Tag Archives: age/aging

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:

cover-amazon

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:

cherlinpubpriv

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:

huxtables-myfamilyphoto

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”:

cosbyrapetraffic

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.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Medicare vs. National Health Care: How U.S. Seniors Do in Cross-National Perspective

“We need to get rid of Obamacare,” says Ed Gillispie in a NYT op-ed. The reason: Obamacare’s “gravitational pull toward a single-payer system that would essentially supplant private insurance with a government program.”

Gillespie, who lays out his credentials at the start of the article – he ran for Senate in Virginia and lost – notes that Obamacare is unpopular. But he omits all mention of a government-run single-payer system that happens to be very popular – Medicare. No Republican dare run on a platform of doing away with it. Gillespie himself accused Obamacare of cutting Medicare, a statement that Politifact found “Mostly False.”

So how are seniors doing? Compared to their pre-Medicare counterparts, they are  probably healthier, and they’re probably shelling out less for health care. But compared to seniors in other countries, not so well. A Commonwealth Fund survey of eleven countries finds that seniors (age 65 and older) in the U.S. are the least healthy – the most likely to suffer from chronic illnesses.* 

Over half the U.S. seniors say that they are taking four or more prescription drugs; all the other countries were below 50%:

And despite Medicare, money was a problem. Nearly one in five said that in the past year they “did not visit a doctor, skipped a medical test or treatment that a doctor recommended, or did not fill a prescription or skipped doses because of cost.” A slightly higher percent had been hit with $2,000 or more in out-of-pocket expenses. 

In those other countries, with their more socialistic health care systems, seniors seem to be doing better, physically and financially.  One reason that American seniors are less healthy is that our universal, socialized medical care doesn’t kick in until age 65. People in those other countries have affordable health care starting in the womb. 

Critics of more socialized systems claim that patients must wait longer to see a doctor. The survey found some support for that. Does it take more than four weeks to get to see a specialist? U.S. seniors had the highest percentage of those who waited less than that. But when it came to getting an ordinary doctor’s appointment, the U.S. lagged behind seven of the other ten countries.

There was one bright spot for U.S. seniors. They were the most likely to have developed a treatment plan that they could carry out in daily life. And their doctors  “discussed their main goals and gave instructions on symptoms to watch for” and talked with them about diet and exercise.

Gillespie and many other Republicans want to scrap Obamacare and substitute something else. That’s progress I suppose. Not too long ago, they were quite happy with the pre-Obamacare status quo. Throughout his years in the White House, George Bush insisted that “America has the best health care system in the world.” Their Republican ideology precludes them from learning from other countries. As Marco Rubio put it, we must avoid “ideas that threaten to make America more like the rest of the world, instead of helping the world become more like America.”

But you’d think that they might take a second look at Medicare, a program many of them publicly support.

* Includes hypertension or high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, lung problems, mental health problems, cancer, and joint pain/arthritis.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

What’s for Breakfast?

One of my favorite examples of social construction is that we eat hot links for breakfast and pork chops for dinner. Both pig, but morning sausage seems odd in the evening and pork chops for breakfast would be a decidedly deviant sunrise treat.

A pretty set of photos at The New York Times illustrates this social construction of breakfast food by highlighting the first meal of the day for children in seven parts of the world. It would be fun — for those of you teaching classes — to show some of them to students and ask them to guess (1) the meal of the day and (2) the age of the eater.

Chitedza, Malawi: cornmeal porridge with soy and groundnut flour; deep-fried cornmeal fritters with onions, garlic and chiles; boiled sweet potato and pumpkin; juice of dried hibiscus and sugar.

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São Paulo, Brazil: ham and cheese, bread with butter, coffee.

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Tokyo, Japan: stir-fried green peppers with dried fish, soy sauce, and sesame seeds; raw egg and soy sauce poured over rice; lotus root, burdock root, and carrot sautéed with a rice wine; miso soup; fruit; milk.

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Istanbul, Turkey: bread, Nutella, strawberry jam, honey butter; olives; sliced tomato; hard-boiled egg; goat and cow cheeses.

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More at The Times.

See also our Social Construction of Flavor Pinterest board. Lots of neat stuff there!

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Saturday Stat: The Average Prisoner is Visited Only Twice

Prisoners who can maintain ties to people on the outside tend to do better — both while they’re incarcerated and after they’re released. A new Crime and Delinquency article by Joshua Cochran, Daniel Mears, and William Bales, however, shows relatively low rates of visitation.

The study was based on a cohort of prisoners admitted into and released from Florida prisons from November 2000 to April 2002. On average, inmates only received 2.1 visits over the course of their entire incarceration period. Who got visitors? As the figure below shows, prisoners who are younger, white or Latino, and had been incarcerated less frequently tend to have more visits. Community factors also shaped visitation patterns: prisoners who come from high incarceration areas or communities with greater charitable activity also received more visits.  

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There are some pretty big barriers to improving visitation rates, including: (1) distance (most inmates are housed more than 100 miles from home); (2) lack of transportation; (3) costs associated with missed work; and, (4) child care. While these are difficult obstacles to overcome, the authors conclude that corrections systems can take steps to reduce these barriers, such as housing inmates closer to their homes, making facilities and visiting hours more child-friendly, and reaching out to prisoners’ families regarding the importance of visitation, both before and during incarceration.

