The Wheatley Institution

The Family Structures Study & The Challenges Of Social Science

Mark Regnerus
October 20, 2014

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Thank you Richard. It's good to be with you today. It should be obvious to us that the family—and marriage in particular—is under a great deal of popular and political scrutiny of late, more than we might have imagined as recently as ten or fifteen years ago. And there's a tug of war in the social sciences, too, over what we know with confidence about the contemporary family, which has not changed a great deal over time, and what can be said about it and who can say it. But while scholarly norms, language, and state and federal family law can shift with remarkable speed as they have in the West over a short few decades, the data collected from thousands of regular people who are living or have lived in all manner of household structures and family experiences has not changed nearly as fast as the law. The empirical evidence still documents the pivotal importance of family stability and well-being in social life.

Where you see children and young adults flourishing best, you are apt to see stable families as well. Family remains the first building block—necessary but not sufficient—in any large, decent, dynamic, and sustainable social order. Not everybody has to be in a stable family for that to be accomplished, but there has to be that stable family in the culture. But some people want to say, "Well isn't the family just a social construction? Why can't it be what we wish it to be?" Much is made of the socially constructed nature of the family; in fact calling something socially constructed is a popular theme in sociology and it has some merit. Most aspects of social life and the institutions within or under which we live are social constructions. By which we mean that people made them, and for them to continue we have to re-make them and reinforce them regularly. But calling the family simply a social construction is an effort to undermine the reality of it. This also suggests that its structure and functions of the family could be radically different, or not exist at all, and we would be okay.

But there are some common and permanent characteristics of the family. There's a structure that is historically reliable, and that when it functions confidently, it can't be topped in its accomplishment of six key tasks.  Families make things. They make money, they make products, etcetera. They reproduce themselves. They socialize their children. They do things together, recreation. They guard sexual access to family members, sometimes very tightly, in other settings rather negligently. And they take care of ill and aging family members. Historically, these six functions varied little, even as we recall or witness examples of individuals and even whole communities that seemed more or less good at some aspects of these functions. For example, contemporary Americans often outsource the care of elderly family members due to the necessity, such as employment obligations, or excessive expense. On the way down here this morning I visited my mother-in-law in a nursing home. We've outsourced that, but not without some degree of guilt and concern. While plenty of families prioritize shared evening meals, other families don't. Some parents oversee the dating activities of their adolescent children carefully, or they curb them altogether, while other parents seem to show very little interest in discerning their youth's romantic and sexual activities. Some outsourcing, like sending children to day care, can and may be uneventful in its immediate consequences. Other outsourcing, like reproduction or sexual control, is considered to be far more risky and problematic. Other hallmarks of the family are increasingly in question, including marriage itself.

Much of the damage to marriage, I'd say, is self-inflicted. Marriage rates continue to drop precipitously among young adults ages 25–34, the sweet spot for marriage. In 12 short years, that rate of 25–34 year olds who are married has declined 13 percentage points. It used to be 55% in the year 2000; by 2012 it was down to 42%.  At the same time, the percentage that had never been married rose from 34 to 49%. It's an X; they've crossed each other in twelve years. And they're not bending yet. They're still heading well away from each other. It's a rather remarkably short period of time, rather stunning. Alongside this flight from marriage is the legal and political debate about the structure of the marital union itself. Is marriage socially constructed to such an extent that its basic structure is malleable, subject to collective will? Can a marriage be composed of two men or two women? Few believed so prior to 30 years ago. Now, majority opinion has shifted in the West. Americans are still divided on the matter, including youth. Nobody believes me on that. In a report due out in a few weeks from nationally represented data, 26% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24—a quarter of 18–24 year olds—when asked whether same-sex marriage should be legal said, "I neither agree with that statement nor disagree with that statement." They're neutral. Neutral people tend to lean towards the positive, but we often think that youth have already made up their mind about the subject. I'm not sure it's true. The legal system, on the other side, seems rather sure of itself. It's very keen on affirming the new malleability in the structure of marriage.

