Saturday, December 03, 2005

“Rule of Thumb” Rescued From Ignominy

As a would-be dispenser of practical advice, I have often used the expression “rule of thumb.” Some feminists have argued that the phrase should be dropped, though, because it referred to a rule of English common law that a man could beat his wife if he did not use a stick thicker than his thumb. For example, former National Organization for Women president Patricia Ireland asserts this as fact in the widely seen PBS documentary, “Marriage: Is It More Than a Piece of Paper?”

I am happy to report that this is an inaccurate folk etymology. Indeed, even its appearance in discussions of English common law treat it as a folk belief which was not validated by the law. The one judge who is said to have articulated that standard from the bench may not even have uttered any sentiment so “ungentlemanly.”

The notion that rule of thumb is a wife-beating “fact” seems to have become widely reported only in the 1970s – the very time that Patricia Ireland probably heard it.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Education Crossover in Divorce Attitudes

In the 1970s, college graduates had more liberal attitudes toward divorce than less-educated people did. Today, college graduates have more conservative attitudes toward divorce than less-educated people do. The crossover seems to have happened in the late 1990s, according to research by Steven Martin and Sangeeta Parashar that I mentioned yesterday. Yet this is not because college graduates are generally more conservative today than less educated people are – quite the contrary. So what accounts for the change, and what does it mean?

Martin and Parashar measured responses from 1974 to 2002 on the nationally representative General Social Survey. The GSS asked, “Should divorce in this country be easier or more difficult to obtain than it is now?” College graduates once were more likely than high-school educated Americans to say yes; now they are more likely to say no. This crossover is more pronounced among women than among men.

At the first explosion of women’s economic opportunities in the 1970s, the big spike in divorce in that era was explained by women’s economic independence from men, as well as a general liberalizing of all attitudes. The standard expectation then, and probably the norm still today, is that marriage will continue to decline because women are free to live as individuals. Today, though, women are even more economically independent, but it is the most financially secure women who most favor tightening divorce laws.

The key variable that Martin and Parashar identify is that female college graduates were less likely to be married in the 1970s than their less-educated peers, and now they are significantly more likely to be married than the high-school-only group. Even the not-yet-married college women want and expect to marry, more than their unmarried and less-educated peers. And it is the unmarried college graduates who most clearly want divorce to be tougher, so it is not the experience of marriage itself that makes the difference. Martin and Parashar’s bottom line:

Our best answer is that across the time period 1974 to 2002, conservative attitudes and values gradually became a less important predictor of attitudes toward divorce, while family structure variables became, if anything, more important predictors of attitudes toward divorce.

Martin and Parashar think that divorce costs college graduates more, especially in lost family income. Moreover, as I noted previously, collegians are more likely to know the new social science research showing the great advantages of marriage, and the huge costs of divorce.

I think there is another possible explanation of why liberals, as well as conservatives, would want tougher divorce laws. This would explain why political values don’t predict divorce attitudes as well as they used to, without making them irrelevant to the question.

Martin and Parashar found that in the 1970s, people who were personally conservative were more likely to favor more restrictive divorce laws. Today, people who are conservative and many people who are liberal favor more divorce restrictions. This might mean that values matter less. Or it might mean that values matter just as much as ever in how people approach their own marriages and their own ideas about divorce. It is the facts in the rest of the world that have changed. Divorce is much easier to get now than in 1974, so favoring divorce restriction now is not as conservative a position as it was then. Educated opinion then was very optimistic that easy divorce would mean happier marriages and happier kids. Today, educated people know that the social effect of an easy divorce culture has been just the opposite. This might make liberals join conservatives in wanting to reduce divorce in society, even if their personal approach to their own marriages is as liberal as that of their 1970s counterparts. Values still matter, but the facts have changed. And educated people know the facts better.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

College Graduates Have Happier Marriages Because They Apply Family Sociology

College graduates are more than twice as likely to report that their marriages are very happy as are married non-college graduates. “With This Ring,” the marriage survey of the National Fatherhood Initiative that I have written about before, notes that college graduates are more likely to be pro-marriage in general, to oppose cohabitation, and to believe that parents should stay together at least while the children are young.

