Changing perceptions of FGM/C

Sarah Tenoi, a Maasai woman from Kenya, talks about her work to encourage her community to take part in an alternate rite of passage to womanhood in order to end FGM/C. She says that 98% of girls were cut before she started, but now the perception is that 20% of girls go through the alternate, no-cutting ceremony.

It’s a great story and don’t I wish someone had been on hand to implement a rigorous qualitative and quantitative survey with questions on social norms before and afterward.

h/t @Africasacountry

On Iran’s “Erotic Revolution”

Data are always a mischievous thing and even more so when they out of a religious autocracy. In the US, it’s commonly said that women underreport their sexual partners when asked by one to two, so you can only imagine how such a question might go over in Iran.

It hasn’t, but Foreign Policy says that other data that are more readily available point to a sexual revolution in Iran that includes sex before marriage, earlier sexual debut, and increased use of contraceptives.

While not necessarily positive or negative, Iran’s sexual revolution is certainly unprecedented. Social attitudes have changed so much in the last few decades that many members of the Iranian diaspora are shellshocked when they visit the country: “These days Tehran makes London look like a conservative city,” a British-Iranian acquaintance recently told me upon returning from Tehran. When it comes to sexual mores, Iran is indeed moving in the direction of Britain and the United States — and fast.

The article is long on speculation and short on facts, mostly because they’re not available, but many data points do point to some interesting demographic changes that could signal a cultural shift in the perception of sex outside of marriage, the value of marriage and childbearing, and more.

What’s not entirely clear is why. The article gives suggests that the current generation of young people is reacting to the lack of emergence of a utopian society and that having sex outside of marriage is part of the small rebellions they are engaging against the regime.

It’s a tidy theory, but it likely obscures the story. First, demographic shifts take time to happen. Iranians didn’t wake up in 2013 and decide to stop having children. Even if they did, we wouldn’t see the changes in national averages yet. This evolved over a few decades. Secondly, there is ample evidence that young Iranian women were fairly progressive in their attitudes regarding female independence, sexuality, and empowerment before the Revolution, so it is more likely that the children of those women who underwent their own sexual revolution in the 70s are coming of age and making decisions that reflect the attitudes projected in their own homes, if not in an official or public sense.

I’d also venture to say that it might be possible that some progressive or secular Iranians are choosing not to have children because they don’t want them to grow up under the regime they have experienced. That’s more in line with the explanation offered by FP, but it’s also pure speculation.

Woohoo, Spring Break Reading List!

It’s Spring Break for Gettysburg College, which means I have jetted off to somewhere it decidedly does not look like Spring. Well, perhaps at least in the conventional definition. I’m quite happy to see snowflakes my entire break, but many of my students were appalled that I wasn’t heading south for warmer weather. Oh, well.

A break from classes means work with new data, getting caught up with student blog posts, and of course books. Below is a peek into what I’m reading this week, though it likely won’t be the last you hear from me about these books.

Fundamental division

In a totally not related but very appropriate follow-up to my post last week on the social safety net, Noam Scheiber at The New Republic has an analysis of the President’s inauguration speech up. Reading through the speech this morning, what struck me was just how progressive the rhetoric was, despite a relatively significant track record of not very progressive policies supported by the President over his first term. Scheiber points out that the speech is not unique for its liberal nature, but for its defense of liberalism, which is quite eloquent.

Scheiber also notes the fundamental divide that appears to exist in Americans’ understanding of the role of government that I mused on briefly.

What Obama has learned over the past four years is that we don’t actually agree on that much. A lot of people—a huge chunk of the country, in fact—emphatically disagree him. It turns out that the bloodsport aspect of politics isn’t so much a cause of our dysfunction. It’s largely an effect—an extension of the fact that people have really strong feelings on both sides of these questions. And if you want to win some of them over, it’s not enough to raise the level of political discourse and treat one another with more civility. You’ve got to change how people feel about the underlying questions of policy and values. You’ve got to explain to them why too much income inequality is counterproductive and why the safety net is indispensable.

I wonder if this marks a significant coming policy shift in the Obama administration. We shall see, I guess.

The social safety net: Attitudes and values

The Pew Global Forum highlights a hefty paper by some folks at the New America Foundation (.pdf here) today on Americans’ attitudes towards the social safety net. There are enough facts in it that trying to summarize it here would be futile, but you can probably guess the results. Americans are less supportive of programs for the poor than their European counterparts. One of the most striking revelations is how much Republican support for taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves has declined, since the Reagan administration, but perhaps more interesting, since the end of the George W. Bush administration. Somehow, being in the biggest recession that most of us can remember led those who identify as Republicans to think we should support the poor less.

I won’t say I’m not baffled.

Though the study does not go into it, part of this likely has to do with the increased distaste for the national debt, a war that is raging in Congress right now with little end in sight. I’m not going to enter that fray or even link to the madness because I think it’s ludicrous and irresponsible, but you can google “debt ceiling” and see for yourself, if you like.

