Description Of Social Patterns And Trends

There is a great social and economic demand for objective information about population characteristics and trends. This need arises, in part, from popular curiosity of people wanting to know if others are like them and share common experiences. Businesses want to know about potential markets for goods and services and whether demand is likely to grow or shrink (see chapter 25, "Small Area and Business Demography," in this Handbook). Public authorities also seek information about current and future population size and composition to be able to plan where to locate schools and roads and how much revenue will be needed to provide for future pensions and health care needs. Although these ''data needs'' are sometimes met by generalizing from one's own (and acquaintances') experiences, it is widely recognized that broader and more representative data provide a more accurate portrait. Demographers, by virtue of their expertise in analyzing and interpreting census data and their scientific training, are generally thought to be objective reporters on the state of society as revealed through population data.

Many social demographers, along with social historians, statisticians, and other scholars have used census data to describe the fortunes and problems of the American people (and of other societies). For much of American history, the decennial population census has been the primary (and only) source of information about the size, distribution, and characteristics of the population. Moreover, census data can be analyzed to provide valuable insights on important social and economic issues (Anderson 1988). Demographic data, as with all evidence, can be manipulated by partisans to "speak" on one side or the other of contested issues. In spite of these tendencies, the tradition of the census as the nation's "fact finder'' and as a source of public enlightenment has been an important backdrop for the development of contemporary demography.

This tradition of census-based societal description and accounting is exemplified by the title (and content) of Reynolds Farley's 1990 highly regarded census monograph, The New American Reality: Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where Are We Going (Farley 1996) and the accompanying two volumes, State of the Union: America in the 1990s (Farley 1995, 1996), with chapters on income, labor force, education, housing, family, the older population, immigrants, and much more. Although Census Bureau publications occasionally go beyond basic tabulations to describe and analyze social phenomena, the book-length "census monographs" written by academic scholars were important milestones in the development of social demography, beginning with the 1920 census. Among the titles of the 1920 census monographs (published from 1922 to 1931) were Farm Tenancy in the United States (Goldenweiser and Truesdell 1924), Women in Gainful Occupations (Hill 1929), and Immigrants and Their Children (Carpenter 1927).

Although some of the census monographs (published following the 1920,1950,1960, 1970, and 1980 censuses) fit the caricature of "one damn statistic after another," quite a few of them have become minor classics and are well worth reading as models of social reporting and careful descriptive analysis. For example, the 1950 census monograph on Social Characteristics of Urban and Rural Communities (Duncan and Reiss 1956) illustrated how the rural-urban continuum varied across a number of dimensions. Herman Miller's 1950 and 1960 census monographs on income distribution in the United States became the basis of his popular book Rich Man, Poor Man (Miller 1955, 1966,1971) and were the models for Frank Levy's Dollars and Dreams, based on the 1980 census, and the sequel New Dollars and Dreams (Levy 1987, 1998). One of the most important census monographs from the 1980 census, From Many Strands: Ethnic and Racial Groups in Contemporary America (Lieberson and Waters 1988) explored the implications of measuring "ancestry" as a parallel to standard measures of race, ethnicity, and nativity.

Other exemplars of social reporting were the two volumes on Recent Social Trends in the United States and 13 associated monographs, popularly known as the Hoover committee report on social trends (United States, President's Research Committee of Social Trends 1933). In response to a request from then President Herbert Hoover, a panel of distinguished social scientists, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Social Science Research Council, produced detailed empirical overviews on the ''physical, biological, and social heritage of the nation.'' William F. Ogborn, a social demographer at the University of Chicago, was the research director of the committee.

