Tag Archives: teaching

Family Demography seminar syllabus


Taipei shopping district / pnc

Here’s my syllabus for Family Demography this semester. Play along at home!

I went for contemporary readings for most subjects, rather than classic readings. I’ll talk about the background myself, and I added an origin/impact analysis assignment, where students dig into the front end of the papers and figure out where they’re coming from – and then follow the citations to see where they went (if they’re not brand new). If I had my stuff together I’d have a better list of background readings as a supplement, but we have comprehensive exam readings lists for that, too. Anyway, we’ll see how that works.

I hope this is useful. Feel free to add your own supplemental readings and suggestions in the comments.


This course is designed to build knowledge on the key theories, empirical patterns, and contemporary debates in the study of family demography, with lesser attention to methodology. (Some students previously took my seminar Families and Modern Social Theory; those who haven’t may find interesting background material in that syllabus: http://www.terpconnect.umd.edu/~pnc/FMST-syllabus.pdf.)

Students are expected to read assigned material and write a response paper each week, and a summary essay or research report at the end of the semester. In addition, each student will do an origin/impact analysis of one of the assigned readings and make a brief presentation to the class. Evaluation will be based on participation, weekly writings, the presentation, and the final paper.

Universal learning

The principle of universal learning means that our classroom and our interactions be as inclusive as possible. Your success in this class is important to me. If there are circumstances that may affect your performance in this class, please let me know as soon as possible so that we can work together to meet both your needs and the requirements of the course. Students with particular needs should contact the UMD Disability Support Service (http://www.counseling.umd.edu/DSS/), which will forward the necessary information to me. Please do it now instead of waiting till late in the semester.


Academic integrity. Students must be familiar with the UMD Code of Academic Integrity (http://president.umd.edu/sites/president.umd.edu/files/documents/policies/III-100A.pdf). In this course there is zero tolerance for academic dishonesty.

Classroom conduct. Students should not come to class late, as this creates a distraction for those who are participating. If your schedule regularly does not permit you to be in class from beginning to end, do not take the course. Students who need to leave early should sit at the back and leave quietly. Students may not use laptops, tablet computers, or mobile phones in class. If you have a need for keeping your phone handy in class notify the professor in advance for an exception.

Discussion. We will discuss course readings and related material, as well as current events, social issues, and politics. Everyone is free to express personal opinions and disagree with others, including the professor – just raise your hand. All discussion must be polite and respectful, and differences of opinion are tolerated. The professor will work to ensure the classroom is a safe space for all of use to participate freely. Please let me know if you have any concerns or suggestions for accomplishing this.


January 31

Theoretical perspectives in demography

Samek, Diana, Bibiana D. Koh, and Martha A. Rueter. 2013. “Overview of Behavioral Genetics Research for Family Researchers.” Journal of Family Theory & Review 5 (3): 214–33. doi:10.1111/jftr.12013.

Ferree, Myra Marx. 2010. “Filling the Glass: Gender Perspectives on Families.” Journal of Marriage and Family 72(3):420-439.

Elder, Glen H., Jr. 1998. “The Life Course as Developmental Theory.” Child Development 69(1):1-12.

February 7

Demographic transition

Kirk, D. 1996. “Demographic Transition Theory.” Population Studies 50 (3): 361-.

Thornton, Arland. 2001. “The Developmental Paradigm, Reading History Sideways, and Family Change.” Demography 38 (4): 449–65. doi:10.2307/3088311

Balbo, Nicoletta, Francesco C. Billari, and Melinda Mills. 2013. “Fertility in Advanced Societies: A Review of Research.” European Journal of Population 29 (1): 1–38. doi:10.1007/s10680-012-9277-y.

Feng, Wang. 2011. “The Future of a Demographic Overachiever: Long-Term Implications of the Demographic Transition in China.” Population and Development Review 37: 173–90.

February 14

Fertility in poor countries

Yount, Kathryn M., Sarah Zureick-Brown, Nafisa Halim, and Kayla LaVilla. 2014. “Fertility Decline, Girls’ Well-Being, and Gender Gaps in Children’s Well-Being in Poor Countries.” Demography 51 (2): 535–61. doi:10.1007/s13524-014-0282-0.

