Extended Family

(This was mostly written last week but I didn’t have time to post it from the road. Today’s snow emergency gives me the time to finish it.)

We’ve been here all week due to the death of my father-in-law Thanksgiving night. The funeral was yesterday, a week after he passed. It was a great celebration of a life well lived by a man who spent time with his children and grandchildren and gave abundantly of himself to a wide variety of community projects. The funeral was followed by a noisy and warm family gathering. Now it is quiet. As I write this, my mother-in-law and brother-in-law are napping, my sister-in-law is watching TV, the other set of grandchildren have headed home or are out shopping. My daughter is napping in the motel. My husband, son, son-in-law and I are all sitting in the living room playing games on our laptops. I decided this was the time to write the blog I’ve been thinking about all week.

I’m not sorry I came here for the whole week. It is important to honor a family you have been part of for nearly forty years. At the same time, it was a hard thing to do. The air travel arrangements for five people were an expensive mess. We traveled on four different itineraries. Three of us had to change travel plans made after the “death is imminent” call. Commitments that seemed unbreakable in the uncertainty of “sometime soon” were sacrificed in the face of the certainty of death. It is a very bad time to be away from work, this close to the end of the semester. I made arrangements to reschedule or plan alternate activities for my classes and I’ve done a lot of work via remote access. But I still care about my work obligations and worried that missing a whole week of classes is somehow too much for an indirect relation like a father-in-law. My son took a whole week away from his classes in grad school. I could not help but think about all the jokes we make about the mortality rate of grandparents, especially just before or after Thanksgiving break.

I did not go to the funerals of any of my own grandparents. The circumstances of each was different, but the relative estrangement of my parents from their own parents, complex and delayed funeral arrangements, coupled with the difficulty and expense of travel made my attendance seem optional to them. I remember and still regret my non-attendance at the last one, the funeral for the grandmother I liked best. I had small children, was in debt and could not afford to fly the whole family out, had just talked to her by phone earlier in the week, and knew the family would not blame me. But I realized too late it hurt anyway, especially because I was the only grandchild missing. A Black friend from a low income dysfunctional family was deeply shocked and scandalized when she found out I had not gone to my grandmother’s funeral. “Were you close?” is the question we often ask when hearing of a grandparent’s death. When I tried to explain to my friend that I’d never seen my grandmother much even as a child, she just said, “But it is your grandmother!”

Here’s where the work and sociology part comes in. We academics have careers that are very flexible in many ways. But we relate to a national job market and typically live far away from our families of origin. We are rootless nomads, and many of us do not even realize how peculiar this is. There are a fair number of ethnographies written about working class folks who live within a few miles of their extended families as if they are some sort of backward exotics worthy of anthropological notice. There are not many ethnographies about the family structures of the nomadic academic and business classes, and it is my impression that many sociologists think this is what “normal” families are like. Many of us were reared in the same kind of rootless placeless families as we are creating. There are deep costs we pay, and our children pay, for this lifestyle. Even if you don’t view the effects as “costs,” there are definitely huge impacts on people’s understandings of what human relationships are about. For one thing, we believe that a sign of having a significant commitment to the academic life is that one is a rootless cosmopolitan who is willing to live anywhere the intellectual climate is good. And we know that schools that “hire their own” and give preference to people who don’t want to move tend to become inbred and parochial intellectual backwaters. I think it is true that the mobility of the professorate is good for science. But what is good for science is not good for families or people.

Those of us in the higher occupational categories give a very high priority to jobs and job advancement over other values. There are other value systems. I remember hearing my husband’s grandfather complain about one of his sons (one of my husband’s uncles, a business executive) that he spent too much time working and did not take his son fishing. The working-class uncles got more esteem from the older man for face time with children than for the money they made. My father-in-law did not go to college. He worked his way up into management from the shop floor, then lost place in a corporate shuffle and finished his career in a variety of lower-level jobs. I know my father-in-law spent a lot of time with his sons, and both my husband and brother-in-law spent a lot of time with their children, not in a “look at me, I’m violating gender roles” way, but in a “this is what fathers do” way. There is a traditional “family man” masculinity that involves active hands-on time with children and caring treatment of wives and mothers that often seems invisible in rhetoric about gender roles and family life, although it shows up periodically in the research literature, often to the surprise of the sociologist authors who report that “feminist” attitudes are not well correlated with actual patterns of household activities (basically because working-class people on average have less feminist attitudes and more gender-egalitarian household task allocations than professionals).