Among the 29 chapters in Recent Social Trends were ''The Population of the Nation'' by Warren S. Thompson and P. K. Whelpton, ''Shifting Occupational Patterns'' by Ralph G. Hurlin and Meredith B. Givens, ''The Rise of Metropolitan Communities'' by R. D. McKenzie, ''The Status of Race and Ethnic Groups'' by T. J. Woofter, and ''The Family and its Functions'' by William F. Ogburn. These reports were aimed to be ''scrupulously empirical and factual'' studies of social trends without policy prescriptions, but the latent intent was surely to provide knowledge on the state of American society to those who did make policy. It was rumored that the page proofs of Recent Social Trends were read by President-Elect Franklin Roosevelt before he took office, and that these studies had an influence on the formulation of New Deal social policy, including the social security program (Worcester 2001: 23).

Another important development in 20th-century social science was the ''Social Indicators Movement'' in the 1960s and 1970s (Land 2000). Although the development and publication of social indicators reached far beyond the field of social demography, there was a common perspective on the value and significance of social description and reporting. And just as William F. Ogburn had played a critical role as the research director of the President's Research Committee on Social Trends, sociologist-demographer Otis Dudley Duncan was one of the primary intellectual leaders of the development of the social indicators field (Duncan 1969a).

The high water mark of the social indicators field was the publication titled Toward a Social Report, which summarized the best social science evidence on the social health of the nation, including such topics as Health and Illness, Social Mobility, Our Physical Environment, and Public Order and Safety (U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare 1969). As the title indicated, this preliminary government report, which drew on the work of academic researchers, was thought to be the beginning of a new federal initiative to monitor the social welfare of the nation's population. Among the ideas being considered was the creation of a Council of Social Advisors, whose role would complement that of the Council of Economic Advisors and would issue periodic reports on the social well-being of the nation. With the change in the political direction following the election of 1968, however, the initiative of a Council of Social Advisors and the mandate for future social reports were dropped (for a critical overview of the promise and limitations of the HEW report, see Karl Taeuber 1969).

Even with lukewarm support from the federal government, the social indicators movement continued for another decade. Several large volumes with multicolor charts of social indicators were published by the Census Bureau (U.S. Census Bureau 1980). The Social Science Research Council and the Russell Sage Foundation played a major role in sponsoring committees and projects related to social indicators (Worcester 2001:66-68). Conferences and edited volumes on the conceptual and methodological underpinnings of social indicators (Sheldon and Moore 1968; Land and Spilerman 1975) and glossy publications of social indicators on a variety of aspects of social welfare were among the most visible activities and products of social science in the 1960s and 1970s. These publications served a valuable purpose in informing university students (via their use in the classroom) and the general public on the state of American society.

In the early 1980s, the SSRC Committee on Social Indicators was disbanded, and the stream of social indicators publications ceased; even the term social indicators has receded to the margins of contemporary social science. One school of thought is that politics led to the demise of the social indicators movement. Social indicators were considered to be strictly scientific and neutral observations by their adherents, but the ascendant conservative politics of the 1980s considered all social sciences, especially those that pointed to the social problems in American society, as undeserving of governmental support or attention. Without interest and support from the government, there were simply insufficient funds from universities and private foundations to support the extensive infrastructure of social indicators programs and publications.

Another weakness of social indicators research was the lack of centrality to a particular school of social science. Although most social scientists considered social indicators to be a useful ''public good,'' there was no single discipline or research community that was devoted to their collection and dissemination. Social science, as with all science, tends to hold in highest regard the development of new theories as well as the most complex and ambitious empirical analyses. Descriptive studies are often characterized as ''mere description." This tendency means that reporting of social trends and societal patterns is less likely to be published in the leading disciplinary journals.

Social demography, however, retains a commitment to careful monitoring of the social pulse; with the decline of the social indicators movement, core demographic data collection, analyses, and publications provide an important window for the discipline of sociology. These works in descriptive social demography are published by the Census Bureau and in the publications of such organizations as the Population Reference Bureau and the Population Council, which have a long history in providing links between demographic science and public policy.

