Originally posted November 22, 2016.
For many Americans, this weekend is the time for food, football, and family we don’t see often. Given the heightened tensions surrounding the presidential election, social media is teeming with advice on how to constructively engage with friends and family who have different political views. Avoidance, wine, and crying is one strategy, but thinking about what family meals mean and actually engaging in constructive conversations about political issues may be more fruitful.
We often think of Thanksgiving as a time to have a family meal together and strengthen family bonds. But research shows that family dinner does not actually increase well-being in and of itself – it only works if the meal-time discussion is used to actually engage with those at the table and learn about their day-to-day lives. In other words, “polite” conversation may not be the best way to bring everyone together.
- Kelly Musick and Ann Meier. 2012. “Assessing Causality and Persistence in Associations Between Family Dinners and Adolescent Well-Being.” Journal of Marriage and Family 74(3): 476–493.
We know that people avoid talking politics because they want to seem polite and avoid conflict. But this does not necessarily mean they don’t have political views. In fact, being “not political” is a cultural performance that people do with different styles. It takes work to not be political and those strategies can be overcome without necessarily causing conflict. In fact, a recent study found that having a 10-minute canvassing conversation about trans-related issues was associated with reduced prejudice, at least in the short term.
- David Broockman and Joshua Kalla. 2016. “Durably Reducing Transphobia: A Field Experiment on Door-to-door Canvassing.” Science 352(6282): 220-224.
- Nina Eliasoph. 1998. Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life. Cambridge University Press.
For those of us who are academics, it is important to remember that engaging in these discussions does not mean spouting off your best summary of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony or Bonilla-Silva’s take on color-blind racism. We need to do as much, if not more, listening than we do talking, because listening to how others are thinking about and responding to the current political climate can help all of us better understand our shared situation. And if and when we do bring up social science theories and research, we should do it in a way that is approachable, not pedantic. As bell hooks argues, “Any theory that cannot be shared in everyday conversation cannot be used to educate the public.”
- bell hooks. 1991. “Theory as Liberatory Practice.” Yale Journal of Law & Feminism 4(1).
- Janice McCabe. 2013. “Making Theory Relevant: The Gender Attitude and Belief Inventory. Teaching Sociology 41(3): 282-293.
That’s not to say that academics cannot effectively draw on their experiences as teachers. There are many strategies we use in the classroom to teach things like race, gender, and class that can be useful outside of the classroom. Relying on personal examples and discussions about family histories instead of facts and figures is one example of how to do this. Focusing on experiences that you or your loved ones have had with racial discrimination, generational mobility, or gender role conflict can help them connect the social construction of race, class, and gender to concrete events and stories from their own lives.
- Katrina C. Hoop. 2009. “Students’ Lived Experiences as Text in Teaching the Sociological Imagination.” Teaching Sociology 37(1): 47-60.
- Jennifer C. Mueller. 2013. “Tracing Family, Teaching Race: Critical Race Pedagogy in the Millennial Sociology Classroom.” Teaching Sociology 41(2):172–87.
- Tre Wentling et al. 2008. “Teaching Transgender.” Teaching Sociology (36)1: 49-57.
- Shelly Tochluk. 2010. Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk about Race and How to Do It. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.