Sociologists Becoming “The Marrying Type”?

Image by Ginny Washburne via FLickr CC
Image by Ginny Washburne via FLickr CC

 

Most people think of sociology as marriage-neutral, or even anti-marriage because the institution has been linked to patriarchy, heteronormativity, domestic abuse, and a general suppression of women’s rights; however, the field has seen a shift toward a pro-marriage point of view (see, for instance, scholars like Andrew Cherlin). In the Boston Globe, Philip Cohen from University of Maryland College Park says, “Criticism of marriage as a social institution comes from the universal and basically compulsory system of marriage in the 1950s.” Since ‘50s-style marriage is no longer necessarily true, it makes sense to see an evolving scholarly outlook on the issue.

Those who say matrimony matters point to its advantages for low-income children. According to Sarah McLanahan, children with unmarried parents spend less time with their fathers and receive less financial support. Cherlin, for his part, says marriage, more so than cohabitation, contributes to family stability that leads to better child outcomes.

The evidence doesn’t necessarily mean that marriage causes the “good things” attributed to it, either. Yes, unmarried mothers tend to make less money than their married counterparts, but marriage thrives among the more educated. Those with college degrees wait longer to marry and have more resources to give their children. This means the specific people who marry make it look like married people have better outcomes, when usually they were privileged before exchanging vows. Putting a ring on it will not automatically make people healthier, wealthier, or wiser.

This disparity in findings and even recommendations about marriage points to an issue bigger than family values: “This class divide in marriage and family life is both cause and consequence of the growing inequality in American life,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project. Kristi Williams elaborates that economic circumstances can influence marriage, so trying to change marriage without fixing economic disparities is wrong-headed. Philip Cohen agrees, saying, “The idea that the culture is going downhill and we need a cultural revival happens to be very closely related to the idea that we should not address poor peoples’ problems by raising taxes and giving poor people money,” he said. “So there’s a political element” in marriage promotion efforts.

“Culture of Poverty” a Poor Explanation for Racial Disparities

moynihanSince the 1965 “Moynihan Report,” conversations about disproportionate inequalities between white and black communities have historically focused on “black culture”—that is, explanations of racial discrepancies as products of different values, social norms, and cultural practices within black communities. The study, formally titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” saw black poverty as the result of non-nuclear family structures and absentee fathers. Now, University of Maryland sociologist Philip N. Cohen tells Vox that academics are leaving the argument behind because it simply doesn’t hold up:

The predominant view now is that there is a specific condition of inner-city concentrated poverty especially in black communities, because of racial segregation and racism, and the structural conditions are very damaging to family life, family relationships. People lose jobs and housing because of incarceration, job discrimination, etc., which create real obstacles to family stability, which in turn is a challenging condition for children’s development.

Indeed, as social science has matured and issues of race and racism have come under scrutiny and greater focus, more people are aware that structural issues, rather than personal ones, best explain advantage and privilege by race. Hopefully 1960s-era thought is well on its way to being replaced with more nuanced understandings of the factors behind racial discrepancies.

Parenting: QT Better Than OT

Photo by JD via Flickr. Click for original.
Photo by JD via Flickr. Click for original.

 

Parents often equate good parenting with spending as much time with their children as possible. The idea is that, in those hours, parents will cultivate particular characteristics in their children that will contribute to bright futures. But is helicopter parenting really worth it? Sociologists Melissa Milkie and Kei Nomaguchi share the findings of their recent study with the Washington Post: “I could literally show you 20 charts, and 19 of them would show no relationship between the amount of parents’ time and children’s outcomes. . . . Nada. Zippo,” says Milkie.

It’s not the number of hours, but quality of time spent together that matters. Interactive activities like reading to a child, sharing a meal, and talking one-on-one benefit kids, while just watching TV together may be detrimental, as Amy Hsin found. Still, Milkie and Nomaguchi’s study did find that teenagers who engaged with a parent for six hours per showed lower levels of delinquent behavior and drug use than peers who spent less time with their parents.

