Tag Archives: media

The blog’s decade

Blogging is dead. Long live the blog!

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

decade-stats

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

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

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

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

pentagulate

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

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

Book aside

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

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The continuation of babies

There is no guarantee that a happy, healthy, equal, and harmonious population wants to produce enough children to maintain or grow its total size.

Anna Louie Sussman wrote an essay in the New York Times, given the unfortunate title “The End of Babies” (about which more below). I like a lot of it, and I have substantial disagreements with the framing.

It’s about falling fertility and capitalism. This is a great summary, though I would replace “not necessarily a bad thing” with “usually a very good thing”:

Declining fertility typically accompanies the spread of economic development, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. At its best, it reflects better educational and career opportunities for women, increasing acceptance of the choice to be child-free, and rising standards of living.

At its worst, though, it reflects a profound failure: of employers and governments to make parenting and work compatible; of our collective ability to solve the climate crisis so that children seem a rational prospect; of our increasingly unequal global economy. In these instances, having fewer children is less a choice than the poignant consequence of a set of unsavory circumstances.

Sussman sees the “bigger picture” as this:

Our current version of global capitalism … has generated shocking wealth for some, and precarity for many more. These economic conditions generate social conditions inimical to starting families: Our workweeks are longer and our wages lower, leaving us less time and money to meet, court and fall in love. Our increasingly winner-take-all economies require that children get intensive parenting and costly educations, creating rising anxiety around what sort of life a would-be parent might provide. A lifetime of messaging directs us toward other pursuits instead: education, work, travel.

This paragraph uses a sort of 1% versus 99% framing with is exaggerated but not unreasonable. This, however, is just exaggerated:

It seems clear that what we have come to think of as “late capitalism” — that is, not just the economic system, but all its attendant inequalities, indignities, opportunities and absurdities — has become hostile to reproduction. Around the world, economic, social and environmental conditions function as a diffuse, barely perceptible contraceptive.

Lost in this, by now, is all the good parts about falling fertility mentioned previously. Remember, contraceptives are good, and most people use them deliberately to help control their lives, and they do it because social and environmental conditions have made it possible to have more control over one’s life than ever before, while offering unprecedented opportunities for women beyond child-rearing.

In short, I agree with Sussman’s description of how some people in rich societies would like to have more children than they do, I just don’t think it’s anything like a universal or even general experience in our era. And there is a puzzle confounding the premise: within rich countries, or at least the USA, privileged people, who presumably have more control over their lives and destinies, still have fewer children than those who are more powerless. I once wrote:

There is an argument that Americans are having fewer children than they want to because of our stone age work-family policies, especially poor family leave support and the high costs of good childcare. I’m sure that’s happening to some degree, but it’s still the case that more privileged people, who should be able to overcome those things more readily — people with college degrees and Whites — have lower fertility rates than people who are getting squeezed more.

Like a lot of work in this area, Sussman’s assessment that people want more children — which generates the image of the “reproductive malaise [that] has settled over,” in this case, Denmark — is based on surveys showing people’s “ideal” family size is larger than the average number of children actually born per family. But the interpretation of this gap is not so straightforward. Maybe people think three is the ideal number of children, but they also think a PhD is the ideal amount of education, and so they compromise, with some having one kid and a PhD, and some having three kids and a no college degree. This is an empirical question. What’s historically unprecedented and still so new that we don’t know what to make of it socially is the fact that this is a choice at all for so many people.

As I previously reported, the proportion of US women whose “ideal” number of children is higher than they number they had by age 40 has risen, from less than 15% among women born in the 1930s to almost a quarter for women born in the early 1970s. If you break that trend down by BA/no-BA education level, you can see that women with BA degrees are pushing it upward:

ideal fam size gss ba

So maybe college graduate women are having fewer than their ideal number of children like I’m earning less than the ideal amount of money — I think I could be making more money, but then I wouldn’t be able to sit around in my pajamas blogging with my dog, so I compromise. Of course, like some of the people in Sussman’s piece, a lot of people are justifiably unhappy about this, feeling they can’t compromise between forces pulling them in opposite directions. And so the result is dissatisfaction, maybe even malaise. I just don’t think we know how many people feel that way, or even whether the feeling is much more prevalent than it used to be.

