The New York Times, Katrina displacement as of 9/23/2005.
The New York Times, Katrina displacement as of 9/23/2005. Click for original.

The New Yorker recently featured several sociologists in a piece about what has happened to residents of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina:

  • David Kirk, who studies neighborhood effects, focused on recidivism, or likelihood of ending up in prison again after release, based on whether individuals stayed in the same neighborhood or moved elsewhere. He found that those who returned to their former neighborhoods in New Orleans had a 60% recidivism rate compared to those who. While, historically African Americans have been more likely to move, often for economic mobility, since 1970 the pattern has flipped, and more African Americans tend to stay put.
  • Patrick Sharkey says that in recent decades white Americans more frequently engage in “contextual mobility,” or moves significant enough to change opportunities and circumstances. Instead of major moves, African-American families in urban areas tend to make more frequent, minor moves to places similar to their previous living arrangement.
  • According to Stefanie DeLuca, these moves are not voluntary. Rising rent, eviction, breakups, or changing in housing subsidies spark moves within the same areas—not the better schools or job opportunities that middle-class Americans cite as reasons to relocate.

Following the severe damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, going “home” wasn’t possible for many poor black families. As it turns out, those who had to leave found their new homes offered more opportunity:

  • Houston, Texas, has become a hot spot of upward mobility for those displaced by Katrina, Corina Graif found: “The fact that they were all of a sudden thrown out of that whirlpool gives them a chance to rethink what they do. It gives them a new option—a new metro area has more neighborhoods in better shape,” she says of the 700 mostly black women she tracked.

Sharkey cautions optimistic readers that relocation could become a game of cat and mouse. If too many poor people move into middle-class areas, the middle-class may move, taking some of the neighborhood’s higher resources and leaving new families in circumstances that mimic a minor move.

Utah couple Liam and Curtis pose with their son. Creative Commons photo by Sharon Mattheson-McCutcheon.
Utah couple Liam and Curtis pose with their son. Creative Commons photo by Sharon Mattheson-McCutcheon.


Between the high costs of adoption and surrogacy, same-sex parents face many more obstacles than most heterosexual couples when it comes to adding a child to the family photo. Among those couples who go the distance, lesbians have been much more likely than gay men to parent, but the number of male couples seeking adoption is on the rise. “They have to go out of their way to become fathers,” Nancy Mezey, a sociology professor at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey told New York Times about the dedicated men making the long and complicated journey to parenthood.

Such two-father families fill specific niches and tend to foster inclusivity in more than one way. “They’re adopting children that other people don’t want to adopt. They’re teaching their children tolerance and expanding definitions of gender roles,” according to Mezey. “They are helping to redefine what it means to be a real man.”

One interesting twist is the division of household labor same-sex parent homes. Among heterosexual couples, cultural norms have long encouraged women to raise children while men bring home the bacon. This means stay-at-home gay dads also quietly “challenge dominant beliefs that dads are primarily breadwinners and can’t be the primary nurturers,” Mezey told the Times.

Well, that oughta help her feel good about her time-use choices. Photo by Beth Kanter, Flickr CC.
Well, that oughta help her feel good about her time-use choices. Photo by Beth Kanter, Flickr CC.


Men and women who are lawyers, consultants, or hold other prestigious jobs find themselves answering late night emails and weekend phone calls. Even when they’re “off the clock,” trying to relax with their families, highly paid professionals often attend to work.

Still, men and women tend to cope with demands for their time differently, and it boils down to men working as much as possible, while women try to negotiate their careers to accommodate rearing their children. Sociologist Mary Blair-Loy from the University of California, San Diego told the New York Times that these differences come from broader, gendered cultural expectations: “It’s not really about business; it’s about fundamental identity and masculinity,” Ms. Blair-Loy said. “Men are required by the culture to be these superheroes, to fulfill this devotion and single-minded commitment to work.” For women, carpool, soccer games, and dance recitals are seen as more acceptable reasons for leaving work, “because they have an external definition of morality or leading the good life, which is being devoted to their children.”

However, being a “good mom” isn’t a “free pass,” and it certainly isn’t a route to career advancement. Coworkers often interpret only working 9-to-5 to mean that a woman is not fully invested in her career. And when the moms put their careers “before their kids”—say, taking calls during a T-ball game or staying at the office until 9pm—they’re likely to lose the respect of their colleagues, judged for bucking others’ ideas of what a nurturing mom really looks like. In careers and elsewhere, cultural tropes, from boardroom bosses to soccer moms, have real consequences.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!
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.

Photo by Trace Nietert via
Photo by Trace Nietert via

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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