“Treat yo’self” to Some Sociology

Click to pre-order the book.Sociology and stand-up comedy have a lot in common: both reveal deep truths about life experiences and reveal the connections and disconnections of humanity. One just has more citations.

For his upcoming book Modern Romance, stand-up comic and Parks and Rec star Aziz Ansari teams up with sociologist Eric Klinenberg to tackle modern dating in the age of technology. Klinenberg is well known for his work on culture and media, as well as his recent book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. Ansari’s stand-up often pokes fun at the cultural shifts in relationships, but he recently told Time that academic research, including that of MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, inspired him to delve deeper into the science behind modern relationships:

“I thought it would be kind of interesting to take my point of view and a conversation with someone from an academic field and put that together. If I could do that as a book, I would be able to go deeper into this area than I can in my stand-up.”

For the study, Ansari and Klinenberg interviewed hundreds of people worldwide about relationships, marriage, social networks, and technology. The end result uses Ansari’s comedic spin to explore the sociology behind the changing course of modern relationships. And on stage, it means getting to see Ansari act out a line graph of relationship intensity. How could you resist?

Click here to listen to an Office Hours interview with humorist and story-teller Dylan Brody about his work as “stand-up sociology”.

To Cohabitate or Not to Cohabitate

Photo by Nicholas via flickr.com
Photo by Nicholas via flickr.com

Many romantic couples who live together without being married do so out of wariness about the high divorce rate. Cohabiting, for these couples, can be a “trial” relationship period in which they decide their compatibility before marrying.

Until recently, previous research conclusions and popular conception held that cohabiting couples who eventually married experienced higher divorce rates than those who did not live together before marriage.

A new study by University of North Carolina-Greensboro sociologist Arielle Kuperberg proves this assumption false. Using data from the National Survey of Family Growth, Kuperberg analyzed the divorce rate among 7,000 people who had been married at least once. Kuperberg also incorporated other variables, such as the date the couple moved in together. Contrary to 1970s research, Kuperberg found no link between cohabitation and divorce.

Cornell University sociologist Sharon Sassler, in pursuit of research for her book on cohabitation, interviewed more than 150 cohabiters. She found that persons with college degrees date longer before moving in together. Those with degrees date for an average of 14 months compared to 6 months or less for non-degree holders.

As cohabitation becomes more common among couples, sociological research is investigating and dispelling myths about the intricacies of romantic relationships, turning common (and fallacious) knowledge on its head.




Do Sisters Have to Do It for Themselves?

Finding more lessons from TV (in this case, shows like 30 Rock and Girls), we’re seeing how women are investing more in careers and/or casual encounters than commitments to deep romantic relationships. At face value, this looks like a great example of women’s empowerment as our society comes to terms with the fact that—well—the Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin said it better than I can.

But as Leslie C. Bell writes in The Atlantic, this hesitance to pair off isn’t necessarily happening because young women are “masters of their own destiny.” Instead, the trend may be due to a new social norm that “ambitious young women in their 20s shouldn’t want relationships with men.”

Citing work from Laura Hamilton and Elizabeth Armstrong, who found that young women “believed relational commitments were supposed to take a backseat to self-development” (see their article, with Paula England, in Contexts magazine, Summer 2010), Bell argues that seemingly-progressive norms can cause undue stress when we assume individual interests are always in tension with social needs, and individual needs should always take priority.

Many young and aspiring women with whom I spoke felt as though it were counterproductive to their development to prioritize a relationship with a man.

Confused about freedom and desire, young women often split their social and psychological options—independence, strength, safety, control, and career versus connection, vulnerability, need, desire, and relationships—into mutually exclusive possibilities in life.

Bell’s point isn’t that women should go back to the old priorities either. Instead, they should recognize when it is healthy to balance a human need for social relationships with individual development. The sisters do it for themselves, but they shouldn’t always have to:

I would never advocate that women return to the stereotype of the single woman pining for romance… the successful woman who is in a relationship is not the same as the pining woman. She’s the one who is acknowledging the full range of her desires.

Do Your Chores (Whatever They Are)

We all love when our partners help out around the house, but the type of tasks we’re doing might affect our sex lives. A recent study by Sabino Kornrich and her colleagues found that married, heterosexual men who do traditionally masculine chores, like mowing the lawn and taking out the trash, reported more frequent sex than those who tackle traditionally feminine chores, like cleaning. The findings imply that heterosexuals are essentially “rewarded” for sticking closely to socialized gender roles.

He might want to think about this. Photo by Heather Harvey via flickr.com.

But what about the married men who enjoy cooking and shopping? Ultimately, a couple’s sex life depends on the happiness and satisfaction in the relationship. There are plenty of couples that don’t divvy up their chores along rigidly gendered lines and still manage to be sexually fulfilled. The dealbreaker, even Kornrich says, is when the man doesn’t play any part in the script—masculine or not.

“Men who refuse to help around the house could increase conflict in their marriage and lower their wives’ marital satisfaction,” Kornrich said.

“Earlier research has found that women’s marital satisfaction is indeed linked to men’s participation in overall household labor, which encompasses tasks traditionally done by both men and women.”

