New Family Structures Study
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The New Family Structures Study (abbreviated NFSS) is an epidemiological study of LGB parenting conducted by sociologist Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas at Austin. The study surveyed over 15,000 adults between the ages of 18 and 39. The first research article based on data from the study was published in July 2012 in Social Science Research, and concluded that children raised by parents in same-gender relationships were at a greater risk of several adverse outcomes, including "being on public assistance, being unemployed, and having poorer educational attainment."
Regnerus claimed his study was methodologically superior to previous research on the topic because it used a larger and more random sample. Nevertheless, the study was met with considerable criticism from many academics and scholarly organizations.
The NFSS surveyed over 15,000 adults between the ages of 18 and 39 and was conducted by Knowledge Networks on behalf of the University of Texas at Austin. Its stated purpose was to determine differences in outcomes among young adults raised by same-sex parents compared to young adults raised by "their married biological parents, those raised with a step-parent, and those raised in homes with two adoptive parents." The survey collected data from young adults who had grown up in one of five unconventional families, namely, those where their parents are of the same sex, biologically unrelated parents adopted the respondent, parents were unmarried but co-habiting, biological mother had a romantic relationship with another man, and biological mother did not have a romantic relationship with another man. The survey also collected data from young adults from conventional families as a control group.
The study was funded by the Witherspoon Institute, which spent about $700,000 on it, and by the Bradley Foundation, which invested $90,000 in it. The Witherspoon Institute's president expected results that would be unfavorable to those supporting gay marriage. In the initial report, Regnerus stated that the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation played no role in the design of the study, and dismissed accusations that these organizations had improperly influenced him. In 2013, however, in response to requests by the American Independent News Network, emails sent between Regnerus and Witherspoon Institute employee Brad Wilcox were released which cast doubt on these statements. In one email, Wilcox approved several items relating to the study on behalf of the Witherspoon Institute. Critics have also noted that Wilcox was on the editorial board of Social Science Research, the journal in which the study was later published.
Cynthia Osborne, who is on the UT-Austin faculty along with Regnerus, argued the study was unable to show "whether same-sex parenting causes the observed differences." She also said that "Children of lesbian mothers might have lived in many different family structures, and it is impossible to isolate the effects of living with a lesbian mother from experiencing divorce, remarriage or living with a single parent." Similarly, Gary Gates of the Williams Institute argued that the study's comparison of children of lesbian mothers was a less fair comparison than, for instance, comparing "children of heterosexual or same-sex couples who were raised in similar homes".
Several writers criticized Regnerus' study for classifying children as being raised by gay parents merely if one of their parents ever had a same-sex relationship until the child turned 18. Additionally, Regnerus himself acknowledged that other factors might explain the differences observed in his study, including "...a lack of social support for parents, stress exposure resulting from persistent stigma, and modest or absent legal security for their parental and romantic relationship statuses." In the July 2015 issue of Social Science Research, Cheng and Powell reanalyzed the data from Regnerus' study and found numerous potential measurement errors, and concluded that Regnerus' conclusions were due to these errors "and other methodological choices".
Allegations of scientific misconduct
Soon after the paper was published, blogger Scott Rose accused Regnerus of scientific misconduct for two reasons: deviating from ethical standards and possible falsification of his research. An inquiry was later conducted by the University of Texas-Austin which found that no investigation into these charges was warranted. In 2014, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas-Austin, Randy Diehl asked University of Texas sociologist and associate dean Marc Musick to review the controversy around the NFSS article as part of Regnerus' seventh-year post-tenure evaluation. Musick sympathetically summarized many of the prior criticisms, going on to allege that the survey itself was designed to ensure the conflation of family structure and the parents' same-sex orientation, practically guaranteeing negative results. Musick claimed that non-disclosure of this design flaw in the original article possibly violated University research ethics standards. Regnerus claimed the opposite, that the observed instability was due to social realities, not study design.
Peer review process
In July 2012, over 150 scientists wrote a letter to the editor of Social Science Research criticizing the study and raising concerns about the journal's peer review process. In the November 2012 issue of the journal, an audit was published by Darren Sherkat of Southern Illinois University regarding the peer-review process with respect to the Regnerus study (as well as another study from the same issue). The audit concluded that the peer-review process failed in these instances because of “both ideology and inattention” by the reviewers; he added that of the six reviewers, three of them were on record as opposing same-sex marriage. Sherkat also dismissed the study as "bullshit" in an interview and argued that its definition of gay fathers and lesbian mothers should have “disqualified it immediately” from being considered for publication.
In April 2013, journalist John Becker sued the University of Central Florida, where James D. Wright, editor-in-chief of Social Science Research, worked. The suit alleged that the school has violated state law by failing to provide documents pertaining to the study's publication. Becker and others expressed suspicion on the fact that Regnerus' study had taken only six weeks to be published after it was first submitted, while other papers in the same issue took an entire year.
In August 2013, sociologist Philip N. Cohen wrote on his blog that Wright relied on paid consultants to review the paper and failed to disclose this when the study was first published. He also called for the paper to be retracted and for Wright to step down.
Amicus brief filed by major medical organizations
In the 2012 California case Golinski v. Office of Personnel Management, several major medical organizations, including the American Psychological Association, filed an amicus brief in which they harshly criticized Regnerus' research. The brief argued that "the Regnerus study sheds no light on the parenting of stable, committed same-sex couples – as Regnerus himself acknowledges..."
Details on the reassessment of the original research
In the study Simon Cheng and Brian Powell published on the July 2015 issue of Social Science Research a large number of potential measurement errors and other methodological choices were identified, which led to erroneous results. According to the authors, which discuss in details how even small differences in coding can profoundly shape empirical patterns, after repeating the analysis with sound methods, the "[d]ifferences in being raised by gay/lesbian and heterosexual parents are minimal."
Regnerus' former mentor Christian Smith has described the public and academic reaction to the New Family Structures Study as a "witch hunt" and said that the "push-back" to Regnerus' article "is coming simply because some people don’t like where the data led." This backlash, Smith argues in his book The Sacred Project of American Sociology, is a result of the content of sociology's "sacred project" (of mitigating oppression, inequality, etc.); Smith holds that the critical reaction, e.g. on methodological issues, displays a set of double standards insofar as work by other scholars could be (but is generally not) subjected to similar criticism.
Citations in court cases
The New Family Structures Study was cited in amicus briefs the United States Supreme Court cases of United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry. It was also cited by a Hawaiian judge in Jackson v. Abercrombie.
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- Sherkat, Darren E. (November 2012). "The Editorial Process and Politicized Scholarship: Monday Morning Editorial Quarterbacking and a Call for Scientific Vigilance". Social Science Research. 41 (6): 1346–1349. doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2012.08.007. PMID 23017955.
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- Smith, Christian. The Sacred Project of American Sociology. Oxford University Press, 2014