SweetheartsAl and Tipper Gore recently decided that 40 years is enough.   Are there broader social implications of this story for other long term couples?  The Monterey County Herald called upon the expertise of sociologists to answer this question.

It makes us frightened for our parents, our friends, ourselves. “[The Gores] were seen as this perfect couple, that’s why we’re traumatized,” says Terri Orbuch, a marriage therapist and sociology professor at the University of Michigan.

“This is supposed to be one of the easiest and happiest periods of marriage … the reward for a job well done,” says Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociology professor who studies families.

But the other fact is that we’ve never before faced empty-nest periods that could easily extend for 20 or 30 years. “The institution of marriage wasn’t designed for that. It was designed to help us raise kids and put food on the table,” says Cherlin. “It may just be that it’s a difficult task for married couples to keep a happy life going for decades.”

“It’s more threatening to us if we see a couple who we thought were happy just drift apart,” Cherlin says. “If even well-behaved people get divorced after 40 years, then some of us will worry about what our own marriages will be like later in life.”

How do you keep the flame going after 40 years?

To really work, long-term relationships need “regular attention, regular affirmation on a daily basis,” says Orbuch, who recently completed a 20-year study of marriage for the National Institutes of Health. She wonders whether Al Gore was gone too much — out saving the world — to save his marriage. (Then again, maybe it was Tipper who was inattentive?)

IMG_0204ImmokaleeBillRichardsonLOWScienceBlog recently reported on a new study that finds that darker-skin Latinos earn less money on average than light-skin Latinos.  While some wish to be accepted as “white,” many experience  discrimination based on skin color:

The results suggest that the rapid influx of Latino immigrants will shift the boundaries of race in the United States, but will not end skin-color-based discrimination.

“It is likely we will see change in our racial categories, but there will not be one uniform racial boundary around all Latinos,” said Reanne Frank, co-author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

“Some Latinos will be successful in the bid to be accepted as ‘white’ — usually those with lighter skin. But for those with darker skin and those who are more integrated into U.S. society, we believe there will be a new Latino racial boundary forming around them.”

In filling out surveys, separate questions about race and ethnicity have become increasingly challenging for Latinos to answer:

Under the current census form, Hispanics and Latinos have been set apart as an ethnic group and are instructed to choose the race that best fits them. The 2000 Census had six categories, and the 2010 Census has 15 categories, but “Latino or Hispanic” is not one of the options.

“We are hearing stories from Census takers that many Latinos say the race question does not fit them. They are confused by why they can’t label their race as ‘Hispanic or Latino,’” Frank said.

In the 2000 Census, about 50 percent of those who marked “Hispanic or Latino” as their ethnicity chose “some other race” as their racial category. That has been interpreted by many researchers as them attempting to assert an alternative Latino racial identity, she said.

Thus, Frank suggests the emergence of Latino as a new racial classification in the U.S. as opposed to an ethnic identity:

“We believe the more-integrated immigrants have faced discrimination in the country, and realize that ‘white’ is not an identity that is open to them. They may be trying to develop a new alternative Latino racial category,” Frank said.

“It appears that some with lighter skin will be able to pass as white, but others with darker skin will not and will continue to face discrimination.”

Frank said it is not possible at this time to tell what proportion of Latino immigrants will be accepted as white, and how many will be forced into a new racial category.

Love is (color) blind.The New York Times reports that a new Pew Research Study finds that interracial marriage has reached record highs in the U.S.

Intermarriage among Asian, black, Hispanic and white people now accounts for a record 1 in 6 new marriages in the United States. Tellingly, blacks and whites remain the least-common variety of interracial pairing. Still, black-white unions make up 1 in 60 new marriages today, compared with fewer than 1 in 1,000 back when Barack Obama’s parents wed a half-century ago.

Of all 3.8 million adults who married in 2008, 31 percent of Asians, 26 percent of Hispanic people, 16 percent of blacks and 9 percent of whites married a person whose race or ethnicity was different from their own. Those were all record highs.

