Prof. Lynch Returns to the Politics of Social Science


My interests in how society and politics shape social research began with my Ph.D. dissertation in the 1970s which traced societal and political influences upon leading scholars’ differing reinterpretations of the Progressive era of American history. But I more directly confronted the ideological constraints involved in social science/social policy studies in the 1980s when I began studying the effects of affirmative action upon white males (and other groups as well) in the workplace, higher education and other settings in my first book Invisible Victims. In addition to the methodological complexities in studying intended and unintended policy consequences, I discovered that there were ideological land mines as well. I nonetheless moved on to study the expansion of evolution of affirmative action into broader institutional “diversity” policies in my second book, The Diversity Machine, the only book that has chronicled the rise of the workforce diversity movement in the 1990s.  That research, in turn, led me into work-family-children policy issues. Difficulties integrating work and family roles clearly have been a component of the “glass ceiling” barriers that hindered women’s upward mobility in corporate America, especially into positions of leadership. But again, I discovered that these issues were fraught with political sensitivities.

I must add that interest in controversial social change and in the evolution of work-family-children issues come somewhat “naturally” to a baby boomer. Women in my generation benefitted from advances in birth control technology and law (the pill, and the 1972 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion) and rapidly changing cultural attitudes driven by the women’s liberation movement(s), rising educational levels, non-discrimination laws and affirmative action. Large numbers of career-oriented women are a hallmark of the baby boomer generation as are sizable populations of men and women who are divorced, who have had only one or no children, and who have chosen to remain single for all or most of their adult lives.

The complexity of how generational social and political changes have played out was a focus of my most recent book, One Nation Under AARP. Boomers’ efforts at work-family balance were tested and further altered by the Great Recession. Millions of boomers discovered what author and senator Elizabeth Warren termed the “two income trap” when they became one-income households. Many boomers constituted the “sandwich generation” simultaneously shouldering the expenses of caring for elderly parents while putting children through college and/or supporting unemployed adult children.

The Berger Institute summer grant enabled me to track a firestorm of renewed debate over work-family tensions ignited by Princeton Professor and U.S. State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 Atlantic cover story titled “Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Reaction continued in a variety of “public intellectual” forums such as Atlantic, Commentary, PBS (and even Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” where Slaughter appeared to defend her views). Slaughter candidly described why she gave up her time-consuming State Department position to spend more time with her adolescent sons, linking her decisions to those of other career women facing similar systemic pressures. Forewarned that “you can’t write about that” Slaughter nonetheless aired her resentments at being pressured to “carry the flag” for ambitious younger women by being a role model and by assuring them that achieving both a high powered career and a full family life was possible for sufficiently motivated and talented women. But Slaughter found that inflexible, long workdays, frequent travel, and other workplace demands remained formidable barriers. Most men, she maintained, still are far more willing to put work and career above family. On the other hand, when women choose family needs over career advancement (“who needs me most?”) they risk being blamed or de-valued as insufficiently motivated.

Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg advanced a more optimistic, pro-active manifesto in her 2013 best-selling book, Lean In. The “having it all” debate was a trap question for career women, she maintained, because “no one can have it all.” A more realistic phrasing, she contended, could be constructed around the dilemma of “doing it all.” Using her own career as a model, Sandberg urged women to manage their time more effectively, in part, by more aggressively discussing work-family issues in both work and family settings. Sandberg’s book was greeted with a healthy barrage of criticism that her upbeat advice was oriented towards upscale, well-educated women. A related debate over women’s ability to drop out and re-enter the workforce was re-visited in a long New York Times Magazine article by Judith Warner on “The Opt Out Generation Wants Back In.” Warner conducted follow-up interviews with women profiled a decade before for an article in that same magazine titled “The Opt Out Generation.” Most reported that it was much more difficult to re-enter the workforce than they’d once assumed. Additional data related bearing on work-family issues were published in new studies such as the new Pew Research Center’s “Modern Parenthood” report.

The Berger grant assisted me in studying other more general trends framing work-family-children issues in a long review essay on shifting institutional and social relationships I am writing for the social science journal, SOCIETY. Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, led me to the literature falling birthrates—driven by rising numbers of adults in western society deciding to have only one child or none at all. (Last—whom I invited to speak at Athenaeum speaker at CMC in October—analyzed the sources of this new mass movement, which gained much more visibility and debate in an August, 2013 Time Magazine cover story on the “Child Free” lifestyle.) Data pertaining to changes in the stability of marriage patterns were also indicated in recent U.S. Census Bureau findings that baby boomer divorce rates had doubled and that the overall U.S. marriage rate had reached an all-time low.

Hannah and I briefly looked at another controversial topic closely tied in with work-family-children: the effects of non-parental daycare on children. UC Davis psychologist Jay Belsky—having studied this topic for nearly two decades—maintains that his data show mildly negative consequences for children in non-parental daycare; other social scientists disagree or, at least, consider the matter unsettled. Foremost among them is British social psychologist Michael Lamb who counters that non-parental daycare “allows children to form additional significant relationships but does not lead care-providers to displace mothers as the primary objects of their attachments.” A number of related articles also appeared in recent issues of The Journal of Marriage and Family.

The continuing debate over the effects of family structure (two-parent, single-parent, or “other”) upon children’s behavior, including crime and delinquency, is very relevant to my course on juvenile delinquency and public policy. Basically the argument continues. Especially with regard to serious, chronic behavioral problems, evidence generally points to less problematic behavior for children in two biological parent families (although results for children cared for by grandparents are also very positive). On the other hand, some data-driven studies find that quality of parenting is the key variable affecting children’s behavior and that the role of family structure is secondary, at best.   (Socioeconomic status is another variable of importance.)

Also, in line with my interests in adult and juvenile crime, we took a very brief look at the status of studies over socio-biological or “inborn” trait theories of crime and delinquency. We discovered a major renaissance in this once politically radioactive realm of social science and social policy perspectives to the extent that the field has acquired a new name: “neurocriminology.” I have incorporated some of those readings into Gov 109, but likely will not pursue this particular social science/social policy debate in my book on political correctness. (On the other hand, Hannah plans to focus upon neurocriminology in her newly awarded fellowship with CMC’s Henry Salvatori Center.)