modernity machine. This is the deep incoherence of the book: he pours his scorn so superfluously on the leftists who annoy him even though the details of contemporary politics seem tangential to his existential concerns.

Into ASA

Smith extends his superficial empirical analysis into the subject of ASA sections, the organizations sociologists use to develop affinities around their interests and expand their institutional influence. This analysis consists entirely of Smith separating sections into three categories by title based purely on his own inimitable expertise. No content, no text, not even a mocking list of conference presentation titles – just section titles.

The first category is those that are “at the vanguard of sociology’s sacred project.” Naturally, this is the largest category, with some 13,000 members (many people belong to more than one). These include, obviously, Sex and Gender, as well as, less obviously, Mental Health; Alcohol, Drugs and Tobacco; and Disability and Society. Next are those that are “less obviously but in many ways still promoting sociology’s sacred project.” These sections have about 11,000 members, including those covering Culture, Theory, Law, and Population. (Oddly, while Mental Health is in the seriously-bad category, Medical Sociology is only in the pretty-bad category. He said it was subtle.) He would “venture to say” based on his experience, that the “majority” of research and teaching by those in this second category “ultimately feeds into support for and the promotion of” the sacred project (66). Finally, there are only four sections, with less than 1,000 members, that are “seemingly not related” to the sacred project (History of Sociology, Mathematical Sociology, Rationality and Society, and Ethnomethodology).

To cover teaching, Smith discusses selected portions of John Macionis’s best-selling Society: The Basics. I have never used one, but I hear that intro books are often frustrating for research university professors, so I am sympathetic here, although my concerns would no doubt be different. I don’t mind criticizing the triumvirate theoretical framing of functionalism-conflict-interaction, but I’m OK with discussing the limits of “free will” (versus social influence), quoting Tocqueville on how excellent the French Revolution was, and even using of BCE/CE instead of BC/AD for dating eras (so touchy – who knew?).

Anyway, there is an extensive literature about introductory sociology textbooks, and since Smith ignores it I mostly ignored this section. However, I did like this: “I could also conduct the same kind of analysis of the other best-selling introductory sociology textbooks, and again, the results would be extremely similar” because “these textbooks are almost identical to each other” (85). I love that he knows this before conducting the “analysis.” But I also don’t doubt that we would reproduce similar conclusions regardless of what he read.

Tall tales

Smith concludes the crucial “Evidence” chapter with “some less systematic [!] but still I think revealing illustrations” (86). These are extended anecdotes that nicely illustrate his ability to harbor a grudge – including cases in which sociologists vehemently reacted to violations of the sacred project (mostly sociologists mistreating his friends).

For some of the anecdotes, Smith does not name names. This is supposedly to underscore his larger points, but since he is not a reliable reporter this is a very bad practice. One he discusses anonymously is obviously the reaction to the book by Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially. His description is completely misleading, characterizing it only as a “book about the many benefits of marriage, the lead author of which was a very highly regarded University of Chicago sociologist and demographer.” Excluded is the fact that the book was not published by a university press (Doubleday), and that the second author was a conservative activist, a non-academic “affiliate scholar” working with the Institute for American Values (IAV). Gallagher was already known as a right-wing nut (the author of Enemies of Eros: How the Sexual Revolution Is Killing Family, Marriage, and Sex and What We Can Do About It), who went on to become perhaps the most famous American anti-gay marriage fanatic.

Waite was also working outside of academia to advocate policy. She was writing for IAV, and served on the research board of the National Marriage Project, an academic-activist organization promoting pro-marriage policy. Waite said she and Gallagher kept their politics separate and out of the book. Others disagreed. Clearly, Waite was moving in a more activist direction, as she acknowledged herself, couching her advocacy for marriage in public health terms, and comparing it to the campaigns about smoking and for exercise. A lively debate ensued. Smith describes an author-meets-critics session at the ASA conference in 2002, and says an eyewitness told him that one of the critics “literally frothed at the mouth” and shouted, “You have betrayed us!

But why is Waite different from the other activists who use social science research to promote social agendas – a similarity hidden by Smith’s selective description? And how is this debate so much more damaging than any other? To show the harm done by the sacred sociologists, Smith reports that Waite, who had been on the ASA Council and chair of the Family Section (incidentally one of Smith’s “vanguard” sacred project sections…), has not since held elective office in ASA. That’s true, and I doubt she would be elected if she ran, because of her politics. She has, however, continued a very successful career, holding a named chair at the University of Chicago and serving in important positions at the National Institutes of Health, among other distinctions. Being president of ASA is a privilege, not a right.

