Teaching the Regnerus Controversy

I’ve been thinking about how I might use the debate about Mark Regnerus’ article “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study” from Social Science Research to cover the research process, the social scientific community, and research ethics the next time I teach undergraduate Research Methods (and how it might be used in other courses). I won’t retrace the controversy, but here is a good rundown from fairly soon after the article was published. I’m assuming it’s not yet over as this very good blog from Neal Caren appeared just a few days ago at Scatterplot.

From a teaching standpoint, I think the ‘Regnerus Affair’ has a number of advantages over the examples often used to teach about ethics in social scientific research. I would guess that most who teach methods use common examples like the Stanford Prison Experiment, Tuskegee, Milgram, or the Tea Room Trade. I’ll continue to use these examples, even if just for shock value (get it!), but the Regnerus case has the advantage of being not only current, but also ongoing.

There are already a number of great responses from those critiquing and defending the original study that could be used to generate conversation. An added feature is that, by reading this material, students will get an introduction to the research process that is often hidden behind the articles and books they cite in literature review assignments or term papers. This case also brings to the fore the role of funding in social science better than other examples I’ve used.

I’ll be teaching this at an undergraduate level so it will be one part of a 50 minute session on ethics and politics in the research process. Therefore I wouldn’t be able to use all of the very thoughtful resources that have been produced as part of the controversy or as analyses of the controversy. However, I’d suggest that this should be ‘required reading’ at the graduate level. While the funding aspect of social science will matter to only a handful of undergrads, it will likely matter to all graduate students. Questions about how funding affects the work we do should be thought through carefully, and not only in terms of how it might affect what we find, but also in terms of how it adds to the stresses of the job. If you are looking for content to use, then you’d be hard pressed to find a better source than Philip N. Cohen’s study guide at Family Inequality where you can probably find everything I’ve posted here and certainly more.

I’m sure others have already used this example in the undergraduate and graduate classroom. I won’t be teaching Methods again until the fall of 2013, so I’ve got some time to think about how to best use these materials, but here are some links to things I’ll consider using in my next undergraduate section of methods:

Other materials that might be useful:

Video of the ASA session “When the Professional Becomes Political”

My own related posts from this blog:

Coverage in Social Theory?

More thought about teaching the ‘Regnerus Affair’ has resulted in planning to touch on it when I teach Social Theory in the spring of 2013. I teach ‘Toward an Afrocentric Feminist Epistemology’ from Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. I’ll talk about the Regnerus article and the ensuing debate in the context of the the Eurocentric, Masculinist Knowledge Validation Process. I’m a firm believer that taking questions of epistemology seriously is necessary in any sociology class and that students should be introduced to the ways that politics and the institutions of sociology are implicated in the production of the content on the syllabus. Right now, I can’t think of a better case with which to do these things.

This is still incomplete. What else might be useful? How would you fit it into other courses? How will you teach it?



12/13/12 edits add some links, a thought on teaching this in social theory courses, and some thoughts on graduate versus undergraduate approaches.

4/1/13 edits added a few links

5/30/13 edits added Sherkat SPLC interview

9/17/13 edits added link to ASA session video, Social (In)Queery



  1. From what I understand as an interested, but not fully informed, observer of this controversy, aspects of Regnerus’ methods warrant criticism. And meaningful corrections or re-definitions could mean that his most controversial findings would no longer be supported. (Forgive me if I have this wrong as it has been several months.) But I am chastened by Chris Smith’s Chronicle piece. I sadly agree that, if Regnerus had not violated sociology’s orthodoxies, the article would have met the fate of most sociology articles: it would have been ignored. If not ignored, it would have gradually evolved as additional research built on and refined, perhaps even reversed, the findings.

    For numerous reasons, I have no sympathy for Regnerus. Among them, I think that the investigations of and responses to the article I have read are appropriate. (Bearing in mind I am not an expert on this controversy.) And you have to be open to this type of investigation when you put research “out there”.

    What I lack in sympathy I make up for in a creeping sense of shame about the discipline and our willingness as sociologists to accept shit research while claiming the scientific high ground, as long as that research supports our preconceived notions or agenda. (Insert innumerable caveats here.) This sentiment obviously needs further development and I will continue to refine it–hopefully with the help of others. What I know now is that it seems to have originated from my ongoing interactions with actual people who are actually working and engaging in the hard work that we study. Ah. Is this starting to feel like a well-worn story? It is. But we each come to it in our own time.

    Back to Regnerus. When reading articles about the controversy, I couldn’t help thinking that those involved had lost any connection between his findings and the actual families living their actual lives that stand to be impacted by it. (Yes, even the activists, who often seem more immediately interested in individual vindication than in group progress.) Which reinforced a sentiment I have been mulling lately: “How dare we?” And I mean that in all sincerity. Really. I don’t feel up to the task of making these social pronouncements. How does everyone else? Am I lacking a basic form of self-confidence? Am I under-trained? Under-smart? Over-thinking? As much as we joke about sociological research never being applied, that is not the case and it can sneak into policy or the public subconscious at unexpected moments. It is, therefore, an awesome responsibility. How do we dare to take it on?

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