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Americans Are Still "Bowling Together": A Review of RSF Book Still Connected

March 14, 2013

still connectedJudging from the number of articles on the subject in the media, there is a persistent concern that Americans are growing increasingly isolated from one another. Have changes in family patterns and the rise of the Internet reduced the strength (and the number) of our social ties? Do we have fewer numbers of confidantes, friends, and relatives to turn to? In the latest issue of Contemporary Sociology, Naomi Gerstel reviews Claude Fischer's latest RSF book Still Connected: Family and Friends in America since 1970 and finds a convincing -- and "stunning" -- finding that "there has been no decline of community, no decline of connections":

In Still Connected, Claude Fischer provides an account of the manifold ways in which we have remained engaged with family and friends from 1970 to 2010. [...] Fischer quite convincingly shows that notwithstanding demographic changes and technological developments, Americans still manage to visit, talk, and help others about as much as they did before such changes occurred. Here, Fischer is continuing a debate he had in the pages of the American Sociological Review where he criticized Miller McPherson and his colleagues for suggesting that many Americans are now so isolated that they have no one with whom to share important matters. Fischer shows that the percent of social isolates is ‘‘virtually nil’’ and the number has remained about the same over the past four decades. Moreover, Americans now see relatives as often, maybe their mothers even a little more; they talk more to friends, both in person and virtually, than they did in the 1970s. And their feelings about these connections have changed little as well. Americans experience no more loneliness and maybe even less. They still value family life, even three-generation households which have continued to rise since Fischer wrote this book.

Examining Nonresponse Rates in Social Science Surveys

March 13, 2013

Household survey responses rates in the United States have been steadily declining for at least the last two decades. A similar decline in survey response can be observed in all wealthy countries, and is particularly high in areas with large numbers of single-parent households, families with young children, workers with long commutes, and high crime rates. Efforts to raise response rates have used monetary incentives or repetitive attempts to obtain completed interviews, but these strategies increase the costs of surveys and are often unsuccessful. Why is response declining and how does it increase the possibility of inaccurate survey results? Most important, with the advancement of reliable social science research at stake, what are effective methods for increasing the response rate for household surveys?

In November 2010 the Russell Sage Foundation commissioned the National Research Council’s Committee on National Statistics to assemble a panel of experts that would conduct a study to develop a research agenda for addressing issues related to the impact on social science data of the general decline in survey response by individuals and households. The Committee has released now its final report, entitled "Nonresponse in Social Science Surveys: A Research Agenda," and it is available for free at the National Academies Press. Here is the executive summary:

This review addresses the core issues regarding survey nonresponse. It considers why response rates are declining and what that means for the accuracy of survey results. These trends are of particular concern for the social science community, which is heavily invested in obtaining information from household surveys. The evidence to date makes it apparent that current trends in nonresponse, if not arrested, threaten to undermine the potential of household surveys to elicit information that assists in understanding social and economic issues. The trends also threaten to weaken the validity of inferences drawn from estimates based on those surveys. High nonresponse rates create the potential or risk for bias in estimates and affect survey design, data collection, estimation, and analysis.

The survey community is painfully aware of these trends and has responded aggressively to these threats. The interview modes employed by surveys in the public and private sectors have proliferated as new technologies and methods have emerged and matured. To the traditional trio of mail, telephone, and face-to-face surveys have been added interactive voice response (IVR), audio computer-assisted self-interviewing (ACASI), web surveys, and a number of hybrid methods. Similarly, a growing research agenda has emerged in the past decade or so focused on seeking solutions to various aspects of the problem of survey nonresponse; the potential solutions that have been considered range from better training and deployment of interviewers to more use of incentives, better use of the information collected in the data collection, and increased use of auxiliary information from other sources in survey design and data collection. In addition, considerable effort has gone into developing weighting adjustments and adjustment models to compensate for the effects of nonresponse.
This report also documents the increased use of information collected in the survey process (paradata) in nonresponse adjustment. Some of this work is in early stages, while other work is more advanced. Two relatively new indicators of the nature and extent of nonresponse bias—representativity and balance indicators—may assist in directing focus on the core of the problem in ways that the traditional measures, such as overall nonresponse rates, cannot.

