Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible

Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible

by Philip N. Cohen

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In Enduring Bonds, Philip N. Cohen, renowned sociologist and blogger of the wildly popular and insightful Family Inequality, examines the complex landscape of today's diverse families. Through his interpretive lens and lively discussions, Cohen encourages us to alter our point of view on families, sharing new ideas about the future of marriage, the politics of research, and how data can either guide or mislead us. Deftly balancing personal stories and social science research, and accessibly written for students, Cohen shares essays that tie current events to demographic data. Class-tested in Cohen’s own lectures and courses, Enduring Bonds challenges students to think critically about the role of families, gender, and inequality in our society today. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520292390
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/06/2018
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Philip N. Cohen is Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of The Family: Diversity,
Inequality, and Social Change
 and the Family
Inequality blog. His essays have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Atlantic.


Read an Excerpt


Modernity, Parenting, and Families

My research career began with an interest in modern inequality, and especially in how different kinds of inequality intersect (in the 1990s, this concern often went under a list that now seems quaintly short: "race, class, and gender"). My first project as an intern was to examine large demographic data sets from the US Census Bureau and figure out how many unmarried couples were living together. That and a few other projects eventually made me a family demographer, but my interest in inequality persisted. I started pulling families and inequality together — and increasingly saw families as one of the key pieces of the intersecting inequality puzzle. To get into that requires more than the simple observation that children inherit the wealth or poverty of their parents — although that is a good deal of the point. It requires unearthing what happens within families, the gender and age and power issues that percolate behind the closed doors of the family household. And to see the overall effect of families on inequality, we need to tackle the less obvious — and hard to track — problem of who get to have the families they want, which (as the marriage equality debate taught us) turns out to be the crux of many matters.

In this chapter I start with several essays on what we now call "parenting," the uniquely modern practice of transforming the raw material of humanity into interlocking — even if disordered — pieces of the social order. Nothing in this process is as obvious as it seems, from the individual yet profoundly social decision of what to name a child through the immediate imperative to keep children safe. From sudden infant death syndrome to Santa, from vaccine exemptions to screen time, parenting is a complicated performance that both reflects and builds identities in the family, and between families. Inequality is not the only product of this performance, but it's one of the most important.


For the first time in the history of the United States of America, the name Mary fell out of the top hundred names given to newborn girls in 2009, according to data from the Social Security name database. This milestone in our cultural transformation apparently went unnoticed beyond the few readers of my blog. In the raw numbers, the number of Marys born as of 2016 was down 95 percent from 1961, the last year she was at #1 — a drop from 47,645 that year to just 2,487 now.

Mary was the #1 name every year in the database from 1880 — when Social Security records start — to 1961 (except for a five-year stint as second to Linda in 1947–52). Naming your daughter Mary was as traditional as girls wearing blue (the color associated with the Virgin Mary). In fact, however, we now know Mary has been falling in popularity since 1850, but hardly anyone noticed. In 1961, 2.3 percent of girls were given the name Mary, but in 1850 it was 13 percent. Going back further, the signers of the US Constitution in 1787 had forty-three wives, 21 percent of whom were named Mary (another 21 percent were named Elizabeth, but that name was never again as dominant). I also checked sixty-seven wives of Confederate and Union generals and found that 28 percent were named Mary. Among regular people, a study of naming in the town of Hingham, Massachusetts, found that 12 percent of girls were named Mary around 1800 (Sarah was almost as popular before 1800).

Now, thanks to a law that allows old federal records to become public after seventy-two years, and the diligent efforts of the IPUMS (Integrated Public Use Microdata Series) database at the University of Minnesota, we can analyze the names of individuals in the United States going back to 1850 — and since some women in the 1850 Census were quite old I can look back as far as about 1780 to see what proportion of them were named Mary back then (figure 1). Here is the resulting trend for Mary, expressed as a percentage of all girls born in the United States. By the time Mary fell from the #1 spot her dominance had already long since faded.

Naming patterns demonstrate how that which is most personal is profoundly shaped by social trends larger than ourselves. That's why, even with about two million girls born each year in the United States, the number named Mary is always within a few hundred of the previous year — and why the line in figure 1 is so smooth. In the tradition of treating statistical trends as horse races, I imagine that there is one person named Mary, who is constantly falling behind: first behind Linda, then Lisa, Jennifer, Ashley, Jessica, and so on, all the way to Isabella and Sophia and Emma. That's what it looks like, but that's not how it happens — it's just an illusion created by the amazing regularity in human behavior, which produces an orderly succession of names. Somehow, the millions of individual decisions that parents make produce steady trends like this. The trend is powerful, but how it works is opaque. Something in "the culture" is applying pressure to millions of families in such a way that the already tiny proportion deciding to use Mary becomes smaller almost every year. The fact is: few people nowadays want to name girls Mary. Why?

