Charles Murray on his propaganda playing field

I have some notes on Charles Murray’s new book Coming Apart, and the reactions to it, for a would-be essay. Since I haven’t read the book yet, I’m not ready to write that essay, but there are some things you can say without reading the book. Maybe this will be handy or interesting for those who operate in the faster information lanes.

First, remember who we’re dealing with: Murray is not a scholar doing (peer reviewed) research to advance our collective understanding of social life. He is a political propagandist. So we can hold him responsible primarily for the consequences of his work rather than its scientific veracity (which does require reading the book). He works for the American Enterprise Institute, a charitable-in-the-legal-sense front for corporate interests, which launders the tax-free contributions of its donors — a who’s-who of right-wing elites — to create “expert” opinion that in turn shapes and justifies the actions of government leaders.

Of course, they are not alone in this, but they are leaders of the form. This is from their latest annual report:

By treating their representatives as legitimate experts we play into their diabolical schemes.

Stop the presses

In addition to wasting everyone’s time in Congress, AEI is also very effective at promoting their representatives’ work in the media — where hardly anyone does more than mention AEI in passing. Murray’s book has been reviewed not once, but twice in the New York Times. And AEI achieved a near-perfect placement record among the Times‘s top columnists, including David Brooks (“I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important”) and Ross Douthat (“brilliant”), Paul Krugman (“the new book at the heart of the conservative pushback”), and Nicholas Kristoff (“he’s right to highlight social dimensions of the crisis among low-skilled white workers”). The latter two are critical, too, but not enough to overcome the adage about publicity. (The Times also ran a good roundup by Thomas Edsall.)

The marketing campaign includes, naturally, advance bashing of sociologists, the small corner of academia that did the best job of debunking his last big book, The Bell Curve. “I am sure there are still sociology departments where people would cross themselves if I came into the room,” he smirked to the Chronicle of Higher Education. But in that article, sociologist Dalton Conley is quoted as calling Murray, “probably the most influential social-policy thinker in America” (before offering some critical comments as well).

As Anne Coulter might say, though, “our sociologists” aren’t so bad. Brad Wilcox, for example, has joined the fawning chorus at the Wall Street Journal (which previewed the book), declaring we (Whites) are “a nation where millions of people are losing touch with the founding virtues that have long lent American lives purpose, direction and happiness … The scope and cost of government grows, and liberty withers, when the family breaks down.”

Like old times

Like Newt Gingrich, Murray uses the looming specter of Black pathology to whip up apocalyptic fears among Whites (while somehow convincing some people he’s not a racist because he describes “America” with data on Whites). The two were anti-welfare soul-mates in the 1990s, when Murray wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal called “The Coming White Underclass” (10/29/93), which was a preview of Coming Apart.

He wrote then:

Every once in a while the sky really is falling, and this seems to be the case with the latest national figures on illegitimacy… now the overall white illegitimacy rate is 22%. The figure in low-income, working-class communities may be twice that. How much illegitimacy can a community tolerate? Nobody knows, but the historical fact is that the trendlines on black crime, dropout from the labor force, and illegitimacy all shifted sharply upward as the overall black illegitimacy rate passed 25%. … But the brutal truth is that American society as a whole could survive when illegitimacy became epidemic within a comparatively small ethnic minority. It cannot survive the same epidemic among whites.

For what it’s worth, the “illegitimacy” rate is 41% nationally, and 29% for non-Hispanic Whites. And, of course, the crime rate is through the … floor. So, look to him for reliable predictions about whether “American society as a whole [can] survive” at your own risk.

His solutions then, in addition to zeroing out welfare for single mothers, included dropping the sentimental attachment to letting people raise their own children:

Those who prattle about the importance of keeping children with their biological mothers may wish to spend some time in a patrol car or with a social worker seeing what the reality of life with welfare-dependent biological mothers can be like.

This is a very partial rundown. Feel free to add your own links in the comments.

2011 books for the Family Inequality reader in your life

One book forward, two books back.

The list of books I’d like to read pulled way ahead of the books I’ve read this year. Here is a partial list of books published in 2011 that I have read, or that I want to, of potential interest to Family Inequality readers.

