Sunday, June 22, 2008

alone together

Alone Together: How Marriage in America is Changing by Paul R. Amato, Alan Booth, David R. Johnson, and Stacy J. Rogers, might not be a book that most people would read for pleasure. It is however, a sociologist's delight. Amato, Booth, Johnson and Rogers are sociologists at Pennsylvania State University, an institution well known in the discipline for large scale quantitative research. This book is the result of two major surveys done twenty years apart (1980 and 2000) which asked the exact same questions of a representative sample of married Americans under 55 years old. Their primary research question was "how is marriage in American changing?" What they found was that there were many changes, but that one could not make simple generalizations. Their data suggests that neither the folks who say that marriage is in decline, nor those that consider marriage to be changing but in fine health, are entirely correct. Their research suggests that marriage is a multi-faceted relationship, the quality of which varies on more than one dimension, and not always in the same direction.

Amato, Booth, Johnson and Rogers identified five dimensions of marital quality (all based on the reports of subjects): marital happiness, marital interaction, marital conflict, marital problems, and "divorce proneness" (meaning how often the individual thought about getting a divorce, talked to others -- including spouse -- about possibility of divorce, etc.). Over the twenty years between the two studies, the researchers found: 1) that reported levels of marital happiness and “divorce proneness” did not change; 2) that (on the positive side) reported levels of marital conflict and marital problems declined moderately; and 3) that overall levels of marital interaction declined. So on two of the five measures marital quality stayed the same for 20 years, on two marital quality improved, and on one, “interaction,” there was a decline (although I know some husbands and some wives who consider less interaction with their spouse to be a blessing at times).

Each of these dimensions also has multiple factors, which sometimes vary in the same way, but not always. For example, the dimension of “marital happiness” is one in which the factors vary in contradictory ways. The factors the researchers included in “marital happiness” were “agreement” with spouse, assessment of “strength of love,” evaluation of “sex life,” and whether or not they view their marriage as “better than most.” Between 1980 and 2000 “agreement” and “strength of love” increased (improved), while “sex life,” and “marriage better than most,” declined. [One could argue that a decline in assessing one’s marriage “better than most, does not represent a decline in one’s own marital quality but rather an upward assessment of the general state of marriage, or just simply greater realism]. On the other hand, the factor of marital interaction is one in which all four factors (eating main meal together, going out of leisure together, visiting friends together, and working around the home together) all declined from 1980 to 2000.

The authors’ overall conclusion: that reports of the decline and death of marriage are premature, but that all is not perfect in matrimonial land.

The research reported is sound, and provides fascinating insight into the ways that marriage has changed. I have one complaint. The authors refer throughout the book to “rise of individualism” as the cause of many of the changes that they observe, but they have not operationalized nor measured this variable in any way. They depend upon other people’s writing on the topic of individualism (none of which appears to be based on systematic empirical research). Occasionally, the authors use one of their own outcome measures as an indicator of “individualism,” but that involves fallacious circular reasoning. If one argues that an increase in individualism causes marital partners to spend more time alone, one cannot then turn around and say that spending time alone is a measure of increased individualism. That’s like saying that a job is highly paid because it is important, and we know it is important because it is highly paid.

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