It's not the fall of religion. Consider that, in 2014, there were 1.6 times as many girls named Nevaeh — heaven spelled backward. The rise (and, already, beginning of a fall) of Nevaeh, which only appeared on the list in 2001, is a tipoff to what's going on. It's the long-term increase in naming diversity. Compare 1960 with 2014 (figure 2). The top hundred girls' names were given to 60 percent of girls in 1960, but they now represent just half that: 31 percent. Emma, the #1 name is 2014, was given to just 1.1 percent of girls.

So how do we understand this transformation? It's not immigration or ethnic diversity, although these may play some role in recent decades. (Maria showed potential, rising as high as thirty-first place in the early 1970s, but now she's crashed as well, down to #115.) In fact, in the old days Mary was common among Blacks as well as Whites, and my own analysis of the census data shows that Mary was very common among the children of immigrants from Germany and eastern Europe as well as Ireland and the United Kingdom.

As I try to fit these facts to my broader analysis of family trends, I think the collapse of Mary is mostly about the emergence of a modern view of children. The modernization theory of name trends was advanced most famously by Stanley Lieberson in his book A Matter of Taste. He saw the rise of individualism in modern naming practices. "As the role of the extended family, religious rules, and other institutional pressures declines," he wrote, "choices are increasingly free to be matters of taste." Mary — both a traditional American name and a symbol of religious Christianity — embodies this trend.

In the old days no one ever asked if the name Mary had "jumped the shark," because children's names weren't the subject of fashion. Now parents interested in the happening names consult the Social Security list, along with many others available all over, to help find just the right name. (Personally, I recommend a name that is not that popular — somewhere between 100 and 400 — but that shows increasing popularity. That way your kid will be one of the older ones in a growing group of kids with the same name that look up to her — and you will look like a trendsetter.)

Two centuries ago, the vast majority of European Americans were not looking for a unique name, or a name that was coming into vogue, or a name that matched a popular cultural figure — or trying to avoid a name that had jumped the shark. They usually just named children after family members. Besides the sad fact that many children died at young ages — and that there were too many children to keep track of (the average White woman had seven children in 1800) — it just didn't seem to occur to people that children were priceless individuals. And naming wasn't a way to make a statement about character and identity.

By the twentieth century Americans had started to fixate on the uniqueness of each child (and they only had about two per family). Not only was difference valued, but individuality emerged as a project — starting with naming — of creating an identity. That doesn't mean everyone wants a unique name (though, unlike in the past, some people do try for that). It means that naming is a statement of the kind of person kids are to become. So people are influenced by a TV show or a hit song and names shoot upward as fads, or crash downward when an image crisis occurs. Minor name crazes are apparent in the data after the popularity of hit songs such as "Maggie" (Rod Stewart, 1971), "Brandy" (Looking Glass, 1972), and even "Rhiannon" (Fleetwood Mac, 1975). On the other hand, the movie Forrest Gump killed the name Forrest in 1994, the public coming out of Ellen DeGeneres as gay seems to have tanked Ellen in 1997, and the scandal named after Monica Lewinsky marked the beginning of the end of Monica in 1998.

After all this time, amazingly, it's quite possible Mary will come back. In 2014 she had her second year of not falling in the rankings, which could signal the start of a turnaround (my 2012 essay for the Atlantic on this topic may or may not have played a role here). But she can never come back as she once was — a default traditional name. If she does, it will be as a fashion trend, as happened most dramatically with Emma. Emma was #3 in 1880 but fell almost continuously until the mid-1970s — as low as 458th — before turning around for a meteoric rise to #1 in 2008 and 2014. Unlike Bertha, who was once a top contender before disappearing, Emma is the rare name that rose from the ashes as fashionably classic.

If Mary does come back, it will raise a vexing question: Is it better to be the default traditional name — the most popular during the centuries when naming was not a status-conscious choice — or the top name in a crowded, competitive field of fiercely contested alternatives? Either way, I doubt Mary (or any other name) will have the kind of long-lasting dominance she once did.


I've been thinking about what we can learn from language trends on families.

A while ago I read a column by the Times's Lisa Belkin, in which she wrote about the supposed decline of overparenting and the rise of the hip new nonchalant parenting. It's a series of fads, she said: "After all, that is the way it is with parenting — which I bet was never used as a verb before the 20th century, when medicine reached the point where parents could assume their babies would survive." It bugged me at the time that the Times couldn't supply her with an intern — or a dictionary — to actually run down the term so that she didn't have to speculate on when it had first appeared. More importantly, though, modern medicine is only part of the story. You would have to suspect a constellation of factors, including falling fertility, increasing educational investments, more higher education for parents/mothers, the modernization of medical and psychological expertise, the secularization of science, and who knows what else.

Anyway, I like the idea that parenting as a concept is relatively new. And she was right. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, parenting ("the activity of being a parent; the rearing of a child or children") appeared in the Washington Post in 1918, in the phrase "the philosophy of perfect parenting." Figure 3 shows the Google trend for the word parenting in books in American English from 1960 to 2008.