Maggie Gallagher, in a recent column, cites another study by sociologist Stephen P. Martin at the University of Maryland. He found that divorce rates among the college educated have dropped to half of what they were in the bad years of the late 1970s. Martin discerns a “divorce divide” growing along educational lines.

Gallagher notes that college graduates have more successful marriages, in part, because they are more secure financially. She also raises the interesting possibility, though, that college graduates are improving their family behavior because they are taking in the new social science research about the importance of strong marriages.

Sociologists call the process of feedback from research to changes in social behavior “reflexivity.” Anthony Giddens, one of Britain’s most eminent sociologists and former Director of the London School of Economics, has argued that modern societies are so complex that they must produce a continuous series of information about how the system is working. Moreover, this information is not simply an observation that runs along side a running social system, but is continuously fed back into the system itself. The inflation rate, for example, is not simply esoteric information swapped within the walls of the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve Bank, but is intensely sought by many economic actors, and its release quickly affects everyone.

Today there is a significant industry collecting family data and translating it into popular and useful knowledge. The market for the popular books, magazines, talk shows -- and blogs -- about marriage and family life is especially rich in educated married mothers.

College classes in sociology and family studies can be a great way to transmit to students the research showing that marriage is good for men, women, and children. I have seen this happen in my own classes every year. In fact, the single finding that has the biggest impact on my students in Waite and Gallagher’s report, in The Case for Marriage, that cohabitation is not a good trial marriage, but instead is likely to lead to higher break-up and divorce rates. Many students who had been planning to cohabit after Commencement change their plans. It is too soon to tell whether this will produce happier and more stable marriages, but I am planning on it. And so are they.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Fight the Culture of Fear: The Near-Myth of Kidnapping by Strangers

If you are a parent, about your worst nightmare is that a stranger would kidnap your child. We are much more careful about letting children play unsupervised than we used to be. We have developed the nationwide Amber Alert system to track abducted children quickly. Megan’s Law mandates that we be informed about sex offenders living near us. Many parents will know who Elizabeth Smart, Jessica Lunsford, and Shasta Groene are.

Yet few parents know that sexual assaults on children by strangers, always rare, are down nearly 40% since the early ‘90s, and sexual assaults on teenagers have dropped nearly twice as much. Most of that drop in sexual assaults on teens have come from drastic reductions in assaults by strangers. Most teen molesters are known to the kids, especially men who have access to teen girls, such as mom’s boyfriend.

Kidnapping is mostly done by relatives, especially feuding parents snatching the kids from one another. How many stranger kidnappings of children were there last year? Noted family researcher Bill Doherty answers that question using the most definitive study of abducted children, the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2002 National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children. There are an estimated 45 stereotypical stranger "kidnappings" per year of children under age 12 in the United States. Another 65 teenagers were abducted by strangers. That is less than one in a million. Kids are more likely to be struck by lightning than to be kidnapped.

The current child abduction scare works the way much of the culture of fear does: the less likely one of our Dark Fears becomes, the more publicity we give to each case of it that does occur. Paradoxically, this extra publicity makes it seem that the thing we fear is more common than it really is. The social mechanisms that we have created to fight stranger abductions – including Megan’s Laws, Amber Alerts, and, most importantly, a much greater awareness by adults and children of the danger signs of abductors – have been working. By the same token, though, the social movement that created these successful mechanisms also, necessarily, raises our concern about the problem of kidnapping. Concern leads to successful social control, but concern also leads to increased fear.

The middle way lies in keeping our concern and our fear in proportion to reality.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The “Daughter Track,” Part Two

Yesterday I wrote about the New York Times story on the “Daughter Track.” My focus there was on the honorable work that many adult daughters, and some sons, do in caring for their elderly parents. I thought that most of the dutiful daughters interviewed in the articles thought that the most important aspect of what they were doing was their loving care for their parents. The career sacrifice was secondary.

The idea of the Daughter Track, though, is primarily about work and career. And we see that men and women typically approach work vs. family differently at the end of their work careers, just as they do at the beginning. Women are more likely to see work as a way to care for their families, and will drop a job if they can better care for their families directly. Men see work as a way to provide for their families, as well as the source of their own identity in the world.