Another anecdote concerns Brad Wilcox’s tenure promotion at the University of Virginia, also hardly anonymized (93-95). As a non-public personnel matter, however, this case is poorly suited for weaponization. I don’t know the facts first-hand, and Smith doesn’t offer any documentation or reveal his source for the story. The gist of it is that Wilcox’s department at the University of Virginia voted to deny him tenure, but they were overruled by the top level of administration (Smith says it was the provost that saved the promotion, while Wilcox colleague Robert George reported it was the president). I don’t know the extent to which Wilcox’s religious affiliation or political positions played a role in the department’s decision, and I certainly wouldn’t take Smith’s word for it. Simply counting the publications on a CV is not enough to judge a tenure decision; the quality and impact of the work matter, too, as do ethics and character. For example, regardless of his publication record I might vote to deny Wilcox tenure on the basis of his dishonesty and incompetence (which I have documented voluminously – although my stories begin after he was tenured).

Regnerus reflux

All this is setup for Smith’s rant about the Regnerus affair (overview here; archive of posts under this tag). When the scandal was unfolding in 2012, Smith made an unintentional appearance in the blogosphere when some of his outraged email to sociologists (including me) was posted on the Scatterplot blog (here and here). He followed that up with an essay defending Regnerus in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which accused academic sociology of perpetrating an auto-da-fé (which is similar to being criticized on blogs, except in every possible way).

Obsessed readers will recall that, in the original version of that essay, Smith wrote, “Full disclosure: I was on the faculty in Regnerus’s department and advised him for some years, but was not his dissertation chair.” That was later corrected to read, “Full disclosure: I was chair of Regnerus’s dissertation committee.” This seems not a minor detail to forget, considering (by his accounting) Smith and Regnerus co-authored eight articles together, and Regnerus was one of only six dissertations Smith chaired at UNC.

Regnerus dissertation signature page.

Regnerus dissertation signature page.

Smith is still having trouble with the details of the story, and forgets again to “fully disclose” this fact.

He also tells this story as if everything Regnerus said initially was true and nothing substantial was subsequently uncovered. For example, it hardly seems relevant anymore that, “Regnerus was clear in his article that his findings did not point in any specific policy direction” (102), now that Regnerus and his colleagues did use his results to press the case against marriage equality, in both briefs and expert testimony. We also now know, confirming the early conspiracy theories, that Regnerus and his colleagues – principally Wilcox – did indeed plan the study as an activist endeavor to influence the courts. (This doesn’t mean they faked the data, only that they were sure they would find a way to find something in the data to make gay and lesbian parents look bad.)

Smith quotes from Regnerus’s paper, “I have not and will not speculate here on causality,” but we now know that Regnerus grossly does exaggerate his results and draw causal conclusions when speaking to like-minded audiences, including by presenting unadjusted results while discussing his statistical controls, and by speculating about mechanisms for the patterns he found. The original published paper, with its caveats and disclaimers, proved irrelevant to how the movement against marriage equality used it for their ideological ends.

In any event, Smith still needs to vent on the ill treatment he believes Regnerus received at the hands of the purveyors of the sacred project. He devotes more than 14 pages to the scandal, of which almost 6 are footnotes in which he schools himself on the legal particulars of the case, condemns the non-academic activists who agitated and sued their way through the process, and takes on some of the wider research on same-sex parenting. Not surprisingly, however, I’m afraid Smith seems to have learned little from the scandal (including the relevant facts).

One odd falsehood Smith commits is claiming there was a “review process by which the [Regnerus] article had been unanimously judged worthy of publication by six double-blind reviewers” (107), which he repeats later (157). If this is an honest error it results from misreading the internal review conducted by Darren Sherkat for the journal, Social Science Research (SSR), in response to the scandal. Sherkat reported that there were six reviewers for two articles that sparked controversy – three each. So, three reviewers, not six. Also, Smith must know that SSR is the only major sociology journal to practice single-blind review. The reviewers always know who wrote the articles they review. In fact, as we now know, two of the three reviewers were directly involved in the research: Paul Amato, who has described his role as a paid consultant on the study; and, far worse, Brad Wilcox, the principal fundraiser and institutional architect of the research, whose role as a reviewer was finally admitted in August 2013. So, not exactly “double-blind,” even nominally.

Smith’s main complaint is that the sociologists criticizing Regnerus have always ignored weak studies and shoddy research methods when people who used them found that gay and lesbian parents don’t harm children. This is the “ideological double standard” that Smith called “pathetic” in an email to me and others, now rehashed at p. 110 of his book. But it’s ridiculous. Neither I nor the others objecting to the Regnerus paper claimed our primary objective was the protection of accurate science in some abstract sense. The paper drew the sustained attention that it did because of the moment and manner in which it appeared – and was deployed – in a raging national debate with important, practical consequences for real life.