Several approaches to increasing survey response are being taken or have been proposed. Some of these approaches are aimed at increasing general knowledge about the conditions and motivations underlying response and nonresponse; others are focused on identifying techniques that change the interaction of interviewer and respondent or that could incentivize respondent behavior; still others employ paradata to identify possible survey design and management techniques that can be used to positively adjust the collection strategy to minimize the level or effects of nonresponse. As part of these efforts, survey researchers are enriching auxiliary information for both the reduction of nonresponse and adjustment for it, exploring matrix sampling (“planned missingness”) and other strategies to reduce burden, exploring mixed-mode alternatives for data collection, and deploying responsive or adaptive designs.

The research agenda proposed in this report is needed to develop even better approaches to improving survey response and to improving our ability to use the data for analytical purposes even when response rates cannot be efficiently improved. The agenda should be multifaceted. In these times of increasingly constrained human and financial resources in the social science survey community, this agenda must be mindful of both costs and benefits.

Based on the panel’s assessment of the state of knowledge about the problem of nonresponse in social surveys, the report suggests several key research areas in which the statistical community could fruitfully invest resources. Some of the recommended agenda items are designed to further advance our knowledge of the scope and extent of the problem, others to enhance our understanding of the relationship between response rates and bias, and still others to improve our ability to address the problems that come with declining response rates.

The recommendations for research include basic research that would help define the problem, develop appropriate measures, and expand our understanding of the scope and extent of the problem, such as:

  • Research on people’s general attitudes toward surveys and on whether these have changed over time.
  • Research about why people take part in surveys and the factors that motivate them to participate.
  • Research to identify the person-level and societal variables that have created the downward trend in response rates, taking into account changes in technology, communication patterns, and survey administration (including interviewer variables, where relevant).

Why Don't More Women Study Engineering?

March 12, 2013

women in educationLast week, we shared data from our new book, The Rise of Women, about the persistence of gender segregation in higher education. The trend is a puzzling one: women have made extraordinary gains at all levels of education over the past fifty years, but they are still underrepresented in engineering and the physical sciences (and overrepresented in the social sciences and humanities). More worryingly, gender persistence in academic majors has remained relatively stable for the past two decades.

Why don't more women choose to major in the so-called STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)? In chapter eight of the book, authors Claudia Buchmann and Thomas DiPrete examine several prominent theories (presented below). Their own analysis shows that the high school years are crucial to understanding trends in gender segregation. Between grades 8 and 12, girls tend to lose interest in the sciences, possibly because of prevailing stereotypes that link ability in sciences with masculine identity. They suggest that science-intensive high schools could make a big difference: "Some schools may do an especially good job of eroding common stereotypes that link majoring in a STEM field with masculine identity. Recent evidence suggests that schools with strong science and math curricula are particularly good at delinking STEM fields from masculine stereotypes."

Here are the major arguments they make in the chapter:

1. Gender Segregation in Majors Is Not About Intellectual Ability

Using data from HSB, NELS, and ELS, Mann and DiPrete (2012) found that math test scores explain even less of the gender gap in physical science and engineering majors than was found in the College and Beyond data analyzed by Turner and Bowen (1999). Yu Xie and Kimberlee Shauman (2003) similarly assessed the most commonly asserted causes for women’s underrepresentation in the hard sciences and engineering fields. Like Turner and Bowen (1999), Xie and Shauman concluded that the gender differences in science majors are not due to gender differences in math ability or math training in high school, since these gaps have closed. Nor are they due to girls’ lower participation in high school math and science course work.[...] These findings are consistent with other studies that also find gender differences in math and science achievement, as indicated by standardized tests, to be too small to explain gender differences in math and science education or occupations (Hyde 2005; Hyde et al. 2008; Spelke 2005).

