Saturday, December 06, 2008


Two sensible, single young men I know, Mark and Rob, were engaged in their regular pastime of assessing women as potential mates, when they hit upon a useful metric: the higher the heels, the higher the maintenance.

Friday, December 05, 2008

It is Hardest to Think Macro About Family Life

One of my most important jobs as a sociologist is to help students move from thinking about the micro to the macro. It is hard to think about big institutions, huge social forces, and society-wide social facts; it is natural to think only about how they affect individuals, especially ourselves and people like us. Sociology is a recent invention because we needed reliable facts from whole societies before we would think about society as a whole. Marx thought about classes before he had any actual measures of the reality of different classes - which is one of the reasons that he was usually wrong. Weber and Durkheim, by contrast, could really begin sociology because they had reliable numbers on such things as the relative wealth of different religious groups in many countries, or comparative national suicide rates.

It is easiest to think about economic life at the macro level. We use collective measures of economic life every day -- the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Gross National Product, the national trade deficit, etc., etc. And it is also common to see that political life has a macro dimension, as we obsessively report national elections and have daily notices of international wars. Popular culture produces Billboard charts, best sellers, top grossers for the whole nation each week. Nationwide religious denominations make news as they grow and decline, split and do good.

The hardest institution to think about in a macro way is the family. Sure, everyone knows the divorce rate, the rising age of first marriage, and may even has a sense of the fertility rate. But when we think about family as an institution, we each tend to think about my family. The divorce rate lives as divorces we know; marriage age becomes when I got married; fertility rate is really only interesting as how many kids I have.

Family is the hardest institution to think about at the macrosociological level because each family only exists at the micro level. There is no national family corporation, family state, family culture industry, family church. There are just millions of families whose collective actions add up to a social institution.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

What Does a Wedding Need?

The comments on my last two posts make me dare to open a can of worms: what does a wedding need? In particular, what are the big ticket items that drive up wedding costs so spectacularly?

When Mrs. G. and I got married, we had a great and cheap wedding. We got married on campus, in the equivalent of the college chapel, on graduation weekend. My mother made the dress, my father lettered the wedding certificate, the bride's uncle took the pictures, the wedding party wore their own clothes, and everyone pitched in to make the food. We had a Quaker wedding (a really great kind -- everyone should be a Quaker long enough to get married :-) ), so there was no minister or other officiant. The reception was in the function room attached to the chapel. We drove away in a borrowed car, and spent the night in a motel. The only thing I would change was that I should have taken her to a nicer hotel.

We bought the rings, license, invitations, flowers, cake, ingredients for reception quiches and finger food, a suit and shoes for me from a thrift store, shoes for the bride, and the motel.

We had a wonderful wedding with 140 guests.

Total cost: about $2,500 in today's prices.

So where were our big savings? The venue for wedding and reception were very inexpensive, because we were part of the church and college. We had a great seamstress who donated her work. We also had a great calligrapher donating his work for the wedding certificate that everyone signed, which is our equivalent of a minister. Our friends pitched in on making the food. A fine photographer donated his work. We had no alcohol, which also allowed us to have the reception at the church. And, of course, no wedding planner.

Except maybe for the dress, the officiant, and the photographer, couldn't everyone do it this way without scrimping? I realize that alcohol is a sticking point for many people, but even doubling this budget, wouldn't that give you enough margin to solve that problem?

I am not (simply) being a curmudgeon here, but trying to get a realistic view of where wedding costs come from - before my own children's someday-in-the-future weddings.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A Little More on Weddings

A thing I learned from a student paper today: half of brides use a wedding planner. And wedding planners are likely to use professionalized, rationalized, and higher-priced wedding industry suppliers.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

"Weddings Costs $27,000!" Not Really

It has been widely reported that the average cost of a wedding is above $27,000. This is the consensus of several widely used websites, the,, and Conde Nast Bridal Media online. However, when individuals are surveyed about how much they think weddings normally cost, the average is about $15,000. My student Brittney Hertog examined the methods used to arrive at these two figures to figure out why there is such a discrepancy. She relied especially on a report in The Wall Street Journal by Carl Bialik.