Consistent with the cultural shift idea — fewer, healthier children and richer, more educated parents — parenting emerged with reference to its discrete qualities as a modern activity. (The OED reports that it appeared in Britannica's Book of the Year in 1959: "the supervision by parents of their children.") The academic database JSTOR has a use of the term from 1930, but that's in reference to biological procreation, not rearing. The first time it is used in the sense of "rearing" is in the Social Service Review in 1952 in an article about foster care: "It is impossible in a changing world to expect to find a perfect or final solution to the difficult problem of sharing the parenting of children between child-care agencies and inadequate own parents." It starts appearing routinely in the core journal Marriage and Family Living in 1953, as in this from 1954: "Sibling rivalry is one of the commonest evidences of poor parenting." Wait, really? Good kids with good parents don't have sibling rivalry? That should mean sibling rivalry has declined as a concern since parents' education increased and standards rose after, say, the 1940s. Except, of course, sibling rivalry wasn't discovered (or, at least, named) until the 1930s, as Google ngrams also show. The emergence of parenting has accompanied a host of attendant parenting deficits. The modern path of progress is littered with obstacles of its own creating.

As usual, the ratcheting up of standards (which may or may not be good for kids) starts among the well-off, and the more rigorous standards are then enforced upon those at lower levels in the social order, who are left to scrape together some cheap advice from the Internet or one of the thousands of howto parenting books.

Individuality, Dated

Modern parenting is both faddish and individualistic — conformist in its ideals, which include uniquely tailoring the experience to the individual child. In the essay on naming girls Mary, I said that two centuries ago it just didn't occur to people that children were priceless individuals. But what is the evidence for this? After reading Stanley Lieberson's work on naming in the late nineteenth century, I turned to Viviana Zelizer's Pricing the Priceless Child. She tracks the shift in the cultural valuing of children to that period as well. Before that time orphans were either handy little workers or burdens to be shed, and mortality rates in orphanages were astronomical; after that, they (or some of them) were expensive objects of priceless value for infertile couples. Also in the late nineteenth century there were bursts of activity in the production of parenting advice and in the professionalization of elementary education.

Somewhere in that reading I came across the phrase "child's individuality," and it seemed to flag the birth of modern childhood. Ngrams concurs, showing that the term first appeared in the 1860s and then rocketed up in usage frequency in the last two decades of that century.

A read through the citations from that period shows they are concentrated in the parenting advice and education fields. Here's an example from the advice literature in 1890: "A child is liable to be looked upon as if he were simply one child among many children, a specimen representative of childhood generally; but every child stands all by himself in the world as an individual, with his own personality and character, with his own thoughts and feelings, his own hopes and fears and possibilities, his own relations to his fellow-beings and to God." And one from the education literature in 1886: "The child's individuality and freedom should be sacredly respected. All educational processes are to be based on a careful study, not only of child-nature in general, but also of the idiosyncrasies of the individual pupil." This was the new, modern scientific attitude toward children, ushering in the century of "parenting."


How do families transmit inequality? This is an area where some of sociology's big ideas are being pursued, challenged, and tested through empirical studies — and where sociology is directly relevant to a pressing public issue: rising inequality.


Excerpted from "Enduring Bonds"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Philip N. Cohen.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Modernity, Parenting, and Families

1. Why Don’t Parents Name Their Daughters Mary Anymore?
2. “Parenting” through the (Only Very Recent) Ages
3. How Do They Do It?
4. Parenting Survivor Bias
5. Santa’s Magic, Children’s Wisdom, and

Chapter 2. Marriage, Single Mothers, and Poverty

1. What Does It Take to Eliminate Poverty?
2. Reducing Poverty through Marriage
3. Single Mothers and Crime

Chapter 3. Marriage Promotion

1. We Can’t Build Our Social System around Marriage Anymore
2. Marriage (Not) Promoted
3. Turns Out Marriage and
Inequality Go Pretty Well Together
4. Marriage Promotion and the Myth of Teen Pregnancy
5. The Marriage Movement Has Failed (Long Live the Marriage Movement)
6. Getting Serious about Promoting Marriage to End Poverty

Chapter 4. Marriage Equality in Social Science and the Courts

Chapter 5. Doing Dimorphism

1. Gender Wars and the Defense of Difference
2. Pink and Blue
3. Braced for Beauty

Chapter 6. Gender

1. Gender Segregation at the New York Times
2. The Gender Gap Gets It from All Sides
3. Gender Shifts in Families
4. That Feminist Viral Statistic Meme

Chapter 7. Race, Gender, and Families

1. Black Is Not a Color
2. Black Women’s Educational Success
3. Detroit’s Grueling Demographic Decline
4. What They Say about Race When They Don’t Say Anything about Race
5. Race, Racism, and Missing Marriages

Chapter 8. Feminism and Sexuality

1. Not Your Feminist Grandmother’s Patriarchy
2. Does Sleeping with a Guy on the First Date Make Him Less Likely to Call Back?
3. Is the Price of Sex Too Damn Low?
4. Getting beyond How The Factual Feminist Is Wrong about the Prevalence of Rape
5. Why I Don’t Defend the Sex-versus-Gender Distinction
6. Does Doing Difference Deny Dominance?



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