What are we becoming a nation of now?

In Jonathan Haidt’s TED talk, “How common threats can make common political ground,” he mentions an influential New York Times article about how people with college degrees are more likely to get and stay married compared with those without college degrees.

At about 15:20 in the talk, Haidt says: “We are becoming a nation of just two classes.”

And I got to thinking about that phrase, “become a nation of…” It puts the reader at the moment of a transition from an assumed past to a specified future. A Google Books search reveals that we have become a nation of many things over the years:

1805: Becoming a nation of free men.

1815: becoming a nation of drunkards.

1822: becoming a nation of castes.

1840: becoming a nation of bull-dogs.

1856: becoming a nation of music lovers in the legitimate sense of the term.

1905: becoming a nation of dreamers, and then, in the next sentence, becoming a nation of money lovers and materialists.

1905: becoming a nation of physicians or even of lawyers.

1944:  fast becoming a nation of neurotics.

1953: becoming a nation of coffee drinkers instead of one of tea drinkers, like England.

1969: becoming a nation of two societies— one white and one black— separate and unequal. (from this awesome issue of Ebony:)


1977: becoming a nation of the elderly.

1985: Becoming a Nation of Readers.

1987: becoming a NATION OF ILLITERATES.

1988: becoming a nation of hamburger stands, and, in the same sentence, becoming a nation of management consultants, doctors, software designers, and international bankers.

1989: Becoming a Nation of Burger Flippers?

2008: becoming a nation of joiners.

2008: becoming a nation of orthorexics (people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating)

Tripping on tipping points

There you have it: since 2007, the number non-Hispanic White women having babies has fallen faster than the number of babies born to women from all the other race/ethnic groups in the U.S. combined — enough so that the Census Bureau determined that births from the second group outnumbered those in the first for the first time ever in 2011.

If that’s not an exciting enough lead sentence for you, how’s this?


If you followed my Twitter feed yesterday, I’m sorry. At first, my reaction to the New York Times story was disturbed…

Again @NYtimes says 50% is a “tipping point.” Agh! They even published my letter objecting to this & now ignore it.

The too-detailed history of my objecting is here, but it involves the same demographer, William Frey, repeatedly pitching 50% as a “tipping point” to the news media in reference to a series of demographic events. I don’t have anything against the term tipping point, I just don’t like to see it used to hype trends. Also, the figure is mislabeled, since the “Non-white” population there specifically includes White Hispanics. So the dark line should be labeled, “non-[non-Hispanic White],” and the light line should be labeled “non-Hispanic White.”

You’re probably beginning to see why these reporters rarely call me back, and attributing my tirades to sour grapes (which really turned soured after my slogan, “We are the 75%!” failed to catch on).

Anyway, after I settled down, I realized that the reporter, Sabrine Tavernise, had really written a very good third paragraph that attempted to capture the historic moment:

Such a turn has been long expected, but no one was certain when the moment would arrive — signaling a milestone for a nation whose government was founded by white Europeans and has wrestled mightily with issues of race, from the days of slavery, through a civil war, bitter civil rights battles and, most recently, highly charged debates over efforts to restrict immigration.

But then when I got to the Washington Post editorial, my tweeting devolved back to deranged…

America at a tipping point: http://wapo.st/JVflcF <– tipping point in headline, AND “milestone” in lede?! Now they’re gaslighting me.

In fact, that Post editorial also used the term watershed, which they possibly picked up from Andrew Cherlin, who was quoted using it: “This is a watershed moment. It shows us how multicultural we’ve become.”

What is the right way to say it?

The Post was really just using terms randomly. But there must be a way to describe things. I think this event was definitely a milestone. In the Oxford English Dictionary, that is,

A significant stage or event in the progress or development of a society, a career, an individual’s physical and mental growth, etc.; a measure of progress or change.

I would additionally stress the socially-constructed nature of a milestone, since its namesake is a marker placed by humans at arbitrary intervals along a continuous path.

Cherlin may be right that this news will turn out to be a watershed, sometimes called a “watershed divide,” or the point at which water has to choose which way to flow:

Watershed can refer to an important point of division in time as well as geography, as in this from 1878:

Midnight! the outpost of advancing day!‥ The watershed of Time, from which the streams of Yesterday and To-morrow take their way.

All the media attention to this trend may in fact have made it a watershed moment in public discourse. But that is quite different from making it a tipping point, defined now nicely by the OED:

tipping point n. the prevalence of a social phenomenon sufficient to set in motion a process of rapid change; the moment when such a change begins to occur.

