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.

For Successful Kids, It’s Family Stability Over Family Structure

Photo by Anita Hart via Flickr CC
Photo by Anita Hart via Flickr CC

 

Sociologists Jamie Seabrook and William Avison’s research shatters the myth that children from single parent homes have worse outcomes than kids living with both parents. They told Northumberland Today that other factors better predict the future than whether a child lives with one versus two parents. “Instability really is the risk factor,” said Avison. “When there is a lot of transitioning in the family environment, that kind of instability doesn’t seem good for kids’ educational development and growing up to be adults.” They found that family structure had no impact on a child’s educational achievement or income, as long as the family structure remained consistent over time. When single mothers partnered and re-partnered several times, the researchers saw negative impacts on child outcomes compared to kids whose single mothers consistently single. Another interesting finding of the study is that children who grew up in stable single parent homes are less likely to divorce or separate than children who grew up in two-parent homes.

“The overarching conclusion is we have to be very careful saying the type of family you grow up in predicts kids’ success,” Seabrook said. Even if single parent homes are economically less advantaged than two-parent households, less money does not translate to differences in child education.

Working for the Long Weekend

The Preiser Project, Flickr CC.
The Preiser Project, Flickr CC.

Who doesn’t love a four (or five!) day weekend? An extra day or two away from the desk means more time for leisure activities and to disengage from work. But Scott Schieman, sociology professor at University of Toronto, warns that consistently short work weeks may not help work-life balance in the long run. In an interview on CBC’s Daybreak South, Schieman said,

I think what we have to really look at are the nature or the demands of the job—and how those demands can either be compressed in particular time periods, or whether they actually need to be spread out, and that’s when you get to some of the cons.

When the same amount of work needs to be done in three days instead of five, it means longer hours. It’s like cramming for a college exam, when it’s physically tiring and harder to process information. Even if three days of intense work seems like a good trade for four days at home, it’s still unlikely that “days off” mean not working, Schieman points out: “What if there’s a deadline, what if there’s an ongoing project? Can you really break from that fully?” Additionally, people with families may find the long hours associated with shorter work weeks incompatible with obligations like carpool, and non-stop work is unlikely to happen in a house with a demanding toddler. Savoring the occasional holiday might provide a better balance, aligning with kids’ school days and taken-for-granted “business hours,” while adding in a “bonus” day of leisure intermittently.

Sociologists Identify Surprising Thanksgiving “Rituals”

Ever wonder where weird Thanksgiving traditions come from? Photo by Musicwala via Flickr.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade has been held annually since 1924. Turns out some families’ holiday “rituals” are more common than you might think. Photo by Musicwala via Flickr.

Sociology loves making the familiar strange, and few events blend the familiar and the strange as artfully as holiday family gatherings. The Week recaps a classic sociological study of Thanksgiving celebrations by Melanie Wallendorf and Eric J. Arnould, which sheds light on just how common our “quirky” family rituals can be. A particularly juicy conclusion was that interview respondents didn’t realize their party quirks were actually ‘traditions’ happening year after year at gatherings across the U.S. According to the article:

…a society is not always the best judge of its own customs…The data analysis revealed some common events in the fieldnotes that people rarely remarked on in the interviews.

Common practices included “The Giving of The Job Advice,” “The Telling of Disaster Stories of Thanksgivings Past,” and the ever-popular “After-Dinner Stroll around the Neighborhood.” These customs remind us just how much we share at this time of year. Who knows? The next awkward family gathering just might be a new field site!

The Overblown Myth of the Boomerang Generation

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They don’t come back as often as you think. Photo by Paleontour via Flickr.

Isn’t it ironic that “much of our ‘independence,’ where it exists, is made possible by supports and resources that have been provided by others”? In an interview with the Washington Post, Oregon State’s Richard A. Settersten, Jr. calls attention to one important instance of this irony: the rigid tie between the “independence” of young people and leaving the home. For Settersten, Jr., common (and paranoid) misunderstandings about “permanent” and “alarming” generational trends in living at home are problematic not simply because they are inaccurate, but because they point to a misguided ideal of “independence.”

To clarify how patterns in young adult living arrangements have varied over time, he notes:

This isn’t new. If we look back over the last century, we can see that the rush out of the parental home was a post-World War II phenomenon, and proportions have been growing since 1970…. What’s remarkable about the early adult years today is not that young people live with parents but that they live without a spouse…. Marriage and parenting now culminate the process of becoming adult rather than start it.

Settersten, Jr. also clarifies who chooses to live at home and why. He indicates that men of every age group are more likely to live with parents, mentioning their higher rates of dropping out of school, unemployment, and a higher average age of marriage as possible reasons why. Individuals of disadvantaged groups also tend to live at home at greater rates—possibly because they are more likely to live in high-cost metropolitan areas or because young people in their culture are expected to contribute to family resources. Moreover, according to Settersten, Jr.,

For many families, living at home is a strategic choice that permits young adults to attend or reduce the cost of higher education, take internships, or create a nest egg. (It may also be necessary for paying down student loans.) For them, it’s not about being locked out of the labor market, but about building a more secure economic future.

So before tossing aside the “boomerang generation” as dependent “failures to launch,” consider how peculiar it is “that we expect young people to somehow strive for complete independence when those of us who are no longer young realize that adult life is heavily conditioned by relationships with other people.” Settersten, Jr. has a point.

To learn how this notion of independence is affecting older adults, check out Stacy Torres’s article on Families as They Really Are.

