A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[LINK] “Sociology and the Technopolitical Two-Step: The Case of the Regnerus Study”

I quite like Dan Hirschman’s take at his blog on the problems with Mark Regnerus’ infamous study about the GLB families. How can Regnerus produce research which makes specific claims about a topic that’s somewhat different from what his research addressed? Hirchman identifies a sort of creep.

In July of this year, Mark Regnerus, a family demographer and Associate Professor of Sociology at UT-Austin, published a study comparing various outcomes for “young-adult children of parents who have had a same-sex relationship,” also referred to as children of “gay fathers” and “lesbian mothers.” This study, in contrast with most prior research, found that these children had worse outcomes on a variety of measures (educational attainment, current employment, etc.). The study elicited immediate interest from conservative political groups, the media, and a wide range of scholars. Virtually every aspect of the study has since been criticized, from the representativeness of the survey sample to the seemingly sloppy shorthand that transformed “young-adult children of parents who have had a same-sex relationship” into children of gay fathers and lesbian mothers to the publication process (especially the shockingly fast timeline, and the conflicts of interest of reviewers and commenters). The already available November issue of Social Science Research (SSR, the journal in which the original study was published) explores these criticisms and perceived irregularities in extensive detail. Sherkat, an editorial board member at SSR, reviewed the internal records and reports thoroughly on the review process. The issue also includes two open letters commenting on the paper, a summary by SSR’s editor, and commentary by several other authors, as well as a response from Regnerus himself.

I’m not going to comment much on the substance of the dispute here, as it’s not especially my area of expertise, and the critics in SSR and elsewhere have done an admirable job on that score already (I especially recommend this early criticism by Andrew Perrin aptly summarized by its title “Bad Science Not About Same-Sex Parenting.”) I do want to comment on the role of politics in the research process and especially the quote with which I opened this post. Regnerus’s study, flawed as it may be, attempts to address a politically salient question: do the children of same-sex parents experience worse outcomes than children from various other family structures? Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to debates over the legalization of same-sex marriage (or, perhaps, the end of the prohibition on same-sex marriage), and especially the debates over adoption by same-sex parents, knows that this question is politically salient. We also can tell that this issue is politically salient because of the coverage afforded to the prior research on the topic (the same research Regnerus critiques). For example, one study found that children raised by lesbian couples experience better outcomes than their peers. Finally, Regnerus’s study was funded by the politically active, and very conservative, Witherspoon Institute, which suggests that someone somewhere thought it was going to be politically relevant. Were it not politically relevant, odds are that Regnerus would never have been able to conduct the study.*

So, how is it that Regnerus can open his response in the November issue of SSR with the blanket statement that his study “cannot answer political or legal questions”? Here, I’m going to argue that Regnerus engages in a beautiful example of what I am going to call the “technopolitical two-step.” Technopolitics is a wonderful term that comes from the field of science, technology, and society (STS), especially the work of Gabrielle Hecht and Timothy Mitchell (although their own uses of the term differ), both of whose work is rooted in the tradition of Bruno Latour. This tradition argues that technical and scientific projects have incredibly important political consequences and that technical and scientific decisions are often made with political projects (broadly conceived) in mind. In other words, the technical and political are deeply intermingled. One goal of this tradition in STS is to expose this intermingling and thus refute, in some sense, deep claims about impartiality often put forward by scientists and engineers.

[. . .]

The “technopolitical two-step” then is a dance commonly performed by researchers engaged in policy-relevant work. Step one, claim privileged knowledge or skills for answering questions of deep political significance. Step two, reject the implication that the knowledge you produced can actually answer any political question. This dance is, I think, especially pervasive among social scientists. On the one hand, claiming relevance is absolutely essential to securing funding and attention. And, most social scientists, I think, actively want to influence political outcomes (at a minimum in some sort of generic “making the world a better place” fashion). But if the connection between a finding and a particular political debate is too transparent, the objectivity of the research is more likely to be called into question, threatening to transform the findings from “facts of the matter” into mere political rhetoric.

[. . .]

It’s quite possible that advocates for GLB families would not draw the boundaries of the category in the same fashion of Regnerus. And, significantly, advocates of same-sex marriage (who Regnerus references elsewhere in the conclusion, noting that courts are increasingly legalizing same-sex marriage) may explicitly have in mind stable, intact, two-parent units who plan their families, not Regnerus’s definitions, which count as a GLB family any case where either parent had any same-sex relationship. Neither definition is wrong – definitions, in some sense, are incapable of being wrong in their own context. But findings do not stay within the confines of a single paper or study. Facts “travel”, in Mary Morgan’s delightful phrase. And when social scientists subtly redefine a category (and in some sense, they are incapable of doing otherwise, as the socially recognized category rarely maps perfectly onto the categories available in a dataset, and is likely too fuzzy and contested for any single definition to accurately characterize everyone’s understanding), and then make claims about that category, they are engaging in an important kind of politics.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 4, 2012 at 4:03 am

%d bloggers like this: