Responses to my presidential address

Responses to my presidential address

My presidential address at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association on August 23 was titled “Sometimes the Social Becomes Personal: Gender, Class, and Sexualities.” If you’re interested, a video is available at The Contexts editors collected questions about the address in Ask Me Anything style, and here are my responses. Thanks to those who submitted their thoughts!

Class, Efficacy, Contraception, and Pregnancy

Emily Tillotson of Walla Walla University said “this idea of efficacy is very helpful.” She wondered about “planning, and life chances and life dreams.” She asks, “Is it possible that planning is somewhat class bound? How do we know low-income women view planning the same way middle class women view it?” She points out that “ if many life dreams/chances like college, career, home ownership, and marriage appear beyond one’s reach it seems less irrational to proceed with one of the only life dreams available–parenthood.” She continues, “Middle and Upper class women have more or less agreed to risk infertility and delay parenthood for these somewhat competing dreams/chances, as you discussed.” She ends with the question “What motivations do low-income women have to do same?”

In my talk I showed evidence that, compared to their more privileged peers, young women who have grown up in disadvantaged class positions are more likely to have nonmarital births (typically in their early 20s), are more likely to want a pregnancy while still unmarried, and are less likely to contracept consistently even when they don’t want a pregnancy. I argued that one reason for inconsistent contraception among disadvantaged women even when they don’t want to get pregnant is low efficacy. By efficacy I meant the ability to align your behavior to be consistent with your goals.

Let me respond to Tillotson’s last question about whether low income women want to avoid having a baby. As she suggests, some single poor women want a pregnancy because a baby seems the main source of meaning available when higher education and good jobs don’t seem possible. This is a major claim of Edin and Kefalas in Promises I Can Keep. I agree that class constraints affecting one’s motivation to avoid a child is part of the story. And this is not the same as the efficacy thesis I raised.

I believe each thesis explains some of the class difference in nonmarital births: a class gradient in wanting a baby and a class gradient in efficacy. They have explanatory power for different people—or for the same people at different times. That is, more single poor (than middle class) women want a baby. But most poor single women don’t want to get pregnant most of the time—and even when they don’t they contracept less. My efficacy thesis intended to explain this—the class gradient in contracepting among those who don’t want to get pregnant.

I argued that one component of having efficacy is planning. Tillotson asks if planning is sort of a middle-class thing. Yes, I think so; that’s part of why efficacy is higher in the middle class. An interesting book by Jessi Streib called The Power of the Past investigated marriages between partners who grew up in different classes. She found that the person from the middle-class background usually wants a more planned approach to every arena—child rearing, money, vacations, etc.

Tillotson proposes a reason that the poor don’t plan as much; she suggests that planning for college, career, or marriage is irrational if these goals are beyond reach. In the same vein, Philip Cohen of the University of Maryland asks: “Is this efficacy idea a more ‘nuanced’ rendition of rational choice?”

Consistent with Tillotson’s ideas, I mentioned that when disastrous things happen to people around you, as is more common for the poor, it may engender the idea that planning is useless.

But I’d stop short of saying that the greater tendency to plan in the middle class arises entirely because planning is simply not rational to do for the poor (but is for the middle class). While planning won’t work out as much of the time for the poor as for the middle class, it undoubtedly can help sometimes. For example, if a poor young woman doesn’t want to get pregnant till she finishes her associates degree, and she plans enough to make a doctor’s appointment, and keep it, she probably can get an injectable or an IUD, and this probably will work to avoid pregnancy. In this case, whether one does or doesn’t make the mundane plans needed to follow through on getting contraception does make a difference in whether a pregnancy occurs; it would have been entirely rational for the woman who truly doesn’t want to get pregnant to have made those plans. (And, as I mentioned, research strongly suggests that cost is not much of a barrier to getting contraceptives in the US although it is a barrier to abortion.) Rational choice theory would say that if it is knowable to a woman that planning in this way would lead to achieving her goal, then she will do the planning. In this sense the class gradient in planning is in some tension with predictions of rational choice theory.

Let me take on Philip Cohen’s question more broadly. He says: “Is this efficacy idea a more ‘nuanced’ rendition of rational choice? Does it lead to different predictions in the end?”