For a different take on the role of the economy in millenials’ living arrangements, see this article by Lisa Wade.

If you’re a teacher, here’s a great lesson by Kia Heise to start a class conversation about living alone as a ‘rite of passage’ into adulthood.

Want a better marriage? Spend more time with your spouse

Photo by Trace Nietert via flickr.com
Photo by Trace Nietert via flickr.com

Marriage in the U.S. today: the best is better, but the average is worse, according to psychologist Eli J. Finkel in an opinion piece for The New York Times. (Without further clarification, this appears to be a discussion of heterosexual marriage.) Finkel reports that the happiest couples are happier both with their marriages and in general, while the average married person is less satisfied and likelier to divorce than in the past.

That’s because we are sizing up our spouses in the era of the “self-expressive marriage,” Finkel explains, drawing on the ideas of sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin and historian Stephanie Coontz. No longer are we satisfied with our family life as a means to filling our bellies, providing shelter, or even giving us love–many of us now expect marriage to yield “self-discovery, self-esteem, and personal growth.”

Marriages fall short of this ideal, Finkel argues, in part because people aren’t putting in the time with their spouses required for satisfaction. Whether it is working more or parenting more intensively, the average couple is logging hours elsewhere. And the divorce rate is higher for poor, less educated Americans, whose lack of time and energy for sustaining high-quality marriages Finkel attributes to exposure to trends such as “unemployment, juggling multiple jobs, and so on.”

Finkel devotes a quick sentence to government and workplace policy solutions (perhaps discussed in more depth in the forthcoming scientific write-up). As far as what individuals can do, Finkel’s advice boils down to a) spend more time together or b) if more together time isn’t possible, consider looking to marriage for love rather than for self-expression.

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“Daddy’s Home”…Full-time

Photo by Lena Wood via flickr.com
Photo by Lena Wood via flickr.com

A new study from the Pew Research Center shows that more dads than ever are staying home full-time with their children. In families consisting of married couples with children where one spouse worked at least 35 hours per week, roughly 3.5% of those households include a stay-at-home dad.

This study, led by University of Illinois sociologist Karen Z. Kramer, attaches solid data to perceived changes in family gender roles over the past few decades. Today, roughly one-third of families consist of a stay-at-home mother, down from one-half during the 1970s, and families where both mom and dad work at least 35 hours a week has increased from 46.1% to 63.2% during that time.

This study provides many openings for further research, such as changes (or lack thereof) in gender equity in the workplace and the home. For example, families with stay-at-home dads earned about $11,000 less than those with stay-at-home moms. How much of this difference is attributable to the gender pay gap? Or do breadwinning mothers differ from breadwinning fathers in areas such as educational attainment and job prestige?

With this study as a point of departure, social scientists interested in such areas as gender, the family, and the life course, as well as many others, will have plenty of material to work with.

 

Unique Families: Not So Unique

Image excerpt from the Washington Post, created by Christina Rivero. Click for full image.
Image excerpt from the Washington Post, created by Christina Rivero. Click for full image.

When thinking about the typical U.S. family, you might imagine a classic sitcom like The Brady Bunch: stay-at-home mom Carol, architect husband Mike, and six lovely children. At the time the show aired, a “blended” family of remarried adults was a bit of a novelty, sure, but it still stuck to the married mother and father, father is the breadwinner trope. And that’s still how many often picture U.S. families.

The Washington Post reports the findings of Ohio State University’s Department of Sociology on the living arrangements of U.S. children from birth to 17 years old. The researchers found that the children’s living arrangements varied distinctly by race. Asian children were most likely to live with a married mother and father, with only the father working, but that set-up only counted for 24% of living arrangements among Asian children. It turns out that dual-income households are the strong majority among both white and Asian children, and that both are more likely to live in dual-income households than either black or Hispanic children. Higher percentages of black and Hispanic children are living with their grandparents. Another notable statistic among black children is their greater likelihood of living with a single, never-married mother (this is true for nearly a quarter of all black kids).

No word yet on all white, three-boy, three-girl families with maids.

“You’re dad’s favorite.”

At least it's not a favorite *kid*! Vintage ad via JBCurio, flickr.com.
At least it’s not a favorite *kid*! Vintage ad via JBCurio, flickr.com.

A new study from Purdue University lends weight to the idea that, emotionally, children do not always grow up in the “same” home. Research by Professor Jill Suitor and graduate student Megan Gilligan builds on this with a bit of sibling rivalry: siblings are likely to be more bothered by perceived favoritism from fathers than from mothers.

Other work has shown moms who picked “favorites” had caused sibling tension, but studying the influence of both parents was a novel approach. Revisiting 2008 interviews (from the Within-Family Difference Study) with “Baby Boomers” whose parents were still alive, the authors spotted the difference. Karl Pillemer of Cornell University, who has worked with Suitor and Gilligan on this data previously, commented in a HealthCanal article:

We often think of the family as a single unit, and this reminds us that individual parent and child relationships differ and each family is very complex. Favoritism from the father could mean something different than favoritism from the mother. We suggest that clinicians who work with families on later-life issues be aware of this complexity and look for such types of individual relationhsips as they advise families on care giving, legal, and financial issues.

Suitor also offered an explanation:

Mothers are often more open and affectionate with their children, whereas fathers have sometimes been found to be more critical, leading offspring to be more concerned when fathers favor some children over others.

From families to gender, culture, and the lifecourse, scholars are sure to take up this new angle on household dynamics.