Professionals also have jobs that require us to do things that cannot be done by others and cannot be deferred until later. We are much more able to respond to the needs of kin or life emergencies in the summer and during breaks than in the middle of the school term. Our jobs are a central part of our lives and our identities. This, coupled with our distance from extended families, leads us to have a high proportion of our close significant relations tied to work rather than neighborhood or family. I was talking with a colleague about her research on how these patterns put people like us at a significant disadvantage under certain kinds of major life challenges. (I’m not going to say more because I don’t want to scoop her as-yet unpublished research. But it is going to be a blockbuster when it comes out.)

More and more graduate students come from academic families where our nomadic lifestyle is the norm. If your extended family is already scattered all over the country (or globe), you have no choice anyway. Other people come from bad families they are happy to be far from. (My own thin relation with my grandparents was due to divorce and abuse when my parents were children.)  But if you come from a good family that has a place, one of the choices you face as an academic is whether to try to live closer to that family, even if it puts you in a less good place than you’d like to be otherwise, and even if it means you may not be able to live as an academic. Geographic choices that seem manageable when you are young and childless often become more painful when you have children who don’t know their grandparents, or your parents age. Monday, 36 hours after finally getting us all back from the delayed flights from the funeral, I got word that my mother had been hospitalized with unexplained bleeding. Fortunately the diagnosis points to a relatively mild problem and is not immediately threatening. But I am sick to report that one of my first thoughts was, “Oh no. I can’t miss any more class. I just can’t.”

The work-family choices are not just about caring for small children. They are about the structure of your whole life. If you think this is just a “personal issue” and not a “professional issue,” then you should realize you’ve said something about yourself. Or perhaps about your family.

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Social Psychology Conference

Glen Elder Life Course Theory
Glen Elder Life Course Theory

Tape-delayed blogging of the social psychology centennial conference held at Wisconsin Sept 26-7 including talks by Glen Elder, Shelley Correll, Mitch Duneier, Yuri Miyamoto, Terri Orbuch, and Jim House.  This conference was  honor of the first publication of books with the title Social Psychology, one of them by E.A. Ross, a founder of the  Wisconsin sociology department.  This conference is held in the room that is not named after E.A. Ross; the not-naming occurred after a two-hour debate in the early 1980s about whether the racism of Ross’s “race suicide” Social Darwinist work outweighed his support for working people and his belief that sociology should address social problems.  I arrived late, after the administrative welcomes and most of the way through John DeLamater’s summary of the history of social psychology.

Glen Elder talked about doing longitudinal life course research.  A lot of the talk was anecdote about his research career.  The point where many of us started taking notes was this graphic.  Although there were questions about what he means by “theory,” to which Elder replied that he means “orienting concepts” or “framework,” I was struck by how apt this graphic was as a representation of what I feel I’ve learned about living life.

Friday evening we had a fancy dinner and then watched the presidential debate on the big screen.  The social psychologists yelled and booed like they were at a wrestling match, and I would have felt pretty uncomfortable  if I’d been a Republican.  We were in the Business School’s conference center, and there were business folks watching the debates on TVs in other rooms; I wondered if the atmosphere would be different if we’d mingled with other groups.  The other highlight of the evening for me occurred earlier: after I described the troubles we were having finding a place to hold my daughter’s wedding reception in December, a prominent psychologist had me about falling on the floor laughing as she advocated renting the zoo for the reception.  As she said, the zoo really needs the business, it would probably be cold enough for the pond to freeze so you could dance on it, and if it was really cold you could go into the lion house to get warm.

Saturday morning there was a little flurry around miscommunication.  People were carrying in their cups of Starbucks and bags of Einstein Bagels, only to discover that there was enough coffee and bagels in the conference room for about twice as many of us as were there.  So at the end of the day, everyone was urged to take bagels home for the freezer.

