The Chronicle Review

A Plea for Real-World Research

A journalist who turns to academic papers finds more questions than answers

Raveendran, AFP, Getty Images

A billboard in New Delhi promotes the births of girls. Selective abortion has contributed to an unequal sex ratio in India and other Asian countries, but definitive research on the topic is hard to come by, one journalist says.
June 05, 2011

It started, like many tasks that morph into huge undertakings, with a modest goal. I'd been assigned a magazine article on China's gender imbalance, and I was sitting at my desk in Shanghai to write it. I had spent a few weeks in Suining, a booming county in Jiangsu province with a shockingly high sex ratio at birth—three boys for every two girls, according to 2007 government figures (a natural ratio is 105 boys for every 100 girls). I had amassed a stack of notebooks and newspaper clippings, which were now strewn on the floor around my chair, and I wanted to make sense of them.

I had been lucky in my reporting, and the notebooks held good material. The parents I met in Suining spoke openly about aborting female fetuses. They told me which neighbors did it, where one went to get an ultrasound scan, and how much the bribe to the technician operating the machine cost (around 1,000 yuan, or $150 in today's exchange rates). While most talked of others' transgressions, one mother confessed to aborting two female fetuses herself. Boys outnumbered girls at the local school, in the parks, and on the streets, and I met a number of families with a structure that raises eyebrows among obstetricians: older sisters separated from their younger brothers by gaps of six or seven years.

Ads for quick and easy abortion, meanwhile, were everywhere, in bold black characters photocopied onto thin sheets of white paper. During a visit to a neighborhood outhouse, I had squatted to find five such fliers pasted to the wall facing me.

There was no doubt in my mind that Suining's imbalanced sex ratio at birth was the result of widespread sex-selective abortion—or that sex selection was creating serious social problems. In one Suining village I visited, four men had bought trafficked women from Yunnan, a province in China's poor southwest, for a few hundred dollars apiece. "Those men can't find wives," one resident explained.

But when it came to causes—to why sex-selective abortion had become so common—I was at a loss. I could nod at the one-child policy, which narrows a woman's chances to have a son without resorting to technology. A gap in boy and girl births was not just a Chinese problem, however. For decades, sex selection had been occurring in countries with no birth targets—in India and Taiwan—and in South Korea, which scrapped its targets in the 1990s. Gender imbalance had, moreover, recently spread to Western Asia and Eastern Europe, to countries like Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Albania. In 2005, China reported that 117 boys were being born for every 100 girls. In Armenia, government statistics from the same year put the sex ratio at birth at 120. In order to explain what was happening in China, I needed to understand changes in other countries. And so, perhaps with naïve faith, I cast aside my notebooks, turned to my laptop, and logged on to JSTOR.

I plugged in search terms, probably "sex ratio AND imbalance AND Asia." But as I refined the results, any illusions I had of a quick and easy research process shattered. It turned out that scholars couldn't even agree on whether the gap in births was real—whether girls in China and India were in fact missing from the population. The papers the database returned included: "Are Births Underreported in Rural China? Manipulation of Statistical Records in Response to China's Population Policies," "Nonreporting of Births or Nonreporting of Pregnancies? Some Evidence From Four Rural Counties in North China," and "On the Trail of 'Missing' Indian Females: Search for Clues."

Moving beyond China and India, the question marks multiplied: "Are Sex Ratios at Birth Increasing in Vietnam?"

And, via Google: "A Sharp Increase in Sex Ratio at Birth in the Caucasus. Why? How?"

I quickly learned that figuring out what was happening and distilling it into a few paragraphs would not be so simple. That there was so much doubt surrounding the gender imbalance's existence was itself fascinating, however. Before long, my article about one forgotten corner of China had turned into a book about a trend reshaping much of the developing world. As I researched, academic papers would be both my curse and my salvation.