It’s very hard to announce the arrival of either watersheds or tipping points when they happen — which is one reason milestones are so useful for marking distance. Looking at the trends in births above, and projections of future demographic change, there is no reason to think this moment is a demographic tipping point. Here is the population projection to 2050, based on the Census Bureau’s current calculations (and using mutually-exclusive race/ethnicity categories):

Based on the 5-year intervals they use, I don’t see anything too non-linear here, suggesting an actual tipping point.

Finally, for some longer-range perspective:

Why are mothers becoming moms?

Listening to the debate about motherhood in the last few days reminded me of something that’s been nagging me for a while: what does it mean that mothers are becoming moms?

On the Republican side, in his NRA speech Friday, Mitt Romney said, “I happen to believe that all moms are working moms.” (The right-wing radio personality Laura Schlesinger always said, by way of introduction, “I am my kids’ mom,” as the most salient piece of her identity.) On the other side, both Hilary Rosen and President Obama used mom as the toughest-job-in-the-world’s title.

Why is it mom? Back in the 90s, poor single women weren’t “welfare moms.”

Here’s the trend in “working mother” versus “working mom” from Google Ngrams – the occurrence of these terms in the Google Books database:


The same pattern appears with just mother versus mom.

I don’t know why this is happening or what it means. Do you?

Marriage rights, writ wrong

With the big decision striking down California’s Proposition 8 — which banned homogamous marriage — the terminology used is not today’s lead story. But it is a good time to reflect on it.

So, here are the results of last’s weeks Family Inequality reader poll, which asked two questions:

  • When the state permits marriage between pairs of men or women, what do you call it?
  • What to you call marriage between a man and a woman?

With more than 400 page views, there were 58 responses to the first question, 42 to the second, and here is how they broke down:

As I wrote in, “Homogamy Unmodified,” we appear to be largely in an uncomfortable terminological state that pairs “marriage,” which refers to unions between men and women, with “same-sex marriage.” In other words, for a good share of readers, “the normative or hegemonic case requires no specification while others carry a modifier.” It’s not our fault; it’s a tough situation.

Here’s a little bit of perspective to help sort it out.

First, on the positive side, this response from someone who I don’t know:

I adopted your terms for it when you first published the post on hetero/homogamous. These words are so incredibly useful, since I write about sex and gender a lot, and have discussed heterogamous couples with the same gender presentation, etc. It sounds nicer than same-sex marriage and provides an equal term for “opposite-sex” (bleh!) marriage.

That’s the leading 3% for you: Bold, confident, comfortable in her terms. Much more common is a response like this, which I received via email:

[Homogamy] is a fine term for researchers, and I fully get why you like it. But it will never catch on with the press and public, and anyone using it in a speech or a press statement would be met with blank stares and/or hostility for using such big academic words…

I know for a fact this person is wiser than I am, and I can’t disagree. But I hope that’s not true in the long run.

The long run

Consider one piece of historical precedent: polygamy and monogamy. There was a time when monogamy and polygamy were obscure scientific terms. Here’s a footnote that might have elicited some blank stares in 1887, when Herbert Spencer published the third edition of The Principles of Sociology:

The federal government’s war on Mormonism at the end of the 19th Century brought polygamy to the American reading public’s attention, both as a practice and as a term. Here’s the ngrams chart showing the frequency of polygamy and monogamy from 1840 to 2008 in American English:

Most of the references to monogamy back then seem to have been in scientific writings or political discussion of polygamy. Now, of course, it’s a commonly-understood term for a lifestyle choice:

So, try not to get too hung up on the moment, on today’s research paper or the way you learned “homogamy” in grad school. We should try to take the long view (especially those of us who have tenure).

Chinese: Maternal grandmothers, outside women

Ancient family traditions embedded in Chinese characters. (Or, beginning Chinese meets intermediate demography.)

When a married couple moves into the husband’s family home, it’s an extended family. When that’s the expected arrangement, social scientists call it a patrilocal system (OED defines patrilocal as the “custom of marriage by which the married couple settles in the husband’s home or community.”)

Image used with permission of National Academy of Sciences, PNAS.

Patrilocal customs are very old. This 2008 DNA analysis of 4,600-year-old bones from Germany showed patrilocal living arrangements — as well as exogamy (“the custom by which a man is bound to take a wife outside his own clan or group”). Exogamy is good for genetic diversity, but patrilocality is bad for women’s status: as outsiders in their new homes, they are alone and disconnected from their own families.

