Mark Regnerus on the science of families
Three years after academia rejected his research on same-sex families, the Texas professor reflects on what was gained and lost
Mark Regnerus is a sociologist at the University of Texas whose research has discovered that intact, stable families with both a mother and a father do a better job of raising children than any other combination. His findings were controversial in academia and in certain political quarters because they went against the prevailing story that same-sex couples and other arrangements do just as good a job at raising children as traditional families. When Regnerus published a key part of his research three years ago, he found himself at the center of a storm that continues even today.
Is it fair to characterize your research as saying that intact, stable, families do, indeed, fare better at raising children? It’s a great conclusion. It’s the most solid conclusion from the study. It was kind of overlooked, but when I called that the gold standard, people lost their cool.
How did that affect you? It’s been a long road, we’ll put it that way. People say, “Would you have done it all over again?” I have no idea. You make these decisions and pick these routes at a point in time and live with the consequences, so I’m living with the consequences of that.
The consequences are that people don’t trust your research, that they don’t trust you, that you don’t get a hearing in certain places? Sure, absolutely. All of that.I can probably map the earnings cost that paper took out of me.
In terms of actual money? For the rest of my life, yeah, … the raises that have not come and will not come.
You don’t regret that? I don’t.
Is it a badge of honor for you? No, it doesn’t feel like that. Some people could say it’s all for naught. Same-sex marriage is the law of the land, etc. I didn’t undertake it in order to derail something political or legal. I paid very little attention to politics or the law for the longest time. I went after it as an intellectual topic because it was attractive to me. On the face of it, it was characterized by modest social science relying way too heavily on a handful of data-collection projects that were either nonrandom or very small in their sample size. I thought, “Let’s try to improve this.” It turns out people didn’t really care. As long as a nonrandom or small sample size yielded the results that were palatable to them, they had no use for population-based studies that emphasize behavior rather than self-identity.
Have you been pressured to retract the research? People have attacked it as debunked. It’s never been retracted. I haven’t retracted it. The journal hasn’t retracted it. It’s hard to debunk what is basically an overview snapshot of a fairly large, complex dataset. Other people analyze the data and say, “Hey, Mark, it’s all about the instability in these families,” which would be illuminating if I hadn’t already said that. I said that years ago. Likely the key variable here is the profound instability of the households in which the parents had same-sex relationships. People want to say, “Oh, today it’s going to be … There’s more of a gay or lesbian bourgeois family that will be much more stable.” It’s possible. I say, “Show me the data.” Some of this stuff we’ll have to track for a decade or two before we get a good sense of it.
Is the real conclusion here that you have demonstrated beyond incredulity the political correctness of the academy? That could be one conclusion here. On the bright side, it’s almost as if a lot of social scientists in criticizing me said, “Of course, Mark, we know that stability is good for children.” But there was a time in the academy where people weren’t saying that. In the wake of the divorce revolution, there were a lot of social scientists, save for people like Professor [Judith] Wallerstein, who weren’t willing to say that stable marriage matters. I think it did accomplish that even though nobody cares or pays attention to it. It’s a subtle change, an admission that, hey, stability matters.
At the same time, I think in the wider culture, people care less about stability than they might once have. I think we’ve moved into an era—this would be getting into social theory—where relationship behavior does not privilege the idea of being enduring and never-ending. It’s until something happens that we decide to do something different.
Is what you’re describing a luxury of the affluent First World? There is this debate about the flight from marriage among the working class and the poor. In terms of social science debates around marriage, that’s the one that’s probably the hottest right now.
We don’t need the family to provide that stability in our lives anymore because we’ve got social welfare state. Everybody recognizes that’s suboptimal. The state cannot love in a strong sense. … What we’ve given up on is the chutzpah to privilege a kind of relationship. The state has declared itself neutral now, which is ironic given all the fatherhood talk we had several years ago. We have state-sponsored fatherlessness now, so that’s disappointing. We also thought maybe in the wake of same-sex marriage there would be this re-privileging of marriage, whatever form it came in, but that didn’t happen and it won’t happen. The state wants to play agnostic about the relationship behavior of its citizens, but it can’t be an agnostic on that without significant repercussions and investment to curb or at least ameliorate, in part, all the wreck that neutrality or agnosticism about families creates.
Listen to Warren Smith’s complete conversation with Mark Regnerus on Listening In.
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