Feng, Wang, Baochang Gu, and Yong Cai. 2016. “The End of China’s One-Child Policy.” Studies in Family Planning 47 (1): 83–86. doi:10.1111/j.1728-4465.2016.00052.x.

Kravdal, Oystein. 2012. “Further Evidence of Community Education Effects on Fertility in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Demographic Research 27 (November): 646–. doi:10.4054/DemRes.2012.27.22.

Bongaarts, John, and Christophe Z. Guilmoto. 2015. “How Many More Missing Women? Excess Female Mortality and Prenatal Sex Selection, 1970–2050.” Population and Development Review 41 (2): 241–69. doi:10.1111/j.1728-4457.2015.00046.x.

February 21

Second demographic transition

Geist, Claudia. 2017. “Marriage Formation in Context: Four Decades in Comparative Perspective.” Social Sciences 6 (1): 9. doi:10.3390/socsci6010009.

Lesthaeghe, Ron. 2010. “The Unfolding Story of the Second Demographic Transition.” Population and Development Review 36 (2): 211-.

Goldscheider, Frances, Eva Bernhardt, and Trude Lappegard. 2015. “The Gender Revolution: A Framework for Understanding Changing Family and Demographic Behavior.” Population and Development Review 41 (2): 207–+. doi:10.1111/j.1728-4457.2015.00045.x.

Cohen, Philip N. 2011. “Homogamy Unmodified.” Journal of Family Theory & Review 3 (1): 47–51.

February 28

U.S. History

Ruggles. Steven. 2015. “Patriarchy, Power, and Pay: The Transformation of American Families, 1800-2015.” Demography 52: 1797-1823. (His lecture version at PAA.)

Cherlin, Andrew J. 2004. “The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage.” Journal of Marriage and Family 66 (4): 848–61.

Ruggles, Steven. 2007. “The Decline of Intergenerational Coresidence in the United States, 1850 to 2000.” American Sociological Review 72 (6): 964–89. doi:10.1177/000312240707200606.

Cohen, Philip N. 2014. The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Chapter 2, “History.”

March 7

Marriage and social class

Cherlin, Andrew J. 2014. Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Cohen, Philip N. 2014. The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Chapter 8, “Marriage and cohabitation.”

March 14

Fatherhood: race, class, and multiple-partner fertility

Edin, Kathryn and Timothy Nelson. 2013. Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City. University of California Press.

March 21

Spring break

March 28

Transition to adulthood

Crosnoe, Robert, and Monica Kirkpatrick Johnson. 2011. “Research on Adolescence in the Twenty-First Century.” Annual Review of Sociology 37:439–60.

Dow, Dawn Marie. 2016. “The Deadly Challenges of Raising African American Boys: Navigating the Controlling Image of the ‘Thug.’” Gender & Society 30 (2): 161–88. doi:10.1177/0891243216629928.

Billari, Francesco C., and Aart C. Liefbroer. 2010. “Towards a New Pattern of Transition to Adulthood?” Advances in Life Course Research 15 (2–3, SI): 59–75. doi:10.1016/j.alcr.2010.10.003.

Ghimire, D. J., W. G. Axinn, S. T. Yabiku, and A. Thornton. 2006. “Social Change, Premarital Nonfamily Experience, and Spouse Choice in an Arranged Marriage Society.” American Journal of Sociology 111 (4): 1181–1218.

April 11

Economic conditions and family outcomes

Sweeney, Megan M., and R. Kelly Raley. 2014. “Race, Ethnicity, and the Changing Context of Childbearing in the United States.” Annual Review of Sociology 40:539–58.

Currie, Janet, and Hannes Schwandt. 2014. “Short- and Long-Term Effects of Unemployment on Fertility.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (41): 14734–39. doi:10.1073/pnas.1408975111.

Schneider, Daniel, Kristen Harknett, and Sara McLanahan. 2016. “Intimate Partner Violence in the Great Recession.” Demography 53 (2): 471–505. doi:10.1007/s13524-016-0462-1.

April 18

Policy, race, and nonmarital births

England, Paula. 2016. “Sometimes the Social Becomes Personal: Gender, Class, and Sexualities.” American Sociological Review 81 (1): 4–28.

