Monday, December 19, 2011

Marriage is so Normal: an Answer to Lisa Wade

The other day I posted about the scary report that only a bare majority of American adults are married. I argued that the alarm over this report is overblown. Marriage is not becoming a minority taste.

Another sociologist has argued that marriage could become a minority taste, but so what? Lisa Wade, at the always-interesting Sociological Images, defended her own unmarried pairing with a general critique of marriage. She distinguishes, rightly, between the idea that marriage is normative - that is, thought to be good and desirable - and the factual question of whether or not marriage is normal - that is, what most people actually do.

Marriage is normative. Most Americans favor marriage, and do marry. They think it is good for society, even if they are not married themselves. They think marriage is good for children, even if they are not married or parents themselves. Wade dances around this fact, but she does not (and cannot) actually deny it.

She does, though, make this claim: "In actual reality, though, the state of being married is not any more normal than the state of being unmarried."

This is not true, for reasons I outlined in my earlier post. The proportion of people who marry for life is closer to two-thirds than to one-half. We are dealing with estimates of what people will do in the future, so it is hard to be more precise than that.

My more important critique of Wade's position, though, is that the conception of marriage she defends is entirely about her relationship.

The greatest value of marriage to society as a whole, and to the members of most families, is that marriage is the best environment for raising children. Once you have kids, your life is not all about you any more. Since the great majority of adults do have children, we all have an interest - first-hand or second-hand - in the social arrangements that are best for children.

Marriage is both normal and normative primarily because it is best for children, and secondarily because, on the whole, most people are happier married than as cohabitors or as single parents.


Unknown said...

Well, hold your horses... "[M]arriage is the best environment for raising children"? And why is that? Am I being a bad parent for not being married to my life-long partner?

You are confusing creating the environment for raising children and being married; being not-married and raising children in a good way are in no way mutually exclusive, IMHO.

Gruntled said...

Sociology deals in what is probable for groups, not the specifics of individual cases. If you and your partner are raising your children well without marriage, good for them.

In the population as a whole, that is a risky proposition.

Unknown said...

Then present your case in a clear fashion, i.e. together with some kind of evidence to prove your point. Without forgetting that correlation does not imply causation, i.e. even if you find some kind of correlation between the not being married and poor child-bearing, it does not prove that one leads to the other.

Gruntled said...

The benefits of marriage for children is a frequent topic of this blog. I recommend Waite and Gallagher's The Case for Marriage and McLanahan and Sandefur's Growing Up With a Single Parent as a good starting point.

Unknown said...

Well, I could also say "read this and that", but I'm not going to. It's kind of a discussion killer, isn't it? And shows lack of arguments rather than some well-built framework behind these claims.

But what was my central point? Do not build straw men! Living in a non-marriage relationship for whatever reasons (e.g. ethical or ideological reasons) does not make you a bad parent. It does not mean that a priori you do not care too much for your child or your partner, or that you don't make financial decisions together, and so on. Thus saying things like "marriage is the best environment for raising children" is a VERY strong claim and you or Waite/Gallagher do not do a very good job at defending it without building a straw man about what cohabitation really means for different people who have made such choices in their lives. In logics, what you are doing is called "making hasty generalization".

Gruntled said...

"Living in a non-marriage relationship for whatever reasons (e.g. ethical or ideological reasons) does not make you a bad parent."

That is a straw man. I did not say that. Waite and Gallagher, et al., do not say that.

Unknown said...

"Marriage is both normal and normative primarily because it is best for children". Well yea, you are not making that argument at all...

Gruntled said...

When I teach "Introduction to Sociology" to undergraduates, I start with what I call Rule #1 of Sociology: We make generalizations about groups that do not necessarily apply to each member of the group.

For example, it is a true statement that most professors are Democrats. Inevitably, some student will say "That's not true, I know one professor who is a Republican."

It takes some students a long time to grasp the basic point.

Unknown said...

I don't want to ruin your attempt to empower your argument by acting as an authority, but... When I teach "Intro to Political Science", I usually discuss with my students the problems of induction and deduction, of interpretation of statistics, of causality claims, etc. They usually catch on pretty quickly that statistics is a matter of interpretation and is very often an vehicle of ideological manipulation, and that people (incl. scientists) very often read into their data the things they want to find from there or they are taught to look for. And that, on the whole, making (esp. normative, not descriptive) generalizations in social science is a very slippery road.

Anonymous said...

This is a fun conversation to follow. (Although it is starting to feel a little circular.)

I find myself wondering what sort of evidence/support Unknown would find compelling. The only options that I am aware of are anecdotes and statistics—if Unknown finds neither satisfying then I’m not sure what else can be said.

Gruntled said...