There is almost nothing in Western scholarship on Asia's sex-ratio imbalance published before 1990. Sex-selective abortion has, in fact, been practiced in India since 1975, and in South Korea, China, and Taiwan since the early 1980s. Scholars in those countries started writing about it in Asian journals soon after. Over the same period, advances in amniocentesis, ultrasound, and assisted reproduction prompted an ethical debate over sex selection among American feminists. But few connected those technologies to events overseas, and so it wasn't until 1990 that the changes sweeping through Asia came into focus in the United States. That was the year the economist Amartya Sen wrote an essay for The New York Review of Books titled "More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing."

Sen was blunt. "It is often said that women make up a majority of the world's population," he began. "They do not." Looking at how the populations of China and India broke down by sex, he calculated that 100 million more women would be alive if the ratios at birth were natural. Even as life expectancy improves, he wrote, "economic development is quite often accompanied by a relative worsening in the rate of survival of women." Sen framed the issue in elegant prose packed with moral outrage (although he stopped short of pointing the finger at abortion, not once mentioning the word). But the pages that followed were as much an indictment of his fellow scholars, for failing to identify what was "clearly one of the more momentous, and neglected, problems facing the world today," as they were of the world at large.

A torrent of research followed. Anthropologists studied local phenomena believed to be connected to the disappearance of girls. In India they focused on the practice of dowry, which makes daughters expensive, while in China they homed in on the one-child policy. Feminist theorists discussed patriarchy and patrilineal inheritance structures. Economists looked at supply and demand, postulating that women would become more valued as their numbers decreased, causing the gap in male and female births to disappear naturally. (In case you stop reading right now, that hasn't happened.) Finally, there were the question-mark papers, the works that turned everything upside down.

Some demographers floated the theory that girls in Asia were not missing but hidden—that perhaps the gap between male and female births could be explained by couples' choosing not to register or report their daughters. That idea made sense in China, where parents who violated birth regulations sometimes kept babies a secret, and for a few years it took hold. Then—in 2005—a more fantastical interpretation gained traction. In a paper in The Journal of Political Economy, an economist named Emily Oster suggested that a high rate among Asians of hepatitis B, which increases the probability that a woman will give birth to a boy, accounted for nearly half of Sen's 100 million missing females. Among other problems, Oster's theory did not explain why in much of Asia the probability a woman will have a son jumps significantly with later births, but it was a neat counterintuitive argument of the sort journalists love. By 2008, when she retracted her findings, the hepatitis B explanation had gained significant press coverage.

By the time I started looking into it, the number of missing females had risen to more than 160 million—more than the female population of the United States. I began to wonder: How is it that a problem goes ignored for so many years and then, once discovered, is refracted so many ways that it becomes almost farcical? And how was I ever going to make sense of gender imbalance?

I do not mean to pick on scholars. Much of the time, journalists spin tales entirely devoid of history. We frame political debates as new even when they extend back decades. We quote politicians, for whom everything is a superlative, without adding a grain of salt. In my field, science journalism, we report findings as serendipitous when in fact they rest on decades of painstaking research. In articles set abroad, meanwhile, we tend to commit the opposite sin, explaining contemporary issues as the product of timeless tradition. "A journalist," the scholar Moritz Goldstein once quipped, "is a mirror that catches the images of the day and throws them back." I turned to academic papers because I wanted to do more than throw back a fleeting image.

But scholars are haunted by their own demons. I recently polled a few journalist friends, asking them how often they rely on academic research, and how useful and accessible they find that information. David Biello, environment editor at Scientific American, said he felt spoiled with information, particularly on the subject of climate change. But several others described being led astray by studies that turned out to be immaterial or steeped in opaque discourse. Adam Minter, a journalist covering the recycling trade who is writing the forthcoming Wasted: Inside the Multi-Billion Dollar Trade in American Trash, told me via e-mail that while there is a growing body of work on his topic, "The material is outdated, oriented toward creating new types of jargon totally irrelevant and indecipherable to the industry that I cover, and rarely concerned with primary source material." Minter once witnessed the presentation of a paper titled "Materiality, Knowledge, and Regulation: The complexities of waste in the production and retail of organic wine, coffee and artisan cheese"—a topic that doesn't do much to dispel stereotypes of the wine-and-cheese intellectual.