Such trends may be detrimental to the marriage prospects of black women:

More and more black men are marrying women of other races. In fact, more than 1 in 5 black men who wed (22 percent) married a nonblack woman in 2008. This compares with about 9 percent of black women, and represents a significant increase for black men — from 15.7 percent in 2000 and 7.9 percent in 1980.

Sociologists said the rate of black men marrying women of other races further reduces the already-shrunken pool of potential partners for black women seeking a black husband.

“When you add in the prison population,” said Prof. Steven Ruggles, director of the Minnesota Population Center, “it pretty well explains the extraordinarily low marriage rates of black women.”

“The continuing imbalance in the rates for black men and black women could be making it even harder for black women to find a husband,” said Prof. Andrew J. Cherlin, director of the population center at Johns Hopkins University.

What do these trends mean for the children?

How children of the expanding share of mixed marriages identify themselves — and how they are identified by the rest of society — could blur a benchmark that the nation will approach within a few decades when American Indian, Asian, black and Hispanic Americans and people of mixed race become a majority of the population.

Still, the “blending” of America could be overstated, especially given the relatively low rate of black-white intermarriage compared with other groups, and continuing racial perceptions and divisions, according to some sociologists.

“Children of white-Asian and white-Hispanic parents will have no problems calling themselves white, if that’s their choice,” said Andrew Hacker, a political scientist at Queens College of the City University of New York and the author of a book about race.

“But offspring of black and another ethnic parent won’t have that option,” Professor Hacker said. “They’ll be black because that’s the way they’re seen. Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, Halle Berry, have all known that. Will that change? Don’t hold your breath.”

silver and goldA new study finds that it now costs approximately $60,000 a year for a family of four to survive in Philadelphia without government assistance, reports The Philadelphia Inquirer.  This actual cost of living is almost three times as much as the federal poverty level:

The $60,000 figure reveals that there are many more people who are having trouble making it, said Carol Goertzel, president and chief executive of PathWays PA, a Delaware County advocacy group for which the standard was prepared.

Advocates say the Pennsylvania study demonstrates that years of stagnating wages and growing income inequality have taken a toll, making it harder for working people to survive.

“Everybody is feeling hard times right now because of the recession,” said Carey Morgan, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. “We like to blame and judge certain people and say they’re poor” because of inner failings, Morgan said. “But in the past couple of years, we see it can happen to anybody. This study is a wake-up call.”

Unable to stretch their wages to cover basic necessities, families lack adequate income to meet the costs of food, housing, transportation, and health and child care, wrote sociologist Diana Pearce, who prepared the study. These families are “nevertheless not deemed poor by the official federal poverty measure,” she added.

Video of the International Workers Day march in MinneapolisThe San Bernadino Sun recently reported on Louisiana State University sociologist Edward Shihadeh’s recently published research on the effect of Latino immigration on black labor market participation:

Telegraph UK recently reported on the growth of a nontraditional relationship form in Britain: the LAT (living-apart-together) relationship.

Gillian Sheffer and Daniel Fisher have been in a relationship for three years. They are fully committed to one another – and are extremely happy to be together – but they have absolutely no desire to live together. Instead, they choose to reside in separate homes.

“Living apart offers the best bits of marriage without the boring parts,” says Gillian, a 49 year-old self-employed osteopath who lives in Golder’s Green, north London. Daniel, a 52-year-old teacher, lives at his own home in nearby Bounds Green. Both have children from previous relationships sharing their homes.

How common are LAT relationships?

According to a report in last month’s issue of the Sociological Review, an estimated one in 10 adults are now in committed, non-cohabiting relationships.

What do these relationships look like and who tends to be a LAT-er?

“LATs can have both an intimate couples relationship and retain their own autonomy,” says Simon Duncan, professor of social policy at the University of Bradford, who co-authored the Sociological Review paper with Miranda Phillips, research director at the National Centre for Social Research. “There isn’t an average LAT, though they tend to be better educated than the majority and somewhat more liberal. Different interpretations in the past have suggested they are either radicals or, alternatively, uncommitted, cautious people. The answer, in my view, is probably both.”