Speaking for myself, I of course routinely review and recommend rejection for research articles whose results and apparent worldview are completely consistent with my empirical expectations and normative assumptions (even in cases where rubberstamping them into publication would increase my own citation count). And I often decline to cite relevant research that would support whatever case I’m making if I don’t find it sound or credible. I have standards for quality and I impose them in the routine course of business. But I don’t stand on street corners and holler at passersby every time a poor quality article is published, the way I do when one is that attacks minority civil rights. That’s not hypocrisy, that’s priorities.

On the merits of the equivalency claim – bad Regnerus, bad prior research – I also disagree. Much of the previous research on same-sex parenting was essentially in the form of case studies and convenience samples, which are legitimate ways of studying small and hard-to-identify populations, despite the possibility of selection bias and social desirability bias. As Andrew Perrin, Neal Caren and I argued in a response paper, that previous research, in the aggregate, is consistent with the “no differences” view because it fails to falsify the hypothesis that there is a notable disadvantage to being raised by same-sex parents. All those case studies and convenience samples do not prove there is no disadvantage attributable to same-sex parenting – they merely fail to find one. And that is the state of the research today.

Unsurprisingly, Smith draws the wrong conclusion from the Regnerus affair, arguing that the greatest negative outcome was the threat to the peer-review process posed by the criticism of Regnerus:

Most obvious in that episode was the attack on Regnerus himself. Less obvious but no less important was the assault on the integrity of the double-blind peer-review process involved in those attacks. Recall that Regnerus’ paper had been evaluated by six blind reviewers, all of whom recommended publication. Recall that the quality of Regnerus’ sample was, though not perfect, superior to any other that had been used to answer this research question prior to his study. Nothing in the review process was unusual or dubious… (157).

Even if all that were true, and it is demonstrably all not true, I still don’t think protest and criticism of published research – what Smith calls “scholarly review by mob intimidation” – marks “the end of credible social science” (161). This is like saying the problem with the Vietnam War was that it ushered in a new era in which elected politicians can’t even make the decision to go to war anymore without the threat of mob protests and civil disobedience. Who let the public in to this democracy, anyway? (Of course, as I was once instructed by a colleague, academia is not a democracy, it’s a meritocracy.)

His summary of the story takes on this Orwellian character. “I do not mean to suggest that sociology’s journal peer-review system is rampant with corruption,” he says, somehow referring not to the bad decision to publish the article, but rather to the public criticism it sustained.

But I do think it is vulnerable to pernicious influences exerted by some scholars who are driven by some of the less admirable aspects of sociology’s sacred project. The Regnerus debacle shows that it can happen and has happened. The potential for abuse is real (162).

The abuse in the Regnerus case was not in the protest, but in the mobilization of big, private money to generate research intended to influence the courts, infecting the reviewer pool with consulting fees among insider networks, manipulating the journal into relying on reviewers without expertise in gay and lesbian family studies, and then mobilizing the result for harmful political ends. The public criticism, on the other hand, besides making Regnerus professionally toxic – for which I have little sympathy – served only to bring this to the attention of the academic community and the public. I may be in the minority on this among academics who value their privileged social status, but I don’t even object to the public records requests for information on the peer review process (which, although not triggered by sociologists, consume several pages of Smith’s narrative). Rather, I regret that the use of private money and a corporate publisher limited the possibility for more thorough transparency in the process.

Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins.

Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins.

Blame the bloggers

Like he blames politics when he doesn’t like the political outcome, Smith blames communication itself when he doesn’t like the content expressed. In this case, that means the blogs. I find this passage jaw-dropping:

The Internet has created a whole new means by which the traditional double-blind peer-review system may be and already is in some ways, I believe, being undermined. I am referring here to the spate of new sociology blogs that have sprung up in recent years in which handfuls of sociologists publicly comment upon and often criticize published works in the discipline. The commentary published on these blogs operates outside of the gatekeeping systems of traditional peer review. All it takes to make that happen is for one or more scholars who want to amplify their opinions into the blogosphere to set up their own blogs and start writing. … If this were conducted properly, it could provide benefit to the discipline. But, in my observation, the discipline’s sacred project sometimes steers how these sociology blogs operate in highly problematic directions (166).

He calls this “vigilante peer review.” And I guess I’m doing it right now.

