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Kristin Luker And The Negotiated Order Of The United States Essay, Research Paper

In her book, Dubious Conceptions: The Politics of Teenage Pregnancy, Kristin Luker participates in the negotiated order of the United States by providing information to the information-gathering portion of the sympathetic process. Luker’s investigation of the issue of teenage pregnancy seeks not to provide information on what she perceives to be right or wrong but rather to provide the necessary background for an informed decision to be made.

Consistent with the social-constructionist theoretical perspective, Luker begins her analysis by pointing out that while the objective conditions surrounding teen pregnancy may or may not have changed, the subjective perception of the problem has changed, and in some ways, quite dramatically. Language, especially naming things, has a significant influence on our perspective. It causes us to create categories that dictate what and how we see things (Roy 12). By tracing the changes in the language used to define young/unwed parents and their offspring through various periods in the historical record, Luker demonstrates the shifts in the subjective perception of the issue of teenage pregnancy.

In colonial America, children born out of wedlock were a significant concern not only because the circumstances of their conception were considered a “sin in the eyes of the Church” but also because they often created an economic burden. Consequently, Puritanical society chose words to represent the child and its parents that carried a negative connotation. “Bastard” was the term used to refer to the child born out of wedlock; “illegitimate” was also commonly used. The mother of the child was considered a “fallen woman” and the father was often prevented from testifying in court or holding office. Parents of bastard children were considered sinners and often faced harsh punishment for their transgressions. As America moved into the eighteenth century, the immorality of extramarital intercourse became less of a concern. Instead, communities began to focus more on the economic burden imposed by bastardy. A child born out of wedlock was now termed “fatherless” or a “child of no one.” These new categories catered to the politics of the reformers of the era who saw fatherless children as victims who should not bear the brunt of their parents’ bad behavior and defended child protection on both moral and practical grounds (Luker 19). The parents of the out-of-wedlock child were no longer faced with penalties for fornication but rather with the assumption of financial responsibility for the child. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the period conventionally titled the Progressive Era, bastardy was no longer considered a moral or economic problem but rather a social problem, an index of what was wrong with society. Unmarried mothers and their children came to be seen as an increasingly appropriate group for social reform. Prostitutes, abandoned mistresses, and unmarried mothers were all considered “women in trouble,” “unfortunates,” “ruined” women taken advantage of by a “selfish, wealthy, usually urban “cad.”(Luker 20) Reformers also advocated the use of the term “out-of-wedlock” over “illegitimate” when referring to children born to unmarried mothers. For the first time, the language associated with the plight of unmarried mothers and the needs of their children spoke of compassion instead of condemnation. By the end of World War I, another shift occurred in the public’s subjective perception of unwed mothers and their situation. The theories of Sigmund Freud gained acceptance, and as a result, women were no longer seen as the victims of some social ill but rather as active participants in their downfall, often being referred to as “unadjusted girls.” (Luker 23) These changes in the language associated with the issue of teenage pregnancy illustrate the shifts in the subjective perception of the issue despite the insignificant changes in the objective conditions of the times.

As Luker seeks to further emphasize the significance of the impact of language and categories in the negotiated order, she provides examples that reinforce the idea of reification. Reification, defined by William G. Roy in his book Making Societies, is the process by which “facts that were originally merely someone’s ideas, speculations, or theories take on a reality of their own” (Roy 19). More simply put, it is the process by which things are made real. Evidence of this process and its relationship to the issue of teenage pregnancy can be found in the trend in public thought in the 1920s that drew on the work of Sigmund Freud. Prior to World War I, nonprofessionals, often religiously motivated reformers, had been most active in working to remedy the problem of illegitimacy, a problem which they attributed to social forces. Progressive reformers were successful in encouraging the community to assume responsibility for children who lacked family resources and afford them protection by the state. As a result, out-of-wedlock children became appropriate subjects of a newly professionalized concern. By the 1920s, providing for those born to unmarried parents fell under the jurisdiction of the “helping professions,” researchers, social workers, and administrators who began to apply scientific expertise to the problem of teenage pregnancy, mostly in an effort to distinguish themselves from the nonprofessionals previously asscociated with remedying the problems of early child bearing. Members of the helping professions drew upon Sigmund Fred’s theory of the unconscious to better explain and remedy the dilemma of the unwed mother. They tended to regard all sex outside of marriage, both premarital and extramarital, as “sex delinquency” (Luker 23). This newly defined category of behavior was visibly represented by unwed pregnancy which was now considered a product of psychodynamic rather than social forces. Young women who were sexually active in inappropriate ways and at inappropriate times were considered to be unable to govern their sexual impulses; they lacked the ability to repress the unconscious, psychodynamic forces urging them to engage in “sex delinquency.” As a result, the unwed mother was increasingly seen as an active agent in her downfall rather than an unassuming victim of seduction. Young mothers were now thought to need protection from themselves and others and society was thought to need protection from their “uncontrollable sexual impulses.” Many unwed mothers endured incarceration and in some cases sterilization as experts sought to “rehabilitate” their impaired psychological dynamics (Luker 24).

