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Razib Khan
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One thing that people occasionally mention in the comments on this weblog is that it seems futile to be “conservative” because the arrow of history goes in one direction. Even many conservatives, including myself, have fallen into this assumption. But upon a closer inspection of history I think we need to be careful about this, as the truth can sometimes confound our coarse models. For example, I strongly suspect that when it comes to love and marriage the realized element of individual liberty has not had a monotonic trajectory over human history. More plainly, free choice declined over the past 10,000 years, and has reemerged in the past few centuries. Whether this is liberal or conservative is less relevant than that it shows that attitudes, beliefs, and practices, do not always change in magnitude in one direction, only at different rates. More recently, sexual mores in the West shifted to a more puritanical direction between 1750 and 1900, only to switch back to a more relaxed attitude over the 20th century (with a punctuated shift in the 1960s).

And these sorts of trends are evident even over a shorter time scale. So it may be with attitudes toward divorce. One could argue (I probably would) that “liberal” attitudes toward divorce in the 1970s was a correction from an unsustainable equilibrium leading up to the 1960s. But over the past few decades it does look as if college educated whites have had second thoughts about the “arrow of history.” At the very least they are now more likely to stand athwart history and yell “stop.”

Below are results limited to non-Hispanic whites with college educations. Note especially the change in those with “No religions.” They seem clearly to have had enough.

Attitudes toward divorce laws:

1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s
Born before 1946 Easier 35 19 18 15
More Difficult 40 52 54 50
Stay Same 25 28 28 35
Born 1946-1964 Easier 43 22 20 18
More Difficult 31 48 50 47
Stay Same 26 31 30 35
Born after 1965 Easier * * 16 17
More Difficult * * 53 52
Stay Same * * 32 31
Liberals Easier 49 27 26 26
More Difficult 26 40 35 32
Stay Same 26 33 39 42
Moderates Easier 36 23 19 17
More Difficult 33 51 51 47
Stay Same 30 27 30 36
Conservatives Easier 26 16 14 9
More Difficult 52 57 65 65
Stay Same 21 27 21 26
Protestant Easier 32 18 14 11
More Difficult 42 56 60 58
Stay Same 26 26 26 31
Catholic Easier 29 19 18 15
More Difficult 45 54 55 53
Stay Same 26 27 27 32
No Religion Easier 63 35 32 28
More Difficult 14 18 26 28
Stay Same 22 47 42 44
1986 index income <$20,000 Easier 36 18 20 16
More Difficult 40 56 51 46
Stay Same 24 26 29 38
1986 index income $20,000-$50,000 Easier 37 21 19 16
More Difficult 37 49 54 55
Stay Same 26 30 28 29
1986 index income $50,000> Easier 39 22 20 18
More Difficult 36 47 49 46
Stay Same 25 31 32 36

All results computed from the GSS

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Divorce, Social Science 
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There’s a cliche, which isn’t totally false, that more education tends to lead one toward heterodox viewpoints which challenge conventional norms. But one issue that has been coming to the fore over the last 10 years or so is that college educated Americans tend toward social liberalism, and yet often continue to live very bourgeois lives. In other words, the freedoms which they favor are those freedoms which are ever operative in their own lives. In contrast those Americans without college educations tend to have a less libertarian attitude toward personal mores, but have lives characterized by greater disturbance and disastrous choices.

And yet this does not hold in the case of what articles such as this report, How Divorce Lost Its Groove:

Though she wasn’t entirely surprised. Ever since her divorce three years ago, Ms. Thomas said, she has been antisocial, “nervous about what people would say.”

After all, she had gone from Park Slope matron, complete with involved husband (“We had cracked the code of Gen X peer parenthood”) and gut-renovated brownstone, to “a Red Hook divorcée,” she said, remarried with a new baby and two children-of-divorce barely out of preschool. “All of a sudden, this community I’d lived in for 13 years became this spare and mean savannah,” she said.

It was as if, she said, everyone she knew felt bad for her but no one wanted to be near her, either. Even though adultery was not part of the equation, Ms. Thomas said, “I feel like I have a giant letter A on my front and back.

The article goes on to detail how exactly marriage is working for the upper middle class, and it is not working for the lower and lower middle class. But there isn’t much more than anecdote for social attitudes, as opposed to actions (which may have material bases). So I decided to look at the General Social Survey. I looked at the variable DIVLAW over the 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s. Then I limited the sample to whites, and divided them between those with college degrees, and those without. To my surprise the “trend story” seems about right in broad strokes:

1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s
Non-college educated Make divorce easier 25 23 24 24
Keep the law the same 22 19 19 22
Make divorce more difficult 53 59 57 54
College educated Make divorce easier 38 21 19 17
Keep the law the same 25 30 29 34
Make divorce more difficult 37 50 51 49

Mind you, this does not lend itself to an interpretation that college educated want to take divorce laws and norms back to the 1950s. Rather, there seems a genuine strand of sentiment that the liberties of the 1970s went too far. This is an important finding because in general the more well educated are more socially liberal in attitudes on a given issue. And, quite often that liberalism waxes over time. Here you have a case where that is not so. Why? I have to offer that perhaps that is because divorce is not simply a matter of the individual. It effects the social fabric, and in particular children.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Data Analysis, Divorce, Marriage 
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Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"