Monday, February 22, 2016

Weird Sociological Science

Much has been made in recent months over findings that life expectancy is actually declining for blue-collar whites, while not declining for blue-collar blacks and Hispanics. Most of the premature deaths are attributable to substance abuse and suicide.

Sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin has written, for The New York Times, a quite interesting explanation of why this may be happening. In social science terms, he is defending a hypothesized relationship between behavior and reference groups.
To comprehend how people think and behave, it’s important to understand the standards to which they compare themselves. How is your life going? For most of us, the answer to that question means comparing our lives to the lives our parents were able to lead. As children and adolescents, we closely observed our parents. They were our first reference group.

Reference group theory explains why people who have more may feel that they have less. What matters is to whom you are comparing yourself. It’s not that white workers are doing worse than African-Americans or Hispanics.

It’s likely that many non-college-educated whites are comparing themselves to a generation that had more opportunities than they have, whereas many blacks and Hispanics are comparing themselves to a generation that had fewer opportunities.

For some whites — perhaps the ones who account for the increasing death rate — (snip) their main reference group is their parents’ generation, and by that standard they have little to look forward to and a lot to lament.
This explanation has what, as social science grad students, we once called "face validity" by which we meant "it looks right, but hasn't been proven.'