The Mark Regnerus Controversy & Social Science

This story first took off about a month ago, when UT Austin sociologist Mark Regnerus published the article “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study.”  Regnerus also published a piece on Slate.com, in which he asks whether “it makes any difference if your parents are straight or gay.” The goal of the study was to challenge the idea that there are “no differences” between children who are raised by heterosexual parents versus those who are raised by same-sex parents.  Regnerus sums up his overall argument on Slate:

On 25 of 40 different outcomes evaluated, the children of women who’ve had same-sex relationships fare quite differently than those in stable, biologically-intact mom-and-pop families, displaying numbers more comparable to those from heterosexual stepfamilies and single parents. Even after including controls for age, race, gender, and things like being bullied as a youth, or the gay-friendliness of the state in which they live, such respondents were more apt to report being unemployed, less healthy, more depressed, more likely to have cheated on a spouse or partner, smoke more pot, had trouble with the law, report more male and female sex partners, more sexual victimization, and were more likely to reflect negatively on their childhood family life, among other things.

The basic conclusion of the study is that children who are raised by homosexual parents are “different,” and that they have more problems that kids who are raised in two parent same-sex households.  These conclusions have resulted in a storm of media controversy, a flurry of critical responses, and even an investigation into whether or not Regnerus committed ethical violations during this research.

According to Stephanie Pappas at LiveScience, Regnerus explained that his study conclusions demonstrate that “the scholarly and popular consensus that there are no notable differences between the children who grew up with a mother or father in a same-sex relationship and those whose (heterosexual) mother and father were and are still married is a fiction.”

However, critics are focusing not only on the conclusions of the study, but also some of the problems and assumptions in its methodology.  More from LiveScience:

…other scientists say the research is deeply flawed, and does not measure the effect of same-sex parenting at all. The study defined same-sex parenting by asking participants if their parents had ever had same-sex relationships, and whether they had lived with the parent at that time. That led to a “hodgepodge” group of people who Regnerus then compared with kids in stable, married homes, said Judith Stacey, a sociologist at New York University who was not involved in the research.

“He doesn’t have an actual category of gay parents in the project that you can isolate and say the most important thing in this kid’s childhood is that they were raised by gay parents,” Stacey told LiveScience. “These are kids whose parents, maybe they divorced, maybe they separated, maybe they had a scandalous affair, we just don’t know.”

Regnerus’s study is supposed to be a comparison between heterosexual parent and homosexual parent households.  But what is the data actually measuring?  Well, it depends on the data was actually collected and compared.  On the Slate article, Regnerus explains how he defines “same-sex” households: “my colleagues and I randomly screened over 15,000 Americans aged 18-39 and asked them if their biological mother or father ever had a romantic relationship with a member of the same sex.”

This is key, because this is one of the primary groups under consideration for his comparison.  For the purposes of the study, anyone who EVER had at least one romantic relationship with a member of the same sex counts as a member of the same-sex parent category.  This is certainly casting a wide net with the data, something that Regnerus seems to acknowledge on Slate when he writes, “I realize that one same-sex relationship does not a lesbian make, necessarily. But our research team was less concerned with the complicated politics of sexual identity than with same-sex behavior.”  Despite his reservations,  Regnerus went forward with his argument and conclusions anyway.  That’s a problem.

Some critics have pointed out that what is really being measured here is the difference between stable and unstable households.  Regnerus himself points out the issue of instability as a key factor: “Why such dramatic differences? I can only speculate, since the data are not poised to pinpoint causes. One notable theme among the adult children of same-sex parents, however, is household instability, and plenty of it.”  What Regnerus fails to realize–at least in this article–is that instability may in fact be not just one “notable theme,” but the dominant variable he is really looking at…and his attribution of causation to same-sex parents is completely unfounded.

If the goal was to compare the outcomes in two different types of households, then it would be critical to control as many of the variables as possible.  And this would mean that a truly robust comparison would look at parenting households in similar conditions (in terms of relationship stability, socio-economic status, and so on) in order to assess supposed differences.  But instead this study takes one clearly defined group and compares it somewhat egregiously with another group that’s all over the map.

