Saturday, June 26, 2010

Nerdy Dolphins

I used to teach 13th Gen, a good book written by two Baby Boomers about Generation X, which came out when Gen X was still in college. One innovation of the book was that the authors, Neil Howe and William Strauss, posted their developing thoughts on the younger generation on an electronic bulletin board, inviting comment. One persistent respondent, then a college student, eventually provided such useful feedback that his comments were included in the published book, under the name "Crasher."

Crasher's first response, though, was highly skeptical. He wrote:

Pardon me for interrupting, but this has to be one of the silliest things I've ever seen on this network. Don't you know that categorizing and defining stuff that you have no clue about is one of the fatal flaws of being a baby boomer? You guys sound like nerdy dolphins talking about hang gliding.
I have found the category of "nerdy dolphins" to be very useful when someone who knows one thing is pronouncing confidently on another - grossly missing some elementary points. I am no doubt guilty of being a nerdy dolphin more often than I know.

I have been immersed in family sociology, which obsesses on the subject of the balancing the obligations, as well as the great pleasures, of work and family. There is a large scholarly community in sociology, family studies, economics, and beyond, studying this subject. Beyond the academics, there is an immense popular literature, much of it based on research, aimed at working parents who are trying to rightly juggle their several competing duties. So I could only react with wonder today when I read a noted scholar of leisure write this:

"Obligation outside that experienced while pursuing a livelihood is terribly understudied (much of it falls under the heading of family and/or domestic life …)”

Nerdy dolphin.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Educated People Think They Are More Left-Wing Than They Really Are

As a centrist I think the left-right political spectrum does as much mischief as good, because it encourages a false polarization of what we think the political options are. Nonetheless, it is very useful. Most people can readily place themselves on the spectrum, and choose their friends and enemies based on whether those others call themselves left or right.

James Rockey, an economist at the University of Leicester, has an interesting analysis based on the World Values Survey called "Who is left, and who just thinks they are?" He compared where people places themselves on a ten-point left/right spectrum with where they place themselves on two other questions to get some objective measure of their actual position. One of the objective questions is familiar:

“Incomes should be made more equal vs We need larger income differences as incentives. How would you place your views on this scale?"

The second question sounds unusual, at least to American ears:

"Imagine two secretaries, of the same age, doing practically the same job. One finds out that the other earns considerably more than she does. The better paid secretary, however, is quicker, more efficient and more reliable at her job. In your opinion, is it fair or not fair that one secretary is paid more than the other?"

Rockey's headline finding: the more educated on average believe themselves to be more left wing than their actual beliefs on a substantive issue might suggest.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pruetts Don't Quite Deliver on How Men and Women Parent Differently

Kyle and Marsha Pruett, well-known family researchers, have a popular new book aimed at parents. Partnership Parenting: How Men and Women Parent Differently - Why It Helps Your Kids and Can Strengthen Your Marriage begins with some promising research-based accounts of how fathers and mothers tend to approach raising children differently. The chapter called "Cuddling vs. the Football Hold," on how mothers and fathers hold babies, is particularly interesting. In later chapters, though, they pay less and less attention to complementary differences between fathers and mothers, and more and more on general, sensible parenting advice.

At the heart of the book is the Pruetts' contention that children have a relationship with their parents as a team, as well as with each parent. This is sound and important. They return often to the theme that the couple needs to work out a common plan in raising children, even while preserving their differences. This is also quite sound. They hint that research shows a pattern to these differences - fathers tending one way, mothers another. They offer even more tantalizing hints that these differences tend to be complementary. But the message that the parents need to present a united front overwhelms what is more interesting to me - just how men and women tend to differ in raising kids.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Scanzoni's Family View Goes Another Giant Step to the Left

John Scanzoni, a well-known family sociologist, has a new book, Healthy American Families: A Progressive Alternative to the Religious Right. Most of the book is the familiar liberal argument that all close relationships are equally good, marriage is an outdated institution, and children shouldn't interfere with adult autonomy.

Lately this argument has been putting more emphasis on these autonomous adults partnering with their soul mates - for as long as they feel like soul mates. Scanzoni praises Abigail Adams, John Adams' "remarkable soul mate (who also happened to be his wife and the manager of their farm)."

Likewise, divorce is nothing to lament. Rather, he offers as one his ten guidelines for progressive family life that "love and autonomy govern the transitions between being partnered and partner-free."

Scanzoni also says that it more environmentally responsible not to have children, or at least to have a "child-minimum" one-child family.

Scanzoni was raised an evangelical Christian, and went to Moody Bible Institute in the 1950s. He writes here as a "recovering evangelical" who is now against "christianists" who would impose their view of the divine on others. I don't think the religious theme is actually essential to his argument - he would be equally imposed to secular family scholars who emphasize the benefits to adults and, especially, to children of marriage.

The culture wars live, as shown by this salvo.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Expecting Fidelity Probably Does Yield a Higher Divorce Rate - But is Still Worth It

Catherine Hakim, a British sociologist, offered up to a conference of mostly American scholars the theory that U.S. divorce rates were so high because we expect marital fidelity. If we just accepted, as continental Europeans do, that some discrete affairs are inevitable in a marriage, we could have lower divorce rates, like the Italians.

As a sociological observation I have to admit that she is probably right.

Every possible social arrangement has its costs and benefits, which require trade-offs. Still, I think the greater benefits, both socially and personally, come from trying to reach the higher standard.

I do think that it is unreasonable to expect your spouse to feel like your soulmate at every moment of a long marriage. But sexual fidelity does seem possible for most people who make a public commitment to try it. And there are things we can do to improve their odds.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Babies Don't Make Your Marriage Go Sour - If You Are Religious

This week I will blog on a fine family sociology conference I am attending at Princeton.

In general, couples report that their satisfaction with their marriage goes down when their first child is born. Brad Wilcox and Jeffrey Dew found, though, that this is mostly true for secular women. For religious women who share a faith and a religious community with their husbands, having a baby does not make them less happy with their marriage.

I think this is because religious couples can see having a baby as a meaningful, even sacred act, which they are doing for others as well as for their own little family.