Women’s Lifecourse and Health at ASA

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.


What Your Pronouns Say

Superhero Grammar
Photo by MrSchuReads via flickr.com

While pronouns may have lost out in the world of School House Rock (can you even compare “Conjunction Junction” or “Unpack Your Adjectives” to the pronoun song?), psychologist James Pennebaker believes it might be possible to predict future romances and analyze power dynamics based on these tiny words.

Pennebaker and his team recorded and transcribed hundreds of speed dating conversations.  After they analyzed words used during the conversations and information about how the speed daters thought their dates went, Pennebaker found that people subconsciously mimic the way others speak when we’re into them.

 “The more similar [they were] across all of these function words, the higher the probability that [they] would go on a date in a speed dating context,” Pennebaker says. “And this is even cooler: We can even look at … a young dating couple… [and] the more similar [they] are … using this language style matching metric, the more likely [they] will still be dating three months from now.”

Pennebaker also studies pronouns and power dynamics and thinks that it’s possible to tell who holds the power in any situation based on who uses the pronoun “I” more often.

 You’d think it would be the person who thinks he’s [or she’s] more important, but it turns out it’s actually the person who feels more insecure. When we’re fixated on how we’re coming across, our language reflects our self-consciousness.

However, Pennebaker doesn’t think that people can use this research to change themselves.  As he puts it, “The words reflect who we are more than drive who we are.”

P.S. For some interesting examples, check out the full article from Jezebel.  Also check out Pennebaker’s website for tools you can use to analyze your tweets or analyze how two people are paying attention to each other in a conversation.

P.P.S. For those of you who also couldn’t even remember how School House Rock taught us about pronouns, here’s a link to memory lane.

Our Love Affair with Marriage


Americans love marriage.  The wedding industry is worth over 40 billion dollars, and TV shows and magazines continually cover stories of romantic proposals, show us how women chose their wedding dresses, and highlight when and where celebrities tied the knot.  But, TIME recently confirmed a sociological story: marriage is changing.

In 1978, 28% of people surveyed thought that marriage was becoming obsolete.  Today, a new study conducted by the Pew Research Center and TIME revealed that 40% of people think it’s obsolete.

Even more surprising: overwhelmingly, Americans still venerate marriage enough to want to try it. About 70% of us have been married at least once, according to the 2010 Census. The Pew poll found that although 44% of Americans under 30 believe marriage is heading for extinction, only 5% of those in that age group do not want to get married. Sociologists note that Americans have a rate of marriage — and of remarriage — among the highest in the Western world. (In between is a divorce rate higher than that of most countries in the European Union.) We spill copious amounts of ink and spend copious amounts of money being anxious about marriage, both collectively and individually. We view the state of our families as a symbol of the state of our nation, and we treat marriage as a personal project, something we work at and try to perfect. “Getting married is a way to show family and friends that you have a successful personal life,” says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University and the author of The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today. “It’s like the ultimate merit badge.”

This badge of merit has changed over the past few decades.  In 1960, 70% of American adults were married.  Now, about half are.  Also, wealthy, highly educated people are now more likely to get married/be married than those with lower levels of education and socioeconomic statuses.

The change is mostly a numbers game. Since more women than men have graduated from college for several decades, it’s more likely than it used to be that a male college graduate will meet, fall in love with, wed and share the salary of a woman with a degree. Women’s advances in education have roughly paralleled the growth of the knowledge economy, so the slice of the family bacon she brings home will be substantial.

These changes would suggest that the drive to finish college would explain why fewer people are married.  But, in the last two decades, people with a high school education began to get married later than college graduates.

What has brought about the switch? It’s not any disparity in desire. According to the Pew survey, 46% of college graduates want to get married, and 44% of the less educated do. “Fifty years ago, if you were a high school dropout [or] if you were a college graduate or a doctor, marriage probably meant more or less the same thing,” says Conley [a sociologist at New York University]. “Now it’s very different depending where you are in society.” Getting married is an important part of college graduates’ plans for their future. For the less well educated, he says, it’s often the only plan.

Promising publicly to be someone’s partner for life used to be something people did to lay the foundation of their independent life. It was the demarcation of adulthood. Now it’s more of a finishing touch, the last brick in the edifice, sociologists believe. “Marriage is the capstone for both the college-educated and the less well educated,” says Johns Hopkins’ Cherlin. “The college-educated wait until they’re finished with their education and their careers are launched. The less educated wait until they feel comfortable financially.

And as they wait, they are increasingly likely to pass the time under the same roof.

Cohabitation is on the rise not just because of the economy. It’s so commonplace these days that less than half the country thinks living together is a bad idea. Couples who move in together before marrying don’t divorce any less often, say studies, although that might change as the practice becomes more widespread. In any case, academic analysis doesn’t seem to be as compelling to most people as the example set by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Or as splitting the rent.


“Marriage is still the way Americans tend to do long-term, stable partnerships,” says Cherlin. “We have the shortest cohabiting relationships of any wealthy country in the world. In some European countries, we see couples who live together for decades.” To this day, only 6% of American children have parents who live together without being married.

This story is further nuanced by differences in class and views about what is best for children.  Check out the full article!