Kathleen Gerson’s book, Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Family, is based on life history interviews with 120 or so young adults to look back at their family lives growing up — and look forward to the families they hope to form.  Having grown up between a gender revolution (women’s independence, employment) and a hard place (divorce, economic insecurity), they evaluate the parents that separated and those that didn’t, the breadwinner-homemakers and the dual-earners, and then set out their own ideals — which they simultaneously doubt they can achieve. The book is well written and organized, good for undergrads willing to read and grad students learning how to design their own research projects.

Mara Hvistendahl is a science journalist who has written a critical and compelling account of the origins and implications of sex-selective abortion and the skewed sex ratios it creates, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men. It’s a journalistic account that gets the demographic science right, but also pushes out (beyond the data) to make alarming predictions that provoke great discussion.

Annette Lareau has updated her important book Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (Second Edition with an Update a Decade Later). When using the first edition in a stratification class years ago, I cautioned my students that Lareau couldn’t say how the parenting differences she documented would actually affect the children she studied. Now we know quite a bit more, and her new analysis is insightful. One of the big differences between the “concerted cultivation” of the middle-class parents and the “accomplishment of natural growth” of the poor and working-class parents is their interactions with the institutions that stand between childhood and adulthood, especially schools. If you read or teach this book, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by the update.

Sadly, those are the only ones one this list I’ve really read yet. So this is much more a wish list than a recommendation list. Here are the others near the top of my pile:

A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. Stephanie Coontz’s social history of the Betty Friedan classic and its impact on American society.

The Inequalities of Love: College-Educated Black Women and the Barriers to Romance and Family. Sociologist Averil Y. Clarke’s study of personal narratives and demographic data aims to uncover “how race and class create unequal access to ‘love,’ serious relationships, and marriage,” according to Paula England’s blurb.

Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School. Sociologist Shamus Khan returns to St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire to update the story of how elite schools teach the embodiment of privilege in a new era.

Social Class and Changing Families in an Unequal America. Marcia Carlson and Paula England are the editors of this new collection, which features contributions by such leading lights as, among others, Philip Morgan (on fertility and inequality), Kathryn Edin (low-income urban fathers), Annette Lareau (see above) and Frank Furstenberg (wrapping up).

Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China. Judith Stacey is a feminist, a sociologist, and a postmodernist with something actually relevant to say (those are my terms — I hope she doesn’t mind). According to the blurb, she “decouples the taken for granted relationships between love, marriage, and parenthood,” and “undermines popular convictions about family, gender, and sexuality held on the left, right, and center.” Just what I would expect, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

Markets and Bodies: Women, Service Work, and the Making of Inequality in China. Sociologist Eileen Otis presents a comparative ethnography of formal and informal service workplaces in two Chinese cities, looking for the “interactive hierarchies” between customers and the women who serve them, and the organizational contexts the shape their interactions. I’ve heard her present some of this, and she’s a compelling story-teller. Looks good.

Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World. Sociologist Ceclia Ridgeway argues that cultural frames in social interactions imbue uncertain situations with traditional gender beliefs and standards, making social change a sticky and uneven process. If Joan Williams thinks it’s “the most important book on gender I have read in decades,” and Barbara Risman says, “If you only read one book about inequality this decade, make it this one,” then it’s worth a look.

Finally, allow me to plug two books by friends at UNC. I’ve seen them working away on these books for years, and to have them finally out is a thrill — especially given the positive reception they’re both getting.

Karolyn Tyson has published Integration Interrupted: Tracking, Black Students, and Acting White after Brown, which uses students own voices to examine “how our schools are implicated in the creation of oppositional culture among all students, white as well as black,” in the words of James Rudy. The book “offers no comfort to those quick to blame black students for their disadvantages,” says Samuel Lucas.

Lisa Pearce and Melinda Denton have written A Faith of Their Own: Stability and Change in the Religiosity of America’s Adolescents, which uses a large survey and in-depth interviews with 120 adolescents to find out how religion changes in their lives over these pivotal years. After reading this, we should know not to refer to “religiosity” or “religiousness” as a something that can be simply quantified for young people. Religion splashes a colorful social and ideological collage through their developing practices and identities.