Shelley Correll led off the Saturday events, talking about the value of experiments with an emphasis on gender research.  I was particularly struck by the “motherhood penalty” research  (Correll, Shelley J, Stephen Benard, and In Paik. 2007. “Getting a job: Is there a motherhood penalty?” American Journal of Sociology 112: 1297-1338.)  I guess I wasn’t paying attention last year when this article came out: experimental results that show that people with exactly the same credentials are more negatively evaluated if there is one line on the c.v. that she is a mother, and that taking time off work for going to the gym is viewed more positively than taking time to have lunch with a child.   (Fathers experience no penalty – this is coming back to me.)  She also cited experimental results by someone whose name I missed that men harassed more by sending pornography to women if their masculinity was threatened.

Mitch Duneier began by making laudatory remarks about a lot of people (many of them in the room) and Wisconsin sociology and stressing that he is not a social psychologist although he appreciates and learns from social psychology.  His main talk was a discussion of the danger in qualitative methods of cherry-picking, that is, of finding the quotations or incidents that support your point.   He also talked about ethics and the danger of treating IRB approval as the end rather than the beginning of ethical behavior, and worrying about the problem of using other people for our purposes and befitting at their expense.  Good talk, but a safe talk, nothing to disagree with, the only overt target of critique is himself.

Yuri Miyamoto is a psychologist who presented a variety of experimental results contrasting the modal response of Easterners (Japanese or Chinese) with Westerners (Anglo-Americans), where Easterners tend to think more about context, locate causes in relations, and favor aphorisms stressing change and contradiction, while Westerners prefer analytic thinking & laws of non-contradiction and locate causality in objects.  The details are interesting.  When describing a picture do you start with the fish – the focal objects – or do you start with context e.g. “this is a lake bottom.”  When told an essay was written by a student who was required to argue for a given side, do you attribute its opinion more to the writer if it is long, complex and passionate versus short and perfunctory?  (Westerns don’t distinguish, Easterners do.)  Which two of “chicken, cow, grass” go together?  Westerners tend to say chicken & cow (both animals), Easterners say cow & grass (cow eats grass).  She suggests that these differences arise from settlement patterns, the longer history of dense settlement and highly interdependent agricultural life in Asia vs. frontier individualism in the US.  Research in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan not settled until the 19th Century, finds that ethnic Japanese there give answers more like Americans.   Sociologists in Q&A and conversation during break comment critically on how all difference is packed together as under-theorized “culture” and the importance of looking at variation within groups.  Good points, but I still found the main axis of the story to be worthy of contemplation.  I’ve thought before about how the US is fundamentally the place dominated by people who left their families and roots behind.

Terri Orbuch AKA “The Love Doctor” gives a fact-filled summary of the research on how people come to have happy marriages versus unhappy marriages or divorces, organizing her talk around the three main strands of social psychology: symbolic interaction, the dynamics of group interaction, and the social construction of meaning.  Most of the talk summarizes results from the longitudinal study of newly-married couples.  If you are just starting out on the coupled life, the best predictor of long-term stability for everyone is “affective affirmation” – the overt communication of loving attitudes.  Interestingly, “cognitive collaboration,” developing a joint narrative of your life, is a secondary positive predictor of stability for Whites but negative (although non-significant) for Blacks.  Divorce rates are higher for Blacks than Whites, controlling for everything they could control for.  Another big racial difference: Black men do much more housework, feel less threatened by involvement at home,  and have much more egalitarian gender ideologies than White men; Black women’s marital happiness depends on how much work at home their husbands do, while White women’s does not.  Men’s work at home is a predictor of divorce for Whites but of non-divorce for Blacks.  These racial differences in the gender attitudes of Black people are consistent with other research I’ve seen years ago, and tend to go unnoticed by Whites, except perhaps for feeding into stereotypes of Black women as emasculating.