Love is an Answer


With the flu season creeping in, we’re all looking for ways to improve our health.  In Windsor, sociologists Reza Nakhaie and Robert Arnold have found answer—love.

Sociology professor Reza Nakhaie and colleague Robert Arnold studied the effect of social capital — relationships with friends, family and community — on health.

Their findings, published recently in the journal Social Science and Medicine, reveal that warm fuzzies can actually do a body good.

The Montreal Gazzette elaborated on some of these findings.

Nakhaie and Arnold’s study showed that love is the key aspect of social capital affecting changes in health status.

The researchers’ definition of love included romantic love, familial love and divine love — the sense of loving and being loved by God. The main predictors of love were being married, monthly contact with family, attendance at religious services and being born in Canada.

Their study even found that the positive effects of love were three times stronger than the negative effects of daily smoking.  But,

Nakhaie and Arnold said their study isn’t just a feel-good story; it could have policy implications for the Canadian government. “Policies aimed at family support and family unification, for example, through immigration policies, (and) efforts to minimize the disruptions of divorce, appear important for the health of Canadians,” they wrote.

The researchers were quick to point out that we mustn’t stop worrying about meeting basic needs such as a stable food supply, and that the government shouldn’t cancel its anti-smoking programs. “What we’re really saying is that it’s time that the older sociological tradition of giving more attention to love was brought back to the forefront,” Arnold said.

Hooking Up

MessyUSA Today recently reported on a controversial new study that surveyed 642 heterosexual adults in Chicago and found that casual hook ups can lead to rewarding, long-term relationships.

University of Iowa researchers analyzed relationship surveys and found that average relationship quality was higher for people who took it slowly than for those who became sexually involved in “hook-ups,” casual dating, or “friends with benefits” relationships.

Yet, according to sociologist Anthony Paik, having sex early in the relationship did not cause the disparity.

When he factored out people who weren’t interested in getting serious, he found that those who became sexually involved as friends or acquaintances and were open to a serious relationship were just as happy as those who dated but delayed having sex.

To measure the quality of the relationship, the respondents answered questions about how much they loved their partners, their satisfaction with intimacy in the relationship, the relationship’s future, and how their lives would be different if the relationship ended.

While the study did suggest that rewarding relationships were possible for couples who delayed sex, Paik noted that:

It’s also possible for true love to emerge if things start off with a more Sex and the City approach, when people spot each other across the room, become sexually involved and then build a relationship.

Sociologists on ‘Mad Men’

Mad Men anachronism.They may be big fans of the show, but some sociologists are calling out historical inaccuracies in AMC’s “Mad Men.” According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“As historians, most of us just love ‘Mad Men’ — it is so realistic, not just in the details, but in the gender dynamics,” said Stephanie Coontz, a sociologist and professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. “But, I think in this case they’ve gotten it wrong.”

Discovering Don was not the man she thought she knew was merely the last straw for Betty, who surely suspected her husband’s many dalliances. So she began a flirtatious relationship with Henry Francis, a well-placed aide to Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York.

Henry flew with her to Nevada, where “divorce mills” of the day allowed (mostly) women to establish residency for six weeks, then file for divorce.

But Ms. Coontz, who has authored a number of books examining American life and family, said she doubts someone like Henry would have considered courting a married woman with three young children.

“In 1964, Nelson Rockefeller could not run for president because he was divorced — anyone with high aspirations, unless he was absolutely besotted with love, would never have considered getting involved in a divorce.”

Another sociologist adds:

Christine B. Whelan is visiting assistant professor at Pitt, where she is teaching three classes on the sociology of marriage, gender and everyday life, respectively.

Her American Family course at the University of Iowa last year made occasional reference to “Mad Men,” but to her dismay, the students couldn’t relate.

“I said ‘Listen guys, I’m going to make this required viewing,’ ” Dr. Whelan said, laughing.

A divorced woman in 1963 was a social pariah, she said, but noted that the Drapers are not meant to be viewed as an average couple in average America. “It’s emblematic of a very small slice — not only does Betty get out of her [bad] marriage, she has another man all lined up.”

But the show doesn’t get it all wrong:

One thing “Mad Men” gets right is the neighborhood ladies’ opinion of Helen, an attractive, young divorced mother of two introduced in the first season.

“She is this dangerous creature, and the other women view her as a threat,” Dr. Whelan said.


Ms. Coontz has a new book coming out based on interviews with women who read Betty Friedan’s iconic 1963 writings when they were young — “A Strange Stirring: ‘The Feminine Mystique’ and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.”

“People say feminists hurt the homemaker, but one of the first reforms was marriage,” she said. In “Mad Men,” “You can see Betty already grappling with the same malaise that my real-life informants went through.”

In season one, Betty realizes while driving the car that she cannot feel her hands.

“Early in the show, her hands go numb, numb just like the 188 women I interviewed for this book who thought, ‘I was crazy,’ or just felt numb. They couldn’t express it, this emptiness and despair.”

Ms. Coontz came across a Gallup poll from December 1962, that indicated American housewives were happy with their lives, but 90 percent said they would advise their daughters to delay marriage and work at a job first.