Methodological Trees and Forests

December 12, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

The units of analysis that researchers choose usually constrain the explanations they come up with. Measuring variables on individuals makes it harder to see the effects of larger units like neighborhoods.

For example, much research has found a correlation between female-headed households and crime. Most explanations for this correlation focus on the households, with much talk about the lack of role models or the quality of parent-child interaction. But these explanations are looking at individual trees and ignoring the forest. The better question is not “What are the effects of growing up in a single-parent home?” It’s “What are the effects of growing up in a neighborhood where half the households are headed by single mothers?”

In the early 1990s, I wrote a criminology textbook, and one of the things that differentiated it from others was that it took seriously the idea of neighborhoods and neighborhood-level variables.

That was then. But now, Christina Cross in a recent Times op-ed makes a similar argument. Research generally shows that it’s better for kids to grow up with two parents rather than one. That fits with our assumptions about “broken homes” even if we now call them “single-parent households.” But Cross’s research finds a crucial Black-White difference in the importance of this one dimension of family structure.

Looking at educational outcomes, she finds that White kids from two-parent families do much better than their single-parent counterparts. But for Black kids, the advantage of a two-parent home is not so great.
living in a single-mother family does not decrease the chances of on-time high school completion as significantly for black youths as for white youths. Conversely, living in a two-parent family does not increase the chances of finishing high school as much for black students as for their white peers.

 Why does a two-parent family have less impact among Blacks? Cross looks at two explanations. The first is that the effect of a very low-income neighborhood (“socioeconomically stressful environments”) is so great that it washes out most of the effect of the number of parents inside the home. For a kid growing up in an area with a high concentration of poverty, having a father at home might make a difference, but that difference will be relatively small, especially if the father is unemployed or working for poverty-level wages.

The other explanation is that having other relatives close by mitigates the impact of having only one parent in the home. Cross says that her data supports this idea, but the extend-family network explanation is not nearly as powerful as the neighborhood-poverty explanation.

For policy-makers, what all this means is that the traditional conservative, individual-based solutions miss the point. Exhorting people to stay married (and providing costly government programs along the same lines) aren’t going to have much impact as long as we still have racially segregated neighborhoods with high levels of unemployment and poverty.

The message for researchers is similar: if you confine your thinking or your variables to individuals, you risk ignoring more important variables.

Whatever Happened to “Broken Homes”?

December 11, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Just think about the last time you heard someone use the term “broken home” or “single-parent household” to explain the misbehavior or misfortune of a person in your social circle.” That’s from an Times op-ed (here) by Christina Cross, a sociology post-doc at Harvard.

I think the last time I heard “broken homes” was before Ms. Cross was born. It’s so 1950s, with its judgmental pronouncement on families that didn’t look like “Ozzie and Harriet” or “Father Knows Best.” In the 70s, as more middle-class people were getting divorced, we needed a less value-laden term. Enter “single parent.”

(Google nGrams shows the frequency of words in books, so the change in the use of these terms in the media and everyday talk probably happens a year or two earlier.)


“Single-parent” is not as blatantly stigmatizing as “broken homes,” but when we hear it, we still think that something is wrong. The more important point the Ms.  Cross makes is that broken homes — the harmful outcomes they bring — may be much more consequential for Whites than for Blacks. I hope to get to that in a later post. But for now, I'll just point out that the sharp decline in mentions of “single-parent” starting in the early 90s tracks with the decline of teen crime and teen pregnancy in the same period.

Alumn. . .us / a / i / ae / x?

December 9, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Welsey Yang, a writer by trade, must have been browsing messages from his alma mater, Rutgers, when this caught his attention. He posted it to Twitter.

(Click on an image for a larger view. I have added the blue oval for emphasis.)

English has a problem with words that are imported from Latin and Romance languages. What do we do about the gender and number that require Latin to have four different forms of the word? Alumnus, alumna, alumni, alumnae. It’s just too many to keep track of, especially since the plurals, masculine and feminine, sound alike.

The simple solution is to use a single form of the word to cover everyone, and that’s what many people have done. For that single form, there are two choices. One is alum, plural alums, which conveniently gets rid of those gendered endings in the Latin versions.

The other is the all-purpose alumni, which many Engish speakers now use indiscriminately for either gender and for singular or plural. It must drive Latin scholars up the ivy-covered wall. Both of these have been getting more popular lately. I searched for them on Nexis-Uni’s database of news sources.


(Some of the increase in these numbers may be attributable to the increased size of the Nexis database. But I doubt that it has grown by the multiple of 20-30 since the 1990s that we see for an alum and an alumni.)

A Google search for “she is an alumni of” gets 177,000 results, slightly less than the 191,000 for “she is an alumna of.” For men, “an alumnus” still outscores “an alumi” by a factor of 10, but that includes a lot of old sources. I would be that the ratio decreases with time.

Personally, I would avoid the problem completely and go with graduates or, in less formal settings, grads.

The Rutgers Linguistic department has a different solution to the problem of gender: the very recent coinage alumnx, the word that inspired Yang to tweet. It’s a different sort of solution. The ungendered alum and the all-purpose alumni seem to have cropped up unplanned and without any ax to grind. But alumnx is a deliberate effort to change the language. What’s interesting here, as one of the Yang’s commenters points out, is that as linguists the department members are descriptivists, more interested in describing how people actually use language than in telling people which words to use. But here they prescribing alumnx as the correct way avoid the less woke Latin forms.