But the roots of where we're at today really lie in the development of reproductive technology more than anything else, certainly more than the emergence of new rights. I'm a big believer in the idea that technology drives structural change, which then echoes in culture. Culture basically is the last to know or to feel social change. British social theorist Anthony Giddens said in his landmark 1992 book, The Transformation of Intimacy that the sexual revolution began with effective contraception. In his words, he said, "it meant more than an increased capability of limiting pregnancy." It meant more than that. In combination with other influences affecting family size, it signaled a deep transition in personal life. For women, and in a partly different sense for men (this is Giddens talking), "Sexuality became malleable, open to being shaped in diverse ways. Something one could cultivate and a potential property of the individual. Now that conception can be artificially produced, rather than just artificially inhibited, Giddens says, "Sexuality is at last fully autonomous. Fully autonomous. Meaning, separated from embeddedness in strong relationships, eparated from embededness in romantic relationships. Giddens then says you should expect more change. He said once there is a new terminology for understanding sexuality, then the ideas, concepts, and theories couched in these terms start to seep into social life and help reorganize and reorder it. And we're in the middle of that reorganizing and reordering right now. Giddens goes on: "the sexual revolution of the past 30 or 40 years is not primarily a gender-neutral advance in sexual permissiveness." He said it involves two basic elements, one of which he argued is the flourishing of homosexuality, male and female. So Giddens takes an arrow and he draws it from contraception to malleability to homosexuality. I didn't say it, but it makes sense. If I said it, I'd get in trouble for it. A secular British social theorist says it, and he's a genius

What westerners have witnessed over the past several decades, then, is not so much the social construction of marriage and family toward different plausible ends, as a product of political and legal will. What we've seen is the reality of technology-driven social change. Which brings new social structures that then act back upon the phenomena that gave rise to them. What has emerged in the domain of sex and relationships is not simply different norms or values, but restructured realities around the intimate life. We now value what Giddens called "the pure relationship." He's not talking about purity in some sort or religious sense; he's talking about a pure relationship, where a social relation is entered into for its own sake, not instrumentally, not with regard to consequences. It's entered into for its own sake, for what can be derived by each person from a sustained association with that other person. And it's continued only insofar as is thought by both parties to deliver enough satisfactions for each individual to stay within it. It's the pure relationship.

What Giddens said back in 1992 is that time where childbearing can be avoided  amidst a rich and varied sexual life, what would likely result is in fact what has resulted 25 years later. We have strong norms about emotional and physical satisfaction in relationships, great expectations about things. Expectations of paired sexual activity emerge quickly in budding relationships. We see a bimodal, a two point frequency of when the sex first began in a relationship. Before it, or when you got married. Isn't that weird? That's the modal where Americans report sex being introduced into their relationship. Sexual exclusivity is no longer assumed. You have to talk about it. You have to negotiate it. Shorter term relationships are the norm, together with this perception that people are commitment-phobic. I actually don't think that's true. Plastic sexuality: sexual interests and directions are explored, shaped, remodeled. And an obsession with romance, yet stability seems increasingly elusive.  To younger Americans, not so much on this campus but on many other campuses, I would say these things and they would be like, "that's new?" That's the reality they know. Giddens cautions, though, saying that "it would not be right to suppose that childhood has remained unaffected by these new realities in parental, romantic relationships." That's an understatement. Listen to that again: "It would certainly not be right to suppose that childhood has remained unaffected." That's a very passive sentence. A loaded sentence. "Wouldn't be right to suppose that childhood has remained unaffected." So how can we know?

Prior to 2010, four short years ago, very little population-based data analyses of same-sex households with children were even available. Several studies, however, have emerged since then. Data collection in this realm has expanded notably which is a very good thing. But what do these data say about same-sex households with children, and how exactly such data ought to be analyzed has been the subject of significant emotional and political contest. The publication of my 2012 journal article on the comparative outcomes of adult children who report having had a parent who had a same-sex relationship stirred a hornet's nest, to put it mildly. I used data from nearly 3,000 people, 248 of whom reported their parent having had a same-sex relationship sometime during their growing up years. I documented that those for whom that was the case were more likely to have endured a more difficult childhood, and a more difficult adulthood than kids who grew up with a stable, married mother and father. My purpose in doing that study was to evaluate the basic scholarly claim that there are "no differences" in outcomes between kids who grew up in same-sex household and kids who grew up with a married mother and father. Now, not everything is different between those who grow up in a stable and intact household and those who don't; that's to be expected. Across different types of measures, however, the benefits of having grown up with a married biological mother and father who are still together, or they were until one of them passed away, were obvious.