Agreed. The point is actually pretty well established in family sociology, especially from McLanahan and Sandefur's work and the studies that followed.

Unknown is making two different kinds of arguments. The first is the straw man: "Am I being a bad parent for not being married to my life-long partner?"

The second, that "making (esp. normative, not descriptive) generalizations in social science is a very slippery road" is, perhaps, true, but not very illuminating. The care we take in making true generalizations about things that people value is the same care that we take in making generalizations about things that people do.

Either way, it is a true generalization that, ON THE WHOLE, children do better in just about every material and emotional way we can measure when raised by their two married parents. Children with cohabiting parents and married step-parents are next best, but, ON THE WHOLE, clearly a step down. In fact, researchers have been surprised that cohabiters and steps are closer to single parents than to marrieds. Children of never-married single parents do less well still. And children in the various forms of being an orphan do least well.

This does not mean that any particular child raised by cohabiting parents might do just fine. But that does not change the truth of the population generalization.

Unknown said...

I have not been arguing against your claim that according to your data (which I haven't seen and thus can't judge), STATISTICALLY, children from married parents might do "better" (whatever that means) than children of cohabiting ones, but against your normative conclusion/interpretation of it, i.e. that "marriage is the best environment for raising children". If there is in your data correlation between the two, then making such a conclusion is like saying that because religious people have lower IQ (which some studies show and others don't, and results also vary per country), then being religious is normatively worse than being an atheist.

In addition to being normative (maybe based on personal experience, religious predispositions, etc), this data seems to, as I said before, create a uniform group of cohabiting people, although the reasons and arrangements behind this label are multifarious (just like "being religious", from my previous example, is a very problematic and contested measure). And then, based on that, if you make a generalization that being married is better for your children than cohabiting then it's just silly, isn't it? Your "true generalization" (which I'm not contesting right now) does not say that.

But the discussion is getting a bit too repetitive...

Mallard F. said...

Unknown, if you just get married I bet you might agree a little more with Gruntled. Merry Christmas all.

Angela said...

To Unknown, I agree with you 100%. Gruntled and Mallard are typical examples of manipulating research to "fit" one's ideology. Being married alone does not constitute the best environment for children. What about the households where mom is an alcoholic, dad is a gambler or abusive?
what about same-sex marriages...are they included in your research?

Mallard F. said...

Some people don't get rule #1 because they are too close to that particular issue.

Anonymous said...

@Angela - I think the research does include married parents with serious problems. No doubt they pull down the statistics for children of married parents. It's not an absolute difference, just a probability of doing better if your parents are married.

For the overall question, I think the data shows pretty clearly that children raised by two married parents are healthier, do better in school, and are less likely to have serious problems. This is not surprising - two parents have more time to give their children. In addition, children who are living with one parent because their parents are divorced usually have spent some time working through emotional problems, either before or after the divorce or both.

Children of re-married parents presumably have also had to deal with working through emotional problems. They may also have had to deal with creating a new family which can involve a lot of conflict.

It doesn't have to be true that all single parents have less money or that all children of divorce have emotional problems, just that more of them do than with married parents.

The co-habiting results seem more surprising. A couple who has never married still has two incomes and two parents to care for the children. Their children are also not dealing with divorce or the problems that lead to divorce.

It seems to me there are a few possible explanations. Co-habiting couples may include some people who aren't getting married because they know their partner has problems. That would then affect the statistics. Co-habiting couples could include more people without money, although I would think a study would control for that. Co-habiting couples could be different from the norm in some other way that is also associated with problems for kids. If any of those things are true, then Unknown is right, marriage isn't a better environment for children, it's just associated with couples who are better parents.

Co-habiting couples might also be more likely to break up than married couples. This would be bad for the children, but I think the stats would then treat them as being in single parent or step-families.

On the other hand,it could be that co-habiting couples don't live together in the same way as a married couple and so their children lose some of the benefits. They might not feel confident enough of being together in the future to merge finances and buy a home or save money or have one partner work part-time, etc. If that's true, then marriage itself might be contributing to the difference in outcomes for children.

Anonymous said...

@Unknown - you might want to check the custody laws for unmarried fathers in your state. There is often a significant legal advantage to being married for men.

In my opinion, if you're planning to stay together for the rest of your life, why not get the paper?

Gruntled said...

Anonymous is right. Children raised by their cohabiting parents, on the whole, do not do as well as children raised by their own married parents. Children raised by co-habiters who are not both parents of the children, on the whole, do less well, still.

There is a rich research tradition now in sociology trying to discover why this is so. The main reason, as I read the research, is, first, that natural parents, on the whole, invest more in their children than step-parents do. Second, marriage tends to change men, making them more self-sacrificing on behalf of their families.