Patrilocal China

The patrilocal system in China is one of the foundations of its unique form of patriarchy, embedded in the religious tradition of family ancestor worship — and in the language.

This came up because I was learning the Chinese word for grandmother, which, like other family relationship words, differs according to the lineage in question (maternal grandmother, paternal grandmother, etc.). A common traditional term for maternal grandmother is wài pó, 外婆:

Those two characters separately mean outsider and woman. You can see this yourself: Put them next to each other in Google translate and the English translation is “maternal grandmother.” If you put a space between them the translation is “foreign woman.” The first one alone is “outsider.” (The bottom half of the right-hand term, 女 [nǚ], means woman, and the top half means something else, but in this case just tells you the pronunciation.) For comparison, the common term for paternal grandmother is nǎinai (奶奶), which is the word for “milk” twice.

In an earlier post I learned that the word for good is woman+son (好), and the word for man is field+strength (田+力=男). Someone who knows more about languages can tell me whether Chinese reveals more about the cultural contexts of its word origins than do other languages. Seems like it to me.

Anyway, the patrilocal family tradition in China survived the country’s zig-zag historical progression from feudal to socialist to capitalist. Now, in the one-child-policy era, however, the tradition has become especially harmful to women. That’s because the lack of an adequate state pension system has increased the need for poor families to produce a son — a son whose (patrilocal) marriage will bring a caretaking daughter-in-law into the family — and decreased the return on investment for raising a daughter, who probably will leave to care for her husband’s parents.

One consequence, amply documented in Mara Hvistendahl’s book Unnatural Selection, has been tens of millions of sex-selective abortions, resulting in a sex ratio so skewed that, ironically/tragically, many men will be unable to find wives in the coming years — making it that much harder to have a secure old age for their poor parents.

Homogamy: Start the presses

Have you said “homogamy” today?

The latest issue of the Journal of Family Theory and Review is out. A young journal, in only its third volume, it’s well worth a look. For example, the current issue features an interesting debate on gender display and housework between Oriel Sullivan, Esther Kluwer, Barbara Risman and Paula England.

But the big blog news is that the issue also includes “Homogamy Unmodified,” in which I write:

I propose that homogamy and heterogamy be used to signify same-sex and opposite-sex unions, respectively, including marriage and cohabitation. This is intended to address a terminology impasse that has given us marriage versus same-sex marriage in popular and academic usage. After a brief review of the word origins and scholarly uses of these terms, I conclude that the new uses for homogamy and heterogamy could be adopted relatively easily, with scientific benefits for categorization, and could remove a conservative bias in the current usage.

Briefly, my issues are:

  • Trying to get consistent, accurate language going for something that will be with us for the rest of human society — making a deliberate choice. Letting language evolve “naturally” in this case is just another way of enabling cognitive pathways that are harmful or misleading.
  • Avoiding the terms “same-sex” and “opposite-sex” because the sexes aren’t opposites.
  • Not trying to get the terms “same-gender” and “different gender” going because it seems even less likely to work than homogamy and heterogamy.
  • Making the categories fit with the scientific terms we use for other issues in marriage and mating, such as those of Greek (monogamy, polygamy, hypergamy, etc.) or Latin (matrilineal, matriarchal, matrilocal, etc.) origin.
  • Not presuming we know the sexual orientation of people just because of the gender of their marriage partners (e.g., “gay marriage,” “straight marriage”). That’s a different issue — highly but not perfectly correlated. Lots of gay (or bisexual) people are in heterogamous marriages.

I hope you will consider it. Try it out in a sentence. For example:

To follow some related arguments I’ve made, see:

Update: Here is the Huffington Post version of this post on the “Gay Marriage” news page. No one told me about the big march for homogamy/heterogamy language reform!

The appearance of the invention of adolescence

In Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (2004), historian Steven Mintz wrote of the “invention of adolescence.” Here is the passage (from p. 3 of Huck’s Raft):

Reading about that history in the Families As They Really Are reader with my undergraduate family course, I wondered if that were literally true — the invention of adolescence. Looks that way:

Ngrams has great teaching potential for things like this.

Good woman child language

Things to raise casually in Taiwan.

To test the hospitality of your hosts in Taiwan, one may choose to innocently suggest that their Chinese characters look pretty complicated, so simplifying them might be a good idea.