No journal or book review editor has asked any of these sociologists to review a paper or book. What publications get critiqued and sometimes lambasted is entirely up to the blog owners and authors (166).

Then, after a three-page excerpt from a Darren Sherkat blog post – which, admittedly, probably was not intended to lower Smith’s blood pressure – he concludes:

The Internet has created new means by which American sociology’s spiritual project … can and does interfere with the integrity and trustworthiness of the social-scientific, journal article peer-review system (172).

Yikes. This might all not seem so embarrassingly wrong if it didn’t follow from holding up Regnerus as the paragon of the peer review system.

I can’t think of exactly the right children’s movie analogy here – a grouchy traditionalist who eventually learns that it’s OK to be free and have fun. It’s not quite The Grinch, because that was just evil for no reason. It’s not quite Captain von Trapp from Sound of Music, because his misplaced need for social order resulted from the injury of his widowhood. Maybe it’s Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins, who is just merrily living his life, benignly assuming that children should be seen and not heard because that’s the way it’s always been. I like the movies where, in the end, the grouch learns that it’s OK to sing and dance.

On the other hand

The most persuasive passage in the book is one that is mostly irrelevant to Smith’s sacred project argument. He believes American sociologists have tended in recent years to separate themselves into disparate groups of like-minded people, so that there is “a tacit peace treaty specifying that everyone should mostly think and do whatever he or she wishes in terms of methods, theory, and intent and not suggest that what anyone else is doing might be a problem” – as long as it’s politically correct (142). If the people we talk and argue with professionally have very similar views, debate over broader intellectual or philosophical issues is too limited.

At the same time, too many grad students are trained as narrow technicians, with not enough “broadly read, thoughtful, intellectually interesting scholars and teachers” (143). He may perhaps overstate that case, but it’s a reasonable thing to worry about:

In sum, most of American sociology has become disciplinarily isolated and parochial, sectarian, internally fragmented, boringly homogeneous, reticently conflict-averse, philosophically ignorant, and intellectually torpid (144).

His greatest error in this part is see activist leftists dominating the prestige game within the discipline, shutting out and shunning anyone who doesn’t conform. It seems obvious to me that technical expertise and empirical problem solving skills are much greater determinants of access to top publications and jobs than is devotion to what Smith calls the sacred project. Whacky leftists who don’t think critically (who are of course only a subset of leftists) might be part of the winning electoral coalition within ASA, but I don’t think they’re running the discipline.

The greater culprit here, in my opinion, is not political homogeneity but rather pressure to specialize and develop technical expertise early in our graduate training in order to publish in prestigious journals as early as possible to get hired and promoted in tenure-track jobs. I would love it if sociology had more interaction and debate between, say, family scholars and criminologists, network sociologists and gender scholars, demographers and theorists. (One workaround, at least for me, has been devoting time in my career to blogging and social media, which generates excellent conversation and exposure to new people away from my areas of expertise.)

Don’t just stand there

I agree there are sociologists who see it as their mission to be “essentially the criminal investigative unit of the left wing of the Democratic Party” (21). From the thousands of graduate applications I’ve reviewed, it’s clear that many of our students enter sociology because they are looking for a way to attack social problems and move society in the direction determined by their moral and political views and values. And they’re usually not political conservatives or evangelical Christians.

Why fault people for doing that? What are people with such convictions and talents supposed to do? Sometimes it doesn’t work out as an academic career, but it’s often worth a try. In sociology training, meanwhile, they have the opportunity to learn a lot of facts and theories along with everyone else. And they might also learn to avoid some common intellectual problems. Some things students learn – or learn to appreciate further – include: Things do not always automatically get worse for oppressed people; not all state institutions are harmful to subordinate groups; some facts undermine our prior understandings and political views, and it’s OK to discuss them; and, no matter how oppressed your people are, if you’re in an American sociology graduate program, chances are there are people somewhere who are even more oppressed.

I don’t mean to be condescending to people who enter academia with activist intentions – although I’m sure I seem that way. Personally, I am happier working in such company than I would be surrounded by people who only have faux-value-neutral, technocratic ambitions and no righteous outrage to express. That doesn’t mean I’ll rubberstamp comprehensive exams or dissertations, or ignore errors in the peer-review process, because I like someone’s politics. I like the discipline that social science offers to activism. And I like that our discipline offers a career path for (among others) people whose passion is for changing the world in a good way – the meaning of which I’m happy to argue about further.

* I am not getting into personalism, critical realism, Aristotle, Karol Wojtyla, or other obscure stuff, much of which Smith puts in an appendix.

28 Comments

Filed under Research reports