Sociologist’s research examines hot-button family issues

 

66195Americans have never been in full agreement on social attitudes and behaviors, but now some segments of our society are drifting even further apart, says Assistant Professor Amanda Miller of UIndy’s Department of Social Sciences. “I think we’re seeing an interesting family transformation right now in the United States,” she says. Examples are evident in two studies Miller published this year that drew attention well beyond the academic world. The coverage included local news, Britain’s Telegraph and Daily Mail, Canada’s Flare magazine; websites such as Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, and Jezebel, and the “Bloomberg News Morning Report,” seen on televisions across the nation. One study, which appeared in September’s Sociological Forum, asked unmarried couples how they would respond to an unexpected pregnancy. Many of the men said their positions would be based not on religious or political beliefs but on personal circumstances that might shift over time.

Dividing along class lines

Interesting divisions emerged when the men were grouped either as working class, with only a high school education, or as middle class, with college degrees. The middle-class men were more likely to feel prepared for fatherhood, Miller found, in part because they felt more secure in their educations and careers. In contrast, working-class men more often preferred that their partners opt for abortion because they felt financially or emotionally unprepared for parenthood.

“This research can help explain some of the differences we see in terms of family outcomes between the working class and the middle class,” Miller said. “A number of the working-class men were living with women that they were certain were not ‘the one.’ On the whole, the middle-class men felt more prepared for parenthood because they felt far more stable in their relationships. They were more likely to be engaged and have a wedding date set, for example.” In another study, published in the December issue of Qualitative Sociology, Miller and co-author Sharon Sassler of Cornell University interviewed working-class cohabiting couples about the division of household responsibilities in their relationships. They found that couples who moved in together without a wedding often held surprisingly traditional views on gender roles and household chores.

Even men who were being supported financially by their partners generally lived under the assumption that the man is the head of the household and that the woman is responsible for domestic work.

Working & shirking

“A number of these working-class men wanted the respect of being the breadwinner, but were not necessarily taking on that role,” Miller says. “While they were content to let their girlfriends pay at least half of the rent, they admitted that they had no plans to take on half of the housework, even if their partners were very unhappy about doing more than their fair share.” The responses suggest that workingclass men—who were far more likely than women to lose their jobs in the latest recession—may be clinging tightly to their privileges at home as they lose ground in the workplace. Not surprisingly, Miller and her colleagues have found in other research that many working-class cohabiting women view marriage as a path not to a stronger relationship, but to an even greater workload both in and out of the home.

“They’re afraid that, if they get married, they’re going to have even more responsibilities than they do now,” Miller says, “which may help explain the retreat from marriage among those with less than a college education.”

Pointing toward a paradox

Both studies point toward a broader and seemingly paradoxical trend noticed by sociologists, Miller says. Working-class and middle-class Americans used to be very similar in their family-building behaviors, but in recent decades they have diverged. The college-educated members of the middle class often have liberal ideas about what defines a family, but the choices they make in their own relationships are fairly traditional; they are more likely to marry and less likely to live together or get pregnant outside of marriage. In contrast, Miller says, working-class young adults now express attitudes about families that are fairly conservative, but perhaps as a result of declining economic opportunity, they find themselves more often living in non-nuclear or unmarried families.

“It’s important to recognize that changes in the public arena, such as education or the economy, can have clear impacts in our homes,” she says. “Moral judgments aside, marriage does convey certain advantages in our society, and if it is increasingly limited to people who can afford higher education, then those who cannot will be increasingly disadvantaged.”