“As you know, the divorce rate in the United States has been exploding over the last 40 years. Today it is at an all time high.” When I say this in my 101 class during our discussion on research methods students nod along and dutifully write it in their notes. “You may be asking yourself, ‘what explains this historic rate of divorce’ and luckily for you sociology has the answer… But, first I want you to generate some hypotheses. Turn to your neighbor and see if you can whip up a list of causes of divorce. That is, why do most people get divorced?”
The class easily generates a laundry list of causes: financial stress, Internet porn, the reduced stigma surrounding divorce, the exploding teen pregnancy rate, are some of the most popular. For this activity I am just waiting until someone says unemployment, financial stress, or poverty then I spring into action. “So tell me more about financial stress. Why do tough economic times make the divorce rate go up?” The class quickly posits that if money is the root of many arguments then less money equals more problems (Despite what Biggie Smalls taught us). “Yes that’s absolutely right. As the country enters into tough times the divorce rate balloons. I think you are getting the hang of this sociological research thing.” With that settled we move on in the lecture.
After we finish the next topic I take an aside and say, “So I don’t know how to say this, but at some point in today’s class I told you the exact opposite of what social research tells us about a particular issue. Can anyone tell me which topic it was that I was misleading you on?” Students cock their heads to the side and give me a perplexed look. My dishonesty squelches their willingness to participate in a class discussion. After a few beats I continue, “would you believe it was about the divorce rate?” “I knew it!” shouts the class know-it-all. “Now I want you to turn to your neighbors and take a crack at guessing which part of the “facts” about divorce we just discussed were inaccurate.” Mild laughter washes over the room as the class releases the nervous energy my dishonesty created.
“Financial stress doesn’t cause divorce?” offers one student after I ask the class for their guesses. I turn to the rest of the class and ask them to show hands if they think financial stress does cause divorce. Half the class raises their hands. “Before I tell you what impact financial stress has on divorce rates,” I tell the class, “I want you to take a quick poll. Raise your hand if you are certain or at least strongly believe that your answer is right.” Over 3/4s of the class raises their hand. “Financial stress can create strain on a marriage, but during economic recessions divorce rates stall or even decline according to research in our textbook (Conley’s You May Ask Yourself).”
I spend the next few minutes discussing with the class why they wrote down the “facts” about divorce without questioning them. We talk about authority and obedience, about the perceived obviousness of “facts”, and how the mind creates plausible narratives to make any “fact” fit within the fabric of the preconceived ideologies the students hold. The real lesson here is about the perils of intuitive sociology. When we use common sense to explain sociological phenomena we indulge our biases and describe the world as we would like it. There are few sociological contradictions in a world created by intuition. I sum things up for the class, “If there is one overarching message I want you to take from this class, it’s that the world is far more complex than we are told it is and more complex than each of us would like it to be. There are no pure heroes and no pure villains. The world described by sociologists is one of intricate connections and overlapping gray areas.”
As we start to transition to the next class topic I throw down my final card to play, “Oh, and the census shows that the divorce rate has been declining since it peaked in 1980. For adults under the age of 39 the divorce rate was down significantly in 2009 compared to 1996. So all that talk of ‘historic-all-time-high’ and ‘exploding divorce rate’ that’s all nonsense too.” “I told you!” says the know-it-all to his nearby classmates.