Cohen, Philip N. 2015. “Maternal Age and Infant Mortality for White, Black, and Mexican Mothers in the United States.” Sociological Science 3 (January): 32–38.

Geronimus, Arline T. 2003. “Damned If You Do: Culture, Identity, Privilege, and Teenage Childbearing in the United States.” Social Science & Medicine 57 (5): 881–93.

Cohen, Philip N. Forthcoming. Enduring Bonds: Families and Modern Inequality, Chapter: “Marriage promotion [Excerpts]” 24pp. [to be provided]

April 25

More U.S. inequality issues

Musick, Kelly, and Robert D. Mare. 2006. “Recent Trends in the Inheritance of Poverty and Family Structure.” Social Science Research 35 (2): 471–99. doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2004.11.006.

Western, Bruce, and Christopher Wildeman. 2009. “The Black Family and Mass Incarceration.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 621 (1): 221–242.

Two selections from Families in an Era of Increasing Inequality (2015) edited by Paul R. Amato, Alan Booth, Susan M. McHale, and Jennifer Van Hook, 3–23. National Symposium on Family Issues 5. Springer International Publishing.

McLanahan, Sara, and Wade Jacobsen. “Diverging Destinies Revisited.”

Cohen, Philip N. 2015. “Divergent Responses to Family Inequality.”

May 2

Family structure and child wellbeing

Regnerus, Mark. 2012. “How Different Are the Adult Children of Parents Who Have Same-Sex Relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study.” Social Science Research 41 (4): 752–70. doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2012.03.009.

Rosenfeld, Michael J. 2015. “Revisiting the Data from the New Family Structure Study: Taking Family Instability into Account.” Sociological Science 2 (September): 478–501. doi:10.15195/v2.a23.

Cohen, Philip N. Forthcoming. Enduring Bonds: Families and Modern Inequality, Chapter: “Marriage equality in social science and the courts.” 19pp. [to be provided]

Gates, Gary J. 2015. “Marriage and Family: LGBT Individuals and Same-Sex Couples.” Future of Children 25(2):67-87.

May 9

Divorce, Remarriage and Stepfamilies

Amato, Paul R. 2010. “Research on Divorce: Continuing Trends and New Developments.” Journal of Marriage and Family 72(3):650-666.

Kennedy, Sheela, and Steven Ruggles. 2014. “Breaking Up Is Hard to Count: The Rise of Divorce in the United States, 1980–2010.” Demography 51 (2): 587–98. doi:10.1007/s13524-013-0270-9.

Cohen, Philip N. 2014. “Recession and Divorce in the United States, 2008–2011.” Population Research and Policy Review 33 (5): 615–28. doi:10.1007/s11113-014-9323-z.

Anderson, Lydia R. 2016. “Divorce Rate in the U.S.: Geographic Variation, 2015.” National Center for Marriage and Family Research. http://www.bgsu.edu/ncfmr/resources/data/family-profiles/anderson-divorce-rate-us-geo-2015-fp-16-21.html.

Cohen, Philip N. 2016. “Life Table Says Divorce Rate Is 52.7%.” Family Inequality. June 8. https://familyinequality.wordpress.com/2016/06/08/life-table-says-divorce-rate-is-52-7/.

Bennett, Neil G. 2017. “A Reflection on the Changing Dynamics of Union Formation and Dissolution.” Demographic Research 36 (12): 371–90. doi:10.4054/DemRes.2017.36.12.



Filed under Uncategorized

Families and modern social theory

Just realized I never posted the syllabus for my new graduate seminar, “Families and modern social theory.” We’re 9 weeks into and I at least am getting a lot out of it. Feel free to share your comments or suggestions. A PDF version is here, but I also just pasted it below.


This course is designed to build knowledge theories of modernity with emphasis on modern families. Thus, it combines some core theories of modernity (Giddens, Bourdieu, Foucault), with key theoretical debates about families and intimate relationships (economics and economic sociology, gender, race), and social change (development and new family forms).

Students will read nine books and a variety of articles. They will write a response paper each week, and an exploratory essay or research report at the end of the semester.

Evaluation will be based on participation, weekly writings, and the final paper.