This list is very incomplete. Please feel free to add any additional suggestions in the comments.

Note: I haven’t gotten any promotional “consideration” for endorsing these books, and I don’t get any money if you follow the Amazon links to buy them. However, if you would like me to review your book, feel free to send it to me with no strings attached.

Pitching your work to CW Mills

I haven’t read C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings, but on a tip from Karl I flipped through to this passage, in which Mills tells Dan Wakefield about a party of Columbia grad students he went to in the late 1950s:

On the one hand, it’s important to believe your work is relevant to the social world, and maybe even important. On the other hand, it’s also good to be nice to grad students. On the third hand, I’d love to have that conversation with him now and hear his reaction to what I do. I’d like to think I could take it.

Mid-course corrections

How do you know if it’s working?

Job-performance evaluations are the subject of many studies in the sociology of work and inequality (including a new article by Emilio Castilla in American Sociological Review). In the professoriate, the job evaluation process is all over the place — teaching evaluations, peer-review of research for publication, peer-review of grant applications, conference acceptances and invitations, reviews of books, awards, comprehensive reviews at promotion time.

Last week I got two decisions from peer-reviewed journals (both rejections), got a bunch of chapter reviews for my book from people who teach family sociology courses, and conducted informal evaluations in my undergraduate class. Each of these types of evaluation is useful. In reverse order, here’s how I think they are.

1. Informal course evaluations

A class of 57 students is small enough to have a discussion, but big enough for some people to never speak up. Before my midterm exam, when they still haven’t gotten much formal feedback from me except some quiz grades, I asked the students to answer three questions anonymously: favorite thing about the course so far, least favorite thing, and suggestions for improvement. (As suggested here.)

The answers ranged from “love the material, love sociology in general” to “can be a little boring when it’s just lecturing”; from “really enjoy the lectures, powerpoints, sense of humor 🙂 class is never boring” to “SO MUCH READING.” The bottom lines were nearly unanimous, however: More discussion and interaction, more video clips, and turn the lights up. Great advice, mission accomplished, course improved.

It’s hard to know what’s working in a class because, although I’ve been teaching “Families and Society” for five years at UNC, I change the material and readings every time, the students change all the time, and for all I know I change every time, too. Unless you repeat the same sequence with only specific changes, it’s hard to know which innovations produce which results. The mid-course evaluation helps make improvements right away and identify potential problems that people are reluctant to speak up about publicly.

2. Book chapter reviews.

The editor for the book I’m writing at W. W. Norton, Karl Bakeman, sends my chapters out for review as I draft them. We must have had a few dozen reviews so far. The ways these reviews differ exemplify why it’s hard to evaluate your own course: there are too many variables in play to compare them all and know what’s best. Each person compares my chapters with their own experience and knowledge, what and how they teach, and their own sociological perspectives. Imagine that, for each reviewer, there are at least three possible schemes: the way they used to do it, how they do it now, and how they’d like to do it. Then multiply that by the number of possible ways to organize the book and frame the subject matter.

What I hadn’t realized going into the process was how valuable these different views would be for trying to create the best possible book – and the best possible courses to come out of it. Not by taking everyone’s advice, but by weighing the range of opinions and interpretations. What’s hard about teaching one course may be a benefit to a book project that aims to improve many people’s courses.

3. Peer-reviewed research

Since I already have tenure — and even have my next job lined up — I can be philosophical about the journal rejections. Of the articles I’ve published, very few have been written by me alone, as these last two were. And each of them was a struggle, involving premature submission and outright rejection. My first drafts of journal articles are (to date) awful. And the revisions I do myself before submitting them for publication are not much better. I could protest, but the data to support this generalization are too clear. It’s not that the research or findings are found to be wrong (usually), but rather that the writing and framing aren’t clear, the cut corners are too glaring, and the ambition is overreaching. This pattern represents a substantial imposition on my peers, who volunteer to review this research, and I owe it to them to try to learn from this and do better.

