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

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

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

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

Science

From Pew Research comes this Christmas news:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children’s ways of knowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modern credulity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rationalizing gifts

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

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

Inequality

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

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


Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Pinto, Laura. 2016. “Elf et Michelf.” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9Pn16dCWIg.

Measuring inequality, and what the Gini index does (video)

I produced a short video on measuring inequality, focusing on the construction of the Gini index, the trend in US family inequality, and an example of using it to measure world inequality. It’s 15 minutes, intended for intro-level sociology students.

I like teaching this not because so many of my students end up calculating and analyzing Gini indexes, but because it’s a readily interpretable example of the value of condensing a lot of numbers down to one useful one — which opens up the possibility of the kind of analysis we want to do (Going up? Going down? What about France? etc.). It also helps introduce the idea that social students of inequality are systematic and scientific, and fun for people who like math, too.

The video is below, or you can watch it (along with my other videos) on YouTube. The slides are available here, including one I left out of the video, briefly discussing Corrado Gini and his bad (fascist, eugenicist) politics. Comments welcome.

Families, inequality, and sociology in pandemic times (video)

This fall I will be recording video lectures for students in my undergrad class. I’m thinking about the technical aspects, but also the voice and posture. Sitting at my desk at home is quite different from my lecture hall (I usually get a few thousand steps during an hour class). We’ll have to see how it goes.

In June I had a chance to do a one-hour consulting with a “major corporation” to talk about what’s happening in the world, which I recorded and rewrote into this post. I just did another one on the subject of modern families and inequality. This one was like an interview, where I answered questions. I transcribed some of my answers, and then edited that text, figuring it might give me a nice blend of formal and conversational voice, which might work in a video.

After recording the video, I went back and added in some graphics using Photoshop as my video editor (did you know we can get Photoshop as part of our university site license?). A much quicker and easier way, which I assume I’ll be reduced to in the fall, is just to record the lecture live using Zoom or some other PowerPoint screen recorder. Anyway, here is the result, in 12 minutes.

Note: The video includes an update to data from this post on weddings in Florida, and this report on the impact of the epidemic on reproductive health experiences, from Laura Lindberg and colleagues at Guttmacher.

Pandemic path dependence and the future

Someone paid me for an hour of my opinions about what’s happening and what might happen next. I’m not supposed to say who or why, but I can share what I think. These thoughts are distilled from that conversation, yours for free, courtesy of someone richer than both of us, with a few links and figures.

Pandemic path dependence

One way to think about what the pandemic will change is path dependence. Things we invest in now, the momentum we get now in all the changes we make, are likely to continue. The idea of going back is always a myth, but I think it’s especially the case with such a big change, so fast. For example, look what I did. They moved my classes online. I looked at the different video platforms that my university had subscribed to at that point – WebEx, Zoom, Google – I decided I liked Zoom the best. Zoom had the green screen option, so I invested in this green screen, which was only 20 dollars, but I rearranged this room and set it up – so now my first choice is Zoom for meetings. That’s not likely to change right away. So you think of all the changes we’re making like that, in terms of our consumer choices, or communicating with our family members, or other investments, and whatever we’re doing now is likely to continue.

On the path dependence idea, we’re in the process of finding out right now a lot of people who are redundant at work. When organizations start losing all this money, and they have to make drastic cuts that might become permanent, their choices will have to do with what everybody’s contributing right now. We’re going to discover that we do without what a lot of people are doing. So a lot of people are going to be restructured out of their jobs. There will be lot of turnover and change and uncertainty, and that wreaks havoc on people’s personal lives. People aren’t good at making long-term decisions under conditions of existential uncertainty. So if you don’t know where you’re going to be in the big picture in five or ten years – including career, family, and so on – it’s hard to make decisions like, Let’s get married, Let’s have children.