Part I: Modernity

1. What is modernity?

  • Giddens, Anthony. 1990. The Consequences of Modernity. John Wiley & Sons

2. Modern relationships

  • Giddens, Anthony. 1993. The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love, and Eroticism in Modern Societies. 1st edition. Stanford University Press.

3. Habitus and field

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1998. Practical Reason: On the Theory of Action. Stanford University Press.

4. Discipline

  • Foucault, Michel. 2012. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Part II: Families

5. New families

  • Rosenfeld, Michael J. 2007. The Age of Independence: Interracial Unions, Same-Sex Unions, and the Changing American Family. Harvard University Press.

6. Economics over all

  • Becker, Gary S. 1993. A Treatise on the Family: Enlarged Edition. Enlarged edition. Harvard University Press (excerpts TBA).
  • Bergmann, Barbara R. 1996. “Becker’s Theory of the Family: Preposterous Conclusions.” Challenge 39 (1): 9–12.
  • England, Paula. 1989. “A Feminist Critique of Rational-Choice Theories: Implications for Sociology.” The American Sociologist 20 (1): 14–28.
  • We’ll also discuss this terrible video:

7. Economic sociology of intimacy

  • Zelizer, Viviana A. 2009. The Purchase of Intimacy. Princeton University Press.

8. Family economics for real

  • Folbre, Nancy. 2009. Valuing Children: Rethinking the Economics of the Family. Harvard University Press.

9. Gender and families

  • Hartmann, Heidi I. 1981. “The Family as the Locus of Gender, Class, and Political Struggle: The Example of Housework.” Signs 6 (3): 366–94.
  • Ferree, Myra Marx. 2010. “Filling the Glass: Gender Perspectives on Families.” Journal of Marriage and Family 72 (3): 420–39. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00711.x.
  • Yodanis, Carrie, and Sean Lauer. 2014. “What Couples Actually Do: Is Marriage Individualized?” Journal of Family Theory & Review 6 (2): 184–97. doi:10.1111/jftr.12038.10.

10. Black families, uncertainty, and exclusion

  • Burton, Linda M., and M. Belinda Tucker. 2009. “Romantic Unions in an Era of Uncertainty: A Post-Moynihan Perspective on African American Women and Marriage.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 621 (January): 132–48.
  • Geronimus, Arline T. 2003. “Damned If You Do: Culture, Identity, Privilege, and Teenage Childbearing in the United States.” Social Science & Medicine 57 (5): 881–93. doi:10.1016/S0277-9536(02)00456-2.
  • Collins, Patricia Hill. 2001. “Like One of the Family: Race, Ethnicity, and the Paradox of US National Identity.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 24 (1): 3–28. doi:10.1080/014198701750052479.

Part III: Development and change

11. Modernity, development, and demography

  • Thornton, Arland. 2001. “The Developmental Paradigm, Reading History Sideways, and Family Change.” Demography 38 (4): 449–65. doi:10.2307/3088311.
  • Greenhalgh, Susan. 2003. “Science, Modernity, and the Making of China’s One-Child Policy.” Population and Development Review 29 (2): 163–96.
  • Kirk, Dudley. 1996. “Demographic Transition Theory.” Population Studies 50 (3): 361–87. doi:10.1080/0032472031000149536.
  • Lesthaeghe, R. “The Second Demographic Transition in Western Countries: An Interpretation.” In Mason, Karen Oppenheim, and An-Magritt Jensen (eds.). 1995. Gender and Family Change in Industrialized Countries. Clarendon Press.

12. Decoupling, families, and modernity

  • Stacey, Judith. 2011. Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China. New York University Press.


Filed under Me @ work

Must-know current demographic facts

Here’s an update of a post I wrote two years ago, with some additions.

One reason you, and your students, need to know these things is because they are the building blocks of first-line debunking. We use these facts, plus arithmetic, to ballpark the empirical claims we are exposed to all the time.

This followed my aggressive campaign to teach the undergraduate students in my class the size of the US population (I told you sociology isn’t an easy A). If you don’t know that — and some large portion of them didn’t — how can you interpret statements such as, “On average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States.” In this case the source followed up with, “Over the course of a year, that equals more than 12 million women and men.” But, is that a lot? It’s a lot more in the United States than it would be in China. (Unless you go with, “any rape is too many,” in which case why use a number at all?)