Having also written a round of tenure review letters this year, I also know that there is pressure from some quarters to critically evaluate collaboration, to make sure each scholar makes an “independent” contribution and deserves individual recognition (in the form of lifetime job security). My own experience reinforces my tendency to downplay the risks of crediting people for collaborative work.

ASA Job Bank, supply/demand, gender

Rebels without a job?

(Spoiler alert: inside-sociology post.)

(With clarifications marked as marked like this.)

The American Sociological Association’s Department of Research & Development has a new report out on the 2010 academic job market. It focuses mostly on the big news, overall trends and so on. I was more interested in the fate of different specializations.

The data are bound to be messy on this, since both jobs and candidates often include multiple specialties. But still, the report concludes that there are “several notable mismatches between the fields of interest of graduate students and the fields in which departmental searches are most common.”

You can look at their table yourself, on page 7, but since I prefer a different way of looking at it, I made these. The first figure is just the percentage of ads that listed an area (x-axis) versus the percentage of applicants PhD candidates who listed the area in their ASA member profiles. The good news is the correlation is positive, at .37.

I condensed the area names, so sue me. I also color-coded them based on the ratio of demand (ads) to supply (apps), which isn’t obvious from the table or graph. All-caps red is Culture — where apps PhD candidates’ percentage outnumbers ad percentage almost 3-to-1 (that is, 24% of PhD candidates list Culture as an area of interest, but 8% of ads list culture). Sex and gender is the next worst at 1.9-to-1. The best ratio is crime/deviance, which earned green type but not all caps, with a ratio of 1.7 jobs per applicant PhD candidate.

Back in June I made some graphs on the gender composition of sections – the organizations of sub-fields within sociology. Now we can see how the gender composition lines up with the supply-demand situation. (Remember these section compositions are for all section members, not just students.) Here are the sections I could match up reasonably well with the ad/app categories, with demand-over-supply on the x-axis versus gender composition. Areas on the right are smooth sailing for job seekers, those on the left are buyer’s markets for hiring departments (correlation = -.26)

It’s always worth checking, but it doesn’t seem like the main story is women crowding into areas with too many applicants per job, though maybe some of that.

Speculation: Maybe one predictor of poor job prospects is anti-establishment perspectives and (not coincidentally) external support, whether from research funding or non-sociology major teaching demand. That’s just stereotyping the difference between culture/sex-gender/inequalities graduate students versus quant/crim students. (Family and enviro are the ones that don’t fit my stereotypes there, but I’m flexible.)

Feel free to add your interpretations.

Gender segregated sociology

Sociologist, segregate thyself? A little inside-sociology post.

A report from the research folks at the American Sociological Association (ASA) got me thinking about gender-segregated sociology. I added a few numbers from other sources to provide a quick look at three moments of gender segregation within the discipline.

People may (or may not) want to be sociologists, they may or may not be accepted to graduate schools, thrive there (with good mentoring or bad), freely choose specializations, complete PhDs, publish, get jobs, and so on.  As in most workplaces, gender segregation represents the cumulative intentions and actions of people in different institutional settings and social locations.

#1: Phds

Since the mid-1990s, according to data from the National Science Foundation, women have outnumbered men as new sociology PhDs, and a few years ago we approached two-thirds female. In the three years to 2009, however, the number of PhDs has dropped by a third, and women have accounted for two-thirds of that drop. I have no idea what’s going on with that.

For the time being, then, we’re close to 50/50 in gender balance for producing PhDs. But academic careers can be long, so all those years in the 1970s and 1980s when men outnumbered women by so much still affect  today’s discipline. Among members of the ASA today, women are 7 years younger than men, on average. Which means the men are in higher positions, on average, as well.

#2: Specialization

Choosing what area of sociology to study is a combination of personal interest and ambition, institutional setting and mentoring, and happenstance of various kinds. (This is separate from the question of how narrowly to specialize in one’s specialization, which has a big impact on the quantity of publication, since switching topics is risky and costs valuable time.) So it wouldn’t be accurate to describe this as simply a free choice. But, once someone is a member of the ASA, which is open to anyone, then the choice of identifying with a certain area of research is free (or, actually, costs a few dollars a year), through joining sections of the association.

