By Mark Regnerus
The Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families has been getting copious positive press coverage. Unfortunately, it has some serious methodological weaknesses—it studies only the lives and experiences of the LGBT elite.
Imagine if evangelical sociologists set out to document how the children of evangelical Christian parents fare in life. Imagine that they begin their effort by recruiting parents of children who attend Sunday School classes at places like Wheaton Bible Church outside Chicago and Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, California—both located in prosperous communities with above-average social capital and support for families, children, and faith. They choose this approach because churchgoing, self-identified evangelicals with children under age eighteen comprise less than 3 percent of the population of American adults (this is true), and the researchers figure it will be easier to recruit participants than to evaluate those who might show up randomly in a population-based sample. They know a random sample is best, but they cite “cost constraints” and “difficult research constraints” in justifying their decision to use a convenience sample.
Then the scholars survey the parents, asking them questions about how their kids are faring. They compile the results and call it the American Christian Family Study. The study includes a comparison sample of other parents and children, pulled from a fine population-based survey so as to display what average children from average families look like. The evangelical kids compare well; they do better, actually, than the children from average families across the country. Their parents are more likely to report being married, educated, stable, and employed. The parents tell the researchers that the kids are faring well, too—they don’t have many emotional challenges, are doing well in school, and are generally getting along well in life. The study’s initial findings are published in a peer-reviewed social science journal, and they help to improve public perception of evangelical parents.
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Would the social scientific community consider this study a solid one, employing high-quality sample selection methods and useful both for understanding the experience of Christian households in America and for comparing this group of children with other children? To put it mildly, it’s unlikely. And I would agree with them.
The Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families
You will not, however, witness very many scholarly misgivings about a new published study analyzing data from the Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families (ACHESS), even though I’ve just offered a close analogy of its sampling and comparative strategy. I do not bear ill will toward the research team; data collection is no simple task. I won’t impugn the motivations of the author and his collaborators. Those vary widely, and everyone has his own. I don’t care about the source of the funding. But the study deserves some critical commentary.
The authors declare that the “study aims to describe the physical, mental and social wellbeing of Australian children with same-sex attracted parents, and the impact that stigma has on them.” They conclude that “children with same-sex attracted parents score higher than population samples on a number of parent-reported measures of child health.” The study has generated headlines such as this one from the Washington Post: “Children of same-sex couples happier and healthier than peers, research shows.”
But we cannot learn this from the ACHESS study, because of these two sentences in the study’s methodology section:
The convenience sample was recruited using online and traditional recruitment techniques, accessing same-sex attracted parents through news media, community events and community groups. Three hundred and ninety eligible parents contacted the researchers…
The ACHESS’s interim report, issued just under two years ago, foreshadowed the positive conclusions of the recently-published article—in the same journal, no less—and had more to say about its sampling approach:
Initial recruitment will . . . include advertisements and media releases in gay and lesbian press, flyers at gay and lesbian social and support groups, and investigator attendance at gay and lesbian community events . . . Primarily recruitment will be through emails posted on gay and lesbian community email lists aimed at same-sex parenting. This will include, but not be limited to, Gay Dads Australia and the Rainbow Families Council of Victoria.
I don’t know if there’s any other way to say this than to suggest that—like my opening scenario—this is not the way to build a sense of average same-sex households with children. To compare the results from such an unusual sample with that of a population-based sample of everyone else is just suspect science. And I may be putting that too mildly.
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