Tag Archives: family

Sociologists Identify Surprising Thanksgiving “Rituals”

Ever wonder where weird Thanksgiving traditions come from? Photo by Musicwala via Flickr.

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade has been held annually since 1924. Turns out some families’ holiday “rituals” are more common than you might think. Photo by Musicwala via Flickr.

Sociology loves making the familiar strange, and few events blend the familiar and the strange as artfully as holiday family gatherings. The Week recaps a classic sociological study of Thanksgiving celebrations by Melanie Wallendorf and Eric J. Arnould, which sheds light on just how common our “quirky” family rituals can be. A particularly juicy conclusion was that interview respondents didn’t realize their party quirks were actually ‘traditions’ happening year after year at gatherings across the U.S. According to the article:

…a society is not always the best judge of its own customs…The data analysis revealed some common events in the fieldnotes that people rarely remarked on in the interviews.

Common practices included “The Giving of The Job Advice,” “The Telling of Disaster Stories of Thanksgivings Past,” and the ever-popular “After-Dinner Stroll around the Neighborhood.” These customs remind us just how much we share at this time of year. Who knows? The next awkward family gathering just might be a new field site!

The Overblown Myth of the Boomerang Generation

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They don’t come back as often as you think. Photo by Paleontour via Flickr.

Isn’t it ironic that “much of our ‘independence,’ where it exists, is made possible by supports and resources that have been provided by others”? In an interview with the Washington Post, Oregon State’s Richard A. Settersten, Jr. calls attention to one important instance of this irony: the rigid tie between the “independence” of young people and leaving the home. For Settersten, Jr., common (and paranoid) misunderstandings about “permanent” and “alarming” generational trends in living at home are problematic not simply because they are inaccurate, but because they point to a misguided ideal of “independence.”

To clarify how patterns in young adult living arrangements have varied over time, he notes:

This isn’t new. If we look back over the last century, we can see that the rush out of the parental home was a post-World War II phenomenon, and proportions have been growing since 1970…. What’s remarkable about the early adult years today is not that young people live with parents but that they live without a spouse…. Marriage and parenting now culminate the process of becoming adult rather than start it.

Settersten, Jr. also clarifies who chooses to live at home and why. He indicates that men of every age group are more likely to live with parents, mentioning their higher rates of dropping out of school, unemployment, and a higher average age of marriage as possible reasons why. Individuals of disadvantaged groups also tend to live at home at greater rates—possibly because they are more likely to live in high-cost metropolitan areas or because young people in their culture are expected to contribute to family resources. Moreover, according to Settersten, Jr.,

For many families, living at home is a strategic choice that permits young adults to attend or reduce the cost of higher education, take internships, or create a nest egg. (It may also be necessary for paying down student loans.) For them, it’s not about being locked out of the labor market, but about building a more secure economic future.

So before tossing aside the “boomerang generation” as dependent “failures to launch,” consider how peculiar it is “that we expect young people to somehow strive for complete independence when those of us who are no longer young realize that adult life is heavily conditioned by relationships with other people.” Settersten, Jr. has a point.

To learn how this notion of independence is affecting older adults, check out Stacy Torres’s article on Families as They Really Are.

For a different take on the role of the economy in millenials’ living arrangements, see this article by Lisa Wade.

If you’re a teacher, here’s a great lesson by Kia Heise to start a class conversation about living alone as a ‘rite of passage’ into adulthood.

Want a better marriage? Spend more time with your spouse

Photo by Trace Nietert via flickr.com

Photo by Trace Nietert via flickr.com

Marriage in the U.S. today: the best is better, but the average is worse, according to psychologist Eli J. Finkel in an opinion piece for The New York Times. (Without further clarification, this appears to be a discussion of heterosexual marriage.) Finkel reports that the happiest couples are happier both with their marriages and in general, while the average married person is less satisfied and likelier to divorce than in the past.

That’s because we are sizing up our spouses in the era of the “self-expressive marriage,” Finkel explains, drawing on the ideas of sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin and historian Stephanie Coontz. No longer are we satisfied with our family life as a means to filling our bellies, providing shelter, or even giving us love–many of us now expect marriage to yield “self-discovery, self-esteem, and personal growth.”

