Sometimes the Social Becomes Personal: Response to Reznik

 

In, “Fitting in or finding a way out?“, David Reznik takes issue with a thesis I advanced at a recent talk. He accurately describes my thesis: I suggested that one reason for the higher incidence of nonmarital births among those from less privileged backgrounds is lower efficacy. By “efficacy” I meant a learned capacity to plan and self-regulate in pursuit of one’s goals — in this case contracepting when you don’t want a baby now. I showed evidence from a qualitative interview study of mine that those from more privileged backgrounds have more efficacy, and that those with more efficacy contracept more consistently. I well remember Professor Reznik’s question at my talk, and I regretted not getting a chance for more discussion with him, so I was glad that the Contexts editors invited me to respond to his guest post.

Reznik does not dispute the accuracy of what I said—at least he doesn’t mention evidence against the thesis. He is troubled, if I understand him correctly, by the political consequences of talking about class and efficacy. He says,

If the common goal here is the elimination…classism, racism, and sexism, which scholarly behaviors are more closely aligned with the achievement of this goal: lecturing those living on society’s margins about their supposedly “self-defeating” lifestyles or leveraging academic privilege to speak truth to power? Is it more “efficacious” to teach the young women…better organization skills and study habits or to experiment with new family, school, and workplace arrangements that transcend the zero-sum status quo they live in?

Let me respond to that question. First, while I said I wanted to make a larger disciplinary point, I misled if I implied that this was the main motivation of the research project of mine I reported on. Its motivation was narrower: I really wanted to understand what kept young women who really didn’t want to get pregnant from contracepting consistently. I didn’t find much in the way of financial barriers, given that Planned Parenthood provides birth control pills on a sliding scale, and while sometimes male partners obstructed condom use, they seldom obstructed the use of other methods. Efficacy seemed important. (For more on what we found, see the papers listed at the end of this post.)

I did not conclude from my study that the best way to reduce unintended pregnancies is to “lecture” poor women, or teach them “better organization skills.” Reznik mentions that Orlando Patterson believes that culture may be easier to change than structure. I am not so sure. They are both pretty hard to go up against. I didn’t talk about my ideas for policy or activism that day. But let me make a policy suggestion here: to move toward the goal of fewer unintended pregnancies I suggest promoting and providing easy access to LARCs (long-acting reversible contraception, such as the IUD). As well, I support getting rid of the ban on federal funds being used for abortions for women who want them. I’d choose these strategies over a six-week crash course on efficacy, because such a course is unlikely to counteract a lifetime of experiences lowering a person’s efficacy. (Not that I’m against creative development of nonpatronizing interventions that help develop efficacy; I’m just very cautious about what they would accomplish.) An IUD would render efficacy unnecessary for several years after insertion. I would not take this to be merely “helping the victim assimilate to a victimizing society.” Having births only when you want them is not mere “assimilation.” However, I agree with Reznik that it would not solve most of poor women’s or men’s problems.

I did also have a larger disciplinary point to make and I’ll return to it in my ASA presidential address this August. Knowing what would help get rid of inequalities is aided by knowing how they work.

  1. Sometimes social positions (e.g. race, class, gender) have their effects rather directly through narrowing opportunities and imposing constraints. For example, race or sex discrimination limit job options and thereby income, or lack of money impedes one from going to college.
  2. Other times, or simultaneously, social positions affect us through changing us in durable ways—getting “in our head” or “under our skin” and affecting our skills, habits, beliefs, and values. This second mechanism is broader than just what we usually call “culture.” (But I am not wedded to what we do and don’t call “culture.”)

To me the second mechanism shows that sometimes the social becomes personal. I believe that both mechanisms are typically operative. If we want to figure out what to do, I believe it helps to examine both of these ways that positions in social structures affect people. Good science requires this, and I also think it will help us design more effective strategies for activism and policy.

Finally, I want to apologize to Professor Reznik for my use of the term “politically correct.” Slinging a term many find insulting is hardly a way to engage in dialogue. My bad. I thank him for engaging in dialogue anyhow.

Related papers:

England, Paula, Mónica L. Caudillo, Krystale Littlejohn, Brooke Conroy Bass, and Joanna Reed. 2015. “Why Do Young, Unmarried Women Who Don’t Want to Get Pregnant Contracept Inconsistently? Mixed-Method Evidence for the Role of Efficacy” Unpublished paper available upon request from Paula England (pengland@nyu.edu).

Joanna Reed, Paula England, Krystale Littlejohn, Brooke Conroy Bass, and Mónica L. Caudillo. 2014. “Consistent and Inconsistent Contraception among Young Women: Insights from Qualitative Interviews.” Family Relations 63:244-258.

Paula England, Elizabeth McClintock, and Emily Shafer. 2011. “Birth Control Use and Early, Unintended Births: Evidence for a Class Gradient.” Pp. 21-49 in Marcia Carlson and Paula England, editors. In Social Class and Changing Families in an Unequal America. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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