The authors dug deeper, finding that when a parent was overly-tired, stressed, cranky, or feeling guilty, spending time with their children could lead to more behavioral problems and lower math scores. Nomaguchi says, “Mothers’ stress, especially when mothers are stressed because of the juggling with work and trying to find time with kids, that may actually be affecting their kids poorly.” This particularly impacts parents from low-income households who often lack access to social resources for improving mental health, but still feel the pressure to be “good” parents by spending time with their children. In fact, Milkie and Nomaguchi found that the biggest indicators of child success were mothers’ income and education levels:

“If we’re really wanting to think about the bigger picture and ask, how would we support kids, our study suggests through social resources that help the parents in terms of supporting their mental health and socio-economic status. The sheer amount of time that we’ve been so focused on them doesn’t do much,” says Milkie.

Orphaned by Incarceration

A screenshot from a Sesame Street clip about parents in prison.
A screenshot from a Sesame Street clip about parents in prison.

If you happen to be watching Sesame Street, you may notice a new Muppet named Alex. The child’s father is in prison. Many viewers may consider Alex’s incarcerated parent an unusual, heavy topic for the program that has taught generations of kids their ABC’s and 123’s. But children across the country, particularly African-American children, are in Alex’s position.

The Nation consulted sociologists Christopher Wildeman, Sara Wakefield, Kristin Turney, and John Hagan about the effects of parental incarceration on children. They found that children with incarcerated parents had significantly higher rates of aggression, mental-health issues, behavioral problems, and risk of homelessness than peers whose parents had never been to prison. However, although they have identified a key link between parent imprisonment and children’s mental health, researchers like Turney are still figuring out how and why this connection exists. “Is it stigma, attachments, income loss, parents breaking up and relationships not surviving? We don’t know,” Turney reports.

More than a decade ago, Hagan stated that effects on children might be “the least understood and most consequential” results of incarceration. According to Wildeman, 1 in 30 white children and 1 in 4 black children born in 1990 experienced a parent going to prison before turning 14. The surge in incarceration rates disproportionately affects African-American children. Even if their fathers have a college degree, these kids are twice as likely as white children with parents who didn’t finish high school to have a parent in prison. And regardless of whether incarceration rates decline in the next few years, the effects of current imprisonment rates will last for several generations. That means that optimism about any decline in mass incarceration “must therefore be set against the backdrop of the children of the prison boom—a lost generation now coming of age,” according to Wildeman and Wakefield.

Self-Segregation in San Francisco Schools

Photo by WoodleyWonderworks, Flickr.com.
Photo by WoodleyWonderworks, Flickr.com.

School segregation has been the topic of social science research and public debate for decades. Still, the average person may think than in the post-Civil Rights era, when the law explicitly forbids racial discrimination, school segregation is an issue of the past. In fact, sociologists of education point to changes in demographics, living arrangements, and school funding that have lead to unforeseen issues increases in school segregation. One city in particular, San Francisco, is seeing a resurgence; the number of schools considered “racially isolated,” or over-representative of one race, has climbed there in the last few years.

A recent article in the San Francisco Public Press describes new practices that determine where students get placed and how such mechanisms can undermine diversity. Parents can apply for placement across San Francisco’s public schools, meaning that many students don’t go to school in the area they live. This enrollment fluidity may seem helpful for increasing diversity, but the ability to make informed and effective choices within school system application is nuanced and heavily influenced by who you know, what you know, and what matters to you. Parent choices, especially within particular racial or ethnic groups, can exacerbate school segregation.

The article quotes Prudence Carter, a Stanford sociologist who studies inequality and education and was involved in creating the San Francisco school-choice system (implemented in 2010). Carter uses Asian families as a case in point: “there’s a lot of pride in the Chinese community in having created educational enclaves.” For example, a Chinese family is more likely to send their children to a school with a certain reputation; replicated across a community, it can lead to a school with a disproportionate number of Chinese students. Similarly, disproportionate concentration of students from certain income backgrounds can lead to a racially segregated student body.