Marriages fall short of this ideal, Finkel argues, in part because people aren’t putting in the time with their spouses required for satisfaction. Whether it is working more or parenting more intensively, the average couple is logging hours elsewhere. And the divorce rate is higher for poor, less educated Americans, whose lack of time and energy for sustaining high-quality marriages Finkel attributes to exposure to trends such as “unemployment, juggling multiple jobs, and so on.”

Finkel devotes a quick sentence to government and workplace policy solutions (perhaps discussed in more depth in the forthcoming scientific write-up). As far as what individuals can do, Finkel’s advice boils down to a) spend more time together or b) if more together time isn’t possible, consider looking to marriage for love rather than for self-expression.

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“Daddy’s Home”…Full-time

Photo by Lena Wood via flickr.com

Photo by Lena Wood via flickr.com

A new study from the Pew Research Center shows that more dads than ever are staying home full-time with their children. In families consisting of married couples with children where one spouse worked at least 35 hours per week, roughly 3.5% of those households include a stay-at-home dad.

This study, led by University of Illinois sociologist Karen Z. Kramer, attaches solid data to perceived changes in family gender roles over the past few decades. Today, roughly one-third of families consist of a stay-at-home mother, down from one-half during the 1970s, and families where both mom and dad work at least 35 hours a week has increased from 46.1% to 63.2% during that time.

This study provides many openings for further research, such as changes (or lack thereof) in gender equity in the workplace and the home. For example, families with stay-at-home dads earned about $11,000 less than those with stay-at-home moms. How much of this difference is attributable to the gender pay gap? Or do breadwinning mothers differ from breadwinning fathers in areas such as educational attainment and job prestige?

With this study as a point of departure, social scientists interested in such areas as gender, the family, and the life course, as well as many others, will have plenty of material to work with.

 

Unique Families: Not So Unique

Image excerpt from the Washington Post, created by Christina Rivero. Click for full image.

Image excerpt from the Washington Post, created by Christina Rivero. Click for full image.

When thinking about the typical U.S. family, you might imagine a classic sitcom like The Brady Bunch: stay-at-home mom Carol, architect husband Mike, and six lovely children. At the time the show aired, a “blended” family of remarried adults was a bit of a novelty, sure, but it still stuck to the married mother and father, father is the breadwinner trope. And that’s still how many often picture U.S. families.

The Washington Post reports the findings of Ohio State University’s Department of Sociology on the living arrangements of U.S. children from birth to 17 years old. The researchers found that the children’s living arrangements varied distinctly by race. Asian children were most likely to live with a married mother and father, with only the father working, but that set-up only counted for 24% of living arrangements among Asian children. It turns out that dual-income households are the strong majority among both white and Asian children, and that both are more likely to live in dual-income households than either black or Hispanic children. Higher percentages of black and Hispanic children are living with their grandparents. Another notable statistic among black children is their greater likelihood of living with a single, never-married mother (this is true for nearly a quarter of all black kids).

No word yet on all white, three-boy, three-girl families with maids.

“You’re dad’s favorite.”

At least it's not a favorite *kid*! Vintage ad via JBCurio, flickr.com.

At least it’s not a favorite *kid*! Vintage ad via JBCurio, flickr.com.

A new study from Purdue University lends weight to the idea that, emotionally, children do not always grow up in the “same” home. Research by Professor Jill Suitor and graduate student Megan Gilligan builds on this with a bit of sibling rivalry: siblings are likely to be more bothered by perceived favoritism from fathers than from mothers.

Other work has shown moms who picked “favorites” had caused sibling tension, but studying the influence of both parents was a novel approach. Revisiting 2008 interviews (from the Within-Family Difference Study) with “Baby Boomers” whose parents were still alive, the authors spotted the difference. Karl Pillemer of Cornell University, who has worked with Suitor and Gilligan on this data previously, commented in a HealthCanal article:

We often think of the family as a single unit, and this reminds us that individual parent and child relationships differ and each family is very complex. Favoritism from the father could mean something different than favoritism from the mother. We suggest that clinicians who work with families on later-life issues be aware of this complexity and look for such types of individual relationhsips as they advise families on care giving, legal, and financial issues.

Suitor also offered an explanation:

Mothers are often more open and affectionate with their children, whereas fathers have sometimes been found to be more critical, leading offspring to be more concerned when fathers favor some children over others.

