Bad, politically motivated sociology is being used for bad political purposes? Regnerus is appalled!

The Regnerus Affair will not go away. At least not until the piece of bad sociology that started it is retracted. It certainly appears that the odds of retraction are slim because there are powerful sociologists defending our institutions and practices in the abstract. This is so even when it looks clear that this is more than bad sociology, but in fact a result of a certainly failed, and arguably corrupt research and peer review process. This is particularly shameful because the research is regularly being used by those who wish to deny equal rights to gays and lesbians across the globe.

Regnerus keeps talking about it too, which looks to be good for his career. His latest comment on the affair showed up here on the Atlantic Wire. Regnerus is apparently upset that his piece of bad sociology, which sloppily contends that children of same sex parents face negative outcomes, is being used by Russian politicians to argue that ‘science shows negative outcomes for children raised by same sex parents.’ It’s shocking, isn’t it? Who would have thought politically charged research could affect politics? Why bother to do that sociology well, or put it through the same rigorous peer review process as the reams of politically inconsequential sociology that is rejected every day? No reason according to SSR, I guess. Using my sociological imagination, it occurs to me that maybe Regnerus’ (bad) paper is actually the cause of more instability for same-sex headed families, and therefore harmful the parents and children in those families? Dr. Tey Meadow said this better than I ever will, right here.

Like other examples of Regnerus’ writing that I’ve responded to here at the Morass, there are a few sentences that jump off the page. I’ll quote them:

This may come as a surprise to those who have spent the past 15 months tagging my study as discredited or “debunked,” a silly and simplistic moniker given that the data is public and the analyses in the article are rather straightforward.

Regnerus is right that a lot of sociologists and activists have spent a fair amount of time critiquing his methods, his findings, and the peer review process for his original paper. He’s smugly wrong to call that ‘moniker’ silly or simplistic. There are good reasons for scientists and activists to discredit the research.

That’s bad, but, here’s what really got me. When he defends the legitimacy of his study by saying the data are public and his analysis is straightforward. I don’t recall the public availability of the data ever being central to any criticism of the study, and his measurement of same-sex parents was anything but straightforward. His measure wouldn’t pass the ‘face validity’ test I just taught in my undergrad methods course last week. That his paper sailed through peer review at what I would have considered a respectable journal makes this marginal sociologist want to shut down Stata and call it a career.

Regnerus’ ability to flatly ignore the very sound criticism of his study, and the process that gave it to Russian politicians and the U.S. Supreme court on a silver platter, is either the blindness of privilege, or simple disregard for those who dare question his work and position. It’s hard for me to see it any other way.

And then that paragraph got more maddening:

Isn’t it hypocritical to blow the whistle on this use of the data while supporting other such uses, such as my own participation on an amici brief to the U.S. Supreme Court? No, it is not, because I oppose same-sex marriage and lawmaker Andrei Zhuravlyov’s draconian legislation for the same reason: every child has a mother and a father, and such kinship matters for kids. To be stably rooted in your married mother and father’s household is to foster the greatest chance at lifelong flourishing. It’s not necessary, of course. It just has the best odds.

Here, in passing, he blithely presents one of the least sophisticated arguments against same-sex marriage there is. He writes “I oppose same-sex marriage and lawmaker Andrei Zhuravlyov’s draconian legislation for the same reason: every child has a mother and a father, and such kinship matters for kids.”

Marriage is not about kids. Marriage is about adults who want to marry one another. Marriage is about mutual care and enjoying each other’s company. Marriage is about federal rights. Yes, I do take this personally. I’m married, without kids. We’re not going to have kids. My marriage is not suffering for it. No one else’s marriages or kids are suffering for it, either. I’m not making my community less stable. And, most important, I’m not doing lousy research to protect my privileges or to promote my moral preferences as science.

I guess I’ll end with a poorly stated hypothesis: A society with equal marriage for all will be more stable, and good for kids. I think that’s true and will make for a good society. And I don’t even like kids.


Wrestling with C. Wright Mills

I am by no means an expert on C. Wright Mills. I’ve read a couple of the excellent biographies and treatises on his work. Like many sociologists I do find him inspirational, and I’d love if my writing had the same eloquent urgency as his best does. Still, it’s hard to read his work today and not see holes. There is little to nothing about race or gender in any of his writing. It’s so absent, it’s stunning. How could a self fashioned radical, so concerned with human freedom, have been so silent about people who were so oppressed and who’s movements were beginning to take shape even as he wrote. It’s glaring, and I struggle with it when I take him as a model.

Nonetheless, what I find in his work is a thoroughgoing call to take the perspective of the radical if you are to produce sociological understanding. You must be radical, he seems to say, even as you look at those things that you cherish. Also, his work is humane in a way that so many other sociologists’ work, then and now, simply isn’t. You can read a lot of sociology and reach the end wondering if the author ever wondered at all about the experience of being human. You must be humane, he seems to say, if your work is to be the least bit relevant.