The US birthrate has been falling since the last recession, and hasn’t been coming back. I think that may be accelerated. I don’t think people will be rushing to have children, which involves a long-term, permanent, future orientation. In the US we have a lot of unplanned births, so those may still happen, but I don’t think more people are going to decide to have children and make other long-term decisions like marriage.

country fertilitiy trends.xlsx

People are asking, Will there be a baby boom? People are stuck together, they’ll have sex more and have children. That’s not really how it happens. Most people are planning. We have modern contraception. People don’t just have more children because they spend more time together. Long-term commitments may be undermined, and people making long-term decisions may be less common, up to and including marriage and childbearing.

2018update

Divorce, on the other hand, may be different. We were seeing a decline in divorce before this. Now there may be more people who want to get divorced right now, because of COVID, but fewer people who can. Divorce is logistically difficult. They may stay together because they can’t separate. That also means we are at risk of increased family violence and abuse. For some people, their families are happy and they’re doing well and they enjoy being locked up together, and it’s rejuvenating and so on – and for the people for whom family is not safe or comfortable, that could be getting worse and worse.

Unequal uncertainty

We already see the job loss and economic insecurity is divided by race, gender, and class. You can look right now at the people who compelled to keep working at personal risk – people in services, grocery stores, delivery people, medical providers, versus people like me, who can work from home. That makes me safer and that’s stratifying. We’ll have relatively more stability and security on the professional/managerial side of the occupational divide.

Slide16

There is also the issue of trust. Some of us are feeling like we must trust the government and scientists for our survival. And some of us are thinking, The government and scientists are terrible and we can’t believe anything they say. That divide was already happening, and I think it’s going to widen. That division is partly on education but also very partisan.

F3

Social division

We have a principle of fractal polarization, where if you take any group of people, no matter how small, we have the social dynamics in place to generate polarization among them. In politics, the division between Republican and Democrat, then within the Democrats, then within the Bernie movement, etc. And that’s partly social media and the way we communicate, where in order to get noticed you have to say something outside the margins, and that pushes the margins further and further apart.

On the other hand, some things could be unifying. Not just trust in science and the government, but also things like investment in public health and infrastructure. If you look at past crises, there are precedents for coming out of this with a unifying policy agenda, like investing in the healthcare system. We could end up with an even great majority for universal healthcare, and the expenses may not seem so large compared to what we’re going through now. The role of youth is important. We have seen big movements of young people, for example on climate change and gun control. Those things are still important, but we may see some of that energy swing to more health issues. We could have a unifying swing toward collective orientation on issues like that.

On technology

The organizations that have the resources now to innovate, that realize they have to in order to survive… for example, universities. They were already developing online education, and they just increased the speed of that greatly. So the investment is going to be there for that. And that may apply to other services, such as telemedicine. We’re going to continue having appointments with doctors online. A lot of them will continue providing those services even when it’s not necessary. And I think the same may also be true for social services, government services. There could be benefit for that, being able to drop services directly into people’s homes. That can help with people who are either socially or physically isolated, people with disabilities, people who can’t leave the house for whatever reasons. Things may end up getting better because we end up delivering services in those situations.

Global mobility

It’s hard to imagine that travel won’t be permanently reduced. Travel for work certainly will be, with all this investment in doing things remotely, in addition to the fear of traveling. We have, in academia, massive conferences multiple times per year, around the world. And in the next year or two we’re going to discover that we can have academia without those things. And those things are really expensive. And so it’s not clear, when we realize the budgets are permanently shrunk, that we’re going to spend money again on things that we did without for a couple of years.

The free moving upper classes that did work in different countries, that saw colleagues around the world, that vacationed in remote places – although that’s very unequal, it’s a positive influence on social life anyway. I’m afraid that will be reduced. That can contribute to nationalism and ethnocentrism.

On the one hand we’re realized our global interdependence in ways that are important. Ninety percent of ibuprofen in the U.S. comes from China. So if we all depend on China for our ibuprofen, we could learn from that that we’re all interdependent, or we could conclude, Wow, we need our own ibuprofen factories. Or the same with surgical masks. That can be bad in the sense of global divisions and isolation.