My guess is that these x-words will have a short life. Most people don’t care much about the politics of speech and have little interest in changing. Remember “Freedom Fries”? Worse, alumnx and Latinx don’t resemble real words in English or in any other language.* It’s one thing to replace the “man” in policeman or fireman. “Police officer” and “fire fighter” were already part of the language well before the feminists of the 1960s called our attention to the sexism of the more frequently used terms.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe these x-words will become as much a part of the language as Ms. In any case, I expect that the members of the department will, as descriptivist language researchers, monitor how well they are doing as prescriptivist language changers. (Or is it changerx?)

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* Latinx has similar problems. It’s not very popular among the people it is meant to designate, probably because neither English nor Spanish has words in this form. Terry Blas suggests (here) that a better gender-neutral solution would be an “e” rather than an “x” — Latine and Latines.

My So-Called War Crimes

December 3, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

When I first saw this item in my Google News feed, I thought it must be from The Onion or Andy Borowitz.

 But no, it was real, from the Daily Beast not a parody site. “If Donald Trump gets his wish, he’ll soon take the three convicted or accused war criminals he spared from consequence on the road as special guests in his re-election campaign.”

Why would war criminals be an asset for Trump? Trump’s base. of course, will not abandon him no matter what he does. But what is the gain? What virtues do these men embody that will pump up the enthusiasm and perhaps attract others.

First, let’s meet the war criminal who Trump has supported most strongly.

Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher and other Navy SEALs gave the young captive medical aid that day in Iraq in 2017, sedating him and cutting an airway in his throat to help him breathe. Then, without warning, according to colleagues, Chief Gallagher pulled a small hunting knife from a sheath and stabbed the sedated captive in the neck. A week later, Chief Gallagher sent a friend in California a text with a photo of himself with a knife in one hand, holding the captive up by the hair with the other. “Good story behind this, got him with my hunting knife,” he wrote. [NYT ]

Gallagher was acquitted of murder when another SEAL claimed to have killed the victim first, cutting off his breathing tube as an act of mercy. But apparently Trump and those who share his views think there’s something noble about knifing a dead man in the neck. Certainly Chief Gallagher thinks it’s something to brag about.

One SEAL sniper told investigators he heard a shot from Chief Gallagher’s position, then saw a schoolgirl in a flower-print hijab crumple to the ground. Another sniper reported hearing a shot from Chief Gallagher’s position, then seeing a man carrying a water jug fall, a red blotch spreading on his back. Neither episode was investigated and the fate of the civilians remains unknown.

The Times is being extremely careful here, saying that the fate of the civilians Gallagher shot “remains unknown.” But take a wild guess.

At trial, the SEALs were found not guilty.* But while the evidence may not have been sufficient for the military jury to convict the men, it was enough for the Navy to seek their removal from the SEALs. Trump intervened and forced the Secretary of the Navy to resign, effectively allowing Gallagher and the others to remain as SEALs.

What makes Gallagher so appealing to Trump, his followers, and Fox News? They deny the accusations, of course, but even if the men had been convicted, the case elicits ideas and emotions that are essential elements of much conservative world view in the US these days.

To begin with, supporting the SEALs requires a strong sense of tribalism. This tribalism goes far beyond the “loyalty” Jonathan Haidt sees as a “moral foundation” of conservative thinking. Tribalism sees the world as Them against Us. We are under constant threat from Them. This view obviously pervades domestic politics, where Trump’s go-to strategy has been to claim that Democrats are out to get him.** In foreign policy, it means that anything We do to Them is justified. Anything. Trump has voiced his preferences for torture, putting children in cages, alligator-filled moats, and nuclear bombs, all on the grounds that these protect America from its various enemies. The willful killing of civilians easily fits into the list.

Therefore, We must defend the actual people who carry out these actions — the protectors of the country (the military, border guards, ICE) and of the social order (police). In practice, this means that there are no restraints on what they can do to people who are not Us or to people who dissent from or threaten the social order. So long as soldiers and cops are ostensibly doing their job, anything goes.

This defense of those who protect our tribe has an obvious corollary:  American autonomy, an innocuous term for the idea that we should not be involved in any relationship of mutual regulation or obligation with other countries. “World government” has long been a trigger for the right, and they remain suspicious of the UN and other international pacts.  What are “war crimes” after all except the product of international law, a concept which to US conservatives is illegitimate. So on Fox News, the shooting of a little girl or the knifing a wounded prisoner in the neck are “so-called war crimes.” The law that criminalizes these actions, in the America-first view, is not legitimate and is therefore null and void. No law, no crime.

Finally, the Trumpists see Gallagher as an example of the conservative ideal of masculinity. I have gone on too long already, and this really needs no further explanation. It’s enough to note that Trump refers to him admiringly as a “warrior.”
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*For most of the charges, the prosecution had no hard evidence, only the testimony of other SEALs.  The court convicted Gallagher on one count — the taking of a picture of the dead ISIS fighter. Kind of hard to ignore that photo he sent around. As for sniping at civilians, when Gallagher was shooting at the young girl, he didn’t take any selfies.

** This “out to get us” strategy was also part of Gallagher’s defense. His lawyers argued that the men who testified against him were motivated by a desire to get rid of him.