Perhaps the most illustrious publication of demographic research that attempts to reach beyond a completely academic audience is the journal Population and Development Review (PDR). Although the editorial direction of PDR is more in the direction of innovative demographic research than social description, the journal's discouragement of technical virtuosity for its own sake has created an opening for research that illuminates general societal trends and patterns. With its strong editorial vision, PDR has filled an important niche in the field and has a remarkable range of readership, from research scholars to students in undergraduate sociology classes.

Another valuable source of social demographic reporting is the quarterly Population Bulletin, published by the Population Reference Bureau. Each issue (around 40 pages) is an extended essay on a single topic with basic data (often summarized in charts and graphs) presented in an easy-to-digest style for the general reader. American Demographics began as an outlet for interesting accounts of demographic change in American society, but over the years, it has become more directed to the immediate information needs of business-oriented readers.

An extraordinarily valuable source of social demographic reporting on the United States is Current Population Reports (CPR), the periodic reports from the Census Bureau, based on the Current Population Survey (CPS). There are several series of CPR publications that describe the latest survey data on family and household living arrangements, school enrollment and attainment, fertility, migration, income and poverty, and other topics, usually presented in a time series with data from previous years. One of the great values of Current Population Reports is the methodological discussion of the details of data collection, processing, and adjustment. Reading these details, often in the appendices and footnotes of CPR publications, is encouraged by the character of graduate training in social demography, which emphasizes acquiring more than a casual knowledge of the methodological underpinnings of government statistics (Shyrock and Siegel 1976).

This knowledge gives social demographers an advantage in interpreting social trends relative to many sociologists (and other social scientists) who are oblivious to the problems in data collection and measurement in government surveys. For example, careful readers of CPR publications learn that about one-third of all 20- to 29-year-old black men in the United States are missed in the CPS (U.S. Census Bureau 2000: Chapter 16). This problem means that most measures of black-white inequality are underestimates of the true differences (assuming that underenumerated black men have lower socioeconomic status than those who are interviewed). The problem of undercoverage is probably evident in all other data sources, including primary data collected by sociologists.

Another important but rarely understood issue in the study of inequality and stratification is the problematic measurement of income. Individual and family income data are based on survey responses to questions on both earned income (wages and salary and self-employment) and unearned income (from wealth and transfer income). Income is the most sensitive question in any census or survey and always encounters a high level of nonresponse (about 10% in the CPS, see U.S. Bureau of the Census 1993: C-10). Even more consequential than nonresponse is selective underreporting of certain types of income. With imputation, the Census Bureau estimates that the CPS income questions capture 97% of all wage and salary income but only 51% of interest income and 33% of dividend income (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1993: C12-C13). Although income from wealth (interest and dividends) is less than 12% of the total estimated income in the United States, it is received almost exclusively by the richest fraction of the population. This "methodological detail'' has important implications for the often-reported finding of increasing income inequality in the United States over the last two decades of the 20th century (DeNavas-Walt et al. 2001: 21).

Another part of the social demographic perspective is an appreciation of the significance of long-term population trends and differentials for understanding social change. The careful assembly of long-term trends in marriage, divorce, and remarriage (Cherlin 1992) and birth rates (Rindfuss and Sweet 1977) has provided important sociological insights about the economic and cultural changes in American society that produced the "return of tradition'' in the 1950s and the tumultuous social changes of the 1960s and 1970s. The portrayal of cohort trends in educational attainment as the product of a series of continuation ratios from one grade level to the next is elegant and also a model that "explains'' how the American educational system has changed over the 20th century (Duncan 1968: 640; Mare 1995). One of the most famous articles in social demography—Samuel Preston's (1984) comparison of diverging trends in the welfare of children and the elderly in the United States—was prescient in its conceptualization and interpretation, but analytically, it was straightforward social description.