The pattern of section belonging shows a striking level of gender segregation. On a scale of 1 to 100, I calculate the sections are segregated at a level of .28. (That is the same level of segregation I calculated in the gender distribution between major fields for PhDs, such as engineering and social sciences.) Put another way, the correlation between the percentage of women and percentage of men across the sections is a strong -.64. And by both measures the segregation has increased since 2005.

Joining a section means voting to increase the number of presentations in that area at the national conference, getting a newsletter, maybe an email list, being invited to a reception, and having the chance to serve on committees and run for office arranging all those things. At its best it’s a community of scholars interested in similar subjects. Anyway, the point is it’s not a restrictive club or job competition.

#3: Editorial boards

Finally, prestigious academic journals have one or more editors, often some associate editors, and then an editorial board. In sociology, this is mostly the people who are called upon to review articles more often. Because journal publication is a key hurdle for jobs and promotions, these sociologists serve as gatekeepers for the discipline. In return they get some prestige, the occasional reception, and they might be on the way to being an editor themselves someday. I didn’t do a systematic review here, but I looked at the two leading research journals — American Sociological Review and American Journal of Sociology, as well as two prestigious specialized journals — Sociological Methods and Research, and Gender and Society (which is run by its own association, Sociologists for Women in Society, whose membership includes both women and men).

(I included the editors, book review editor, consulting or associate editors, and editorial board members, but not managing editors. The number included ranged from 33 to 73.)

I’m not attributing motives, describing gender discrimination, or even making a judgment on all this. There are complicated reasons for each of these outcomes, and without more research I couldn’t say nature/nurture, structure/agency, system/lifeworld, etc.

But gender segregation never happens for no reason.

Update: Kim Weeden pointed me toward the complete list of section memberships by gender for 2010. So here is a a graph of the gender compositions expanded to include all 49 sections. Also, with that expanded data, I recalculated the segregation level, and it’s .25.

Wal-Mart turning point

Eleven years later, the first ripples from the Wal-Mart gender discrimination case reach the Supreme Court.

The showdown has been called the biggest case of this term. Will the Court allow a class action to proceed against Wal-Mart (the prototypical gendered workplace), or will it dissolve the power of a million plus women who worked there? In a split decision, a federal appeals court has allowed the class action to go forward. The high court hears the case Tuesday.

From the plaintiff's materials at

My previous posts (here and here), address some of the sociological issues, but on the current hearing, see the NY Times report on the social science crux of the matter: sociologist Bill Bielby’s use of “social framework analysis” to situate the condition of many women within a common organizational context, suitable for collective consideration. That aspect of that case is what terrifies big businesses from Costco to Intel, who have filed briefs in support of Wal-Mart.

The stakes are uncomfortably high, but it’s exciting to see sociological analysis play a pivotal role in confronting practices that reproduce inequality. (Notably, the brief filed by the American Sociological Association supports Bielby’s methods.) Class actions are a counterbalance to the atomizing nature of a legal system that often dissolves systemic inequalities into personal harms and individualistic remedies. Says Slate‘s Richard Thomas Ford:

Ultimately what’s at stake in Dukes v. Wal-Mart is whether class-action lawsuits will continue to be a way to address pervasive discrimination, or whether America’s battle against prejudice will have to be fought on a case-by-case basis. This has been the central question in many of the most important civil rights disputes of the last 30 years. And in almost every case since the early 1980s, the Supreme Court has come down on the side of individualism against social justice. That statistic doesn’t look so good for the women suing Wal-Mart—or for equal opportunity generally.

Valerie K. Oppenheimer

News from UCLA is that Valerie Kincade Oppenheimer, who was on the sociology faculty there since 1972, has passed away. This year, fittingly, Oppenheimer was the inaugural recipient of the Harriet B. Presser Award from the Population Association of America, which is given for a record of sustained contribution in gender and demography.

I did not know her personally, but her work was highly influential in the areas of sociology of gender and family. (An obituary in the Los Angeles Times appeared here.)

