Q & A with Mark Regnerus about the background of his new study

Part 1 in a series on the New Family Structures Study I conducted.

Figured it was worth answering some basic background questions about the new study, me, etc., given all the hubbub it’s receiving.

Q: Why did you undertake the study about adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships?

A: Two reasons. First, because I thought I could pull together a diverse group of people to figure out how best to test the “no differences” hypothesis. And second, because it’s an interesting research question, and I don’t mind navigating controversy a bit. I’m at a point in my career where I’m less concerned about making my professional peers happy and more about studying interesting things. In particular, the “no differences” hypothesis seemed quirky to me. I wondered if it was really true.

Q: You realize the Witherspoon Institute is a pretty conservative organization, politically.

A: Yes. And the Ford Foundation is a pretty liberal one. Every academic study is paid for by someone. I’ve seen excellent studies funded by all sorts of interest groups. I don’t waste too much time worrying about the sources of funding, so long as the research questions are compelling and the data collection methods solid. Funding is hard to get these days. Witherspoon had nothing to do with the study design, or with the data analyses, or interpretations, or the publication of the study. To me, I treated it the same as if the funding came from NICHD or NSF.

Q: So why didn’t you go to NICHD or NSF for funding?

A: For two reasons. First, because in informal conversation about it, Witherspoon expressed openness to funding it. I was between book projects and it sounded like
an interesting thing to pursue. I informed Witherspoon that if I were to run the study, I would report the results, whatever they may be. And honestly my bet was that it would be a far more mixed set of results, with many null findings. Second, I actually don’t think a study like this would fly at NICHD or NSF. In the wider social science community, the matter of “no differences” is considered either settled or too politicized. Of course, why it would be considered settled is beyond me. What issues get settled in a decade?

Q: Have other studies used the same methodological approach you did?

A: Most have not, as I elaborate in the literature review section of the study. That’s what’s unique about this study. Only Michael Rosenfeld’s 2010 article in Demography utilized a large population-based sample to compare one outcome among same-sex and other types of households. Others have worked with existing population-based samples, but rather small ones. But apart from Rosenfeld’s study, this is the largest nationally-representative sample of same-sex households, and I looked at 40 different outcomes, not just one or two.

Q: Why did you use Knowledge Networks as the firm to carry out the data collection?

A: I investigated several firms’ ability to collect random data from small populations, and their reputation and track record in academic research kept popping up. The fact that they actively maintain a large random panel of respondents was a big plus. Other family scholars have used them. Major data collection projects—funded by federal agencies, private entities, and even condom manufacturers—have used them. They’re very good.

Q: I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase “correlation does not equal causation.” Is that the case here?

A: For sure. This is an overview piece that explores statistical associations, and explores what happens when I control for a variety of other variables. But an assessment of causation is not possible here. I explored a likely suspect—household instability—but apart from longitudinal data, I’d be in a tough spot to claim causation.

Q: So besides the results, what makes this study any different from previous ones?

A: In a nutshell, it’s primarily the sampling strategy, the sample size, and method variance: we employed a random, population-based sample, and a large one at that, so people can generalize to the broader population of young adults in America. And we talked to independent adults, not to parents or kids still in the home. Nobody did that before.

Q: Is there a political take-home message in the study?

A: No. As I stated in the article, “this study cannot answer political questions about same-sex relationships…”

Q: Come on. You can’t surmise what people will make of this study politically?

A: You know, I don’t think it easily lends itself to one particular answer to any of the politicized questions that are circulating about gay marriage, or parental rights, etc. What it comprises is significant, new, high-quality information on the long reach of household structure in the lives of American young people. And more information is always a plus, I would think.

Q: Some might say this study reveals evidence that gay and lesbian parents would benefit from access to the relative security of marriage. What are your thoughts on that?

A: It’s possible. How gay marriages would function for children is an empirical question, but it’s only answerable in the future, after ample numbers of cases have accrued, after considerable time has expired, and when the respondents are old enough to speak and reflect about it, as the respondents in my study have.

Q: What did you think of President Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage?

A: I’m a researcher. It doesn’t alter how I approach the academic study of sexual behavior or family formation.

Q: From a Google search of your previous work, it appears that you’ve talked with a variety of religious groups. Are you personally religious, and if so doesn’t that compromise this study?

A: I’m Catholic, for the record, and politically haven’t yet voted for a Republican presidential candidate. Religious organizations have historically been interested in the sorts of subject matter I’ve studied. But there’s no “Christian” approach to sampling or “Catholic” way of crunching numbers. Any trained methodologist, data manager, and statistician can locate the same patterns I reported. Others may ask different questions, or follow different decision rules on measures. But that’s normal science.

Q: So are gay parents worse than traditional parents?

A: The study is not about parenting per se. There are no doubt excellent gay parents and terrible straight parents. The study is, among other things, about outcome differences between young adults raised in households in which a parent had a same-sex relationship and those raised by their own parents in intact families. It’s not about sexual orientation, at least not overtly. There are many significant differences, but the study does not ascribe any causes for the differences. This can only be assessed with additional research. What is evident in the data, however, is above-average instability among households in which mom or dad had a same-sex relationship. For example, among the former only two respondents total said they lived with their mother and her partner nonstop from birth to age 18. Two more said they did so for 15 years, and two more for 13 years. To be sure, these 10 fared better on more outcomes than did their less-stable peers. They’re just uncommon, and too small a group to detect statistically-significant differences, for sure. Future studies would ideally include more children from “planned” gay or lesbian families, but their relative scarcity in the NFSS data suggests that their appearance in even much larger probability samples may remain infrequent for the foreseeable future.

Q: Will you conduct more research on this subject?

A: There will not be additional data collection efforts with the NFSS. While I am working on several studies using the data, I intend to return to the study of heterosexual behavior soon.


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