2. Girls Are Not Necessarily Driven by Different Career "Values"

[Recent] research suggests that gender differences in values have little power to explain gender differences in choice of college major. As Mann and DiPrete (2012) note, values related to career-family conflict have not impeded the trend to full gender equality in law and medical schools, even if gender segregation persists in the choice of specialties within these two professions. In a direct assessment of the role of values in choice of major, Mann and DiPrete used data from HSB, NELS, and ELS to assess the impact of three dimensions of values: aspirations toward having a family, the importance of money and success, and the importance of helping others. They found that students who value the importance of helping others and who have stronger family aspirations are less likely to major in the physical sciences or engineering, while those who value the importance of helping others are more likely to major in the biological sciences. However, these effects were small; they accounted for very little of the gender difference in majoring in STEM versus non-STEM fields and also very little of the gender difference in the distribution of majors within STEM fields.

What Do Americans Think About Counterterrorism Policies?

March 8, 2013

opinion on counterterrorismIn their RSF book Whose Rights? Counterterrorism and the Dark Side of American Public Opinion, sociologists Clem Brooks and Jeff Manza present fascinating new data on what Americans think about the counterterrorism agenda put in place after the 9/11 terror attacks. Their evidence comes from three national telephone surveys conducted between 2007 and 2010; their surveys included embedded experiments that sought to track whether key factors -- information about a hypothetical terrorist attack, for example, or national identity cues -- affected attitudes towards policies like torture or stricter airport security. Below are three broad conclusions, along with explanatory excerpts from Brooks and Manza's book:

1. 'Threat Priming'
A theorem of classical social psychology is that the successful deployment of threats tends to generate highly illiberal and rights-restricting responses on the part of individuals. Threat is often easy to manipulate and more motivating than simple fear. Our experiments complement this scholarship in two ways. First, with respect to time, our results extend previous estimates with new survey data and experiments spanning the years 2007, 2009, and 2010. Second, using comparatively modest experimental cues—typically involving a single-sentence reference such as “What if the government was responding to a terrorist act that had just taken place?”—we find significant impacts on survey responses.

We have been struck by the strength of the threat results on both counts. [...] As we discussed in chapter 4, threat primes are the single largest effect in experiments in which they are deployed. We have also been surprised by the magnitude of such impacts in 2010, nearly a decade after the original 9/11 effects. Far from declining in efficacy, threat priming appears remarkably potent.

2. American Citizenship
[We] find novel evidence for the operation of national identity as a significant lens through which Americans view policy. In our experiments, when respondents are primed to think that American citizens are the target of coercive policies, support tends to decline significantly. Similarly, an alternative cuing of policy targets as foreign nationals tends to raise support. We find the American public gives priority to their own rights and liberties but shows far less willingness to extend protections to the rest of the world’s citizens. This underlying restriction is notable in its own right and parallels rather provocatively the far greater rights violations meted out to foreign nationals in the war on terror.

Experimental cues involving national identity characteristics operate the same among whites and nonwhites and among self-identified Christians versus others. Even more telling evidence comes from our experiments manipulating the national identity status of a key insider group (Christians) and a second outsider group (people from the Middle East). So powerful is the impact of U.S. citizenship status that its experimental manipulations can prompt respondents to display indistinguishable affect toward these two initially polar groups. Under experimental conditions, Christians who are not U.S. citizens now elicit the same degree of emotional warmth as people from the Middle East who are U.S. citizens. American citizenship status, in short, is remarkably important as such, and not just as a cover for other, different identity attributions.

Gender Segregation in Fields of Study

March 6, 2013

In our last post on our new book, The Rise of Women, we presented seven charts that document the rapid gains women have made in education during the latter half of the 20th century. Women are more likely than men to persist in college, obtain degrees, and enroll in graduate school. But even as the number of advanced degrees earned by women has increased dramatically, gender segregation in fields of study has stubbornly persisted. Men and women in college choose different majors, a trend that has major implications for gender segregation in the workplace. The following two charts, also taken from The Rise of Women, show the academic trends among male and female college students:

gender segregation

gender segregation

Authors Thomas DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann explain the data presented above:

These figures demonstrate that sharp differences persist in the distribution of degrees within each gender. No single field of the seven dominates the male distribution, though business degrees have constituted the largest share since the late 1970s, while engineering and other health and education degrees constitute the second and third largest shares. The natural and life sciences constitute the smallest shares throughout the thirty-five-year period.

