Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and and gender studies at Middlebury College. She is the author of American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Quest for Perfection which is one of ten Women's History Month titles on sale at Beacon.org for $9.99 through March 31st.
As a sociologist who writes at Psychology Today, I must admit that there is some very bad sociology out there. And like bad psychology, bad sociology can be incredibly harmful to individuals and our culture at large. Such is the case with the obviously flawed study produced by sociologist Mark Regnerus last year that was supposedly a measure of the children of gay parents. Of course, it really measured no such thing, but it claimed to.
The study was a case of comparing apples and oranges and insisting you’ve measured bananas. Because Regnerus could not find a large enough sample of adult children of gay and lesbian parents, he decided to ask adult children of divorced parents whether or not their parents had ever had a same sex relationship. This is a problem. The relationship could have been one time or thirty years. The relationship could have resulted in a gay or lesbian identity or not. We don’t know because Regnerus decided that apples were a close enough measure of bananas. To make matters worse he compared those apples to oranges: he compared the outcomes of adult children of divorced parents to adult children of still married parents and found, not surprisingly, that these adult children were more likely to be depressed, unemployed and alcoholic than those whose parents were still together. I say not surprisingly because even a bad sociologist knows that marriage is highly correlated with socio-economic status. It would make sense that children who grow up in less wealthy and less educated households are more likely to be less wealthy, less educated, more unemployed, and yes, even depressed and alcoholic. Poverty creates all sorts of stress in a person’s life that wealth and well-being do not. That is just sociology of the obvious.
Normally no one would care that there is some bad sociology out there (and believe me there is), but this work is being used in a variety of court cases that will decide the fate of gay marriage, gay adoption laws and in many other ways the legal future of gay families. And here's the really scary thing: the study was funded by the ultra-conservative Witherspoon Institute to the tune of $700,000 specifically to influence the Supreme Court of the United States decisions. That's right: the conservative funders of the study and the conservative sociologist who conducted it were assuming that the results would show gay families are worse than straight families and recent emails between them retrieved through Freedom of Information Act requests prove it. An article published in the American Independent and the HuffingtonPost reveals that:
The documents, recently obtained through public-records requests by The American Independent and published in collaboration with The Huffington Post, show that the Witherspoon Institute recruited a professor from a major university to carry out a study that was designed to manipulate public policy. In communicating with donors about the research project, Witherspoon’s president clearly expected results unfavorable to the gay-marriage movement.
To make matters worse, the peer-review process of this article that was published in Social Science Research seems to have been both highly compromised and highly rushed. Despite an internal audit by Social Science Research, the editors have been unable to explain why the article was submitted before data was fully collected, why reviewers were rushed to approve or disapprove its publication in such a short time frame, why two of the three reviewers were connected to Regnerus, and why they have not yet retracted the study.
This strange marriage of the anti-gay agenda of the Witherspoon Institute, which is connected through one of its founders to the National Organization for Marriage, a conservative researcher in Regnerus who has publicly staked his claim for heterosexual marriage as the best option for all of us, and some seriously flawed statistics will now be influencing court decisions and gay families for decades to come.
Despite an amicus brief filed by the American Sociological Association stating that Regenerus' study
provides no support for the conclusions that same-sex parents are inferior parents or that the children of same-sex parents experience worse outcomes"
it will still be considered in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Supreme Court case to decide the constitutionality of California's Prop 8.
Which is just what the Witherspoon Institute wanted. And Regnerus too. But anyone who cares about families, all families, not to mention the integrity of social science, should refuse an invitation to the wedding of bad sociology, anti-family values and just plain mean-spiritedness that this study represents.