I even updated the cartoon!

Anyway, just the US population isn’t enough. I decided to start a list of current demographic facts you need to know just to get through the day without being grossly misled or misinformed — or, in the case of journalists or teachers or social scientists, not to allow your audience to be grossly misled or misinformed. Not trivia that makes a point or statistics that are shocking, but the non-sensational information you need to know to make sense of those things when other people use them. And it’s really a ballpark requirement (when I tested the undergraduates, I gave them credit if they were within 20% of the US population — that’s anywhere between 258 million and 387 million!).

I only got as far as 25 facts, but they should probably be somewhere in any top-100. And the silent reporters the other day made me realize I can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good here. I’m open to suggestions for others (or other lists if they’re out there).

They are rounded to reasonable units for easy memorization. All refer to the US unless otherwise noted. Most of the links will take you to the latest data:

Fact Number Source
World Population 7.3 billion 1
US Population 323 million 1
Children under 18 as share of pop. 23% 2
Adults 65+ as share of pop. 15% 2
Unemployment rate 5.0% 3
Unemployment rate range, 1970-2015 4% – 11% 4
Labor force participation rate, age 16+ 63% 4
Labor force participation rate range, 1970-2015 60% – 67% 4
Non-Hispanic Whites as share of pop. 62% 2
Blacks as share of pop. 13% 2
Hispanics as share of pop. 17% 2
Asians as share of pop. 5% 2
American Indians as share of pop. 1% 2
Immigrants as share of pop 13% 2
Adults with BA or higher 29% 2
Median household income $53,000 2
Total poverty rate 15% 8
Child poverty rate 21% 8
Poverty rate age 65+ 10% 8
Most populous country, China 1.4 billion 5
2nd most populous country, India 1.3 billion 5
3rd most populous country, USA 323 million 5
4th most populous country, Indonesia 256 million 5
5th most populous country, Brazil 204 million 5
Male life expectancy at birth 76 6
Female life expectancy at birth 81 6
National life expectancy range 50 – 85 7

1. http://www.census.gov/popclock/

2. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html

3. http://www.bls.gov/

4. Google public data: http://bit.ly/UVmeS3

5. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2119rank.html

6. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr64/nvsr64_02.pdf

7. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2102rank.html

8. https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/about/overview/

Now with handy PDF: Family Inequality Must-Know Demographic Facts


Filed under Uncategorized

Marriage equality is official now that it’s in The Family textbook

Well, actually, it’s in a special addendum to the textbook that W. W. Norton is just releasing.

The book I wrote, The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change, hit the streets a year ago today. Marriage equality plays a significant part in the story, much larger than the proportion of the population that is directly affected by the changing law. That’s because of the high-stakes nature of the debate for so many people, and because of its symbolic acceptance of rising family diversity — the main theme of the book.

So when the law suddenly, and fundamentally, changed this summer, we decided we needed an update for instructors teaching this fall. The three-page supplement reviews the political and legal events leading up to the June 26 Obergefell decision, and the logic of the legal questions addressed — along with a little context on the place of marriage equality in the story of family change. I hope it’s helpful for you.

The update is now available on the Norton website, here, and on my teaching page. While you’re at it, you should visit the book’s homepage, and see what we have in store for you if you teach family sociology (and request an exam copy), here.


  • A symposium with 12 writers and researchers addressing the concept, “After marriage equality,” which Syed Ali and I edited for Contexts.
  • My whole series of blog posts on marriage equality is archived under the homogamy tag.


1 Comment

Filed under Me @ work

Not all trigger warnings are the same


I follow the debate over trigger warnings only loosely. Please feel free to add information in the comments.

In what I see, the debate over trigger warnings is hampered by ill-defined terms and unhelpful hyperbole. I want to give a very basic description of what I think should be a relatively simple approach to the issue, call out a gender problem, and then offer my own example.