On the side of the higher figure is the fact that the websites rely on reports of actual costs of weddings, rather than the guesses of a varied group of people, some with little experience of real or recent weddings. All of these websites counsel brides to prepare for sticker shock when they start to price wedding items, and to plan on spending at least 50% more than they first expected to. One of Hertog's biggest ticket findings is that hotel charges for hosting receptions normally start at $10,000, a platform to which costs are only added.

On the side of the lower figure, though, is the fact that the websites rely on professional wedding suppliers -- people who sell dresses, flowers, cakes, rings, invitations, catered receptions, etc. This leaves out homemade weddings. If a couple have an open wedding at their church, reception to follow in the fellowship hall, dress made by the bride's friend, and food made by the family, the total cost will be way under the official average, or even under the normal guess. Such weddings do not figure into the denominator of the websites' calculations, because they do not consume the professional wedding supplies that those calculations are based on.

Moreover, as Bialik argues, median cost is a more realistic indicator than average cost. A few megaweddings, averaged in with a large number of normal weddings, can pull the "average" cost way above what most people will experience.

There is a further reason that the high average cost figure is so often used: it makes the average bride feel thrifty. If she, and those helping her plan the wedding, know that $27,000 is the average cost, then they can feel they have achieved real savings if they spend only $17,000 - even if that is actually more than what most weddings actually cost.

I think spending $27,000 on a wedding is ridiculous. That should be put to the downpayment on a house. It is helpful to know, therefore, that this is a very misleading number, and is should not be used to guide your (my students', my daughters') own wedding plans.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Family Cohesion in Step-Families

My family class workshop is now entering the payoff phase, as students report on their research projects.

Emily Perrin examined the research on step-families, and noted several flaws. Most studies of families measure how well the family coheres. Step-families usually score poorly on this measure. Emily argued that this is in the nature of step-families. Even high-functioning step-families are likely have looser ties between step-parents and step-children, even if the marriage bond and the (blood) parent-child bonds are solid.

True, it is likely that step-families as a whole are lower functioning than intact families as a whole, tending to more centrifugal than is good for them. Still, I think Perrin makes a good case that researchers on step-families should rethink simply importing a family cohesion measure from research on intact families.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Abortion Centrism Meets the Birth Dearth

Pro-life centrists see that with the strong Democratic wave in the recent election, there will be no federal ban on abortion. Instead, they are seeking common ground with pro-choice groups to reduce the number of abortions.

The focus of religious groups on both sides is to get more social services to poor pregnant women to help them raise their children. Jacqueline Salmon's Washington Post article notes that poor women are four times more likely to have abortions than middle-class women are. She quotes Alexia Kelly of the Catholic Alliance for the Common Good as concluding that "Clearly, poverty impacts the abortion rate."

I think this gets the causation mostly backwards. Poor women are actually less likely to abort any particular pregnancy than middle-class women are. However, poor women are much more likely to get pregnant than middle-class women are. Pregnancy is part of poor women's lifestyle -- that is a big reason why they stay poor.

Middle-class women are more likely to plan their parenthood -- that is a big reason why they stay middle class. For the past few decades, middle-class women have generally believed that they should have few to no children for their own careers and for the good of the planet. These two facts contribute significantly to the middle-class abortion rate. Yet middle-class women are also the best informed about trends in family life, as they affect their own families and, in a general way, as they affect society.

As middle-class women become more aware that we face a shortage of children in the rich countries, they have started to change their fertility patterns. As middle-class women become educated about the great benefits to their marriages and their family's long-term health, wealth, and happiness of having children, and of how many childless career women regret not having children, they become more comfortable with having another person at the table. Even when that person wasn't exactly planned.

The fastest approach to reducing the abortion rate is through the best informed, most organized, most churched mothers. A centrist religious coalition to reduce the abortion rate should start in their own backyard with positive arguments about the personal and social benefits of children. That would reduce abortion rates in the middle class. And when the leading classes walk the talk, the other classes are more likely to follow.