I think there are parts of the formulation that could be absorbed by rational choice theory and parts that cannot. To most rational choice theorists, if a woman (or couple) does not contracept it is because a) the costs of contraception are too high, b) the costs (including opportunity costs) of having a child now are low enough, and/or c) the benefits from having a child now are sufficiently high. Any of these costs or benefits may be pecuniary (about money) or nonpecuniary (about love, things being a hassle, or social dis/approval). Thus, other than the occasional failure of the technology (you took the pill daily but still got pregnant), most economists think there is no such thing as an unplanned pregnancy. (Yes, they have said that to me!) They suspect not contracepting means that someone’s cost/benefit analysis has convinced them that they want a baby now, or they don’t want to avoid one enough that it is worth the costs of contraception. That is a different story than not contracepting because of lack of efficacy—because you don’t have the ability to align your behavior with your goals. And, to the extent that planning is part of this ability, and that planning would have been rational in certain situations, then I think the class difference in planning violates the predictions of rational choice theory.

There are two main components of the concept of efficacy, as I was presenting it. The first is a matter of beliefs: Do I believe that I am able to carry out the necessary behaviors to reach this goal? For example, do I think I can remember to take the birth control pill every day? Another relevant belief is whether I believe that, if I am able to do these behaviors, that the intended result is actually likely. For example, do I think pregnancy is really mostly a matter of fate or is strongly affected by whether I use contraception? Beliefs like these have been discussed by psychologist Rotter in his theory of internal or external locus of control, psychologist Bandura in his notion of self-efficacy, and sociologists Mirowsky and Ross in their notion of efficacy. With respect to these beliefs, rational choice theorists assume that people will reason correctly and will invest in acquiring accurate information if they have sufficient incentive to do so. So to believe that you can’t achieve a goal by certain behaviors is not predicted by rational choice theory in cases where you really could do so.

The second part of what I meant by efficacy I called self-regulation. At issue here is not a belief that you can do something and it will work, but whether you can make yourself do something that is onerous but will help achieve your goal if you do it. This is similar to what psychologist Walter Mishel called “deferred gratification,” what psychologists Cybele Raver and Clancey Blair call “executive function,” or educational researcher Angela Duckworth calls “grit.” Rational choice theorists seldom talk about the case where it would be rational to do something and you intend to but just can’t make yourself do it, sometimes much to your own regret.

One economist, James Heckman, is an exception, in that he has talked about “soft skills,” some of which include self-regulation (e.g. do you get in fights at work or school or can you control yourself). One way you could conceptualize self-regulation from within rational choice theory is as a skill, as part of human capital. Heckman sees soft skills that way, and sociologists Mirowsky and Ross see their notion of efficacy as human capital.

But if we are going see self-regulation as human capital as understood in economics, then the implication is that adults will invest in their own human capital or parents will invest in their children’s human capital if they can afford the investments and it will pay off to do so. So, from a rational choice perspective, if lower class parents invest less in their children’s self-regulation, or adults invest less in their own, it must be because it wouldn’t pay off to do so. But, I question that it wouldn’t pay off given how useful self-regulation is in many life domains.

Thus, I don’t think I am offering rational choice theory in disguise or “with nuance.” To some sociologists it may look like I’m ignoring the constraints that make it hard to get birth control or make it worthwhile to delay fertility. I acknowledge these, but my read of the data is that even with those, many women think it is worthwhile to contracept to avoid pregnancy but somehow don’t do so for lack of what I call “efficacy.” If we want to understand why they didn’t develop efficacy, I think we need to acknowledge class-based constraints that rational choice theorists seldom talk about. You don’t pick your parents, and there are class differences in parenting that I believe affect the development of efficacy. Living in poor neighborhoods exposes you to more violence, and my NYU sociology colleague Pat Sharkey, writing with psychologist Cybele Raver, has shown that this lowers self-regulation. Exposure to longer education has been shown by sociologists Ross and Mirowsky to increase efficacy. So efficacy typically is often developed, not through deliberate investment by parents in their kids or adults in themselves, as envisioned in economic theory but by unintended consequences of features of the social environment that people from different class backgrounds are exposed to.