To show you where I’m coming from: What prompted me finally to write this was the combination of this popular op-ed by Judith Shulevitz, this essay about the problem of teaching about rape in law school, and the flap over Christina Hoff Sommers’s anti-anti-rape-culture campus tour. I noted that a letter to the editor in the Oberlin Review about her upcoming talk began with this: “Content Warning: This letter contains discussion of rape culture, online harassment, victim blaming and rape apologism/denialism.”

Impending discourse

There are three kinds of relevant warnings that I would group together under the category of “impending discourse notification.” That is, warnings that take the form: something is about to be discussed or displayed. Keeping these three things straight would be really helpful.

1. Warnings of content likely to be disturbing to many people in the audience.

For example, graphic images of violence during a regular TV news program, descriptions of rape on NPR’s Morning Edition, or sociology classroom lectures that contain images of Blacks being lynched. In these cases, a warning of the impending discourse is something like common courtesy. It says, “we are about to see or hear something important enough to risk disturbing the audience, and potentially disturbing enough that you should gird yourself.” In these discrete cases warnings are not controversial in principle, though of course individual applications may be off target or offensive. Many settings carry an implied warning: A horror film can be expected to surprise you with specific acts of violence, but you know something bad is coming; a sociology class on racial inequality should be expected to include discussions of lynching, though some students have no idea about lynching; a history documentary on war is expected to show people being killed. Warnings in these cases seem optional.

2. Warnings of content that may trigger post-traumatic stress responses.

I am not expert on this, obviously, but my understanding (from, e.g., here) is that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was included in the DSM III in 1980, partly based on the experience of Vietnam War veterans. The condition was understood to involve reliving memories of trauma, avoiding reminders of trauma, and hyperarousal that can lead to high levels of distress. There are many kinds of traumas that can lead to PTSD, but some are much more common than others, especially violence, sexual abuse, and existential threats. You can’t expect to prevent all triggering events, but you can take steps to avoid common ones, or warn people when you are going to show or discuss something to an audience likely to be include people with PTSD. Again, war movies are expected to show graphically violent war scenes, but lectures to audiences of combat veterans about disability benefits should not. This is a question of sensitivity and awareness, not blanket prohibitions and censoring. And this is about shocking or graphic imagery, not mere mention of a topic. We just can’t have a democratic discourse without mentioning bad things, sometimes spontaneously. The Oberlin newspaper warning above is wrong. And I don’t agree with another Oberlin essayist who says trigger warnings should be treated as disability accommodations, “as common as wheelchair ramps.” (Of course, I would make an accommodation for a specific student — and I have — who asks to opt out of a specific class session based on the topic).

3. Warnings of obnoxious, offensive, disagreeable, or dangerous ideas.

These warnings are unnecessary and wrong. If someone wants to say the problem of campus rape is exaggerated, that Black men are genetically aggressive, the Holocaust is a myth, or Creationists are stupid — let them. Hand out flyers or picket at their talk, discredit them in the Q&A, denounce them on Twitter, or ignore them. If they are receiving honorary degrees or other accolades (or money) from governments or universities, that’s political fair game to protest. But protecting people from hearing bad ideas is a bad idea (outside of incitement to violence). On campus or in the classroom, exposure to bad ideas is essential to critical intellectual development. If you’re never offended in college you aren’t learning enough.

A gender problem

I have complained elsewhere that the non-criminal procedure for responding to campus rape “downgrades sexual violence from a real crime to a women’s issue.” Something similar is going on with trigger warnings. Although PTSD-type responses can be triggered by many kinds of experiences, it looks like sexual violence is the main arena of debate over campus trigger warnings. Why? This should not be reduced to a “women’s issue.” My admittedly limited exposure to this debate often makes me cringe at what seems like a demand for special protection — from discourse — for women. Women are in fact more likely to experience PTSD than men, but that’s only partly because they are more likely to be sexually assaulted. Men are more likely to experience other potentially traumatic events, including accidents, nonsexual assaults, combat, or witnessing violence, all of which can lead to PTSD. People with sensitivity to trauma-related triggering deserve respect and sensitivity. But women — like any subordinate group — need to exert leadership in the discourse surrounding that inequality, and that doesn’t come from avoiding the topic or silencing their opponents. If the only people discussing rape are people who have never been raped, the dialogue is likely to be male-dominated. We have to work on maintaining the line between offensive and unpleasant on the one hand and truly trauma-inducing on the other. If it’s necessary to avoid the latter, it’s all the more important for those who are able to engage the former.

