Monday, September 05, 2005

Toward an Old Paradigm for the Study of Family Life

There is an exciting new thing happening in educated conversation about family life: the traditional wisdom is making a comeback. Men and women are different and complement one another well to raise children and to help one another flourish.

If you have been following this conversation – for example in the debate about Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s lightning rod essay, “Dan Quayle Was Right,” or Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher’s excellent The Case for Marriage, or the wave of sociobiological studies of mate selection and marriage, such as David Buss’ The Evolution of Desire – the building empirical case for traditional family ideas will be familiar. The National Marriage Project, the National Fatherhood Initiative, Smartmarriages, the Religion, Culture, and Family Project have all moved to the mainstream in the past decade or so, and indeed are coming to define the public discussion of marriage and family life.

All of these projects acknowledge that the reigning paradigm among family researchers and ideologues holds that the differences between men and women are socially constructed and foster a gender inequality which should be abolished. Each of the empirical studies mentioned above, and many more working the same vein, makes a ritual protestation that they are not sexist and do not think women should be excluded from public life. They rehearse the basic starting point of sociology – that what is true of groups is not necessarily true of each individual in the group. To say that men and women are different is not to say that women are inferior. This protest is a ritual – any reader of one or two of these works could write the obligatory paragraphs for all the others. Perhaps David Popenoe has a macro on his computer called NOT SEXIST that he hits to insert the necessary litany in each new essay.

I believe that we are on the verge of an important turning point in the life of this new/old paradigm: we can now dispense with the ritual protest.

In the spirit of advancing the sensible, empirical discussion of family life, therefore, I propose that we take as given the following claim: Taking sex differences seriously is not sexist.

Aging baby boomers who still hold on to this hoary taboo should be treated politely, but should not be allowed to hold up the progress of actual science.

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