Cross-posted at Public Criminology.

Chris Uggen is a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and the author of  Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy, with Jeff Manza. You can follow him at his blog and on twitter.

Majority of “Stay-at-Home Dads” Aren’t There to Care for Family

At Pew Social Trends, Gretchen Livingston has a new report on fathers staying at home with their kids. They define stay at home fathers as any father ages 18-69 living with his children who did not work for pay in the previous year (regardless of marital status or the employment status of others in the household). That produces this trend:

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At least for the 1990s and early-2000s recessions, the figure very nicely shows spikes upward of stay-at-home dads during recessions, followed by declines that don’t wipe out the whole gain — we don’t know what will happen in the current decline as men’s employment rates rise.

In Pew’s numbers 21% of the stay at home fathers report their reason for being out of the labor force was caring for their home and family; 23% couldn’t find work, 35% couldn’t work because of health problems, and 22% were in school or retired.

It is reasonable to call a father staying at home with his kids a stay at home father, regardless of his reason. We never needed stay at home mothers to pass some motive-based criteria before we defined them as staying at home. And yet there is a tendency (not evidenced in this report) to read into this a bigger change in gender dynamics than there is. The Census Bureau has for years calculated a much more rigid definition that only applied to married parents of kids under 15: those out of the labor force all year, whose spouse was in the labor force all year, and who specified their reason as taking care of home and family. You can think of this as the hardcore stay at home parents, the ones who do it long term, and have a carework motivation for doing it. When you do it that way, stay at home mothers outnumber stay at home fathers 100-to-1.

I updated a figure from an earlier post for Bryce Covert at Think Progress, who wrote a nice piece with a lot of links on the gender division of labor. This shows the percentage of all married-couple families with kids under 15 who have one of the hardcore stay at home parents:

SHP-1. PARENTS AND CHILDREN IN STAY-AT-HOME PARENT FAMILY GROUPS

That is a real upward trend for stay at home fathers, but that pattern remains very rare.

See the Census spreadsheet for yourself here.  Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Female Movie Stars Peak at Age 34, but Men See Success Till the End

A new study on the differential earning power of male and female movie stars beings with a quote from Jennifer Jason Leigh:

It’s the nature of the business. People equate success with youth (source).

She’s half right.   Irene Pater and her co-authors looked at the pay of 265 actors and actresses who appeared in Hollywood films from 1968 to 2008.  They found that the average earnings of actors rises until the age of 51 and remains stable after that.  The average earnings of actresses, in contrast, peaks at 34 and decreases “rapidly thereafter.”

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Source: USA Today

Sarah Jessica Parker, then, was more on the mark:

There is still a discrepancy in earning power between men and women in Hollywood. And it becomes doubly unfair when you think of our earning potential in terms of years.  Actresses are like football players. They have a small window of prime earning ability (source).

So, is this sexism or just “market forces”?  That is, is female acting work devalued compared to men’s because people in positions of power don’t value women?  Or is it because casting women over 34 decreases box office returns, whereas casting older men does not?  Pater and her colleagues suggest that it’s sexism.  One study, they explain,

…actually examined the combined effect of gender and age on box office performance [and] revealed that casting a female lead older than 32 years of age does not influence a movie’s box office performance, whereas casting a male lead older than 42 decreases box office revenues by almost 17% (source).

So the presence of male actors in their forties and over decreases box office revenue, but they still get paid more than women of the same age.  In contrast, casting women in their mid-thirties and over doesn’t bring down profits, but she’s still less valuable in the eyes of producers.  Sexism sounds like a plausible explanation to me.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Rise of the Jew-ish

The Pew Research Center has released the data from new survey of religious and non-religious Jews.  They find that almost a quarter of Jews (22%) describe themselves as being “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “nothing in particular.”  The percentage of Jews of no religion correlates with age, such that younger generations are much more likely to be unaffiliated.  Nearly a third of Millennials with Jewish ancestry say they have no religion (32%), compared to 19% of Boomers and 7% of the Greatest Generation.

Screenshot (34)

A majority of Jews with no religion marry non-Jews (79%); 67% have decided against raising their children with the religion.
Screenshot (33)As a result of intermarriage, the percent of all Jews who have only one Jewish parent is rising.  While 92% of people born between 1914 and 1927 had two Jewish parents, Millennials are as likely as not to have just had one.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Many Americans Overestimate, Fear Racial Diversity

New survey data shows that the average person overestimates the diversity of the American population, both now and in the future.  Today, for example, racial minorities make up 37% of the population, but the average guess was 49%.

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Many Americans fear rising diversity.  Over half worry that more minorities means fewer jobs, nearly half think that it means more crime, and almost two-thirds think these groups strain social services.  If people think that minorities are bad for America and overestimate their prevalence, they may be more likely to support draconian and punishing policy designed to minimize their numbers or mitigate the consequences they are believed to bring.

Not all Americans, of course, fear diversity equally.  Below are the scores of various groups on an “openness to diversity” measure with a range of 0-160.

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For the future, Americans are still strongly divided as to what to do about diversity and the racialized inequality we currently see.

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Via The Atlantic; thanks to @_ettey for the link.  Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.