Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Theory of the Creative Class Has Some Holes

Frank Bures is a writer who has been living the creative class life for some time.  He and his wife moved to Portland before it was Portlandia, to Madison because they thought it would be welcoming to cool creatives, and finally back to Minneapolis because they had friends and families and because it was substantial and cool enough.  Writing in the new Twin Cities creative-class magazine thirty two, Bures debunks the idea that cities can spark economic growth by attracting people like him.

Bures assembles the scholarly critiques of Richard Florida's "creative class" theory.  These criticisms are well taken.  The upshot is that smart techies can spark economic growth. But the big investment that some cities have made in drawing smart artists probably does not pay off in economic growth.

Bures is the first to say that the arts are good for life in a city.  But the correlations that Florida touts between having lots of artists and gay people (the most famous part of his formula) and economic growth are not really causal in the way he believes.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Paul Fussell, Author of Class, R.I.P.

Paul Fussell died earlier this year.  He is best known for The Great War and Modern Memory, a study of the effects of World War I on popular and literary sensibility.

For me, though, Fussell is primarily the author of Class. I have taught that book in my "Introduction to Sociology" class for two decades.  I often use it as the closer.  Fussell is mean about the status strivings of every class.  One of the students' possible assignments is to write a class analysis of their family Thanksgiving, an event that often brings people of different classes together on intimate terms.  Students find the book irritating, but also eye-opening. 

I have found that the people who write the most insightful books about the experience of social class are British literary scholars, steeped in English novels of the status struggle to be rated a gentleman, or not.  Fussell, though an American, was officially a scholar of British literature, especially of the 18th century.  His several books on the experience of war came from his own harrowing experience in World War II, but also from his study thereafter of the British war poets of the Great War.

For a teacher, the most helpful parts of Class are the illustrative examples of status markers from the early '80s, when the book was written.  These, inevitably, now seem quite dated to students.  Yet the basic idea remains true: status is not based on things, but on freedom.  And people whose identity is bound up in their things are not free.

I will leave you with one illustration of Fussell's insight about class.  He says the middle class is touchiest about class, sometimes denying that there even are classes in America.  He says the middle classes are most prone to use euphemisms and to avoid pungent words about topics they find embarrassing - such as the concept of class itself.  And this is shown in the short history of his own book.  My edition, an early one, is subtitled A Painfully Accurate Guide Through the American Status System. The edition the students now get, after some years of middle-class de-flavoring, is subtitled An Accurate Guide Through the American Status System.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Teachers are Better Read Than Researchers

Professors at research universities know far more than I do about their subject.  They not only read what they need to know to do their own research, but also what their competitors and fellow workers in the same vineyard are up to. I am grateful for the research they do, which I use all the time. 

But I am better read than the average research professor.  This is not to claim to be smarter, just more widely read.  A family sociologist, for example, will read in family sociology, and maybe a few other of the biggest intellectual books in a year.  I read pretty steadily in family sociology, too, because I teach it every year.  I am just now off to a workshop with leading researchers in the field to hear their latest.

But I also teach a social structure course every year, so keep up with class and status research. And I keep my hand in on the sociology of religion, my first specialty.  And read enough in social theory to teach it regularly.  And the books in "Introduction to Sociology" come from every field I read in.

Lately I have spent a few years learning the field of happiness studies, which draws heavily from psychology, economics, neuroscience, philosophy, and literature, in addition to sociology.

I read widely because I love to, first and foremost.  But also my job of teaching in a liberal arts college creates a structural necessity for me to read widely and keep doing it, year by year, because my students need and expect me to know a wide range of things.

I was thinking of this today due to a blogpost by Cal Newport at Study Hacks on ultralearning, the practice of learning a range of techniques which, in turn, helps you see new solutions to old problems.