I then turned to Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian at the University of California at Irvine adept at connecting his work to current events in a way that appeals to a broad audience. (His latest book, a primer written in question-and-answer style, is titled China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.) I asked him to explain the prevalence of obscure and tangential work, and he told me a tale familiar to Chronicle readers: that, beginning in the 1970s, academe became increasingly specialized. That, especially in the social sciences, the reward structure worked against accessibility: Tenure hung on publishing in peer-reviewed journals or with university presses, while more-popular work went largely uncompensated. "It happened in literary studies, it happened in historical studies, it happened in anthropology," Wasserstrom said. "To parody it, the fewer the number of people who could and would read your work, the more sophisticated it must be."

I learned that the hard way. For a few months after my initial JSTOR query, I adhered to a routine: I printed out papers every morning, brought them to the noodle joint down the street from my apartment, and pored over them as I ate lunch, alternating between chopsticks and a highlighter. I usually waited until around 1:30 p.m., when the Chinese lunch rush had subsided. Often the noodle shop's occupants consisted of me, one or two late stragglers, and a waitress wiping down tables.

I am aware of a certain irony to this approach. I sat inside reading while around me buzzed a laboratory filled with real-life evidence. (Shanghai's sex ratio at birth is not as skewed as those of other Chinese cities, but Suining was a mere 45-minute plane ride away.) I began to despair when, one lunch, in a paper titled "Missing Women and the Price of Tea in China," I read the sentence, "I use the increase in value of orchard fruits relative to other crops to investigate the effect of an increase in relative male income on sex ratios."

But then one day—I can't remember exactly how—I stumbled across the work of Christophe Guilmoto, a demographer at the Institute of Research for Development, in Paris. His papers were the first I encountered that approached sex-ratio imbalance as a global problem. Instead of searching for a sexy explanation and then stretching it to fit affected countries, he approached the problem in reverse, by identifying threads that linked China and India with Armenia and Albania. When I flew to Paris to interview him, I learned that Guilmoto had developed a framework to predict where sex selection would take hold, using factors like fertility rates and availability of abortion. By and large, it worked. That framework became the backbone of my book.

There were others. The Columbia University historian Matthew Connelly's masterful account of the population-control movement, Fatal Misconception, describes 1960s American activists fantasizing about the development of sex-selection technologies, suggesting a link between cold-war politics and Asia's gender imbalance. A 2001 paper by Barbara Miller, an anthropologist at George Washington University, confirmed that decades later in India, sex selection was seen as a "quiet way of dealing with 'overpopulation.'" And the Columbia University economist Lena Edlund has helped dispel the notion that supply-and-demand logic applies to women, writing in one paper, "The greatest danger associated with prenatal sex determination is the propagation of a female underclass."

I've heard that academe's era of intense specialization is ending, in part because administrators are increasingly keen on boosting their universities' profiles among taxpayers and lawmakers. "There's new interest in those who can make their arguments speak to a wider audience," says Kevin Mattson, a historian at Ohio University who writes for The Nation and Dissent. When he appeared on The Colbert Report in 2009 to talk about Jimmy Carter, he told me, his university publicized the appearance without prodding.

Even with scholars like Mattson tackling broad topics and disseminating their ideas more widely, though, sifting through those ideas remains a challenge for outsiders. Projects like Books for Understanding, a Web site run by the Association of American University Presses, are a start. The site lists respected scholarly works dealing with current events, cataloging them by topic like "the Catholic Pope" and "Hurricane Katrina." But such efforts are rare, and few journalists turn to them. Then again, if someone had helped me separate the wheat from the chaff early on, I might not have written a book.

Mara Hvistendahl, a former Chronicle correspondent, is a correspondent with Science magazine, based in Beijing. Her book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, has just been released by PublicAffairs.