The reason to simplify things — which China under the communists did but Taiwan did not — was (if you believe the communists) to promote literacy; some characters are very complicated, and learning to read and write was very difficult. On the other hand, you might hear,  the traditional characters are essential to understanding and connecting with the ancient culture, to advanced brain development, and to achieving aesthetic elevation. Also, not destroying the ancient culture.

Why is this ongoing, raging debate breaking news for family inequality? The discussions about characters led me to Chinese Characters for Beginners for the plane home from Taipei. And my recent concentration on language regarding union or marriage types (homogamy and heterogamy), on the one hand, and sexual dimorphism / gender on the other, made me sensitive to my first lesson. In it, I learned that to make good, you need woman (nǚ):

plus child or son (zǐ):

equals good (hǎo):

On the other hand, if you combine farm/field (tián):

and strength (lì):

you get one version of male (nán):

Source: Character images from About.com, translations from lots of places, such as this one. Ironically, these are such basic characters that they weren’t affected by the simplification program.

I was already assuming language shapes our thinking. But it’s impossible not to marvel at how people who learn Chinese versus English from infancy have such identical brains to begin with, learn to think so differently, and yet can communicate with each other in such profound ways. In that, I’m apparently up to about 1972 in the lay-person’s understanding of linguistics theory:

One traditional argument against the existence of an innate language learning faculty is that human languages are so diverse. The differences between Chinese, Nootka, Hungarian, and English, for example, are so great as to destroy the possibility of any universal grammar, and hence languages could only be learned by a general intelligence, not by any innate language learning device. Chomsky has attempted to turn this argument on its head: In spite of surface differences, all human languages have very similar underlying structures; they all have phrase structure rules and transformational rules. They all contain sentences, and these sentences are composed of subject noun phrases and predicate verb phrases, etc.

What about gender, then? Obviously, languages differ but are deeply gendered. But now, the next time someone sees a common pattern of gendered behavior, and attributes it to genetics or evolution, I’m going to ask them to first demonstrate that the pattern holds among people who aren’t exposed to any language at all (and raised by parents who haven’t been exposed to language either). Otherwise, the influence of ancient cultures is impossible to scrub from the data.

On language, simplification is only one thing we should have heated debates about.

Take my words for it: homogamy and heterogamy

Not really my words, just my proposal for how to use words.

I’m unhappy with the state of language around marriage, cohabitation, partnerships, couples, mates — what demographers sometimes refer to as “unions.” This is my proposal to improve the language.

Take marriage. “Marriage” almost always refers to the regular, normal, legal marriage. And when some Other kind of marriage comes along, it gets a different name, especially “same-sex marriage.” Then, if the two are compared, we might get references to “opposite-sex marriage.”

This is like so many other examples of the dominant — normative, hegemonic — group being anointed to the linguistic throne of invisible deference. As when the icon for person is the same as the one for man, while the one for woman is different. Race is another big one.

homogamy: union between people of the same sex; heterogamy: union between people of different sexes


Social science has English terms to categorize systems of families and relationships — including monogamy, polygamy, polygyny, hypergamy, matrilineal, patrilineal, and so on. There is good scientific reason to put such systems or relationships in categories, with labels — like species or elements.

What we don’t have is a sensible, symmetrical, inclusive set of terms for marriage that incorporates the unions of men with men, women with men, and women with women.

I prefer homogamy and heterogamy. The words are from the Greek for same and different (homo/hetero) and marriage (gamos), although gamos has been used for lots of mating and pairing terms that aren’t legal marriage.

I don’t like “same-sex” and “opposite-sex” because the sexes aren’t opposites. They’re different — partly because we make them that way — and “opposite” exaggerates those differences. (Plus, why “sex” instead of “gender”?) Also, unlike “gay marriage,” for example, homogamy and heterogamy don’t presume to differentiate people based on their sexual orientation — which is not a prerequisite for any kind of marriage.

Researchers already use “homogamy” a lot in family studies, but always to refer to similarity between partners on everything else except sex/gender. As in “educational homogamy” for couples with similar education. But we can get around that (using words like endogamy and homophily). Now that real homogamous marriage is catching on, we can set those uses aside.

I know these aren’t the easiest terms to say and write. But it’s an improvement, and it’s worth a try. Consider examples such as:

  • “Advocates for the legal recognition of homogamous marriage celebrated today…”
  • “The dominant system of heterogamous marriage prevailed in Europe for centuries…”
  • “The rise in homogamy among young couples poses a challenge for the prom police in many schools…”

I have laid this proposal out in more detail [now] published in the journal Family Theory and Review. It is available here.