Broad reading is not just for teachers.  One of the enduring aims of a liberal arts education is to make each student a broad reader all your days. This is a reason why liberal arts learning it the best preparation for life, #423.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Regnerus' Study Shows that There Are Differences Between Children of Same-Sex and Opposite-Sex Parents

Mark Regnerus has published the first results of his New Family Structures Study, the first study to allow comparisons with a representative sample of adults raised by lesbian and gay parents. The controversy is already hot.  Up until now, the conventional wisdom has been that there is no difference between children raised by same-sex couples and those raised by their natural parents. However, that conventional wisdom was based on non-representative samples of same-sex parents - who are pretty rare, and hard to find in even the largest representative surveys.

To get a taste of the differences Regnerus found, each of these comparisons between the young adult children of intact biological families and lesbian-couple families is statistically significant. They show percentages of the children of intact biological families first, then of lesbian couples second:

Currently cohabiting:  9 vs 24
Received welfare growing up: 17 vs 69
Currently on welfare: 10 vs 38
Currently employed full time: 49 vs 26
Currently unemployed: 8 vs 28
Voted in last presidential election: 57 vs 41
Identifies as entirely heterosexual: 90 vs 61
Had an affair while married/cohabiting: 13 vs 40
Ever touched sexually by a parent or other adult (as a child): 2 vs 23
Ever forced to have sex against your will: 8 vs 31

Clearly, there are some differences between the children of lesbian couples and of intact biological families.  What exactly causes those differences will be the subject of much further debate.

I was struck though, by the next comparison in the table: between the children of intact biological families and gay-couple parents. Here are all the statistically significant differences:

Received welfare growing up: 17 vs 57

And that is it.

What might account for the difference between lesbian-parent effects and gay-parent effects? This is a complex question, not answerable from this evidence.  But I have a hunch: involved fathers.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Liza Mundy 3: Women Don't Want to Be Breadwinners, but They Can Adapt

In The Richer Sex, Mundy starts with the fact that 37.7% of husbands right now earn less than their wives.  Late in the book she allows that only 3.3% of husbands have no earnings, are home with minor children, and have wives with jobs.  This book is not really about "breadwomen" - wives who are the sole or even predominant earners in their families. It is about two-earning couples in which, at least for a time, she earns more.

Mundy found, as others have before, that it is harder for wives to respect lower-earning husbands than it is for husbands to respect lower-earning wives.  But Mundy also offers this helpful nuance:  "If there's anything that every woman I interviewed can't stand, it's a partner who seems to be standing still." This makes sense to me. And this may be the main lesson to take from the book:

Wives outearning husbands is not a problem, any more than husbands outearning wives is. What both husbands and wives want is a partner who pulls his or her weight in the family, and who is ambitious to do it better.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Liza Mundy 2: Avoiding Social Comparison With Your Spouse

The most interesting part of The Richer Sex for me was Mundy's discussion of social comparison.  We want those we love to do well, but we would like them to do it in a field that is not in direct competition with our own.  As women and men increasingly have the same levels of education and are entering the same fields, the opportunities for husband and wife do be doing exactly the same kind of work increases.  It is all but inevitable that we will make comparisons with people doing just what we do.  This makes the possibility of invidious marital comparison rear its ugly head.

This got me thinking about the ways in which couples specialize, at work and at home, in ways that take them out of direct comparison with one another.  Even couples who collaborate in their professional work usually divide the labor.  And I have known many married people who let some interests drop that might put them in direct competition with their spouses. 

Mrs. G. and I, for example, used to both work in the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, and were very knowledgeable about education policy when we first came to Kentucky.  Other things equal, it would have made sense for me to teach sociology of education, and to become involved in Kentucky's nation-leading education reforms.  However, as my wife developed a career in education policy, I found that it made more sense to develop other intellectual interests, while fully following and bolstering her career as a supportive spouse.  And she has done the same with my professional interests - fully supportive and a good sounding board, but not a worker in the same vineyard.

In fact, she realized early on that we should not play competitive games against one another. I think this is a very wise policy.

Mundy reports the many ways that high-earning women subtly avoid professional competition with their spouses. I recommend that couples talk about this issue directly, and make explicit policy for the good of the marriage to avoid the occasion for invidious social comparison.

Just as a couple can meta-communicate about which communication style they should use in a given situation, they can meta-communicate about how they can work together without competing with one another.