Jim House gave a shorter re-presentation of his 2007 Cooley-Mead lecture.  The first part of the talk is the history of social psychology, showing how central and important it was through the first two-thirds of the 20th century, and then how it has declined since 1970 in terms of section memberships and proportion of top departments with a specialty in social psychology.  (Social psychology has also declined within psychology.)  He argues that microeconomics filled that space.  This is due both to ideological factors, the rise in neolibral individualism and the valorization of business firms, and (relatedly) to deep cuts in the governmental funding support for social science in the 1980s, and the relative insulation of economics from these cuts.  Tversky/Kahneman’s social psychological work was translated into and published in economics journals, and won the Nobel prize in economics.  Economics has replaced social psychology in public policy.  In addition to the ideological context argument, House argues that the expansion of sociology and the proliferation of sections paradoxically weakened sociology as compared to economics, which has no sections in the AEA and rather rigidly enforces ideological hegemony.  All academic fields rose 1940-1970, then generally flattened out.  But after 1970, total number of economists declined somewhat, while the number of sociologists grew modestly.

To save social psychology from decline, House stresses path dependence and the role of human agency.  He says social psychologists need to act, to deal publicly and aggressively with the problems & limitations of economic models.  In light of economic crises, he talks about how social psychologists have a lot of knowledge they should share about how and why people fail to fit economistic decision-theory models.  There is a need to balance rational choice with understandings of structural constraint and non-rational motivation/values.  And social psychologists need to link with social, biomedical, and natural sciences.  He also says we should reduce hyper-specialization, reduce the number of new PhDs who know only about their own applied interests.  He contrasts this with the sciences in which everyone has to have a background in physics, chemistry, biology at least at basic level.  I found the specialization argument misspecified, and talked to him about it afterwards.  In his accounts, economists are even more ignorant of other fields than sociologists are, and the interdisciplinary training he lauded about the physical and biological sciences happens in the undergraduate curriculum.

Vigorous discussion ensued and was halted 45 minutes after the announced ending time by the growing trickle of people leaving to catch their planes.  Good event.

coming soon

I’ve been quiet lately because I’ve been busy.  I had less time to blog than in the past when I was in LA.  This is because my mother is doing a lot better (hurrah!), which means she is sleeping less and can get out more, and I spent more of my time running errands with her.  In process are a tape-delayed blog of the Social Psychology Centenniel conference and two posts about race, one about talking about race and the other about race names.

I’ve also spent a lot of time doing “public sociology” stuff, running a lot of Stata code to crunch a lot of numbers and prepare graphs to update my lectures for several talks this fall.  And spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what we will do about a wedding.

privilege, choices, constraints

This post is a response primarily to the young academics and other young professionals or graduate students who wrote that my story inspired them to think about their priorities or to have hope that they, too, could achieve success despite the stresses of the work-home conflict. Many wrote that it reminded them of their own priorities, and that was my main point. But some people seemed to be trying to “do it all” and viewing me as a model of success. I am fearful that you will think that I was some kind of superwoman. Because I was not superwoman and you will draw the wrong lesson if you think I was. My last post was written from the perspective of privilege and this one will be, too. This is not because I do not know I have privilege. To the contrary. I still remember the young woman in my Lamaze class who was going back to work full time four weeks after her child’s birth. Continue reading “privilege, choices, constraints”

blog reflections

As Jeremy noted in a private communication, we got more traffic in the last couple days than a run of ASR. As my first experience in blogland, it was fascinating to see the attributions made off site. It is clear that most of the traffic was generated by Kieran Healy’s extract of the “angry” paragraph and that most of the commentators on other sites never read the whole post. You would think that “I chose to be angry rather than accept defeat and adapt to my constraints” would have been a tip-off, but apparently it was not. Continue reading “blog reflections”

choices, consequences, constraints

“While they are young, the children come first.” Last week, cleaning out old files, I found a stack of priority worksheets I’d written in 1989, in one of my bursts of self-improvement. (Ironically, my taste for self-improvement books and schemes is one of the things my children find embarrassing and annoying.) So I was already reflecting on choices and their consequences when Jeremy posted “someday” and Shamus posted “how do you say no?” With a little luck, Continue reading “choices, consequences, constraints”