Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Coffee House: Where Strangers Become Acquaintances

Tonight I am giving a talk at The Phillips Emporium, an independent coffee house in the college town of Bloomsburg, PA. The subject of the talk at the coffee house is - the coffee house. This is a minor example of what sociologists mean by reflexivity. Modern institutions depend more and more on feedback about how they are working to do the next round of work and improvement. Coffee houses, as venues of critical thought, have always been self-critical. Pamphlets promoting, attacking, and analyzing coffee houses have been issued since the glory days of the coffee house in the 17th century.

It is probably not surprising that coffee house intellectuals get together in a coffee house to talk about coffee houses as a place to be intellectual. But coffee houses have also always served as places of business - and not just the business of selling coffee. Intellectuals do not usually focus on this element of coffee house life. Businesses that grew out of coffee houses, such as the stock exchange, have developed more exclusive places of conversation, most notably the private club. Still, new business ideas are born in coffee houses all the time, and low-level business, especially in the arts, is conducted in coffee houses to this day.

The coffee house is the best place to bring people together for clear-headed talk.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Du Bois Was More Prescient Than I Thought

I am re-reading W.E.B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk for my social theory class.

In that book, published at the dawn of the previous century, he famously argues that "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." I had read this argument before as Du Bois correctly discerning the long hard civil rights struggle in the United States.

What I had not appreciated until this reading was that he clearly meant the entire global question of the interaction of the white and non-white races. He had in mind European colonialism just as much as American race relations.

In making my social theory class I am trying to pick pre-eminently transformative books. One good test is whether the book itself, and not just the author, has its own Wikipedia page.

The Souls of Black Folk was prescient not just about civil rights in America, but about colonialism and post-colonialism all over the world.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

How Much Kids Cost at the Top and Bottom of the Income Scale

Marcia Carlson and Tim Smeeding reported at the Furstenberg Conference that parents in the top fifth of income spend about five times as much on their children as do parents in the bottom quintile of income.

At first glance this seems like common sense - parents with more money to spend will spend more on their kids. But the fact that children could be raised for less shows that richer parents are choosing to invest more in their children. The concerted cultivation that middle class parents normally engage in for their kids costs much more than the natural growth childrearing of the poor and working class families.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Women of All Classes Want the Same Number of Children, But Miss the Mark in Different Directions

At the Furstenberg Conference, Philip Morgan reported that women of all classes start out wanting about the same number of children - on average, a little over two. However, women with less than a high school education end up with more children than they wanted, while more educated women end up with slightly fewer than they intended. The least educated women end up with .25 kids too many, while the college graduates end up with .6 kids too few.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

All Grown Up at 18

The Furstenberg Conference consisted mostly of demographers reporting on big numbers. One exception was Annette Lareau, who followed up on the children in her ethnographic study, Unequal Childhoods. She had found that working class and poor parents fed, clothed, sheltered their kids, made sure they went to school - then let them pick what they did with their time. She called this the "natural growth" approach. Middle class parents, by contrast, mobilized all the resources they could to develop the individual talents of each child, a method she called "concerted cultivation."

When she revisited the children as they got into their twenties, she found the next step of the two patterns of childrearing. At 18 the working class and poor kids were on their own. Even if they thought the kids were making mistakes, their parents did not think it was their place to step in. The middle class parents, on the other hand, continued to be deeply involved in helping their kids organize their lives, often in ways that were invisible to the children. These are the "helicopter parents," hovering over their children, who have become well known to college administrators.

Which contributed to a further difference. Both sets of parents knew that their children would be better off going to college. Most of the middle class kids got there, with parental help. Most of the working class and poor kids did not, even when they tried. The parents did not think they could, or should, push their kids to push through the inevitable roadblocks of college life. At 18, their kids were all grown up.

Monday, June 08, 2009

All Classes Want the Same Number of Kids

Paula England reported at the Furstenberg Conference on her new study of class differences in having children. She found that girls from all classes want the same number of children - on average, a little over two. However, by 16 there is already a negative correlation between sexual activity and income/GPA. That is, the poorer girls, who are also likely to be the girls doing worse in school, have sex more often than the richer girls, who are also doing better in school and are on the college track.

Eventually, the dropout girls have four times the unintended pregnancies that the college-track girls do. It is not that unintended pregnancies derail some girls from the college track - the causation runs the other way. Girls who start out poorer are likely to be "sloppy and inconsistent" in using birth control, whereas the middle class, college-track girls are not. Moreover, England reported, this class gradient in birth control goes back at least to the 1920s.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Legislation Not Court Decisions: Religious Protections

Religious opponents of same-sex marriage worry that if (probably when) same-sex marriage or civil unions become legal, people like them will be prosecuted. This is not far-fetched. "Hate speech" laws could easily be used to prosecute speech, even sermons against gay unions, as they have already been abroad. Religious charities have already stopped placing all adoptions because the state threatened them for not placing children with homosexual couples.

The first few states to legalize same-sex marriage did so by court decisions. These are blunt instruments. They invalidated existing laws without doing the necessary political work to deal with the unintended consequences of the court decision. Now, though, several states are taking the better path, making this major political change through the proper political means, the legislature. When states debate laws, they hear from all kinds of people who would be affected. The states that have passed same-sex marriage laws were able to put in protections for religious groups. Legislative debate, and laws that actually make it through the political process, are better protection for everyone.