The elementary logic of demographic analysis focuses attention on the parallels between the life histories of individuals and cohorts as well as the distinction between period and cohort measures (Ryder 1964). This demographic perspective helps social demographers appreciate the value of summary measurements that describe social reality in an intuitive way. For example, the standard period measures of fertility and mortality are constructed to resemble life-cycle experiences of cohorts, e.g., the total fertility rate and life expectancy.

The knowledge of methodological aspects of data sources, elementary demographic techniques, and the value of social description has permitted creative social demographers to "invent" new conceptual measures that illuminate the human condition. Unlike the social indicators noted earlier, these summary measures are often intermediate, but indispensable, steps in the founding of a school of sociological research.

For example, Larry Bumpass and Ronald Rindfuss (1979) created a summary measure of the probability that a child will experience a single-parent household because of a marital breakup by age 18 (or an earlier age). Although such data are not directly collected in any national survey, Bumpass and Rindfuss linked parental marriage history by age of children and created a child-centered life table of experiencing a parental divorce. Another example of creative social demographic description was the index of "excess mortality'' by Kitagawa and Hauser (1968). Excess mortality refers to the number of deaths that could have been averted if the entire population had experienced the mortality rates of the top quartile of the education distribution.

In the 1940s and early 1950s, one of the major research foci of sociology was the study of the residential segregation of social classes and race and ethnic groups within cities. Empirical generalizations were rare, however, because of the confusion created by the variety of indexes used to summarize the distribution of different groups across small areas in cities (blocks, census tracts). The confusion was ended with a single paper: Duncan and Duncan's (1955a) systematic evaluation of all widely used measures of residential segregation (also see Taeuber and Taeuber 1965: Appendix A). In addition to showing the mathematical relationships among the measures, the Duncans provide a conceptual rationale for using one measure—the index of dissimilarity (delta). For the next generation, there was a cumulative sociological and demographic science of research on residential segregation because all scholars worked within the same analytic school.

Twenty-five years later, Lieberson (1980) brought back one of the "almost forgotten'' measures of residential segregation, P*, an index of exposure rather than evenness of distribution across neighborhoods in a city. Lieberson used P* to answer an important empirical question about the different ways that native whites in northern cities responded to the growing presence of SEC (Southern, Eastern, and Central) European immigrants and African American migrants from the South. With careful attention to the differences in conceptualization and interpretation of both indexes of segregation, Lieberson was able to continue and broaden the cumulative science of research on residential segregation.

Another major contribution of social demographic research was the extension of a measure of occupational prestige to a standardized index of the socioeconomic status of all occupations. Job titles and descriptions of jobs of survey respondents are coded into a very detailed occupational classification, consisting of hundreds of occupational categories, by the U.S. Census Bureau and other national survey organizations. One of the major problems confronting cumulative sociological research was how to summarize occupational distributions in a way that captures the important underlying dimensions of occupational differentiation and stratification. Most sociologists have traditionally dealt with this problem on an ad hoc basis by collapsing categories (e.g., white collar, blue collar, farm).

Sociological research had shown that a measure of the "social standing'' of occupations yielded an interval scale index of occupational prestige that was almost invariant over time and across different populations (Hodge, Siegel, and Rossi 1964; Treiman 1977). The only problem was that occupational prestige was measured by detailed survey questions and only a few dozen of the hundreds of occupations had ever been rated and ranked. Duncan (1961a, 1961b) "invented" a method that showed that prestige scores could be reliably predicted as a weighted average of the income and educational attainments of occupational incumbents. The product of this research, the ''Socioeconomic Index of Occupations," has became a fundamental building block of modern social stratification research (Hauser and Warren 1997).

Although descriptive sociology is sometimes considered as a stepchild of the discipline, social demographers have invested considerable energy and ingenuity in social description and social accounting. This is not simply because social demographers attach greater value to social description than other sociologists, though this may be partially true. Social demographers would agree that mechanical social description is of marginal utility, but they also have a strong belief that cumulative science can develop only when important social science concepts are accurately and reliably measured.

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