Denmark

Sussman uses Denmark as one case study. This is her summary:

If any country should be stocked with babies, it is Denmark. The country is one of the wealthiest in Europe. New parents enjoy 12 months’ paid family leave and highly subsidized day care. Women under 40 can get state-funded in vitro fertilization. But Denmark’s fertility rate, at 1.7 births per woman, is roughly on par with that of the United States. A reproductive malaise has settled over this otherwise happy land.

But where is the evidence for this malaise? Denmark’s fertility rate has been low and relatively stable, while it is the USA’s that has plummeted since 2007, which is why the countries are now at the same level. The malaise that is settling is here — Denmark’s has already settled.

To elaborate on Denmark: There was a rapid drop in fertility from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s, followed by a rebound, and then relative stability for about 25 years. During that time, as the population continued to grow slowly, women were reaching age 40 with between 1.8 and 1.9 children on average. Rather than slipping into a chasm, it looks more like the affluent people of Denmark have settled into a moderately low-fertility regime.

denmark.xlsx

“Replacement” fertility, of about 2.1 births per woman, doesn’t mean a society is healthy or happy. Maybe late capitalism with a decent welfare state is not “hostile to reproduction,” maybe it just doesn’t quite get to 2.1.

How bad is that? Like the USA (see my last projections), Denmark will have population decline if they keep on this path, discounting immigration. Because they have been at low fertility for a while, the country is close to seeing actual decline based on birth rates alone. Here is what would happen over the next hundred years if current trends persist and there are no immigrants: The population would eventually contract 31%.

denmark.xlsx

A 31% population drop a century from now would make for a pretty different Denmark (as will another few feet of sea-level rise). But there is time to get there — the drop would only be 6% in the next three decades. And of course if they don’t want this, they could easily cushion the fall with immigration. In any event, there is nothing here that suggests the “end of babies” or the abandonment of reproduction — families would continue having an average of 1.8 children each, as they have for the last several decades.

A population below replacement fertility might seem diseased, but it might also just be the aggregation of a lot of people exercising their newfound freedoms in newly discovered ways, including having fewer or no children. I agree with Sussman when she writes:

The problem, to be clear, is not really one of “population” …. Hundreds of thousands of babies are born on this planet every day; people all over the world have shown they are willing to migrate to wealthier countries for jobs. Rather, the problem is the quiet human tragedies, born of preventable constraints — an employer’s indifference, a belated realization, a poisoned body — that make the wanted child impossible.

To the extent those tragedies occur, we should prevent or ameliorate them. And to the extent they are concentrated among people or groups who already experience marginalization, isolation, or exploitation, it’s a social problem that’s part of our burgeoning inequality suite. Healthcare, housing, education, and family leave all come to mind as helpful, even if they can’t solve the existential crisis of late capitalism. But two cautions. First, I’m not convinced such tragedies are more common than they used to be, just because people are having fewer children than they used to. Remember, we also have fewer people trapped into having large families they don’t want (forced-birther policies notwithstanding).

And second, crucially, even if we address these issues of self-determination, there is no guarantee that a happy, healthy, equal, and harmonious population wants to produce enough children to maintain or grow its total size. We may eventually have to learn to live with fewer people, locally and globally, even if we’re all happy with the number of children we have.

What comes around

In the meantime, I think it’s confusing and ultimately unhelpful to confound what are essentially orthogonal issues. We should care about the problems Sussman raises regardless of population trends.

And that brings me to an aside on New York Times coverage. It was just 11 years ago, in 2008, that a different New York Times story about the existential threat of falling fertility, this one in the Magazine and titled “No Babies?”, singled out Scandinavian countries — with total fertility rates of 1.8 — as positive examples, bucking the trend toward “lowest-low” fertility demonstrated by Southern European countries, due to their “vigorous social-welfare systems.” That’s the same social welfare system, and the same total fertility rate, that Sussman characterizes as a “reproductive malaise” in Denmark today.