Vengeance was swift. It was a near-instant demand for the scholarly journal to retract the publication, which has not occurred because results are neither erroneous nor fabricated. I had over two hundred scholars against me within two days of its publication. The APA figured they should denounce me on day two. Hostile blogs updated daily for weeks and months. Fifteen freedom of information act requests for my correspondence related to the project. Hostile people emailing all my colleagues, my dean, denouncing the University of Texas for employing me, etcetera. The journal editor himself was virtually assaulted online, and his university was sued.

I learned that stating apparent but unpopular things on sensitive subjects can be rather expensive. On the bright side, it turned scholars' attention—maybe for the first time, maybe not for long—to the limitations of social science in this area. My study of course had limitations; everyone's does. I wasn't able to track the lives of very many children who grew up in long-term same-sex households, because stability was uncommon. Some suggested it was unfair of me to compare stability with what amounted in reality in instability. But what if instability was a common experience for children in such households? It reminds me of a story told to me by a friend of mine at the University of Colorado. He lives next door to a woman, a mother who's been through three same-sex romantic relationships in the past few years that they've been neighbors. The professor told me that he'd be out in the backyard with his kids, playing, only to notice the neighbor's son peering over the fence, watching what was going on. The boy's mother was aware of this, and said to the neighbor, the friend of mine, "I'm doing the best I can." Some suggest that this mother's situation will invariably improve with greater social acceptance and legal rights. It's hard to say. Hers, however, is not the popular face of the movement. Instead we see a well-adjusted child of a thirty-something upper-middle-class white mother and her partner, a child born by assistive reproductive technology [(ART)]. That is what scholars, judges, and the media have demanded as a comparison category. It's as if they watched too much television and insisted the world look like their ideal. I admit, I didn't have the numbers of stably coupled female households to assess them in a very large, nationally representative study. It raises the question, though, whether the average experience within such households is something quite different from the ideal experience.

Meanwhile, I've seen no documentable change in how same-sex couples come to have children. And the population most apt to use artificial means (white women) are the population statistically least interested in having children, according to data from the National Study of Family Growth. And ART is expensive. It's not that common. It's out of reach of most. So the ideal image is a very elitist one.

Even this, the matter of what counts as a same-sex household, especially one with children is far from settled science. Should we only compare those households that have two parents? How long should the parents have been together? Must the children know about their parents' sexuality? And what should scientists do about the household instability that has been and may still be quite commonly associated with same-sex households. Do we ignore it? Do you denounce any suggestions that it's relevant? Or perhaps even common? Or, as has typically been the case, do  you control for it in regression models, relying on the assumption that instability is "randomly distributed" when it may not be. I hold—and I continue to do so in spite of opposition—that the answers to these questions are not simple. I've been repeatedly told that my study "violated protocols" in the study of same-sex household outcomes. There is no obvious protocol. In reality, I suspect every scholar who works with population-based data about same-sex couples, persons, parents, and households knows that the underlying story varies little between nationally represented data sets. What varies widely is the manner in which different scholars, myself included, have chosen to analyze and interpret that data.

Despite competent analyses and plausible interpretations of the population-based data available, economists Doug Allen, Joe Price at BYU, and myself, were said to have been representing a "fringe viewpoint" and hence largely unbelievable by a Michigan federal court judge back in the spring. But are the arguments that we raised there in Michigan, and which you've heard here today, really so odd or unseemly? I frankly don't see it. They are legitimate questions. But we're being criticized for not doing the "decent" thing and keeping quiet. The NFSS, this data, however, is hardly the only data source that suggests that there could be problems. There are new analyses of the mini waves of the National Health Information Survey. They note it, especially regarding emotional well-being measures. But expect social scientists to do their best, however, to paper it over, or explain it away by adding more and more control variables until it goes away. And if they don't succeed, there's always a blistering blogosphere happy to remind people of the costs of disobedience and disloyalty to the cause. How do you do sociology in such an environment? It's not easy. Sociology assumes a particular good that formally goes unspoken. It has its shared compass. The wider movement around this subject has been a very popular one among social scientists. Few social scientists have or express any concerns about making civil marriage available to same-sex couples who wish to access it.