How did I do addendum

I think we can learn a lot from these discussions. They have raised the question, “What if we acted like sexual assault is actually common?” That reality is hard to grasp — for people who are victims or not — because the experience is so often private.* In the chapter in my book about family violence and abuse, I didn’t include an impending discourse notification, but — after opening with a detailed story of violent abuse — I raised the issue of how discussing the topic might affect students:

The subject of family violence and abuse is personal and painful. Instructors and students should pause at this point to consider the possible effects of discussing these topics, especially for those who have experienced abuse in their own lives. Because this kind of victimization still is so common in the United States, most of us will know someone who has been touched by it in one way or another. However, because families often are protected by a cultural—and sometimes legal—expectation of privacy and a shroud of secrecy, those who suffer usually do so in isolation. That leaves us with the complexity of a problem that is widespread but experienced alone and often invisibly. Such isolation can make the experience of abuse even worse. One benefit of addressing the issue in this book is that we can help pierce that isolation and encourage victims to realize that they are not alone.

I think advising people in the classroom to “pause to consider” before launching into the topic is reasonable — it’s a common experience with a known risk of traumatic effects. But I didn’t write that just to protect people who might have a traumatic reaction to the topic, I did it because it’s a learning opportunity for everyone.

* In the book I tried to put rape in normal-experience terms: experiencing rape (18% of women by one reasonable estimate) is more common than using the Pill for contraception (17% of women currently), but less common than smoking cigarettes for young-adult women (22%, ages 25-34). Does that help?


Filed under In the news, Me @ work

Syllabus supplements for spring family sociology

Photo by Ryan Tyler Smith from Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Ryan Tyler Smith from Flickr Creative Commons

If you’re using my book for your class, you’ve got all kinds of excellent teaching materials from Norton to use. But if you’re not (yet), or you want more recent posts to choose from, here’s an updated list of blog posts to supplement your course.

This is organized according to my table of contents, but I hope some of you will find it useful even if you’re teaching something else. These aren’t the best posts for each topic, but recent posts and some older favorites. The previous lists are here for 2013, and here for 2014. As always, I appreciate feedback on what works and what doesn’t.

1. Introduction

2. History

3. Race, ethnicity, and immigration

4. Social class

5. Gender

6. Sexuality

7. Love and romantic relationships

  • Is dating still dead? The death of dating is now 50 years old, and its been eulogized so many times that its feelings are starting to get hurt.
  • Online dating: efficiency, inequality, and anxiety: I’m skeptical about efficiency, and concerned about inequality, as more dating moves online. Some of the numbers I use in this post are already dated, but this could be good for a debate about dating rules and preferences.
  • Is the price of sex too damn low? To hear some researchers tell it in a recent YouTube video, women in general — and feminism in particular — have ruined not only sex, but society itself. The theory is wrong. Also, they’re insanely sexist.

8. Marriage and cohabitation

9. Families and children

10. Divorce, remarriage, and blended families

11. Work and families

12. Family violence and abuse

13. The future of the family

  • Tripping on tipping points: Minority births are now the majority. Is this a tipping point, a milestone, or a watershed? On the importance of accurately representing trends.
  • Dependency futures: An NPR story (linked here) on retirement prompts a look at how US demographic trends may be moving toward a future with more old-age dependency.
  • Marriage is declining globally: Can you say that? Yes, you can say that. But will it continue? We should be careful with predictions, but lots of demographic evidence suggests it will.

1 Comment

Filed under Me @ work

Why I called it The Family, and what that has to do with Cosby

First, a note on language

In American English books from 1910 to 1950, about 25% of the uses of “family” were preceded by “the.” Starting about 1950, however, “the family” started falling out of fashion, finally dropping below 16% of “family” uses in the mid-2000s. This trend coincides with the modern rise of family diversity.

In her classic 1993 essay, “Good Riddance to ‘The Family’,” Judith Stacey wrote,

no positivist definition of the family, however revisionist, is viable. … the family is not an institution, but an ideological, symbolic construct that has a history and a politics.