But I am not pointing out anything that others have not already mentioned–there are some problems with the basic methodology of this study, the data analysis, and final conclusions.  If this was just another “academic” issue that had no relevance to 99% of the general public, this would be the end of the story.*  Critics would comment about the flaws in the study and take apart the assumptions and conclusions piece by piece.  There would be commentaries, critical reviews, and possible counter articles published.  But this paper has touched upon some extremely tense socio-political ground and ignited what the folks at the Daily Beast are calling a “political war.”   And the more this gets politicized, the trickier–and uglier–it may get.

In my view, the methods, analysis, and conclusions of this study have serious flaws, and deserve plenty of scrutiny and critical response.  That’s the way things work.  At the same time, I am hoping that some factions–on both sides of this issue–find a way to move forward without resorting to the political discourse version of mutually assured destruction.  In an ideal world, the poor conclusions of this research would be met with strong critical rebuttals, the findings would be seriously challenged and called into question, and future research would help clear up the matter once and for all.

But we don’t live in an ideal world, and that’s where these cases in which social science goes public can go seriously awry.  The main goal is to try to keep our heads on, despite the maelstrom that these sorts of issues can generate.  The best rebuttal to a dodgy, ill-conceived, faulty argument is, of course, a strong, solid, well-reasoned argument.  If social science–from sociology to anthropology–is going to “go public,” then we have to learn how to handle things when debates get heated and tempers flare.  Just my two cents on the matter.  Since there is already a lot of editorializing about this issue, I will leave it at that.

A few links to check out about this particular story:

Link to Regnerus’s article

Mark Regnerus on Slate.com: Queers as Folk

Ilana Yurkiewicz, Scientific American Blog: Why Mark Regnerus’ study shouldn’t matter, even if it were the most scientifically robust study in the world

Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience: Study Questioning Same-Sex Parenting Draws Fire

Peter Wood at the Chron of Higher Ed: The Regenerus Affiar at UT Austin

David Sessions at the Daily Beast: Mark Regnerus’s Gay-Parenting Study Starts a Political War

 

*Note: Beware of subtle tongue-in-cheek statements.

Ryan Anderson is a cultural anthropologist whose work focuses on the politics of development and land in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently living out in the desert while finishing up his dissertation. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

2 thoughts on “The Mark Regnerus Controversy & Social Science

  1. Hi Ryan,
    Don’t know if you saw this follow-up: Controversial Gay-Parenting Study Is Severely Flawed, Journal’s Audit Finds:

    Darren E. Sherkat, a professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale . . . was given access to all the reviews and correspondence connected with the paper, and was told the identities of the reviewers. According to Sherkat, Regnerus’s paper should never have been published. His assessment of it, in an interview, was concise: “It’s bullshit,” he said.

    Not sure if “it’s bullshit” qualifies as your “strong, solid, well-reasoned argument” but it works for me. Problem is the paper has now generated all the headline work it needs.

  2. Hey Jason,

    Thanks for the update about the Regnerus paper. I think that calling it “bullshit” works pretty well for me…and you don’t have to go much further than the methods section of the paper to come to that conclusion. I was trying to point that out in the post, but I think I could have been more explicit about it. In fact, I think I kind of served things up a little too delicately. The methodological assumptions are bullshit, and the conclusions about the data are just ridiculous.

    I put that line about ‘solid and well reasoned arguments’ because of some of the reactions to the paper–instead of quickly tearing the study to pieces, some folks jumped into the frenzy of knee jerk reactions that IMO only add to the whole circus.

    But, as you say, part of the problem here is that the study has already made its mark, and has already been used for political purposes. Sometimes the solid, well reasoned arguments don’t make the front page several weeks later, and that ends up being a de facto victory for the folks who wanted to use this study for their own politics.

    I am still not sure about this post and how I wrote it. I think it was somewhat weak, all things considered. Maybe it was reasonable and all that…but there are times when it’s necessary to approach things with more force. What I was trying to avoid are some of the reactions that were going after Regnerus personally and maybe taking things a little too far in that direction. I would make the same argument about someone like Charles Murray, and think that the most effective way to deal with these sorts of things is to respond with arguments that completely obliterate some of the nonsense they try to push. But the real battle is one about coverage, readership, etc. In the end, despite the fact that many people lament the supposed “politicization” of science, I think it’s all political one way or another.

    Anyway, with the whole ‘anthropology in public’ thing, it’s an uphill battle. But it’s important to get off the sidelines, I think. Thanks again.

    Ryan

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