And there are illustrations of children playing alone in both cases. Because “the end of babies” and a world with “no babies” is best illustrated with a picture of the last child on earth alone in a playground. Great illustrations — just not of our societies.

nytchildrenalone

That said…

You can’t really pin sudden fertility swings on things like “late capitalism,” which are decades in the making. It was just February of 2009 that I was writing one of my first blog posts, “Why Are American Women Having More Children?” as U.S. total fertility rose to 2.1 for the first time since 1971. I think it was late capitalism, too, but the U.S. TFR was 13% higher than Denmark’s (they are now the same), and everyone was talking about American mothers “opting out” of the labor force to stay home with their four children. On the other hand is socialist Finland — a country with a lot of what I want from social policy, including low inequality and poverty, and lots of family leave — which has seen a fertility decline since 2010 that could reasonably be called a crash. The government estimates the TFR in 2019 is 1.32-1.34, down from 1.86 a decade ago!

Here are the trends in select countries:

country fertilitiy trends.xlsx

Does this mean the people in Finland are suddenly much less happy  relative to those in Denmark, which has seen a recent uptick in fertility rates? I have no idea. I can make population projections if you tell me the fertility rate, but I can’t tell you what the fertility rate will be in the future (and neither can you). A tiny bit humbling, honestly.

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Two talks on public sociology (with audio)

I gave two talks at the American Sociological Meetings in New York City this week. I recorded them and removed some of the ums for you here. They’re each less than 11 minutes.

The first was in a session titled, “Tools for Communicating Sociology Outside the Discipline: What Works, What Doesn’t Work, and What’s Promising,” organized by Chris Uggen and presided over by Paul Calarco. I was following talks by Lisa Wade, Rashawn Ray, and Gabriel Rossman, Eszter Hargattai, and Sarah Lageson (some of whom you’ll hear mentioned). This is mostly about interacting with the news media.

The second talk, later the same day, was about the debate over activism in sociology. I think it paired well, and there are some themes in my talks that overlap. The session was titled, “Scholarly Activism in and for Sociology,” organized by Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra and including Daniel Laurison, Margaret Weigers Vitullo, and Fabio Rojas. This was after ASA President Mary Romero’s speech the night before, which she called, “Sociology: Engaging with Social Justice,” and I start by discussing that.

I recommend recording your talks (these are just phone recording) even if you’re not going to share them. It can be excruciating but also good for improving your public speaking. Also if I said anything really wrong I might want to correct it publicly. And sharing them is good for people who couldn’t be there.

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Naomi Wolf and sharing our lanes

Bruce Stokes / https://flic.kr/p/dMG983

The other day, in response to the Naomi Wolf situation, I tweeted in response to Heather Souvaine Horn, an editor at the New Republic:

After which she invited my to submit an essay to the site. It’s now been published as: Learn the Right Lessons from Naomi Wolf’s Book Blunder: Expertise matters. But lane-policing is counterproductive.

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Fox News took my quotes out of context and added wrong information

Following up on Part 1, discussed here, Parts 2 and 3 of the Fox News series on demography and social change also featured quotes from me. Part 2 used a reasonable quote in a reasonable way, but Part 3 did not.

Part 2 is a good teaching lesson in sky-is-fallingism, a Fox News signature. As they’ve done before, they literally start with a 1950s TV show as if it were historical footage, and then proceed to the chaotic now.

“If Tommy suddenly woke up today, he’d be an aging Baby Boomer, receiving benefits from a Social Security trust fund that is more than 2 trillion dollars in debt. He might be tending to his aches and pains with medical marijuana, now legal in 33 states. He might see his childhood friends are legally married [showing gay male weddings] while almost half the mommies in the U.S. are not.”