In a path-breaking 1967 article in Population Studies, she analyzed the interaction of labor supply and demand to explain the rapidly increasing employment rates of women in the post-war years. That complex dynamic involved demographic trends in population size and composition, economic factors such as the changing industrial composition, cultural changes in the acceptability of women’s employment and political changes in the laws and policies limiting the employment of married women and mothers. A 1968 article in Industrial Relations provided documentation of high levels of gender segregation. In a technique near and dear to my heart, she differentiated occupations across industries in the Census data to uncover the extent of segregation. (For example, 67% of clerical workers were women, but in the communications industry that figure rose to 88% – that’s 1960, when there were a lot fewer women in the labor force.) Her dispassionate and methodical scientific tone in these articles masks the cutting-edgeness of a woman independently doing theoretically ambitious, quantitative, demographic work in the U.S. at that time.

Perhaps her most influential work today, however, was in debunking the myth that married couples are most stable and “functional,” and can best maximize their fortunes, by combining wives’ unpaid work and husbands’ paid employment, known as the “specialization and trading model.” These articles have been cited hundreds of times, establishing a theoretical and empirical pillar for a sociological counter-model to, first, the dominant functionalist model in American sociology (Talcott Parsons in particular); and second to the dominant, and often simplistic, economic paradigm on the family. She did not predict or advocate for the end of marriage, but rather for its reconfiguration as a two-earner partnership, albeit one that would probably be less common and less stable than the trading-based marriages were before.

Here’s a long excerpt from the conclusion to her 1994 article in Population and Development Review entitled, “Women’s Rising Employment and the Future of the Family in Industrial Societies”:

According to the trading model, as women’s wages rise … they experience greater involvement in paid employment and increasing economic independence; hence the major gain to marriage is greatly reduced. But there are other reasons why an institution of marriage based on such a model might become an endangered social form in industrial societies. The stability of such a family is theoretically founded on women specializing in home production, and a major part of this production involves the bearing and rearing of children who, as marriage-specific capital, provide an additional source of marital cohesion. Much of the specialized home production of women in the past was devoted to bearing and rearing children who never survived to adulthood. For women to be equally occupied in contemporary low-mortality societies would mean the production of large families. However, even moderate family sizes in a low-mortality society lead to rapid population growth. Hence, if the stability of marital relationships depends on exponential population growth, it is unclear whether this is a viable societal strategy over the long term. Moreover, couples do not just want to produce children per se, they want to produce children like themselves – that is, they are interested in social, not just biological reproduction. But the cost of social reproduction is high in a society where increasingly substantial and lengthy investments in human capital for each child are required. In short, high fertility does not appear to be a viable family strategy. Contemporary low fertility, however, reduces the need for women’s specialization in home production. Given their long lives, it also means women would be not doing anything highly productive most of the time. Can any society, even a wealthy one, afford to have more than half its citizenry economically nonproductive for a good part of their lives? All in all, if the basis of marriage is specialization and exchange, then marriage seems an increasingly anachronistic social form.

This may seem an exceedingly pessimistic view of the future of marriage but, in large part, this is a function of the specialization model itself. It may not follow from other models of marriage. For example, I have suggested that a more adaptive family strategy for a modern industrial society is one where wives as well as husbands engage in market work. A specialization model of marriage, aside from its other problems, entails considerable risks in an independent nuclear family system – risks for individuals as well as for the family unit. This is because in such a family there is rarely more than one person to occupy any single specialty, and if something happens to him or her, functions vital to the family’s well-being and even its continued survival may cease to be performed. …

Moreover, as societies industrialize and become characterized by highly skilled and relatively high-wage labor, the potential relative contribution of unskilled children is greatly diminished. Wives’ employment, therefore, provides a highly adaptive alternative strategy. It introduces some needed labor redundancy, thereby reducing the risks to the family’s income position, and it also provides a means of helping to maintain living levels over the family’s developmental cycle. But if wives’ employment (whether in-termittent or regular, part-time or full-time) is an adaptive family strategy in a modern society, then we are positing a model of marriage entirely different from that of specialization and trade. Now we are talking about a more collaborative model.

Oppenheimer had been professor emerita at UCLA since 1994. My career, and those of many others, would not have been the same without her.