Reeve Vanneman of the University of Maryland correctly notes that my theoretical claim was that “constraints affect outcomes both directly and indirectly, through changes in personal characteristics (including…efficacy).” I had worked from this diagram:


Vanneman asks whether there might be another arrow “going from constraints to the arrow linking personal characteristics and outcomes: i.e., an interaction effect.” He suspects that “the relationship between personal characteristics and outcomes is weaker for the more privileged.” Or put another way, he suspects that “personal characteristics count more for the disadvantaged.” The example he gives of what might produce such an interaction in the case of the outcome of nonmarital births is access to abortion. In the talk, I had argued that lack of money deters abortions, because in most states there is no government money for abortion. (I saw that as on arrow 2 directly from constraints to outcomes.) Vanneman is suggesting that, while middle class women generally have higher efficacy and thus don’t have as many unintended pregnancies, those who have low efficacy and get pregnant unintentionally can afford abortions, so low efficacy is less predictive of a birth for them. I know no one who has estimated this model, but I hope someone will; it seems a plausible hypothesis.

As for the more global interaction hypothesis suggested by Vanneman, I don’t have a clear hypothesis about whether there would be an interaction or which way it would go. It is a good topic for research. I’m not sure I agree with his generalization that “psychological predictors usually interact with situational constraints to produce outcomes” such that “in general, you need both a psychological predisposition and a structural opportunity to produce a desired outcome.” I suspect that some personal characteristics—the examples I would think of are cognitive skill and efficacy—help people with a whole range of things in almost any structural situation. Would he really argue, for example, that the rate of return to cognitive skills would be lower for the privileged? His hypothesis would imply that.

Vanneman went on to apply his interaction hypothesis to a part of my talk the other questioners didn’t discuss—the outcome of having sex with a same-sex partner, and how it is affected by gender constraints, either directly, or through affecting personal characteristics. Vanneman accurately summarizes what I said this way: “Women are less sanctioned for same-sex relationships so they develop more tolerance (i.e., less homophobia) than men, and both because of the weaker objective sanctions [arrow 2 above] and the greater tolerance [a personal characteristic affecting the outcome, arrow 4 above] they are freer to engage in same sex relationships.” He wonders if the personal characteristic of homophobia (I called it “heterosexism”—but they are both used to mean roughly the same thing) is more predictive for men’s sexual behavior (arrow 4). “Because women are…more tolerant, situational determinants (e.g. meeting the right person) are more important. For men, their homophobia gets in the way of any overt sexual relationship no matter what the situation.” I don’t know if this is true, but it is plausible and deserves research.

Vanneman also comments on an ironic feature of my argument: In arguing that men are more stigmatized than women for any perceived gender nonconformity I am in effect saying that, in this respect, women are the more privileged gender. Given my decades of scholarship pointing out women’s disadvantage he asks, tongue in cheek, whether “this is Paula England.” I am a feminist and believe that, overall, social arrangements favor men, so I see the irony of my saying this. But I think there is little question that men are more stigmatized than women are for not being seen to be straight, and, more generally, for gender nonconformity. This isn’t to deny that, for example, men sometimes fight hard to keep women out of their occupations (and clubs, schools, etc.), and in that sense women trying to buck gender conformity do face problems. But the woman who gets into the engineering job (for example) is often grudgingly respected, and she makes more money than she would in a “female” job.

I was pleased to read that Yue Qian, a doctoral student in Sociology at Ohio State University, who writes weekly on gender and family for a Chinese social media platform, wrote something on the platform using the theory I proposed (i.e. the arrow diagram above). She writes that she “drew on this theory to understand why women in China, especially women with lower status in the family (such as rural woman or women marrying the very rich), demonstrate son preferences so that they abort female fetuses or keep getting pregnant until they have a son.” Translated into the terms I used, we could say that gendered constraints give rural women, or poor women who have married rich men, a lot of experiences of powerlessness vis a vis men. This may lead them to internalize the message that females aren’t worth as much and so they too prefer sons to daughters (arrow 3). These internalized beliefs are part of what I classify as personal characteristics. In this sense, they become part of the gendered constraints affecting other women and girls, as well as adversely affecting a generation of men who can’t find wives. I agree with Qian’s insight that personal characteristics affect others, not only one’s own outcomes. There is a broader generalization here. In the older days of the women’s movement, feminists often talked about “internalized oppression” with the idea being that external constraints get inside the heads of members of the oppressed group. This occurs to all disadvantaged groups. It is one example of the title of my talk: sometimes the social becomes personal.

Thanks to Paula England for participating in this discussion on The comments section remains open, so feel free to keep it going below. -eds.


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