If parents want to be part of segregation solution, Carter advises, “You have to think grander, and beyond your own self-interest… So long as we live in an individualistic and self-interested country, we’re going to probably continue to have this problem.” In her view, policy makers will have to adapt legislation to account for the sociology of parent choice when trying to increase diversity in education.

Books Behind Bars: College Courses in Prisons

Oregon State University-Oregon State Penitentiary professor Michelle Inderbitzen shares a photo of a book her "inside" students inscribed for her.
Oregon State University-Oregon State Penitentiary professor Michelle Inderbitzen shares a photo of a book her “inside” students inscribed for her.

The American public tends to balk at any prison amenities or “luxuries.” Others, however, challenge the idea that prison is meant to be stark and bleak. Those who look to a rehabilitative view of prison’s role include Dr. Reid Helford, a sociologist from Chicago’s Loyola University who works in areas outside traditional academia, such as prisons. Recently quoted in a Seattle Times article, Helford states that teaching in prison is “the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.” Personal fulfillment aside, why should society spend public efforts, time, and funds on providing college courses and instructors for prison inmates?

Sociology helps us look past the surface morality of this debate and consider the broader contexts in which our prison system operates. Regardless whether one believes prison should offer punishment, rehabilitation, or a hybrid, society clearly benefits from lower rates of recidivism (criminals returning to crime). But what does education have to with recidivism? Helford was quoted:

Education does more than offer inmates a credential… it teaches them how to be the people we want our fellow citizens to be—thoughtful, critically aware of the world around them, disciplined and able to recognize authority.

Thus, Helford and his colleagues believe a college course (or eve degree) can help an inmate succeed in the outside world. The benefits of inmate education also spread into the communities to which they return after finishing their sentences. The Seattle Times cites a 2013 study that “concluded that prisoners who participated in education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years of release, and also found that every dollar spent on inmate education translated to $4 to $5 saved on re-incarceration.” This study considered GED, college, and vocational inmate-education together, and new studies are already in motion. A sociological understanding of those findings will be key to implementing and perfecting inmate-education programs like the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which works to create nation-wide partnerships between universities and state and federal incarceration centers.

A short film via Temple University’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program:

Marriage or the Baby Carriage

Photo by Rob Tom via Flickr.
There are more married mothers among millenial women with college degrees. Photo by rob tom via Flickr.

Differences in education level lead to dramatically different views on when to become a parent, according to new research. John Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin shows that millennial women with college educations are more likely to wait until they are married before they have children than women without a college degree. In an interview with Sarah Kliff of Vox, Cherlin explains:

“We’re seeing the emergence two very different paths to adulthood. Among young adults without college educations, most of their childbearing is in their twenties and the majority of it is outside of marriage. That includes people who have gotten a two-year associate’s degree. The dividing line is the four-year degree. The vast majority of people with that college degree are having children in marriage. We didn’t see this 20 or 30 years ago. We didn’t see these sharp differences between the college graduates and non-graduates.”

This trend concerns Cherlin, as it could lead to a more unstable family life for the children of unmarried parents with a high school education. He sees a lack of middle-skill jobs as the cause of their financial instability. This leads to their higher rate of breaking up and ultimately reinforces economic inequalities between education groups. Parents who have a college education are less likely to get divorced, since they are the couples who are more likely to have two steady incomes.

When asked if we could turn this worrisome trend around, Cherlin posits:

“It depends on if you think we can turn the middle of the job market around, and if we can find productive employment for high school graduates. If that happens, then I think we have a chance of reversing the instability we’re seeing in family lives. I also think that it might be a good idea to promote a message that one should wait to have children until one is in a stable marriage.”

That said, providing an alternative vision of a future where the high-school and college-educated alike can navigate the new economy could lead to greater family stability for their kids.

 

Maximizing Your Parental Investment: 10 Easy Steps*

Photo by Travis Barfield, Flickr Creative Commons.
Photo by Travis Barfield, Flickr Creative Commons.

Forbes Magazine recently highlighted some shocking numbers. According to the USDA,

A child born in 2012 will cost his parents $241,080 in 2012 dollars, on average [in the first 17 years of life]… And children of higher-earning families drain the bank account more: Families earning more than $105,000 annually can expect to spend $399,780 per child.