Likewise, few express concerns about possible ramifications of esteeming, not just tolerating like we do with single parents, the notion of motherless or fatherless children in same-sex couple households. Just this morning, the New York Times features a one-sided debate (how common is that) about whether it should be okay to change your sex on your birth certificate. And why do we collect data about individuals' sex anyway? Let's just drop the male-female question. It should be irrelevant.

Many sociologists may roll their eyes at such a question, but few are going to wade in to contest such silliness. They have their professional credibility to worry about. I've learned some things, though. First, you can survive. You can even thrive amid hostility. I've learned that there is still such a thing as academic freedom. And when you realize that your professional status within sociology has likely peaked, it's quite freeing. I really don't care what my peers think about an article I write or if I write in the Amicus Brief. Will it affect my next faculty evaluation? Maybe.  I no longer care. It's actually what academic freedom and tenure were for. I think we forget about that. Too many of us consider tenure basic job security that is afforded to nobody else in the whole world except us because somehow we deserve it. It has a purpose. It was created to sustain the pursuit of the truth wherever it would lead you.

We sociologists operate under the false assumption that a sociological perspective on human social behavior will invariably lead us to commend greater freedom, rights, and equalities, regardless of the domain in question. Instead, that's the arc of a western sociology devoid of a compelling anthropology of human personhood and community. "What are people?" is a question we ought to ask. The dominant answer to that unasked question is "whatever they wish to be." What ought people to do is answered with, "whatever they wish to do, so long as no immediate or significant harm is done to themselves or those around them." These are all answers that don't bode well for the long-term, sustainable reproduction of flourishing human societies. So as a result, tradition is under suspicion, which is really ironic given the long-standing interest within sociology of the study of ethnic culture and codes. The ways of the Irish Catholic or the black Chicagoan used to be fodder for some of the most famous and fascinating sociological study. By and large that's starting to recede. But what would replace tradition? collective culture and code after we deem them burdensome and conformist. Well, all we've got left is the imperative of creating and expressing a personal culture. The solidarity that the Irish or African-Americans or women or Catholics once felt toward each other is dissolving. We're on our own now, it would seem, since we can no longer count on the kinship, neighborhood, faith and common culture that are openly being undermined. You invent yourself; pick your sex, your gender expression, your faith, you name it. It's actually a very remarkable, destructive burden to persons, and it results in an explosion of fragile associations requiring our management rather than our reliance. No wonder we fear giving offense. What we've constructed in place of tradition is so unbelievably fragile that it requires new norms, new rules, and even new laws to prop it up. And thus we spend far more time reinventing ourselves, seeking some sort of promised freedom that does not materialize because it cannot materialize. Instead of resting uncomfortably on social structures not of our own making, we can't rest at all. For the self, the primal unit of post-modern society requires renewal and remaking and the pursuit of acceptance and love. Amid all this new dynamism, social theorist Margaret Archer remarks that there's no growth in real, personal differentiation, and thus in the heterogeneity of the population. It's true. We're not really creating genuinely interesting diversity—only rumors of it, facades of it. It's largely a masquerade. In reality it is about fashioning sameness, the Mcdonaldization of human culture.

So there seem to be two key hopes among those who welcome same-sex marriage, and they're pretty distinctive kinds of hopes. The first is that the legalization of same-sex marriage would stabilize the relationships and perhaps the families of those same-sex couples that get married. Another quite different hope is that it makes marriage less necessary in general. This is a signal that we no longer need a marrying culture. They're two quite different hopes, and we will see how each hope fares because the reality is nearing. No one disputes that same-sex households have historically displayed greater breakup rates compared to opposite sex, especially in married households. Why this is the case is not often discussed, apart from the assumption that legal same-sex marriage is going to cure that. Any claims about the likely persistence of this empirical phenomenon are dismissed as either irrelevant or mean-spirited.