LATs can be young or old and, according to Duncan and Phillips, fall into three main categories. One group don’t see themselves as couples in the long-term sense; the second are in commuter marriages, separated by work; the third group, whose members tend to be older, choose this type of relationship because it suits their emotional and practical needs. “Often this group will have other commitments, like children or elderly parents, and value their own space, or have a cherished home they don’t want to leave,” Duncan explains.

And to quench your thirst for additional sociological commentary: 

Sasha Roseneil, professor of sociology and social theory at Birkbeck University, believes that with rates of marriage at an all-time low, more of us are exploring non-traditional ways of being together.

“They desire an autonomous life,” she says. “People in LAT relationships may wish to invest more in friendships and feel that their sexual relationship is not the most important relationship in their life.”

Avoiding the entrapment of domestic drudgery is another reason for not wanting to share a roof. “Many women have said to me that the only way they could be together with their partner is if they didn’t have to deal with his mess,” she says.

The Kingdom of GodGod is really popular in the U.S., reports the Vancouver Sun:

He gets more Oscar shout-outs than Meryl Streep, is name-checked by every other American Idol contestant and is presumed to have a vested interest in who wins hockey games.

This finding is based on a study by University of Toronto sociologist Scott Schieman:

The vast majority of Americans believe God is directly concerned with their personal affairs, with most assuming a divine reason for everything from job promotions to speeding tickets.

“In American culture — much less so in Canada — there’s a really constant flow of God-talk that references these small, personal interactions. It’s almost like a self-absorbed view of divine will,” says study author Scott Schieman, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto.

“The extent that it’s so visible, almost saturating the culture at times, makes me think it’s not just metaphor or symbolism; many, many people believe these processes are real.”

Eight in 10 Americans say they depend on God for decision-making guidance.  Seven in 10 believe that when good or bad things happen, the occurrences are part of God’s plan.  And six in 10 believe God has set the course of their lives.

This might have drawbacks in the realm of personal efficacy, says Schieman:

Schieman find[s] that a third of Americans agree with the rather defeatist statement: “There’s no sense in planning a lot because ultimately my fate is in God’s hands….If you feel like, ‘No matter what I do, it’s all going to work out a particular way,’ what does that do for your motivation?” says Schieman, who suggests the 32 per cent of people who behave this way do so because it relieves anxiety in desperate circumstances, shifting the pressure skyward.

In contrast:

Schieman says the idea of God as “a personal friend” can lend itself to positive effects, such as fostering an increased sense of social support, well-being and purpose.

To read more about Schieman’s study, you can also check him out the New York Times.

Currently, heterosexual couples who live together before marriage and those who don’t have about the same chance of marital success, reports USA Today:

The report, by the National Center for Health Statistics, is based on the National Survey of Family Growth, a sample of almost 13,000. It provides the most detailed data on cohabitation of men and women to date.

Past research — using decades-old data — found significantly higher divorce rates for cohabitors, defined as “not married but living together with a partner of the opposite sex.” But now, in an era when about two-thirds of couples who marry live together first, a different picture is emerging in which there are few differences between those who cohabit and those who don’t.

Sociologists weigh in on the findings:

Sociologist Pamela Smock of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor considers the data definitive. “On the basis of these numbers, there is not a negative effect of cohabitation on marriages, plain and simple,” she says.

Paul Amato, a sociologist at Pennsylvania State University, says the new data suggest that “maybe the effect of premarital cohabitation is becoming less of a problem than it was in the past. If it becomes normative now, maybe it’s not such a big deal.”

However, according to the study’s co-author, Bill Mosher:

“There’s a real difference in the types of cohabitations out there.  We can show that now with these national data.”