When staying in is prosocial

Trust in the government, or science, is not just about the faceless bureaucracy. It’s an investment in a kind of solidarity. If you follow a government directive, at your own expense, that is an expression of faith in humanity, to some degree (unless you’re acting out of fear of enforcement). It’s paradoxical that by isolating ourselves we’re contributing to the collective good. There is a group of sociologists who are trying to get us to use the term ‘physical distancing,’ partly because physical distancing is how we stick together, socially.

However, that might not be persistent. We will get used to the habits of staying home, and having services delivered, and entertainment delivered – not going to the movies, or go to bars to hear music. After we adapt (even more) to those things, so we are less inclined to pay more if we can do it at home, then when staying home isn’t for the collective good anymore, those habits may persist, and that could be bad.

Privacy

This is all undermining privacy, especially digital privacy. For example, if we end up embracing the Google and Apple app for contact tracing, but not trusting the government to do that, that pushes us in the direction of surrendering more digital privacy to tech companies. That was already happening, but it’s likely to go further, if people see it as in their interest to surrender their privacy more explicitly. To the extent there was at least a cultural niche of people who object, I think that will be weakened. People won’t be as reluctant to give that up after they’ve been through a period when turning over their personal information was important to their survival.

Local versus online community

If we’re all stuck in our homes, then the neighborhood becomes a very different concept. I’m an academic, I’ve been a professor at three different universities. I always subscribe to the New York Times, so in a way I live in a suburb of New York no matter where I am. If everything’s inside the home, then your neighborhood is your Zoom background, and the things you get delivered, and there’s already no local news anymore – so there is a sense that the local matters less. But people still want it to matter. When you get out of the house and see the people in your actual neighborhood, that’s still something important. So there’s a paradox, a good and a bad side to that. The idea that I can be in the same virtual neighborhood as people who are thousands of miles away is socially good, but on the other hand if it undermines my relationship with my actual neighbors that’s bad. I don’t know how to bridge that.

Threats

What could get worse? War. It might seem crazy for countries to go to war at a time when national boundaries seem to matter less and less. But with the instability this has cause, and with our reliance on technology, a relatively small thing can set off huge cascading events, including flipping the switch on something like war. Even if that seems ridiculous. How could we go to war with China? Everyone would lose. But big things can go wrong, and our dependence on technology makes it more possible for those catastrophic events. I don’t think that’s that likely, but I didn’t think this was that likely.

History

We already had a history problem. Obama was part of this story of social progress. Trump undermined that drastically. The same with the threat of climate change versus technological advances. Maybe history doesn’t have a direction. Maybe there is no arc that bends toward justice. Maybe there’s just a series of random events. This pandemic feeds that sense. That creates anxiety, and dread, but also opens up a world of possibilities for directions to change. That means extremism becomes more enticing to some people, because they think they can change the direction of history. But it might also mean we have more imagination for positive developments as well.

Review of Relational Inequalities: An Organizational Approach, with audio

cover of Relational Inequalities

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

 

And here is a lightly edited transcript:

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

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

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

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

Praise

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

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

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

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

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

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

Organizations and inequality

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education

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

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

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

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

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

Between and within organizations

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

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

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

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

White children are 2.7-times more likely than Black children to live with a parent who has a PhD

For a reflection Amy Harmon was working on, a followup to her article on the experience of Black mathematicians in American academia, I took a shot at the question: How many children have parents with PhDs?

The result was the highlighted passage (17 words and a link!) in her piece:

[all the racial biases that contribute to Black underrepresentation include] the well-documented racial disparities in public-school resources, the selection of students for gifted programs — and the fact that having a parent with a Ph.D. is helpful to getting one in math, while black children are less than half as likely as white children to live with such a parent.

To get there: I used data from the U.S. Census Bureau via IPUMS.org: The 1990 5% Public Use Microdata Sample (decennial census); and the 2000, 2010, and 2017 American Community Surveys.

I coded race/ethnicity into four mutually-exclusive categories: Single-race White, Black, and Asian/Pacific Islander (API); and Hispanic (including those of any race). I dropped from the analysis non-Hispanic children with multiple races reported, and American Indian / Alaska Natives (for whom about 0.5 percent lived with a PhD parent in 2017).