Cut to racial minority students in UCLA gear. Etc. The most extreme cut is between the Heritage Foundation person saying, of Democrats, “We’re the party of government, and that way if we have voters attached to government programs they’re going to stick with us,” before, literally, cutting to archival Mao and Stalin footage, with the voice-over:

“That, while the hard lessons of socialism — 70 million dead in China, 20 million dead in the Soviet Union — that happened during Communism, are often neglected in colleges, now focused on social justice curricula.”

Great stuff, good for teaching. Anyway, my quote in the piece is just saying young people nowadays don’t like to be lectured about traditional values. They just frame it like that’s a bad thing. Here it is:

Part 3 is where they misused my quotes, in two places. The episode is about how low fertility leads to immigration, which creates chaos and causes populism. Plenty wrong in here, but I’m just focusing on my beefs. First, on immigration, they say:

“Europe’s accommodation of refugees fleeing ISIS and the civil war in Syria, has proved a bridge too far.”

Philip Cohen: “Immigration poses challenges to the dominant culture. It’s obviously politically fraught.”

Cut to rioting footage. Narrator: “From Greece to Italy, Germany, France, and the Nordic countries, clashes have erupted. Nationalist politicians are forcing a reckoning with multiculturalism.”

According to my own recording of the interview, however, what I said immediate after, “It’s obviously politically fraught,” was this:

“On the other hand, there’s a great pent-up demand for immigration. There are plenty of people who want to come here. The immigrants who come here tend to be the better off, more highly skilled and educated people from the countries that they’re coming from, contrary to some stereotypes, so they end up strengthening the U.S. economy even as they improve their own wellbeing. So if you can get over all the challenges and conflict that sometimes comes along with rapid immigration, what you end up with is an answer to the population [problem].”

Lesson learned. Not surprising they didn’t use my pro-immigration other hand. I should have anticipated that better and made the other hand the only hand in my comment. However, they had invited me to discuss Millennials and marriage, so I wasn’t prepared for immigration.

The piece has distracted tangents into robots in Japan and the one-child policy in China. I also wasn’t prepared for the one-child policy on that day, but I always have a take ready on that. Here’s what I said, according to my recording:

“One thing to know about China is the birthrate had fallen a lot before the one-child policy. So even if you like the idea … [they interrupted to say they had bumped the focus, so I should start my answer again] …One thing that’s important to realize about China is that population growth had already slowed a lot before the one-child policy started, so they really didn’t need the one-child policy to slow down population growth. And it was quite draconian. It went against what most people wanted for their families. The implementation of it was very repressive. It included forced sterilization, and abortion, and very harsh penalties for people who had extra children. So it was really a human rights disaster.”

In the piece, however, they used the part about forced sterilization and the human rights disaster, but didn’t use where I said, “they really didn’t need the one-child policy to slow down population growth” — and replaced it with voice-over that said, “overpopulation compelled the Communist government to force a one-child policy on the populous.” So they took out something true and added something false.

To see how wrong that it, here is the trend in total fertility rate (births per woman) from 1960 to 2016. This shows how much birth rates had come down in China under policies that promoted smaller families along with women’s healthcare, education, and employment, by the time China implemented the one-child policy in 1980:

china-1980-tfr

I put India and Nigeria on the chart to show how successful China already was relative to other large, poor countries with high fertility in the 1960s. There was no demographic justification for the one-child policy, and the fact that it became draconian and repressive is a clue to how out of step it was with the family lives of the Chinese people.

The reason this matters is not particularly important for the Fox News piece, but it’s very important to understand that progress on reducing fertility is better achieved through empowerment and development than through command and repression. Now that we’re seeing countries interested in increasing fertility, this is important historical context. (Here’s a good review article by Wang Feng, Baochang Gu, and Yong Cai [paywalled | bootlegged])

Anyway, regardless of the implications, it just goes against accuracy and honesty to remove true information for false information.

Anyway anyway, here’s Part 3:

 

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Appearance on Fox News Channel explained

Recently I was invited to be interviewed by Fox News Channel for “a series of stories about changing demographics and how they’re impacting politics, policy, and our culture.” Specifically, the producer said they wanted to interview me about “your recent research on millennials and marriage and divorce rates.”