That works out to about $14,000 a year on the low end. Now that, as author Laura Shin points out, is a big investment—especially when kids used to be contributors to the household economy, not drains on it. Today, NYU professor Dalton Conley calls on research from colleague Viviana Zelizer who says “kids are emotionally priceless and economically worthless.” And yet, “We think of them as our most important life project.”

In a hard economy in a country with high inequality, parental investment in children is truly important, Conley goes on. “We know… that investments at home in time, energy and from birth and before are what actually develop kids that are successful in terms of this knowledge economy.” And those successful kids will get into better schools, have better jobs, and maybe even be able to support their parents into old age. But how do can parents get the best return on this investment?

That question, Shin writes, is at least partially answered with Conley’s new book Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Raising Children But Were Too Exhausted to Ask. Along with Conley, she goes on to boil down the how-to for investing in your child to ten easy (well, depending on means, time, and commitment) steps. Be sure to click on over for all the good stuff on number, timing, names, parental work decisions, public v. private school, bribes, ADD, and whether to “stay together for the kids.” In the meantime, Shin concludes, “The most important guideline is to make your actions speak louder than you words.” Parenting the Warren Buffett way!

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*Edited to better contextualize the USDA’s numbers and why parents’ investment might have an ROI at all (someone’s got to foot the bill for all those Golden Years we’ve heard so much about… particularly if we blew all our cash on soccer lessons). Another reader points out that it’s worth looking at all the sociology on how to maximize returns by minimizing investment (that is, not having children at all).

 
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A (Private) Room with a View

Many college students are opting for single rooms to avoid dealing with awkward roommates. Photo by Katie Brady via flickr.com
College students opt for single rooms to avoid awkward roommates. Photo by Katie Brady via flickr.com

Rites of passage as a new college student often involve  wandering lost around campus, sampling the mystery meat in the dining hall, and – that first awkward social encounter – meeting your roommate. At least that’s how it used to be. The Atlantic shares a new trend in college life, the single dorm room.

More and more schools are offering single room options, bypassing the awkward roommate relationship navigation that has been one of the hallmarks of college life. One university even converted its double occupancy dorms into “super singles.” Having your own room does ensure privacy, personal space, and avoidance of bad roommates, but students and experts are lamenting the loss of the college roommate.

One student explains potential problems saying:

With a private room, it’s very easy to find yourself cut off from a social life. If you just go back to your room as soon as class is over, you’re never going to meet anyone new or have any experiences beyond those in the classroom.

There is more at stake than an invitation to parties; having a social life includes learning how to interact with people of many cultures and backgrounds. Learning how to navigate the social world is crucial for young adults. Sociologist and social sciences dean at New York University Dalton Conley agrees that the loss of the college roommate could be very detrimental.

“Roommates simply teach us to be tolerant and adapt,” Conley says. “In our increasingly customized, digitized, on-demand world, there are not many experiences that provide this sort of socialization.”

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4.0 in School Violence

Photo by Alberto G. via flickr.com
Photo by Alberto G. via flickr.com

For many students, school violence, including bullying and physical fighting, is a daily concern and a regular experience. But what effects do these experiences or observations of violence within school have on students’ educational achievement?

Sociologist Julia Burdick-Will’s research on this question has uncovered some surprising and seemingly contradictory answers. She found that school violence had a negative effect on standardized test scores but yielded no changes in GPA. Burdick-Will argues that these findings may not be as oppositional as they first seem and suggests,

Violent crime rates affect the amount of material learned by the entire student body, but not the study skills or effort of individual students. GPAs, she points out, not only reflect learning, but also student behavior and standing within the classroom. Test scores are a more objective measure of content knowledge and performance on a given day.

In an age where school funding is increasingly reliant on standardized test scores rather than GPA, Burdick-Will’s findings suggest that unaddressed violence within schools could continue to have “lasting impacts on individual life chances and national levels of inequality.”



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