From families to gender, culture, and the lifecourse, scholars are sure to take up this new angle on household dynamics.

Moving on Marriage

One sign, made to be displayed outside the Supreme Court as it hears arguments on DOMA and Prop 8, hearkens back to the days of arguments about interracial marriage, using a photo of Mildred and Richard Loving, who famously won their case, Loving v. Virginia, before the Supreme Court. Photo by Reed Probus via flickr.com.

One sign, made to be displayed outside the Supreme Court as it hears arguments on DOMA and Prop 8, hearkens back to the days of arguments about interracial marriage, using a photo of Mildred and Richard Loving, who famously won their case, Loving v. Virginia, before the Supreme Court. Photo by Reed Probus via flickr.com.

Last week, the Supreme Court began hearing arguments regarding California’s Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that became a constitutional amendment legally defining marriage as an institution solely for the benefit of one man and one woman. On March 26, Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested the Court might simply dismiss the case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, without a ruling, so as not to dive into “uncharted waters,” particularly when the Court is considering another, related case.

Minnesota Public Radio invited Kathleen Hull, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, to discuss the Court’s apparent willingness to side-step the case. She cited the results of a new PEW study showing that the younger generation was about 75% in favor of legalizing same sex marriage. She confessed:

Increasingly I find it difficult to engage the 18-22 year-olds on the same-sex issue. They are bored by it… They don’t know what there is to talk about.

Hull told MPR that California’s law not only lags behind public attitudes, but also behind the business and entertainment worlds. She also refutes claims that there isn’t enough data to rule on the subject if it’s considered through the lens of child-rearing:

I was a little stunned when one of the justices said something to the effect of “yeah, we don’t have any information on this.” […] We have decades of research now on the effects of same-sex parenting on children and it is all kind of in the same direction: That there is no difference from being raised by heterosexuals.

In fact, there is such a great deal of research in this area that the American Sociological Association went on to file an amicus curiae (that is, a “Friend of the Court”) brief outlining the social scientific consensus around the quality of parenting across different family forms. Interestingly, Justice Scalia then went on the record stating that there is no such consensus; he appears to have taken his cue from another amicus brief coauthored by Mark Regenerus, who has stirred up controversy with his own findings that children of homosexual parents do not fare as well as those raised by heterosexual couples. Clearly, this fight isn’t over.

Savage Love, Social Science

Well, you don’t see that every day—or even every week in columnist Dan Savage’s nationally-syndicated “Savage Love.” But this week, if you happened to flip through your local alternative paper or visit The Onion’s AV Club online, you might have spotted the ever-elusive social scientist lurking in the often thought-provoking, sometimes lurid, and generally entertaining and thoughtful column. That’s right, Eric Klinenberg, NYU sociologist and author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, is called in to reassure a reader who simply doesn’t feel like coupling up.

When Klinenberg began his research for this book, he told NPR affiliate KALW San Francisco earlier this year, he thought it was going to be a story of sadness. Lonely elderly people dying alone in heatwaves, young people failing to launch, etc. But instead, as he tells Savage, “…young adults have been the fastest growing group of American singletons. They’re delaying marriage and spending more years single. Moreover, they increasingly recognize the fact that over their long lives, they’re likely to cycle in and out of different situations: alone, together; alone, together.” Klinenberg advises the letter writer to remain open to any of those possibilities, but demand respect for his current choice to remain single, pointing out that his findings show, “People who live alone tend to be more social than people who are married… So much for the myth of selfish singles!”

Klinenberg closes rhetorically, “We’ve come a long way in our attitudes about sex and relationships. Now that living alone is more common than living with a spouse and two children, isn’t it time we learned to respect the choice to go solo, too?” For the sake of the not-so-lonely letter-writer, we certainly hope so.

For more on Klinenberg’s research, be sure to check out our Office Hours interview with him about Going Solo.

Women’s Lifecourse and Health at ASA

Weddings

Photo by Dawn Derbyshire via flickr.com

At the American Sociological Association’s Annual Meeting in Denver, researchers presented their on-going research to colleagues in the field. This week, several news sources have covered sociologists’ findings about how events in the lifecourse (like getting married, divorced, or having kids) are related to health issues.