IPUMS made a tool that attaches values of parents’ variables to children with whom they share a household. I used that to calculate the highest level of education of each child’s coresident parents. In the Census data, children may have up to two parents present (which may be of the same sex in 2010 and 2017). Children living with no parent in the household were not included.

This let me calculate the percentage of children living (at the moment of the survey) with one or more parents who had a PhD. For each of the four groups the percentage of children living with a parent who has a PhD roughly doubled between 1990 and 2017. API children had the highest chance of living with a PhD parent, reaching 6.8 percent in 2017. The percentages for the other groups were: Whites, 2.7 percent; Blacks, 1.0 percent; and Hispanics, 0.7 percent:

pe1

The 2.7% for White children, versus, 1.0% for Black children, is the basis for her statement above.

Details (including the whole parents’ education distribution), data, codebook, and code, are available on the Open Science Framework at: https://osf.io/ry3zt/ under CC-BY 4.0 license.

Math bias

Both of Amy’s pieces are important reading for academics in many disciplines, including sociology, to reflect on the experience of Black colleagues in the environments we inherit and reproduce.

With regard to math, Amy points out that Black exclusion is not just about denying economic opportunity, it’s also about denying the public the benefits of all the lost Black math talents — and about denying Black potential mathematicians the joy and satisfaction of a passion for math realized.

As Daniel Zaharopol, the director of a program for mathematically talented low-income middle-school students, put it when I interviewed him for a 2017 article: “Math is beautiful, and being a part of that should not be limited to just some people.”

And Amy makes a good case that math bias and its outcomes contribute directly to racism much more broadly:

Some misguided people claim that there are not many black research mathematicians because African-Americans are not as intelligent as other races. These people, whom I have reported on for other stories in recent months, almost invariably use mathematical accomplishment as their yardstick for intelligence. They note that no individuals of African descent have won the Fields Medal, math’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. They lack any genetic evidence to explain the gap in average I.Q. scores between white and black Americans that they cite as the basis of their belief, or reason to think that a genetic trait would be impervious to social or educational intervention, or that high I.Q. is key to math ability, which Timothy Gowers, a 1998 Fields medalist, has attributed largely to “the capacity to become obsessed with a math problem.”

But I have been reporting on these topics for several years, and I am acutely aware that math prowess factors heavily into the popular conception of intelligence. There’s a vicious cycle at work: The lack of African-American representation in math can end up feeding pernicious biases, which in turn add to the many obstacles mathematically talented minorities face. Which was one more reason it seemed especially important to hold up to the light all the racial biases that contribute to that underrepresentation.

No, early marriage is not more common for college graduates

Update: IFS has taken down the report I critiqued here, and put up a revised report. They have added an editor’s note, which doesn’t mention me or link to this post:

Editor’s Note: This post is an update of a post published on March 14, 2018. The original post looked at marriage trends by education among all adults under age 25. It gave the misimpression that college graduates were more likely to be married young nowadays, compared to non-college graduates.


At the Institute for Family Studies, Director of Research Wendy Wang has a post up with the provocative title, “Early Marriage is Now More Common For College Graduates” (linking to the Internet Archive version).

She opens with this:

Getting married at a young age used to be more common among adults who didn’t go to college. But the pattern has reversed in the past decade or so. In 2016, 9.4% of college graduates ages 18 to 24 have ever been married, which is higher than the share among their peers without a college degree (7.9%), according to my analysis of the most recent Census data.

And then the dramatic conclusion:

“What this finding shows is that even at a young age, college-educated adults today are more likely than their peers without a college degree to be married. And this is new.”

That would be new, and surprising, if it were true, but it’s not.

Here’s the figure that supports the conclusion:

figure1wendyupdate-w640

It shows that 9.4% of college graduates in the age range 18-24 have been married, compared with 7.9% of those who did not graduate from college. (The drop has been faster for non-graduates, but I’m setting aside the time trend for now.) Honestly, I guess you could say, based on this, that young college graduates are more likely than non-graduates to “be married,” but not really.

