via Flickr Creative Commons
via Flickr Creative Commons

I have the good fortune of serving as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Council on Contemporary Families, an organization that has as its goal to make good research and practitioner knowledge on families more visible to more audiences. Our 18th Conference, Families As They Really Are: Demographics, Disparities, and Debates, held at the University of Texas at Austin on March 4 and 5, was a wonderful way to make this enhanced visibility of new findings about families happen.

As I listened to the insightful presentations, many of which thoughtfully referenced each other as the conference unfolded, I discovered a theme threaded throughout: Understanding contemporary families’ lives as they really are requires making invisible things more visible, especially as we discuss demographics, disparities and debates in family research, policy, and practice.

And here is how that happened.

First, some presenters showed the audience that there is invisibility of resources for some families, thus furthering disparities between groups. Our first keynote address, offered by Wendy Manning, helped us see how the amount of support in communities in which LGB families live can shape their relationship stability – more visible perceived support means more stability. We learned from Jenifer Bratter and Ellen Whitehead that grandparent support for mothers of biracial children is less visible than it is for mothers whose children are one race, complicating the notion that we are becoming a postracial society. Marcia Carlson showed how family-friendly policies for non-married parents are less visible in the U.S. as compared to many other countries. Carla Pfeffer presented her qualitative findings about women whose boyfriends and husbands haven’t always been recognized as men, leading to feelings of invisibility as they are pushed out of gay and lesbian social spaces. Liana Sayer drew attention to the lack of leisure time for families who have high work and family demands and exposed the invisible role of television use as a dominant (though declining) leisure time activity. And Debra Umberson’s presentation on the racialized impact of death on surviving family members struck an emotional chord with the audience when she asked us to think about how powerful an impact race is on family resources when African-Americans are disproportionately rendered literally invisible through premature death.

Second, presentations focused on the invisibility of entire groups and categories from demographic research on, and practice with, families.  Our second keynote address, offered by Dolores Acevedo-Garcia, included findings from – a project she directs that has as its goal to make data, policies, and programs that enhance outcomes for disadvantaged children more visible to scholars, practitioners, and families. Kelly Raley’s work on marriage rates showed how women without a college degree need to be more visible in research questions about women’s likelihood to marry, which is crucial to highlight since the decline in women ever married is concentrated among the least advantaged. And Daniel Carlson’s work on household division of labor showed how the increasingly visible population of men who do more housework than their female partners (a counter-conventional arrangement, which means it’s still less visible than women doing more housework) may be more about unemployment patterns than men’s preferences to participate more in household labor.

Third, presenters highlighted how their work asked new questions, thus revealing the Invisibility of research questions that get at new ways to see the complexity of actual family experiences and debates. Fenaba Addo’s research on young adults’ decisions about money showed us that the role of financial decision-making in the process of deciding to cohabit is less visible in research than outcomes, finding that combining a credit card account with a cohabiting partner may elicit warning signals because it is a debt that does not build joint capital (like a mortgage does). Sharon Sassler’s presentation highlighted that what’s missing from research on cohabitation is the paradox that less-educated couples may find living together initially attractive and advantageous, but in the long run the relationship is less stable than it is for college-educated individuals. Zhenchao Qian’s work on marital endogamy rendered visible the finding that foreign-born Hispanics reinforce Hispanic boundaries while U.S.-born Hispanics are more likely to make visible multiple paths of marital assimilation across races and ethnic groups. And Yolanda Padilla’s work on remittances for immigrants (mostly Mexican and Central American), made visible the strength of ties between immigrant families and their families at home, something that counters the misperception that immigrants sever social ties before coming to the U.S.

The presentations, along with a collection of stellar graduate student flash sessions and a panel on debates about poverty, early childcare, and reproductive health policy, made visible many formerly invisible counter-intuitive claims about families. This is where the conference theme, indeed the ethos of CCF, really shines. In order to understand families as they really are, we must continue to push our research and practice into new lines of questioning with new data, new groups of people, new interventions, and new ideas for removing disadvantages for families so that they can thrive.

So, what was visible at this year’s CCF Conference in Austin? Excitement, engagement, and energy. And not just because of the breakfast tacos. This year’s Media Awards winners, Ashley Cleek from Al Jazeera America and Dan Carsen from Alabama’s NPR Station WBHM, exemplified the mission of CCF in their acceptance speeches. Both highlighted how their work as journalists is to make counter-intuitive and surprising findings about families more apparent, even if it doesn’t seem like breaking news.

To me, the 2016 CCF Conference has done precisely that, in large part due to the amazing work of conference organizers Kristi Williams and Corinne Reczek, as well as members of the UT Executive Office and all of the UT sponsors. Let’s continue the CCF project of making visible the latest greatest (and perhaps surprising) research and practice on families to a wide audience.

If you want to find the titles of the works and affiliations of the presenters I reference here, please browse the conference program at

Michelle Janning is Professor of Sociology at Whitman College, and serves as the Chair of the Council on Contemporary Families Board of Directors. Her research and writing emphasizes the intersections of home design and objects with family relations and the cultural construction of childhood. More specifically, she has focused on digital and handwritten love letter saving practices, divorce and kids’ bedrooms, Scandinavian childhood spaces, and gendered management of family photo albums.