You must be radical. You must be humane. It’s stunning how often those two things are one and the same.

Working on a Holiday: Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream?

Holidays might be used as an indicator of those ideals a country values above all others. For example, in the U.S. we have 10 federal holidays, including Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day. Those holidays, as I understand them, are set apart from typical days to honor the foundational American value of freedom, and those who established and defend that freedom. Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday, as well as Inauguration Day. Martin Luther King Jr. certainly fought for freedom, and not just for African Americans, but for all Americans whose lives were burdened not only by racism, but also by poverty and voicelessness. MLK’s vision of America requires not only racial equality, but also economic fairness. Inauguration Day is a day we celebrate the functioning of our political system. It’s a day that we observe a peaceful transition of power, the voice of the voters, and perhaps think about unity with those whom we disagree with politically. It makes good sense to me that these should be federal holidays. We should set this day aside and honor these values. It’s not an ordinary day.

Regardless, many people I know are at work. In fact, when I look at that list of federal holidays, I can’t help but notice that a lot of people have to work many or most of those days. But, it’s not all of us who have to work most of those days. In fact, it’s the working poor who have to work most, really all, of those days. The waitresses serving breakfast to the hung-over on New Year’s Day, those working the Memorial Day sales at the mall (all those days have sales by now, right?), or the hotel staff cleaning your sheets and towels when you’re off to visit family on Thanksgiving. As I write this on MLK Day, neighbors on my block are rushing to get their trash to the curb for pick-up I’m sure they expected would be delayed, but isn’t. Some won’t get the trash out because they are at work. In fact, many people who are solidly in the middle class work many of those days, and certainly on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Teachers are teaching, lawyers are lawyering, and the pharmacist was there to fill my prescription this morning. It’s a holiday, we all know it, but almost everybody is working. You can’t help but wonder what values our actions represent.

When MLK Day was proposed as a federal holiday, shortly after his assassination, it was not widely supported. Senator Jesse Helms famously argued that he wasn’t worthy of such an honor, and was in fact a dangerous, communist radical. It took until 1983, 15 years after his death, for the day to become a national holiday. It wasn’t until 1986 that the holiday was first observed, and not until 2000 that it was officially observed in all 50 states. When President Reagan reluctantly signed the bill in 1983, he did so despite his own concerns about what it would cost in economic productivity (I take him at his word). But, like so many of the holidays, almost everybody is working today. So, maybe it’s not costing that much? If one celebrates Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of American society free of racism and poverty, and guided by a sense of economic justice, then one must do so with a keen awareness that there is much work to be done. The poor celebrate the day at their less-than living-wage jobs, and most of the middle class is at work producing for the corporate powers that be. For many, it’s only a day off of work if they spend one of their limited personal or vacation days. Our calandars and speeches give honor to the dreams of MLK, but our actions seem to speak to a different set of economic values.


Yes, I’ve got the day off. Le Moyne’s spring semester starts tomorrow. A few years ago I taught on Veterans Day, November 11th. The class before, a student and veteran of the war in Iraq approached me in shock that classes would be held on Veteran’s Day. I told him he was welcome to honor the day and miss lecture, but that we would be in class according to college policy.

Starting from here

A number of scholars influence my approach to thinking about rituals of community and exclusion, domination and liberation, of power generally.  That sentence certainly gives clues to those who’ve done some reading about these issues.  For a few reasons, it’s worth my time to write briefly about the writers who have influenced my thinking thus far, and what I take away from their social commentaries.  First, I hope that it helps me identify useful ways to synthesize these ideas and to note informative points of contention.  Second, I hope it helps me see holes in my approach to this work I’m doing.  For example, the voices I comment on below are clearly gendered, raced, and otherwise privileged.  To ignore that as I start to think about rituals of power would be irresponsible.  I must also be sure to actually do something about it.  I also note that I regularly wonder how much of my inspiration is a result of misunderstanding.

First, I’m reading a lot of C. Wright Mills (or maybe I’m reading certain selections, a lot).  This is probably no surprise as Mills has made some of the most well known statements, within sociology, about power and individual freedom.  Mills forces me to think about what it means to be free given the intersection of biography with history and fate.  More specifically, we live and act within the rules of institutions that we defend intentionally or implicitly.  It seems clear to me that we frequently are blind to the inhumanity of our actions because we default, as part of the drift, to bureaucratic rationality.  So often one’s defense of an institution takes the form of legitimacy claims that seem meant to malign (imagined) radicals, but also silence those who might otherwise simply wish to engage in constructive conversation with no intention to dismantle said institution. (more…)