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Demography. 1999 Nov;36(4):421-8.

Going to extremes: family structure, children's well-being, and social science.

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  • 1Department of Sociology, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD 21218, USA.


In this article I argue that public discussions of demographic issues are often conducted in a troubling pattern in which one extreme position is debated in relation to the opposite extreme. This pattern impedes our understanding of social problems and is a poor guide to sound public policies. To illustrate this thesis I use the case of social scientific research examining how children are affected by not living with two biological parents while they are growing up. Over the last decade, I maintain, most of the public, and even many social scientists, have been puzzled and poorly informed by this debate. In particular I consider Judith Wallerstein's clinically based claims of the pervasive, profound harm caused by divorce and, at the other extreme, Judith Rich Harris's reading of behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology, which leads her to dismiss the direct effects of divorce. Neither extreme gives a clear picture of the consequences of growing up in a single-parent family or a stepfamily.

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