The problem is there are very very few college graduates in the ages 18-19. The American Community Survey, which they used here, reports only about 12,000 in the whole country, compared with 8.7 million people without college degrees ages 18-19 (this is based on the public use files that IPUMS.org uses; which is what I use in the analysis below). Wow! There are lots and lots of non-college graduates below age 20 (including almost everyone who will one day be a college graduate!), and very few of them are married. So it looks like the marriage rate is low for the group 18-24 overall. Here is the breakdown by age and marital status for the two groups: less than BA education, and BA or higher education — on the same population scale, to help illustrate the point:

ifs1ifs2

If you pool all the years together, you get a higher marriage rate for the college graduates, mostly because there are so few college graduates in the younger ages when hardly anyone is married.

To show the whole thing in terms of marriage rates, here is the marital status for the two groups at every age from 15 (when ACS starts asking about marital status) to 54.

ifs3

Ignoring 19-21, where there are a tiny number of college graduates, you see a much more sensible pattern: college graduates delay marriage longer, but then have higher rates at older ages (starting at age 28), for all the reasons we know marriage is ultimately more common among college graduates. In fact, if you used ages 15-24 (why not?), you get an even bigger difference — with 9.4% of college graduates married and just 5.7% of non-college graduates. Why not? In fact, what about ages 0-24? It would make almost as much sense.

Another way to do this is just to look at 24-year-olds. Since we’re talking about the ever-married status, and mortality is low at these ages, this is a case where the history is implied in the cross-sectional data. At age 24, as the figure shows, 19.9% of non-college graduates have been married, compared with 12.9% of college graduates. Early marriage is not more common for college graduates.

In general, I don’t recommend comparing college graduates and non-graduates, at least in cross-sectional data, below age 25. Lots of people finishing college below age 25 (and increasingly after that age as well). There is also an important issue of endogeneity here, which always makes education and age analysis tricky. Some people (mostly women) don’t finish college because they get married and have children).

Anyway, it looks to me like someone working for a pro-marriage organization saw what seemed like a story implying marriage is good (that’s why college graduates do it, after all), and one that also fits with the do-what-I-say-not-what-I-do criticism of liberals, who are supposedly not promoting marriage among poor people while they themselves love to get married (a critique made by Charles Murray, Brad Wilcox, and others). And, before thinking it through, they published it.

Mistakes happen. Fortunately, I dislike the Institute for Family Studies (see the whole series under this tag), and so I read it and pointed out this problem within a couple hours (first on Twitter, less than two hours after Wang tweeted it). It’s a social media post-publication peer review success story! If they correct it.

Explain to me again how marriage is the problem here

This is one of those things you share with all your friends on social media.

how-marriage-is-the-problem-here

Black married parents are 2.4-times more likely to be in poverty, are 2.1-times more likely to be unemployed, and have one-ninth the median net worth compared with White married parents. So explain to me again how marriage is the problem here.

Why?

The other day I picked on someone’s fact meme, and wondered what makes these things work, without offering a constructive alternative. I can’t answer the question I asked in that post (how old are the fathers of teen mothers’ children?), but I can answer some other questions about families and Black-White inequality. So that’s what I did.

Feel free to take these facts (or any others) and make something better.

How?

Here are my sources:

Poverty: 2014 American Community Survey from IPUMS.org. It’s Black and White, non-Hispanic, householders who are married and have their own children in the household. The poverty rates were 5% for White married parents and 11.9% for Black married parents. The poverty variable goes from 0 to 501, with 0-99 being below the poverty line, so you specify the recode like this: poverty(r:0-99 “poor”; 100-501 “not poor”). Here’s how you fill out the boxes in the online analysis tool:

povacscode

Unemployment: Again, 2014 American Community Survey from IPUMS.org. It’s Black and White, non-Hispanic, householders who are married and have their own children in the household. For this one you limit it to people in the labor force (empstat(1-2)) to get the unemployment rate. I did it for men and women combined, getting unemployment rates of 3.1% for White married parents and 6.6% for Black married parents. The numbers are higher for women (3.7% versus 7.3%) but the Black/White ratio is a little worse for men (2.6% versus 5.8%). Here’s how:

unempacscode

Median net worth: I used the Survey of Consumer Finances from 2013, available here. These are also non-Hispanic Black and White parents living with children. The median net worths were $150,500 for Whites and $16,000 for Blacks (Hispanics, incidentally, have $18,750, and the rest are just coded “other”). This data set combines married people with those who are “living with partner,” so this comparison includes cohabitors. (I don’t know how that affects the results, but I’m sure there’s still lots of inequality.) I put my STATA code in an Open Science Framework project here, so feel free to play with it yourself.

