Friday, October 17, 2008

De-McDonaldizing the Family

My Introduction to Sociology class is working through George Ritzer's McDonaldization: The Reader. Ritzer has extended Max Weber's argument that rationalization is the master principle of modernity into current discussion through the example and metaphor of McDonald's and McDonaldization. In the Reader he includes are article by Sara Raley on the "de-McDonaldization of the family." She wrestles inconclusively with whether McDonaldization - efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control by non-human technology -- has significantly shaped the internal life of families today. Raley opens the essay, though, with the claim that the definition of family has changed significantly since the 1950s Donna Reed norm. Then, one predictable model of family was normative. Now, all kinds of organizations count as family.

I do not think the broadening of how we talk about family really represents "de-McDonaldization." The normative understanding of family life that was honored more in the 1950s -- of a married couple with their children -- was not the norm because it was the most efficient, predictable, calculable, nor technologically controlled. It was normative because most people wanted to achieve that kind of family. Raley adds the ideal of a breadwinner father and housewife mother. That part of the ideal has clearly changed, though not, I think, for de-McDonaldizing reasons.

The ideal of marrying for life and raising your kids together is still the ideal that most people have of family life. Fewer reach that norm than in the 1950s, but most people still do. And even those who do not reach that standard in their own lives still tend to hold it out as a dream. Some people, of course, do not uphold the nuclear family as the norm. But most still do.

If we no longer make as much of a cultural spectacle of the nuclear family as an ideal it is not because we have deMcDonaldized the definition of family. We haven't even changed our cultural ideal. We are just more polite about respecting other family types as well.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Abortion Campaign: What's A Centrist to Think

Obama and McCain had a back-and-forth about abortion. A friend sent me Robert George's scathing attack on Obama as the most pro-abortion major candidate ever. Five minutes with pro-life and pro-choice websites will give you your daily quotient of hysteria - and despair.

My position on abortion, in case you need to know that before reading the rest, is that it should be safe, legal, and abhorent.

My argument today, though, is about how we tend to argue about abortion, and other controversial issues, especially in election campaigns. So let us look at a potentially important outcome of this election: the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA). Obama told Planned Parenthood that signing this act, assuming it passed Congress, would be the first thing he would do as president. Robbie George, a very smart guy and fellow Swarthmorean, says this act

would create a federally guaranteed ''fundamental right'' to abortion through all nine months of pregnancy, including ... a right to abort a fully developed child in the final weeks for undefined 'health' reasons. In essence, FOCA would abolish virtually every existing state and federal limitation on abortion, including parental consent and notification laws for minors, state and federal funding restrictions on abortion, and conscience protections for pro-life citizens working in the health-care industry-protections against being forced to participate in the practice of abortion or else lose their jobs.

So, what does FOCA actually say?

It is the policy of the United States that every woman has the fundamental right to choose to bear a child, to terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability, or to terminate a pregnancy after fetal viability when necessary to protect the life or health of the woman.

So how do you get from what the act says to all the things that George fears? The answer to this question could be repeated dozens of times in this polarized debate, and most others: Anything the other side does not explicitly prohibit, they must favor.

The point of this kind of argument is not to illuminate the truth. The point of this kind of argument is to create polarization. The point is to eliminate all middle positions. The point is to increase fear of the other side -- by reducing all arguments to Us and The Other Side.

In a free society, you can't prohibit polarizing and fear-mongering. What a centrist can do, though, is be skeptical of any argument that says if you do not prohibit every bad possibility, you must be for evil.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Patriarchal Inherit By Default

I have previously reported Philip Longman's argument that the religious people will produce a growing part of future generations because they have many more kids than the secular do.

Longman also argues that families, and societies, with a patriarchal structure, will produce a growing part of future generations for the same reason: they have many more kids than the gender egalitarians do. In an article in Foreign Policy (March 2006) he argues that in all the industrialized nations, the families that emphasize paternal headship, investment, and service to the family produce larger families in this generation, which multiplies enormously in the next. Whereas family structure liberals average a little over one child per family, family structure conservatives are the overwhelming majority of the four-and-more-kid families. In France, for example, the early Gen-Xers who had three-plus kids have produced 50% of the younger generation.

With this kind of advantage in natural growth, Longman says we can anticipate continuing waves of conservative social movements and voting patterns, as the children of conservatives gain ground demographically in each generation.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Parsing Domestic Violence by Marriage and Class

This is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so you may have seen a statistic like this: Nearly 25 percent of American women report being raped and/or physically assaulted by a current or former spouse, cohabiting partner, or date at some time in their lifetime.

This sort of statistic makes my students worry that they have a high likelihood of being beaten themselves. What this kind of scary blanket statistic obscures, though, is that educated, middle class, married people -- what the great majority of my students are likely to become -- are at the lowest risk of violence. As Waite and Gallagher note in The Case for Marriage, "the safest place for a women to be is inside marriage.” Being poor is an even greater risk factor than being unmarried: the National Family Violence Survey suggested that rates of "abusive violence" to women with annual incomes below $10,000 are more than 3.5 times those found in households with incomes over $40,000.

Domestic violence is a genuine problem for women and men of all marital states and social classes. But it is important in giving people a real sense of their own risks, and in fighting the culture of fear in general, to see that married middle class people are at low risk of domestic violence.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Irrationality of Rationalization: California Marriage Licenses

We are talking about the "irrationalities of rationalization" in my Intro class. This is an idea derived from Max Weber's "iron cage," and developed most thoroughly by George Ritzer in his many works on McDonaldization. The idea is that as we transform every aspect of society to make it more efficient, calculable, predictable, and technologically controlled -- in a word, rationalized -- we also create unintended irrationalities.

A case in point comes from the news (as it always does when teaching Weber). California marriage licenses used to have a space for the name of the bride and the name of the groom. When the legal definition of marriage was expanded to cover same-sex couples, the state's bureaucrats followed the normal rules of bureaucratic rationalization: they changed the forms. They judged it more rational and efficient to have one form that could cover all cases -- both the traditional form that the vast majority of the form's users would want, and the rare exceptions. They opted for the most abstract, colorless, unromantic terms to use in place of "bride" and "groom." The new forms asked for Party A and Party B.

The "rational" solution to a problem of bureaucratic nomenclature, though, was an irrational reduction of marriage to many of the people who the state bureaucracy is supposed to serve, the taxpayers of California. Two of them, Rachael Bird and Gideon Codding, refused to use the new, abstract form when they got married, prefering to be bride and groom. The state refused to recognize their marriage. Law suits followed. Embarrassing publicity followed, pushing the bureaucrats to remember that rationalization is not supposed to be an end in itself, but to serve the people.

The state of California backed down. Bride and Groom are now back on the marriage license.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Protestant Ethics Lives

I have been reading one of my favorite books, Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism with my Intro to Sociology students this week. They showed an interesting mix of two contradictory views in their own approach to work. On the one hand, they mouth fashionable cynicism that people only work for money. On the other hand, when I ask them about the people who shaped them -- their favorite teachers, the leaders in their community, their own parents -- they admit that those people work for a deeper reason. If they hit the lottery tomorrow, they wouldn't quit. Some work is, of course, a pretty bad job. But Centre College, and places like it, train people for work that they will find intrinsically rewarding.

As we tell them all the time, a liberal arts education is not to get you a job, but to make you into a better person. And one of the things that persons of good character do is work, work for the common good as well as to support their families, work for intrinsic reasons.

Bringing together these two contradictory views about work led to several "ah-ha" moments in class.