The essay was in Journal of Marriage and the Family, published by the National Council on Family Relations. In 2001, in a change that as far as I can tell was never announced, JMF changed its name to Journal of Marriage and the Family, which some leaders of NCFR believed would make it more inclusive. It was the realization of Stacey’s argument.

I decided on the title very early in the writing of my book: The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. I agreed with Stacey that the family is not an institution. Instead, I think it’s an institutional arena: the social space where family interactions take place. I wanted to replace the narrowing, tradition-bound term, with an expansive, open-ended concept that was big enough to capture both the legal definition and the diversity of personal definitions. I think we can study and teach the family without worrying that we’re imposing a singular definition of what that means.*

It takes the unique genius that great designers have to capture a concept like this in a simple, eye-catching image. Here is how the artists at Kiss Me I’m Polish did it:


What goes in the frame? What looks like a harmless ice-breaker project — draw your family! — is also a conceptual challenge. Is it a smiling, generic nuclear family? A family oligarchy? Or a fictional TV family providing cover for an abusive, larger-than-life father figure who lectures us about morality while concealing his own serial rape behind a bland picture frame?

Whose function?

Like any family sociologist, I have great respect for Andrew Cherlin. I have taught from his textbook, as well as The Marriage Go-Round, and I have learned a lot from his research, which I cite often. But there is one thing in Public and Private Families that always rubbed me the wrong way when I was teaching: the idea that families are defined by positive “functions.”

Here’s the text box he uses in Chapter 1 (of an older edition, but I don’t think it’s changed), to explain his concept:


I have grown more sympathetic to the need for simplifying tools in a textbook, but I still find this too one-sided. Cherlin’s public family has the “main functions” of child-rearing and care work; the private family has “main functions” of providing love, intimacy, and emotional support. Where is the abuse and exploitation function?

That’s why one of the goals that motivated me to finish the book was to see the following passage in print before lots of students. It’s now in Chapter 12: Family Violence and Abuse:

We should not think that there is a correct way that families are “supposed” to work. Yes, families are part of the system of care that enhances the lived experience and survival of most people. But we should not leap from that observation to the idea that when family members abuse each other, it means that their families are not working. … To this way of thinking, the “normal” functions of the family are positive, and harmful acts or outcomes are deviations from that normal mode.

The family is an institutional arena, and the relationships between people within that arena include all kinds of interactions, good and bad. … And while one family member may view the family as not working—a child suffering abuse at the hands of a trusted caretaker, for example—from the point of view of the abuser, the family may in fact be working quite well, regarding the family as a safe place to carry out abuse without getting caught or punished. Similarly, some kinds of abuse—such as the harsh physical punishment of children or the sexual abuse of wives—may be expected outcomes of a family system in which adults have much more power than children and men (usually) have more power than women. In such cases, what looks like abuse to the victims (or the law) may seem to the abuser like a person just doing his or her job of running the family.

Huxtable family secrets

Which brings us to Bill Cosby. After I realized how easy it was to drop photos into my digital copy of the book cover, I made a series of them to share on social media — and planning to use them in an introductory lecture — to promote this framing device for the book. On September 20th of this year I made this figure and posted it in a tweet commemorating the 30th anniversary of The Cosby Show:


Ah, September. When I was just another naïve member of the clueless-American community, using a popular TV family to promote my book, blissfully unaware of the fast-approaching marketing train wreck beautifully illustrated by this graph of internet search traffic for the term “Cosby rape”:


I was never into The Cosby Show, which ran from my senior year in high school through college graduation (not my prime sitcom years). I love lots of families, but I don’t love “the family” any more than I love “society.” Like all families, the Huxtables would have had secrets if they were real. But now we know that even in their fictional existence they did have a real secret. Like some real families, the Huxtables were a device for the family head’s abuse of power and sexuality.

So I don’t regret putting them in the picture frame. Not everything in there is good. And when it’s bad, it’s still the family.

* Of course, I’m also the crank sociologist who doesn’t like to pluralize the terms sexuality, masculinity, or identity when used as objects of study. There are lots of different identities, I reckon, and I study any number of them when I’m studying identity. So call me the new old fashioned.


Filed under Me @ work