But I've weighed in with an argument that suggests we shouldn't presume gay marriages will fare just like opposite-sex marriages. Some will, plenty won't. Why not? Two reasons, two very basic reasons: men are men and women are women. And I'm not convinced that the experience of homosexuality really alters gender at a primal level. Two sociologists who examined the same-sex parenting literature back in the year 2000noted statistically higher breakup rates among lesbian couples—even in nonprobability samples where you can almost pick your own sample. They reasoned that not only do same sex couples, in this case women,  lack the institutional pressures and support for commitment that marriage provides, but qualitative studies suggest that same-sex female couples tend to embrace comparatively high standards of emotional intimacy and satisfaction. Of course women do this. My wife does this. Her standards for emotional connection are higher than mine, absolutely. But the difference is, she's married to a man, a fact that forces her to navigate difference. She's married someone who does not exhibit comparable standards around emotion, who has to be coaxed and taught to value them and express them. And the reverse is true. I'm not married to a man, meaning that she will fail to value some of those things that I wish she would value more. (I'm not going to talk about what those are.) Hence, what you would expect from marriages between women is exactly what social scientists find: greater valuing of emotional intimacy, greater preference for egalitarianism in the relationship, a decline in sexual frequency over time, and higher breakup rates. And marriage between men, what do we find? less concern for egalitarianism, less concern for emotional intimacy, more frequent sexual behavior, and a lower bar to extramarital liaisons. Completely in step with what anyone should expect from men—not because they're gay, but because they're men. It reveals that marriage between man and woman for all its historical, cultural diversity, exhibits traits less apt to be consistently seen in same-sex relationships. That is navigating sexual difference: learning to love and to like someone quite different from you.

Long standing marriages, thirty, forty-plus years, especially those with children are less likely to model what Giddens predicted about the "pure relationship," in part because so many of those marriages remain complementary in their gender-role distinctions. And hence, more functional than symbolic. Sociologist Andrew Cherlin talked about this term, about the symbolic meaning of marriage, it's almost ubiquitous. It's in step with the "pure relationship" that Giddens talks about. But in long-standing marriages, you're going to find more function than symbol in their marital meaning. While certainly such marriages are becoming a minority, quickly, they will never become extinct. Social scientists should expect this "pure relationship" to characterize more same-sex than opposite sex unions in any era, and Giddens explicitly said that. He said they are the vanguards of the pure relationship model. So the first hope, that same-sex marriages will be more secure than cohabitation are likely to be realized, absolutely. It doesn' t mean that the second hope, this receding of a marriage culture will not also occur at the same time. We may not notice, however, because the receding of the marriage culture happens when there's a loss of shared assumptions about what marriage is and what it means. That, as Giddens warned us back in 1992, has been happening for decades. It raises questions about marriage itself. How central is sexual fidelity to the meaning of marriage? Can spouses cut deals with each other about sleeping with other people? Is that sill a marriage? How central are children to the meaning of marriage? How should you have them? Should you control all aspects of childbearing? Equality, is it sensible within the average marriage in the United States and the average marriage in the world? Does scorekeeping foster happiness in relationships?

In the end, nobody is trying to prevent adults who profess love for each other from being together. I wouldn't dream of contesting that. The question remains, what is marriage? And what ought communities to esteem and why? One of the reasons so many people have been unprepared to answer these kinds of questions is because there was never a need to do so for millennia. Forming a stable sexually complementary partnership was how people survived and how cultures continued. These are really quite new questions. Ones that only technological development of the last 50 years enabled. No pill, no in-vitro fertilization? I'm not up here talking to you. In the end, the cultural turn away from the biological family in the academy and in the legal community is really quite remarkable. Even while the evidence for its strengths is incontrovertible. And its costs are borne by communities that it's obvious is increasingly politically unpalatable to go to bat for the nuclear family while the pitched battle among new family forms and meanings rages on. So the legal squabble over some of these things may be drawing to a close soon. But I think the cultural contest may just be beginning. Thank you.

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