Medical News Today reports on a study by Adrianne Frech and Sarah Damaske, finding that moms who work full-time are healthier at age 40 than are other mothers. Particularly concerning is that the least healthy mothers at age 40 are those who are persistently unemployed or in and out of work, not by choice. Consistent work, these findings suggest, may be good for women’s health.

Co-author Adrianne Frech, Assistant Sociology Professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, told the press, work is good for both physical and mental health, for many reasons:

“It gives women a sense of purpose, self-efficacy, control and autonomy.”

“They have a place where they are an expert on something, and they’re paid a wage,” she added.

NBC News details research conducted by Michael McFarland, Mark Hayward, and Dustin Brown exploring how marriage is related to biological risk factors, such as high blood pressure. They found that women who were continuously married for longer periods of time had fewer cardiovascular risks, whereas women with experiences of divorce or widowhood had increased risk factors.

For women, the researchers found, the longer the marriage, the fewer cardiovascular risk factors. The effect was significant but modest, McFarland said, with every 10 years of continuous marriage associated with a 13 percent decrease in cardiovascular risk.

But when marriage is disrupted, it can be hard on the health. Women who were continuously married had a 40 percent lower count of metabolic risk factors than women who experienced two episodes or divorce or widowhood, the researchers found.

Finally, Deseret News picked up on research presented by Corinne Reczek, Tetyana Pudroyska, and Debra Umberson (also highlighted on Citings&Sightings). Their research found that being in a long-term marriage was associated with more alcohol consumption for women (compared to divorced or recently widowed women). In an interesting contrast, however, married men drink less than other men.

Our survey results show that continuously divorced and recently widowed women consume fewer drinks that continuously married women,” they wrote. “Our qualitative results suggest this occurs because men introduce and prompt women’s drinking and because divorced women lose the influence of men’s alcohol use” when the marriage fails.

As these studies indicate, it is essential to consider how social factors may be related to health outcomes, and sociologists are well positioned to contribute cutting-edge research on these issues.

 

The Marriage Split

It’s no surprise that the Great Recession has brought economic inequality front and center in the United States. The focus has been mostly problems in the the labor market, but Jason DeParle at the New York Times points out that other demographic changes have also had a sizable impact on growing inequality.

Estimates vary widely, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns — as opposed to changes in individual earnings — may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality.

To illustrate how changes in family structure contribute to increasing inequality, DeParle turns to the research of several sociologists. One issue is the fact that those who are well off are more likely to get married.

Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes.

“It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.

A related trend is the educational gap between women who have children in or out of wedlock.

Less than 10 percent of the births to college-educated women occur outside marriage, while for women with high school degrees or less the figure is nearly 60 percent.

This difference contributes to significant  inequalities in long-term outcomes for children.

While many children of single mothers flourish (two of the last three presidents had mothers who were single during part of their childhood), a large body of research shows that they are more likely than similar children with married parents to experience childhood poverty, act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of school.

Sara McLanahan, a Princeton sociologist, warns that family structure increasingly consigns children to “diverging destinies.”

Married couples are having children later than they used to, divorcing less and investing heavily in parenting time. By contrast, a growing share of single mothers have never married, and many have children with more than one man.

“The people with more education tend to have stable family structures with committed, involved fathers,” Ms. McLanahan said. “The people with less education are more likely to have complex, unstable situations involving men who come and go.”

She said, “I think this process is creating greater gaps in these children’s life chances.”

As sociologists and others have shown, the income gap between those at the top and bottom has changed dramatically over time.

Four decades ago, households with children at the 90th percentile of incomes received five times as much as those at the 10th percentile, according to Bruce Western and Tracey Shollenberger of the Harvard sociology department. Now they have 10 times as much. The gaps have widened even more higher up the income scale.

But again, DeParle notes that marriage, rather than just individual incomes, makes a big difference:

Economic woes speed marital decline, as women see fewer “marriageable men.” The opposite also holds true: marital decline compounds economic woes, since it leaves the needy to struggle alone.

“The people who need to stick together for economic reasons don’t,” said Christopher Jencks, a Harvard sociologist. “And the people who least need to stick together do.”

For more on the Great Recession and inequality, check out our podcast with David Grusky.