No Black women are not the “most educated” group in the US

2020 UPDATE: This post has been up here for four years now. It has been viewed 100,000 times, but the meme that started this has been viewed 10 million times.  I’ll summarize: Compared with Black men, Black women are highly educated (more than women of other groups, compared to the men in those groups). But compared with White (and some Asian) women, Black women have fewer degrees, on average, because of structural racism. You just can’t tell how great a group of people are by how many degrees they have. Black women have been materially oppressed in America forever, and they deserve better than this — more education, better education, and more respect — because Black lives matter.

If you would like a “real” source to cite for this, you can cite my book, Enduring Bonds, which includes a version of this post on pages 160-164.

Here’s the original post:


I don’t know where this started, but it doesn’t seem to be stopping. The following headlines are all completely factually wrong, and the organizations that published them should correct them right away:

The Root: Black Women Now the Most Educated Group in US

Upworthy: Black women are now America’s most educated group

SalonBlack women are now the most educated group in the United States

GoodBlack Women Are Now The Most Educated Group In The U.S.

And then the video, by ATTN:, on Facebook, with 6 million views so far. I won’t embed the video here, but it includes these images, with completely wrong facts:

bweduc1

bweduc2

What’s true is that Black women, in the 2009-2010 academic year, received a higher percentage of degrees within their race/ethnic group than did women in any other major group. So, for example, of all the MA degrees awarded to Black students, Black women got 71% of them. In comparison, White women only got 62% of all White MA degrees. Here is the chart, from the data that everyone linked to (which is not new data, by the way, and has nothing to do with 2015):

bwdegchart

For Black women to be the “most educated group,” they would have to have more degrees per person than other groups. In fact, although a greater percentage of Black women have degrees than Black men do, they have less education on average than White women, White men, Asian/Pacific Islander women, and Asian/Pacific Islander men.

Here are the percentages of each group that holds a BA degree or higher (ages 25-54), according to the 2010-2014 American Community Survey, with Black women highlighted:

bwdegchartBA

23% of Black women ages 25-54 have BA degrees or more education, compared with 38% of White women. This does not mean Black women are worse (or that White women are better). It’s just the actual fact. Here are the percentages for PhD degrees:

bwdegchartPhDJPG

Just over half of 1% of Black women have PhDs, compared with just over 1% of White women – and almost 3% of Asian/PI women. White women are almost twice as likely to have a PhD and Black women, Asian/PI women are more than 5-times as likely.

Racism is racism, inequality is inequality, facts are facts. Saying this doesn’t make me racist or not racist, and it doesn’t change the situation of Black women, who are absolutely undervalued in America in all kinds of ways (and one of those ways is that they don’t have the same educational opportunities as other groups). There are some facts in these stories that are true, too. And of course, why Black women (and women in general) are getting more degrees than men are is an important question. But please don’t think it’s my responsibility to research and present all this information correctly before it’s appropriate for me to point out the obvious inaccuracy here. You don’t need this meme to do the good you’re trying to do by sharing these stories.

Our current information economy rewards speed and clickability. Journalists who know what they’re doing are more expensive and slower. Making good graphics and funny GIFs is a good skill, but it’s a different skill than interpreting and presenting information. We can each help a little by pausing before we share. And those of us with the skills and training to track these things down should all pitch in and do some debunking once in a while. For academics, there is little extra reward in this (as evidenced by my most recent, sup-par departmental “merit” review), beyond the rewards we already get for our cushy jobs, but it should be part of our mission.