Talking about "Doing" Family

Article excerpt

Case studies are an important tradition in the social sciences, particularly when researchers believe that the object under study needs to be captured in vivo, in its own context, not inferred from outcomes. Communities, social clubs, juvenile gangs, occupations, professions, and immigrant families were among the first and most famous case studies carried out by American sociologists in the first half of the 20th century. Their enduring contribution, if one can reduce an extraordinarily rich and diverse body of investigation to one sentence, is the light they shed on how groups, identities, and disparities are produced and then reproduced over time. Two examples of a relatively recent vintage illustrate the point well and also help to put Nelson 's work in context.

Rubin's (1976) classic work, Worlds of Pain, is a case study of White working-class families, the "silent majority," who are unable to fulfill the American dream. A great deal had been written about working-class life before and after Rubin's study. What set her study apart was the window it opened into the internal dynamics of family life and the relationship between behindthe-scenes drama and social structures.

The "world of pain" that Rubin depicted contrasted dramatically with the world experienced by middle- and upper-middle-class couples. Through her interviews and observation, Rubin chronicled how young working-class men and women, desiring release from conflict and tension in their parents' home, attempt to gain independence by rebelling, having early sexual experiences, and establishing their own individual lifestyles. Yet, as she also showed, the flight from parental restriction and economic dependence often led to other, more oppressive bonds. For example, a lack of sexual experience (particularly for women) and early pregnancy channel many young couples into marriage and parenthood. Furthermore, early family responsibilities, combined with inadequate formal education, yoke working-class husbands into lower status, dead-end jobs; working-class wives are saddled with children and, because of their lack of skills, have extremely limited opportunities for continued education or subsequent investment in work-related skills. Men can struggle to improve their family's economic lot, but cyclical unemployment, tiring work, and organizational barriers to white-collar work create an iron curtain that prevents escape from the working class. The result, as the couples themselves describe, is a situation in which one's family becomes a social and psychological pressure cooker.

Rubin's research, though exhaustive in the sense that she studied many facets of these families ' lives, was not built on a random sampling of families or a series of controlled experiments. What it did, by contrast, was systematically document and compare, through in-depth interviewing, the way couples in different classes handled similar situations, for example, courting, marriage, childrearing, employment/unemployment, and the family economy. Moreover, the research was intentionally focused on process-how things got done or came undone-to better assess whether the things others saw as outcomes (e.g., divorces, marital abuse, childrearing practices) were pathologies (e.g., rooted in personality) or the effect of other structures (e.g., labor markets). In-depth interviews made it possible to explore men's and women's own understanding and explanations for their situations, to compare what men and women said so that differences might be investigated further, and, perhaps as importantly, to allow Rubin to illustrate her conclusions using the words of the people she studied.

DeVault (1991), in Feeding the Family, looks to carework and gender for insight into what family means in practice. Nurturing, a central and daily aspect of family, sustains group life. The process of "feeding work" is a form of social interaction that engages all group participants. Through meal production, DeVault uncovered the ways such activity draws women into serving others and subordinating their own identities and how the family meal is bound up with the normative ideology of the middle-class family. …