This raised the recurring question faced by responsible academics: Should I appear on Fox News? For those of us who love attention, it’s hard to say no, but I did consider saying no. I figured the segment would be a right-slanted take, but also hoped that since it was for a news program, rather than an opinion program, it might be moored to reality, and I thought I might have a chance to interject something useful, or at least true. (This differs from my previous appearance, with Tucker Carlson.) Whether to differentiate at all between news and opinion on FNC is an interesting question in itself.

So I did it, and it aired yesterday. Since I lent it legitimacy I should also correct the errors they made. Comments below the video:

Here are some comments and corrections. First, the beginning is just a fear-of-change narrative:

“As we head into 2019 you may look back and think about how much has changed, not just in the past year, but in your life. And it’s not just you. America’s population, our culture, it is all changing.”

It’s setting viewers up for doom, where change is ominous out of control, the audience tearing down that precedes the build up of the authoritarian leader. Anyway, that’s to be expected, along with the boilerplate right-wing statements about marriage, women, welfare, and single mothers, which I won’t detail here.

They never did ask me about my research on marriage and divorce, but we did talk about fertility. So then he says:

“The US is facing a demographic crisis that JFK could not have imagined: A fertility rate of 1.8 percent. That means the US is not producing enough to sustain its population.”

Don’t ask what JFK has to do with this. But the fertility rate is not “1.8 percent,” it’s 1.8 projected births per woman, and it’s not a demographic crisis.

In the interview, I tried to focus on inequality and insecurity in every answer, figuring that was the angle they might let into the piece. This is what they ended up using:

“The reasons behind these demographic changes are complicated. [Philip Cohen:] One of the reasons people have fewer children is because they’re unsure about the future. They’re unsure about the costs of raising those children, especially the costs of education. And the student loan debt is a huge crisis that everybody knows about.”

I’m happy with this, a true statement, not distorted or taken out of context. The chyron they put below me is bad, however: “Lower U.S. Fertility Rates Creating Society Upheaval.” “Upheaval” is a strong word, but in any event the causality is reversed: social instability is driving lower U.S. fertility rates. Whatever effects falling fertility will have on society, they’re not here yet anyway.

Then immigration:

“The US is compensating for lower fertility rates with another demographic change: an increased reliance on immigration.”

The US doesn’t exactly have a policy of responding to falling fertility by welcoming immigrants. But it’s true that immigration is buttressing the US from the potential effects of slower population growth. In the last 25 years the immigrant share of the labor force has increased from 12 percent to 19 percent. That is pretty clearly the solution — if we need one — to falling population growth. But this quote from Victor Davis Hanson, Hoover Institution is ridiculous:

“In the case of the right, they want people to work more cheaply than native-born citizens. And on the left they want a further argument, or an agenda for big government.”

It’s true the right wants immigrants to help keep labor costs down. The idea that the left wants immigrants to bolster the argument for big government is just idiotic. This is creating a narrative where the system/swamp/Washington is destroying the culture.

Finally, the conclusion brings it back to fear of change:

“These demographic changes help to partly explain the resurgence of socialism in the United States. A Gallup poll from August found that young adult Americans are more positive about socialism – 51 percent – than they are about capitalism – 45 percent. That’s a 12-point swing in only two years.”

I have no idea how you connect “these demographic changes” to the (excellent) rise in positive perceptions about socialism. But the 12-point change in two years was only in young adults’ (age 18-29) attitudes toward capitalism. During that time their attitude toward socialism declined as well, so the gap went from -2 to +6, or an eight-point swing. Here’s the trend from Gallup:

capsoc

In conclusion, I got to say something I wanted to say, and it added something to the piece they wouldn’t otherwise have included. Whether that makes it worth participating in this I can’t say.

The segment above was the first of three. I discuss the other two here.

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

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

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

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

Trump Era

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

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

dtsw

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

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

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

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

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

hostnation

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

chai gittel and grandparents

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

32106472830_c7b7722b99_k

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

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

tncrtlk

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

Sociology

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

publicsoccovers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fiction

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

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

Whew!

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