The management consulting firm Catalyst, which invented the term Mommy Track, also promotes the Daughter Track idea as something that smart corporations should pay attention to. Even they, though, don’t cite examples of corporations that have figured out how to make it a temporary track of intentional cutting back on work for women, from which they will return to full-time labor.

More typical is the response of Arlie Hochschild, the Berkeley sociologist who wrote about working women’s “second shift.” She says adult women leaving work to care for their parents say they see it as an opportunity, but really they are using it as an excuse to seek “cultural shelter” from work. Such women had “proved what they set out to prove” by working, and now could lay it down. Hochschild sees that the women she is talking about are really ending their careers to care for their families. But she sees this as a betrayal of the feminist (or is it masculine?) idea of your job as your real duty and identity.

Another eminent sociologist, Phyllis Moen, found that among early retirees, men were likely to do so because they were offered a buyout, whereas women were more likely to retire early to care for their families. This exactly parallels the different reasons that teenage boys and girls give when they drop out of high school. Boys tend to leave high school to work and make money. Girls tend to leave high school to take care of their babies.

For the Daughter Track to become a genuine work track, corporations will have to structure formal slowdowns or temporary leaves on the pattern of maternity leave or the rare, true Mommy Track. Such options should also, of course, be open to sons (and nephews, etc.), but realistically most of the takers will be women. And like maternity leave and Mommy Track slowdowns, women who take the Daughter Track will be much less likely to return to work than similarly situated men would be. And that is ok for society.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Ordinary Heroism of the “Daughter Track”

The New York Times has a story on adult children who give up or cut back on their careers to take care of their aged parents. They call this the “Daughter Track,” a parallel to the family-accommodating Mommy Track that some businesses have and many more ought to have. The article focuses on a woman who gave up a high profile, high paying media career in New York to go home to suburban Detroit to help take care of her father, who has Alzheimer’s.

The Times will be chided, no doubt, for treating a few rare cases of women giving up big careers for their families. Drop the big money and fame, though, and what we are dealing is the ordinary heroism of millions of adults who adjust their work to care for their aged parents. This group is part of the even larger group – the majority of all people on earth, in fact – who tailor their work lives to support their families. In that case, we don’t even see it as heroic, but the ordinary stuff of what life is about.

I do, though, want to praise the true sacrifice and care that the “sandwich generation” is increasingly called upon to give to their elderly parents. We have the largest group of old, and what gerontologists call “old-old” (post-75) people ever. This means that a larger number of middle-aged adults will be called upon to care directly for their parents than ever before. In fact, it seems likely that a larger proportion of middle-aged people will be called upon to care for their parents than ever before. This will make it necessary to create new social idioms, and new social types, for us all to grasp this new reality with. And the “Daughter Track” is one such new social type.

The most striking fact about the Daughter Track, as the name suggests, is that women are significantly more likely to be the ones the care for elderly parents. The Times article cites a study which found that of those spending more than 40 yours per week on care for their own parents, 71% were women. That women predominate in this group is not surprising. I was surprised, actually that the proportion of men was as high as it is. Moreover, the article suggests that it is childless women who are most likely to be the sibling most likely to do the caring.

The women cited in the story know that they are making a sacrifice in worldly terms. But they also make a point of saying that they are glad of the chance to give back to their parents, to care for them in their need. Some such care, no doubt, is more painful to give than others. And some elder care is just too hard to do alone: my mother-in-law, whose care for her own disabled mother I honor, gives the sage advice that you can’t care for people who are both demented and mobile by yourself. Not all care-taking children are as happy about it as those portrayed in the article.

Still, Daughter Care and Son Care are honorable at the individual level. Moreover, families who care for their dependent older members perform an irreplaceable service for society. There is not enough money in the world to pay for excellent care for the dependent old, just as there is no way to pay enough for excellent care of all the dependent young.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Accidental God, Part Two

I recently wrote about Paul Bloom’s article, "Is God an Accident?", which appears in the current Atlantic. I criticized Professor Bloom’s argument, primarily because he only considered secular theories of why we believe in God, to which his theory is an equally secular alternative.