The data show that those who live together after making plans to marry or getting engaged have about the same chances of divorcing as couples who never cohabited before marriage. But those who move in together before making any clear decision to marry appear to have an increased risk of divorce.


Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, says the report may quell fears of cohabitation “as a long-term substitute for marriage,” as in some European countries.  “American cohabitors either marry or break up in a few years,” he says.

MSNBC also joined the fray this week in reporting on cohabitation.  Check it out here for more fabulous sociological commentary on shacking up.

Admiração:BBC News recently reported on the concept of “parental determinism,” as discussed by Kent University (England) sociology professor Frank Furedi:

There was a pervading prejudice that virtually all of society’s problems were caused by poor parenting.  There was an attempt to “weed out” unfit parents and intervene before they even had children, he said.  In an article for Spiked online, he likened “parental determinism” to Hitler’s eugenics and Stalinism.

He said: “The idea of a one-dimensional causal relationship between parenting and socioeconomic outcomes, dreamt up by the British think-tanks and policy makers, threatens to take public discourse to a new low.

He points to the roots of “parental determinism” in Britain:

The idea of early intervention was conceived by Tony Blair’s regime which “promoted the fantasy that the government could fix society’s problems by getting its hands on the nation’s toddlers before their parents had chance to ruin them”.

“He believed it was possible to spot tomorrow’s ‘problem people’ even before they were born,” he added.  This notion of parental determinism allowed politicians to promote the “most absurd prejudices…Over the weekend, Iain Duncan Smith the former Tory leader, argued that children from broken homes and dysfunctional families have underdeveloped brains and start school with the mental capacity of one-year-olds,” he said.

Furedi argues that “parental determinism” is particularly damaging in the realm of education:

This was because of the way it could erode adult responsibility and authority, he said.  If adults were reluctant or confused about giving guidance to the younger generation, then the challenge facing the teacher in the classroom could be “overwhelming”, he said.  “It is hard to be the last bastion of authority in a society where adult authority seems to be crumbling,” he added.

He called for adult authority to be affirmed both in and out of the classroom and for the relationship between parents and teachers to be re-drawn.  “There is a difference between raising children and educating them, and this distinction must be re-established to allow for a clearer and more constructive relationship between parents and teachers,” he concluded.

Click here to read Furedi’s full article in Spiked.

western unionAccording to the Jamaica Gleaner, University of West Indies sociologist Claudette Crawford-Brown has identified a new phenomenon: Western Union children.  She said this is replacing “barrel children” in Jamaica:

Barrel children in the past were identified as those who did not have the physical presence of their parents, but were sent goodies through shipments from overseas.  The sociologist, however, said that the barrel-children phenomenon has been surpassed by parents who give their children remittances. The difference between the two is the amount of care involved.

“You don’t have the barrel children as I highlighted seven years ago, where you had parents sending children things in a barrel. We now have what you call ‘Western Union’ children, and these are children who are parented by cellphones and they are sent the money. However, when you have a barrel child, that mother goes into K-Mart or Wal-Mart and I see them and watch them and they say: ‘I wonder if this going fit Sasha’, and she takes out the shoes with the mark out on the paper and match it with the shoes, and say this will fit her, this will fit her. You know what that shows? Some amount of care,” she said.

There are consequences of these changes in long-distance care:

Crawford-Brown pointed out even with remittances and barrels, the absence of mother in a child’s life has the same impact on youths as the absence of fathers. She noted that the absence of parental guidance leaves these children vulnerable to negative influences, where many turn to violence and drugs to cope.

According to her, many of these children who receive money through remittances are not given proper guidance, thus the money they have access to can be used to purchase drugs or facilitate their participation in illicit activities.

The noted child advocate and sociologist said many behavioural problems shown among some children are as a result of the breakdown in the family and exposure to violence. Crawford-Brown also said that Jamaica needs to tackle apathy towards murder in the society, which has trickled down to children she has worked with.

Crawford-Brown’s research on “Western Union children” was also recently featured in a column in the Jamaica Observer.