Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Multilevel Models in Family Research: Some Conceptual and Methodological Issues

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Multilevel Models in Family Research: Some Conceptual and Methodological Issues

Article excerpt

Examining the impact of context on individual-- level outcomes has become an increasingly common undertaking in the social sciences. The growth in concern for identifying the effects of macrolevel characteristics has generated both theoretical and methodological advancements. In this issue of Journal of Marriage and Family, Butler (2002) researches whether the effect of welfare benefit levels on premarital childbearing varies by context, Hoffmann (2002) researches the effect of context on adolescent drug use, and Simons et al. (2002) examine how the relationship between parenting and child conduct varies by context. These articles are used as a background to discuss important theoretical and methodological issues surrounding the analysis of multilevel data. The authors present a simple analysis of data pertaining to age at first marriage taken from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics and merged with census data to measure contextual effects as a pedagogical device for introducing readers to the benefits of multilevel modeling.

Key Words: contextual effects, multilevel models, hierarchical linear models.

This issue of Journal of Marriage and Family (JMF) highlights three articles that focus attention on the role of context as it impacts the behavior of individuals. Butler (2002) researches whether the effect of welfare benefit levels on premarital childbearing varies by context, Hoffmann (2002) researches the effect of context on adolescent drug use, and Simons et al. (2002) examine how the relationship between parenting and child conduct varies by context. These articles reflect a growing trend in the social sciences to explicitly consider the influence of broader social contexts on the attitudes and behavior of individuals, making use of what have been referred to as multilevel models, contextual effects models, or hierarchical linear models. We use the research of Butler, Hoffmann, and Simons et al., in conjunction with an empirical example of our own, to provide a backdrop for introducing readers of JMF to some of the conceptual and methodological issues associated with jointly considering the effect of individuallevel and contextual factors on individual-level outcomes and how multilevel models can overcome many of the weaknesses associated with more traditional modeling alternatives.

The history of social philosophy is replete with examples of writers who have been concerned with the impact of membership in social communities on individual behavior (see the review by Adams & Steinmetz, 1993). Indeed, the discipline of sociology was founded in the concern for the impact of social contexts on individuallevel behavior. Durkheim (1897/1951) argued for the effect of community solidarity on anomie and suicide. Weber (1905/1958) argued that the beliefs of religious communities affect economic behavior. More recently, Merton (1968) argued that aggregates of individuals provide the basis for hypotheses related to relative deprivation and social comparison. Other contextual theories of significance include Bott's (1957) examination of the influence of social networks on the segregation of marital role activities and Guttentag and Secord's (1983) suggestion that sex ratios affect both attitudes and behavior in a wide range of sex-typed behavior. In the field of child development, the ecological framework of Bronfenbrenner (1979) has gained wide acceptance as a means for understanding how children come to know and operate in their surroundings. The underlying assumption in all of these theories is that human beings are social animals that create, and are subsequently affected by, modes of social organization that can vary across time and space.

Although the theoretical models linking contextual conditions to the attitudes and behaviors of individuals are well established in the social sciences, the data and methodology required to fully test these multilevel hypotheses have only recently been adopted. …

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