The trends for females in figure 8.4 look quite different than the trends for males. First, degrees in other health and in education constitute a much larger share of the degrees for women than for men. This category constituted over 60 percent of the degrees earned by women in the early 1970s, and its share fell toward 40 percent as opportunities for women increased in other fields. Over the past twenty years, however, this area has held a steady and even slightly increasing share of the advanced degrees for women. Another prominent trend shown in figure 8.4 concerns business degrees, which constituted a rapidly growing share of degrees for women until the mid-1980s and a more gradually growing share thereafter. Degrees in medicine, dentistry, and law also constituted a growing share of all degrees earned by women until the mid-1980s, but since then their share has gradually fallen, even though the female share of all degrees awarded in these areas has grown continually throughout this period (see figure A.12). Degrees in physical science, mathematics, and engineering have constituted a relatively small share of all degrees earned by women from the early 1970s to the present day (emphasis added).

State Pensions After the Financial Crash

March 5, 2013

As part of our Great Recession initiative, Alicia Munnell and her colleagues at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College have published a new report on state and local pension plans in the aftermath of the 2007 financial crash. Here is the abstract:

State and local governments have been facing an extraordinarily difficult fiscal environment in recent years. One of many challenges has been restoring public pension plans to a sound fiscal footing after the economic crisis of 2007-09. States have begun to respond by enacting a mix of revenue increases and benefit cuts. These changes will, over time, improve the financial outlook for plans and help ease their impact on other budget priorities. This study analyzes the nature and magnitude of these effects by analyzing pension costs before the financial crisis, after the financial crisis, and after reforms for a sample of 32 plans in 15 states. The results show that most of the sample plans responded with significant pension reforms, generally increasing employee contributions and lowering benefits for new employees; the changes were largest for plans with serious underfunding and those with generous benefits; in most cases, reforms fully offset or more than offset the impact of the financial crisis on the sponsors’ annual required contribution; and employer contributions to accruing benefits for new employees were cut in half, sharply lowering compensation for future workers. In short, states have made more changes than commonly thought. Whether these changes stick or not is an open question.

The Impact of Early Education: An Interview with Jane Waldfogel

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
February 28, 2013

preschool researchJane Waldfogel is a professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University School of Social Work. She has written extensively on early childhood education and the impact of public policies on child and family well-being. In this interview, she discusses President Obama's recent proposal to expand access to preschool.

Q: In response to President Obama's preschool plan, many opinion writers pointed skeptically to Head Start, the major federal early education program. It seems to be settled fact in Washington that Head Start, to quote TIME's Joe Klein, "simply does not work." Others argue that most of the other research on early education comes from targeted, intensive programs, such as the Perry Project, whose quality will probably not be replicated in scaled-up efforts. So let me ask you -- do you think that available research supports higher investments in early education programs? Is there evidence or unanswered questions that gives you pause about expanding preschool access?

A: While policymakers in Washington have been debating the merits of Head Start, and the generalizability of the early model programs such as Perry, state lawmakers have been quietly moving forward with universal pre-kindergarten (pre-K). These pre-K programs, which now serve more than 20% of 4-year olds, differ from Head Start, and the early model programs, in some very important ways. First, they are universal – they are open to all children in the community (although when resources are limited, states do try to serve disadvantaged children and communities first). And second, they are administered and supervised by the schools (even if not always located at schools – in some states, community-based providers can be approved as pre-K providers as long as they meet the pre-K requirements, which include highly qualified teaching staff and approved curricula). This quiet pre-K expansion has been going on for some time, and we now have quite a bit of evidence about its effects (see review in Ruhm & Waldfogel, 2012). That evidence is clear – children who have the opportunity to attend pre-K enter school with better reading and math skills, and these effects tend to be largest for the children who would otherwise be the furthest behind. These results come from studies in several states, using rigorous methods such as regression discontinuity analyses. Governors and state legislators are familiar with this research evidence, and they have been eager to expand pre-K programs. But it’s tough to do this with limited state funds. So that’s why the Obama initiative to make federal funds available is so welcome.

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