By applying Freud’s ideas to their work with unwed mothers, the social work community reified his theories, causing them to be accepted as reality. At one time, the idea of the unconscious mind was truly revolutionary, but as the idea was reified and integrated into the activities of the helping professions, it became institutionalized.

As Luker has shown, the subjective perception of the problem of teenage pregnancy has changed dramatically throughout history. In response to changing social, political, and economic conditions, the reality of the issue has also changed. The constructionist perspective assumes that reality is created by society. Our sense of what is real is not derived only from what exists in nature but rather from taking what our senses register and defining what reality is (Roy 10). Sociologists William I. Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas argue that these socially constructed realities are just as real as if they were determined solely by nature. They articulate their point in what has now become known as the Thomas Principle: “If people define situations as real, then they are real in their consequences” (Roy 10). Simply stated- the more people act as though something is real, them more consequential that definition of reality becomes. An example of this principle can be seen in the concept of race. Most biologists believe that the concept of race has no biological foundation: that there exists no great genetic boundary between those people that societies define as racially distinct. Nonetheless, people have long assumed that races are real and that people are really white, African American, Asian, or whatever. Due to the reality of the concept of race, labeling people as yellow, brown, black or white carries with it great social consequences. If a person is treated preferentially or discriminatory because of his or her race, then the consequences of this constructed realty are very real. Thus saying that the concept of race is a socially constructed reality makes it no less real than if it were found in nature (Roy 20).

The Thomas Principle can also be applied to the realities surrounding the issue of teen pregnancy. Marriage, for example, is a socially constructed reality as are the concepts of premarital and extramarital sex; they do not exist in nature. However, the punishment colonial Americans faced for entering into a sexual relationship outside of marriage: public lashings, harsh fines, and incarceration are very real consequences. Illegitimacy is also a socially constructed reality that brought with it real consequences. Children deemed illegitimate were at one time unable to own land or hold office even though they had no natural difference from children born to married parents. Freud’s theory of the unconscious, though just a theory, was a socially constructed reality applied to the treatment of “sexually delinquent” women, often resulting in their incarceration or even sterilization.

In the late 1970s, a combination of factors came together to create “teen pregnancy” as a social problem in the public eye. With the repeal of the Comstock Act, a law which made illegal the distribution of information pertaining to contraception or abortion, and the development of more effective means of contraception, most notably the birth control pill, sex and pregnancy were successfully decoupled. The legalization of abortion meant that a pregnancy did not have result in a birth. The sexual revolution of the 1960s significantly affected the way Americans viewed sex, and more and more children were growing up in “postmodern” families, that is, those without their biological mother and father (Luker 83). Though these broad demographic changes applied to women and men of all ages and races, they were seen as problems that primarily concerned teens, particularly the teenage mother who came to personify the social, economic, and sexual trends that affected everyone in America (Luker 23).

The 1980s and 1990s brought with them social factors that further contributed to the public perception that teen mothers were the root of most social problems, particularly those of poverty, crime, drugs and violence. The American economy was in recession. Poverty rates were on the rise while real wages were falling. Loss of jobs in the middle class brought with it the fear of poverty and of their own daughters becoming pregnant and poor as a result. American students were dropping out of high school and AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependant Children) costs were skyrocketing. Racial inequalities in education, income, and social standing became more apparent, and many argued these discrepancies were the result of the marked difference in the birthrates of white and black teenagers. All of these factors came together to create a story that emerged in the media and in public policy circles of the late twentieth century. The story of teenage pregnancy fulfilled the public’s need to explain a number of dismaying social phenomena and led them to think that “heedless, promiscuous teenagers” were responsible for a great many disturbing social trends (Luker 86).