Prof. Bloom generously replied to my post. I thank him for the opportunity for dialogue. He wrote:

Thanks for the notice. I appreciate the attention, but I have to say I'm confused about your objections.

You say that my whole theory rests on a metaphor. Actually it's based on empirical evidence, mostly on work from babies and young children suggesting that certain belief systems emerge as part of human nature, not cultural invention. (The metaphor you quote was written to add clarity; you could remove it from the article and it would make no difference at all.) Obviously, there is a lot to disagree with in my article, and it's fair to argue that the studies I discuss are flawed, or that the data should be interpreted some other way. But your metaphor point is just puzzling.

Then you say that I focus only on "secular" explanations of the origin of religion. Actually, what I do in my paper is focus on the major views proposed by sociologists, psychologists, theologians, etc. If there is a different (non-secular?) account that explains the relevant phenomena in an insightful and parsimonious way, I would love to hear about it. I've spoken to a lot of theologians about these issues, and nobody but you has mentioned the existence of such a missing theory.

I did not mean to say that Bloom’s whole theory rests on a metaphor (I will let the reader be the judge of whether I did say that). Metaphors are very helpful in science. It is almost impossible to explain or develop a scientific theory of why something works as it does without building on a scaffolding of metaphor and analogy. All metaphors have limits, though. The metaphor of the human mind as like a computer – or in the case of Bloom’s theory, like two computers – is useful for imagining how the accidental ideas of God that he envisions could have arisen. But imaging our minds as like computers also suggests that they are “hardwired” for a certain kind of understanding. If, instead, we imagined our minds as, say, portals between our consciousness and deeper things – the unconscious, to take an alternative scientific theory, or the soul, to take an alternative theological theory – then our metaphor would suggest different kind of explanations of the very same empirical phenomena. None of these metaphors prove the theories that they lead to. But they do constrain the direction that our theorizing takes.

The point about metaphors, though, is a minor one. More important, I think, is that Bloom considers only secular explanations of why we believe in God, and offers his theory as an alternative to them.

Most people and societies believe in God. Prof. Bloom considers two explanations – Marx’s contention that belief in God comforts the oppressed, and Durkheim’s notion that a shared belief in God binds a social group together. It is not surprising that sociologists and psychologists accept these theories. Theologians of my acquaintance, though, believe that people believe in God because God is real, God is not an accident. Theological theories of why we believe in God might turn on the personal experience of many generations and cultures of prayer, or mystical union, or providence. Theological (God-based) theories can explain why the universe exists, or the meaning of human life, or even the purpose of suffering, explanations which most cultures have found more intellectually adequate than materialist theories. Even sociologists have been impressed with the fact that most of the great civilizations of the world have been moved by belief in God and God’s providence.

Prof. Bloom starts, as I said in the original post, from a presumption that God does not exist, and therefore that the erroneous belief in God needs to be explained. Religious theories of God, on the other hand, start from a presumption that God does exist, or at least that God might exist, and attempts to account for the same empirical evidence that Prof. Bloom does, but without the limitations that he imposes on his search from the outset.

Prof. Bloom observes children understanding the concept of helping from an early age. He believes that this shows that the idea of helping, and other social processes, are not simply learned through social experience. I agree with this conclusion. He concludes that they must have something like a social-process computer, along with their physical-process computer. The accidental idea of God arises when we confuse our understanding of social and physical things. We imagine a being which helps like a social being, but exists like a physical being. Presto, “God.” Yet is it any less parsimonious to believe that God created us with an understanding of helping, just as God created us with an understanding of physical existence through time? This is the theory of conscience, which has long been widely held based on both its theoretical utility and its apparent match with experience.

Now, is this great land of ours anyone is free to conclude that God is an accident and that the billions of believers in the world are simply wrong. But it seems peculiar to assume that before one can understand why people believe in God, you must assume that there is no God for them to believe in. I am not sure which theologians Prof. Bloom has been talking to at Yale, but I don’t think they could have been my old Divinity School teachers. I hope there will be some broader theological dialogue in New Haven about these interesting findings, which can be explained in both secular and theological ways.