How Not to Study Families

As you may guess, some of us here at Social (In)Queery have a thing or two to say about Mark Rengerus’s recent article, How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships?* Most of the readers of this blog have probably read the coverage, critique and praise of his piece. We would like to add to that discussion by arguing that this study tells us little about the outcomes of young people from families headed by same sex parents, but it (and reactions to it) do tell us an awful lot about the heteronormative assumptions undergirding academic research on families, gender and sexuality.

The Method

As others have pointed out, we actually don’t learn anything about gay and lesbian parents from this study.  While Regnerus asks “Do the children of gay and lesbian parents look comparable to those of their heterosexual counterparts?” he cannot answer that question. We don’t know if there are any gay or lesbian parents in the study.  All we know is that 236 adult respondents said that they had knowledge that one of their parents having a same sex relationship before the child was 18 (Heck, what Regnerus could be measuring is the effect of knowing intimate and personal information about one’s parents…).  We don’t know if their parents identified as gay or straight nor do we know anything about those respondents who had no idea of their parents’ sexual or romantic lives.  Regnerus refuse that to engage in any sort of discussion about the arbitrary nature of classifying sexual identities by appealing to “brevity.”  This brevity allows him to then make claims on categories he essentially (pun intended) created.

It is clear to us that this instrument ( was not designed to speak to issues of sexual identity or orientation in a thoughtful manner—a manner that understands the nuances between issues of identities and behavior, along with the structural constraints and discriminatory climate in which queer families actually live. There seem to be few controls set in place to minimize this leap—within the survey design and the analysis. Regarding the actual analysis, the matrix that Regnerus has employed to compare across family types is quite complex, yet has few controls (especially at the structural level) relative to its complexity.  With this study we are unable to disentangle outcomes from issues of sexual orientation, divorce, or from being in a single parent household.  Indirectly, we could be seeing different outcomes based on a number of structural issues including but not limited to the benefits of marriage, resources associated with two-parent households, issues of discrimination and family social support, and how children come to being in the home—biologically or otherwise.

Meanwhile, scholars like Gary Gates and Lee Badgett at the Williams Institute have spent decades developing and advocating for more rigorous methods of measuring sexual orientation and diverse family forms on surveys. A $785,000 project designed to study exactly that might at least take some of their sound advice into account.

THE Family

Why should we be surprised to find that in a society that it set up to valorize, defend, celebrate and financially reward families headed by a legally married male and female that outcomes for those children are better?  The question is not whether their children benefit but how to ensure that the wide diversity of family forms that already exist have access to important forms of social and economic support. The way in which studies such as these reify a particular family form as the ideal is even reflected in the critiques of this type of research.  For instance, some of Regnerus’s critics (such as Slate’s William Saletan) have thrown single parents, binuclear families, and working class families under the bus to promote the assumption that married, two-parent families are just “better,” regardless of sexual orientation.

The last sentence of the article reads “Insofar as the share of intact, biological mother/father families continue to shrink in the United states as it has, this portends growing challenges within families, but also heightened dependence on public health organizations, federal and state public assistance, psychotherapeutic resources, substance use program and the criminal justice system.”  Did you see what has been lumped together here?  Psychotherapeutic resources, utilization of public health resources and federal/state aid is apparently on par with substance abuse and the criminal justice system.  While the article’s author makes repeated claims to political neutrality, the notion that THE Family can be the receptacle and shock absorber (to borrow a term from Arlie Hochschild) for larger social ills is one that mirrors a political agenda intent on weakening state resources.  Rather than beefing up a public social support network, bemoaning the decline of the “optimal” nuclear family reorients public energy and support to defending it from imagined attacks.

Why are we so obsessed with proving that kids from same sex families turn out just fine (whatever that means – it seems that some of the undesirable outcomes in this study involve therapy, same sex relationships and cohabitation)?  The assumption is that these types families are a priori deficient.  That can only be the assumption in a society that valorizes a certain family form, as we do.  Of course anthropologists and sociologists have long documented that this “traditional” family is nothing but.  So long as we continue operating on the myth that the biological “intact” male/female married parental unit is the best in which to raise children we will continue to see results like this.  The assumption that masculinity and femininity are necessary social manifestations of maleness and femaleness and that both are necessary to the functioning of a family unit elides the fact that the real families in which many people live can and do (and, dare we say, should?) consist of a wide variety of loving and supportive social and economic bonds.  However, these assumptions do not only undergird research that is potentially harmful to those in same sex relationships but, also informs GLBT activism as well.  Assumptions such as these guide the fight for inclusion in a form of legal relationships that award legal and social benefits to a limited family form while denying them to those (often socioeconomically marginalized) folks who do not, cannot or will not limit their family to such a restrictive definition.

The Take Home

If there’s one thing we can learn about Regnerus’s study, it’s this: studying same-sex families quantitatively is very, very difficult. Family and sexuality are both fluid, dynamic features of our everyday lives, but capturing them in a demographic snapshot is complicated even further by a lack of federal support for research. Population-wide datasets like the U.S. Census have failed to adapt to family change by including a broader range of options for marital status and living arrangements, and most still refuse to include a single question about sexual orientation. It’s not as though family scholars are unaware of the methodological weaknesses that Regnerus complains about in his lit review – many of us have had to rely on convenience samples and snowballing just to get a sample size of same-sex families high enough to test statistical significance. As a result, much of what we know about gay and lesbian families is based on the most visible among them – white, class-privileged, two-parent families. Scholarship has had no small part in contributing to the power disparity between these families and the statistical majority of same-sex parents, most of whom are not wealthy, white, or living in urban areas. Unfortunately, Regnerus has presented us with a perfect example of how not to solve this problem: substitute weak methods for weaker methods, and feign an analysis that further marginalizes all families who might conceivably fall under the category of “same-sex parents.” So, sadly, even though this data largely cannot speak to the experience of glb/queer families, it still has the same significant social and political implications as if it could.  Take this article as a call, not to get enraged at those who will use it to try to further marginalize queer, non-nuclear, non-biologically “intact” families, but to begin to examine the challenges that underlie both social science research and political activism that will allow these families and their children to flourish.

Megan Carroll, D’Lane Compton & C.J. Pascoe

*We are sure we are not alone in hearing echoes of The Bell Curve in Regnerus’ guiding assumptions, treatment of the data, presentation of findings and claims of  political neutrality (side note – for a brilliant critique of The Bell Curve research, see here).

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10 Responses to How Not to Study Families

  1. Tristan says:

    Great post! This article deserves to be publicly scrutinized on the level of “The Bell Curve.” Another fun critique of Herrnstein and Murray came from the late Stephen Jay Gould. He wrote a fun, short, and informative critique in The New Yorker ( Thanks for taking the time to post this. It’s a wonderful response.

  2. dcompton says:

    Oh, Im gonna read that next…

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