In Dubious Conceptions, Luker provides examples that illustrate that the rhetorics of Civic Virtue, Religious Faithfulness, and Natural Law are still alive in American politics. Civic Virtue is a principle of social organization in which the goal of society is to provide for the common good, to serve and be served by fellow citizens. Each member has the obligation to put the interests of society before their own interests. The idea of the common good serves as the basis for The Social Security Act of 1935 which laid the foundation for the national welfare system. This Act established Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) which uses tax revenue to provide aid to women trying to raise children without the help of a male wage earner (Luker 52). The rhetoric of Religious Faithfulness can also be found in American politics. This principle of social organization involves a community of like-minded believers who seek to maintain faithfulness to their creator God. Many of the ideas of society based on religious faithfulness can be found in the Puritanical societies of American politics, which attributed the cause of their social malaise to faithlessness and heresy and sought to impose harsh punishment on those who sinned. Natural Law is another rhetoric whose ideas can still be found in the American political system. Society based on Natural Law sees all people as equal, including strangers, and believes that all have the same rights. This principle applies to modern politics in the case of abortion. A major topic of political debate is whether or not a female has the inalienable right to terminate her pregnancy.

In Chapter 6 of Dubious Conceptions, Luker acts as a participant in Hume’s sympathetic process by trying to imagine herself as an unwed mother in order to better understand their predicament. Drawing from her conversations with actual teen mothers, Luker provides possible answers to the question, “Why Do They Do It?” She proposes a theory known as the “nice girl dilemma,” which attributes the problem of teenage pregnancy to society’s paradigm of the “nice girl”: the modest, unassuming, sexually inexperienced girl who is unprepared for sex. Though society expects sexually active teens are to practice contraception, the skills a young women needs in order to effectively prevent pregnancy are precisely those that are discouraged in “nice girls” (Luker 148). Though teenagers’ disregard for the use of contraception seems aimless, Luker suggests that their reasons for not taking preventative measures often involve serious, complex negotiations about the meaning of the relationship. In many cases, sexually active young women believe that using no contraception means that she and her boyfriend are sharing the risk: that “he must love her so much a that he is willing to have a child with her and stand by her if she does” (Luker 150).

In an effort to dispel common misconceptions surrounding the issue of teen pregnancy, Luker offers examples of conceptions that are untrue yet accepted by the public. The public’s belief that pregnancy among teenagers is reaching epidemic proportions has long been supported by the media and politicians. However, Luker points out that the current rate that teenage women are having babies is about the same rate as it has been for most of the century, and that those that are having children are not young teens, (those under 15), but are rather 18 or 19 year-olds who are on the verge of now longer being classified as teens (Luker 8). The image of the unwed mother is commonly attached to teenagers, though this assumption proves to be untrue. Two-thirds of America’s unwed mothers are not teenagers, and one-fourth are actually “no longer wed” mothers: women who were once married but are not by the birth of their baby (Luker 8). African Americans are also believed to have the largest population of teenage mothers, though this assumption is false. Despite the disproportionate share of births to African American teenagers and unmarried women (African Americans compose only 15% of the population but account for more than a third of all teen mothers), over 57 percent of all babies born to unmarried teens in 1990 were born to whites. And since 1985, birthrates among unmarried white teens have been increasing rapidly while those of unmarried black teens remain largely stable (Luker 7).

After careful analysis of the facts surrounding the issue of teenage pregnancy, Luker believes that, “It would be better to see early childbearing as a symptom like infant mortality- not a cause but a marker of events, an indicator of the extent to which many young people have been excluded from the American Dream” (Luker 182). In saying this, she makes the point that the rate of early childbearing, like the rate of infant mortality, can be seen as having a direct relationship to the number of poor, minorities, and others who have been failed by the nation’s major institutions. Luker believes that it is not pregnancy that causes teens to become poor but rather poverty that causes teens to become pregnant. Early childbearing seems to be a constrained choice for poor people, those “excluded from the American Dream” who face few other options (Luker 183).

By gathering information pertaining to the issue of teenage pregnancy, Kristin Luker has played a significant role in the negotiated order of the United States. She has given us a basis for a “new and constructive national dialogue on the subject,” and supplied us with the necessary, objective background with which to make an informed decision as to the causes and solutions to the problem of teenage pregnancy in the United States (Wilson).


Luker, Kristin. Dubious Conceptions: The Politics of Teenage Pregnancy.

Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966

Roy, William G. Making Societies: The Historical Construction of Our World. Thousand Oaks, California: Pine Forge Press, 2001

Wilson, William Julius. Harvard University. (quote on back jacket of book)


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