Reading the Pew survey reminded me of a conversation I had with my dad about Social Security. He’s eligible to collect benefits and is trying to decide whether to get on the rolls now or wait. He’s afraid that means testing will be implemented and then he will not be eligible, but starting to collect also means that he will not be able to work one or two days a week as he has done since he retired. Means testing turns Social Security into one of the programs for people who cannot take care of themselves, and if Pew is right, support for it will dramatically drop. Many of my father’s generation seem to be of the mindset that “I paid into Social Security; it’s my right to collect,” while many of my generation see a small chance of Social Security existing into the future (rightly or wrongly), and perhaps have tended to write off that portion of our incomes.

There is a lot more in the NAF report about the intersection of value and attitudes. It is worth a read.

Gender bias in the sciences

The internets have been buzzing lately with a new study that shows gender bias in the sciences. Per their results, women are less likely to be hired on as lab assistants, offered lower salaries than men, and deemed less competent. All this was in an experimental setting. There isn’t even some fancy statistical tricks that econometricians are super proud of to prove their results. The exact same resume was distributed to potential employers with a randomly selected name that was either typically male or typically female. On the same application, the mere appearance of a woman’s name led to fewer offers and much more criticism.

I haven’t read the paper yet, but it immediately brought to mind a similar experiment undertaken by economist Marianne Bertrand on race, published in 2004: Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal?, where employers were offered identical resumes with the names changed. Some got a resume with a generic sounding “white” name and others received the same resume with a name more common among the black population. Not surprisingly, Emily and Greg got higher ratings than Lakisha and Jamal. Just, unfortunately, as unsurprising as Jennifer receiving lower marks for competence, offered lower salaries and being offered the job less often than John.

Peer effects, health behaviors and adolescents

Some months ago I was at a conference, listening to a presentation on breastfeeding initiation and the presenter cited a paper by Fletcher. My first and second thoughts were, “how did that person get my breastfeeding paper?” and then “I didn’t say that in my paper.” Thanks to my trusty smartphone, I went searching for the paper, thinking perhaps my Gettysburg colleague, Jean Fletcher, had actually written it (a source of endless confusion for students, believe me), but found instead that it was Jason Fletcher, at Yale’s School of Public Health. Since then, I’ve run into a number of his papers and today, one came out in the NBER Working Paper series (gated), a paper on adolescent health behaviors and network effects with Stephen L. Ross.

The paper seeks to identify the effect that adolescents’ peers’ choices have on an individual’s health. If that sounds complicated, you’re not alone. Basically, the idea is that we want to know how strongly a child’s friend’s choices affect the child’s choices. The problem of how to causally identify this effect has plagued researchers for some time. In particular, the issue is that ideally, we would want to observe one student’s choices in different peer groups. But even if we can identify an exogenous change in peer groups (or in peer groups’ choices, but most likely through a change in peer group), the change in peer group is generally coupled with a dramatic change in environment as well. For instance, Fletcher and Ross cite one paper that shows that children who move from high-poverty areas to lower poverty areas experience better outcomes. Clearly, their peer group changes because the kids in one area have access to different activities, different stimuli, etc, but also the general environment changes. Mothers of these children report reduced stress, for example, which in and of itself has been shown to improve outcomes for children (or more precisely, children in high-stress living situations have worse outcomes–memory is failing me at the moment, I’ll update when I recall a relevant paper). So, when the environment changes and the peer group changes, it’s difficult to separate out the effects.

Using Add Health, which is a really cool survey instrument, by the way, the authors identify the effect by arguing that there is rather little variation in cohorts within a grade, but friend groups that look similar (on characteristics observable to the researcher)

At any rate, I think it’s a pretty neat identification strategy. It rests on some pretty strong assumptions, primarily that when groups cluster on observable characteristics, they’re unobservable characteristics are also similar, but dissimilar on the characteristics that influence health behaviors. This assumption is a bit problematic, I think, but I’m resolving it in my head by thinking of the insertion of one student with a particular tendency to smoke (his older sister does it, perhaps?) into a peer group in 9th grade, while a similarly made-up peer group in 10th grade doesn’t receive that idiosyncratic shock. Thus, the two groups look pretty similar, but by virtue of being in different grades, they have exposure to different kids and thus end up with different health behaviors.

Neat, no?

One concern I do have, though, is the idea that these friend groups are really that separate. I’m not very familiar with the way Add Health identifies friend groups, but I seem to recall some issues arising for researchers given a) the definition changing, and b) there being a limit on the number of friends that could be identified. From my own experience (clearly the most relevant), there was also a lot of grade mixing of friends in high school, even more so in dating. Sports, off periods, electives, and activities all gave way to friends in classes above and below. I grant that I went to a rather unique high school (billed as a sort of mini college campus), but it seems like it might be even more pronounced in a small schools. The assumptions of separation might be easier to make with middle schoolers, although incidence of averse health behaviors are going to be lower there and perhaps harder to identify.


  1. Jason M. Fletcher and Stephen L. Ross. Estimating the Effects of Friendship Networks on Health Behaviors of Adolescents. NBER Working Paper 18253. July 2012.
  2. Kling, J.R., J.B. Liebman, & L. Katz. (2007). Experimental Analysis of Neighborhood Effects. Econometrica 75(1): 83-119.