Operationalizing Investment

February 13, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

How do you turn a vague concept like “decline in the moral authority of the family” into a variable you can actually use in research? This week, I told my students that operationalizing concepts is the key to thinking like a sociologist. Of course, at the beginning of the semester when I introduced the idea of social facts, I told them that thinking in terms of social facts was the essence of thinking like a sociologist. (Moral authority happened to be the subject that came up; it's not the subject of this post.)

I also tell students that no matter how you operationalize it, someone is going to complain that you've left something out. And they're right. Most of these conversions from abstract to measurable are imperfect. But you go to research with the variables you have, not the variables somebody else would like you to have.

I've been thinking about this problem in connection with parental “investment” in children. Back in November, one of the candidates we interviewed for a position this year, Kristen Schultz Lee, taught a sample class based on her research, which was about “parental investment in children’s education” and whether it was greater for boys than girls. I thought that was an interesting idea. I don’t usually think of what my parents did for me as an “investment,” i.e., something with an eventual payoff for the investor.

Kristen operationalized “investment” (at least in her talk to my class) as merely how far the child went in school. It works, but I wondered if there might not be more to this idea of investment. After all, she did her interviewing in Japan, where, supposedly, the stereotype “kyoiku mama” (education mama) stays up late with her son, helping him with homework and going over drills in preparation for the all-important college entrance exams. (Click on that link and you’ll get several other negative female stereotypes in Japanese.)

Now an article in the latest issue of the American Sociological Review looks at something similar. It compares adoptive and biological parents’ investment in children’s education, but the researchers (Laura Hamilton, Simon Cheng, and Brian Powell) define investment more broadly: “the economic, cultural, social, and interactional resources that parents provide for their children.”
  • Economic: the things that money buys (books, computers, private school).
  • Cultural: not just music lessons, but even the time parents spend with kids, reading or just playing.
  • Interactional: what non-sociologists call “talking” with the child.
  • Social Capital: Talking with other school parents, going to PTA meetings, etc.
(I guess I’m not much of a sociologist after all. In all those hours I spent squeezing Play-doh with my kid, I never thought of it as providing him with Cultural Capital. And when I went out for coffee with other parents after drop-off, I thought I was just putting off going to work. Now I realize I was building up my kid’s Social Capital.)

The importance of this research lies in its implications for biology-based theories about human behavior. These theories, under names like “sociobiology” or “evolutionary psychology,” have become increasingly influential in social science. In this case, they would probably predict that adoptive parents would be less invested in their children.

But this study found nothing of the sort: “two-adoptive-parent families invest at similar levels as two-biological-parent families but still at significantly higher levels in most resources than other types of families.”

Interestingly enough, Kristen Schultz Lee had included similar variables in her research (homework helping, cram schools) though she didn’t mention them in my class. Somewhat in keeping with the kyoiku-mama stereotype, extracurricular activities were somewhat gender-related (girls do cultural classes, boys do academic classes). But I don't think the overall differences in education were as large as I might have expected.

(Hi, Kristen. As I write this, Oswego County has had twelve feet of snow in the last ten days or so. In Montclair, there’s not a snowflake to be seen.)

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