‘As Sociologists, We Have a Unique Perspective on the World’
Shannon Davis, Ph.D., Associate Professor of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of George Mason University (USA) is visiting Moscow this week for the seminar ‘From the Great Recession to Greater Gender Equality? Family Mobility and the Intersection of Race, Class, and Gender’ organized by the HSE Laboratory for Studies in Economic Sociology. It will take place on March 19.
Dr. Davis gave a special interview to the HSE portal.
— Dr. Davis, you’ve been researching the creation of families and the negotiation of family life. Leo Tolstoy, the famous Russian writer noted that ‘All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. What are the main conclusions of your research?
— I have studied factors that influence when couples have children and their division of household labor. I’ve studied factors that influence women’s perceptions of fairness of the division of household labor and those that lead to and increased likelihood of divorce (both in couples and in countries). One thing I can say I have learned is that while there are individual factors that influence what happens in families, families as institutions are influenced dramatically by the social context in which they exist. That is, families are products of their cultural context. And as importantly, I have learned that families are an institution where the power dynamics of the cultural context play out. Either through the internalization of the cultural beliefs about the shared responsibilities between women and men in relationships or the meaning of resources like income and education, cultural determinants of power and how power is negotiated play out in families just as they do in politics and formal organizations. Studying families has actually allowed me to think more clearly about what power means and how it is interpreted more generally within sociology. The concept of hidden or latent power underlies many of the theoretical approaches we use to study families. Connecting those theories and our empirical studies of families with classical arguments about power in other social institutions is something that has great potential to connect many threads of inquiry across the discipline.
— How could you describe the economic recession impact on family life? Can we talk about the increased rate of divorce?
— Other researchers have done a more thorough job of investigating the recession’s impact on family life (people like Philip Cohen, for example, have written about the possible influence of the recession on the divorce rate). What I have learned in my own investigations is that there seem to be differences in the way that people are thinking about employment and work responsibilities in the wake of economic uncertainty. Recent Pew data confirms that the recession has led women’s and men’s work and family lives (especially time on tasks and worries about family and money) to become more similar. My own data suggest that this extends to how married individuals are thinking about prioritizing employment. Given the tepid recovery (at least in the United States), I suspect that these effects will have an impact for years to come.
— What was the most unexpected result you’ve discovered during your research?
— This is a hard question to answer. I find something unexpected in every research project I work on. I love the unexpected. I have a friend who has this Isaac Asimov quote on her wall: ‘The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That's funny ...”’. I need to have that feeling with each research project, where I am learning something new, where I encounter something unexpected, so I am pushed conceptually to explain what I have found. I believe in replication in the social sciences. We simply don’t replicate enough. But I also believe that as we replicate we need to extend, both theoretically and empirically. That’s when we run into those moments where we say “That’s funny…”
— Do you see yourself as an expert in family negotiations? What would be your advice to a young married couple?
— I do not see myself as an expert in family negotiations. As a sociologist, I see myself as someone who tries to understand the patterns of daily life among families, largely in the United States context. If I were to give advice to a newly married couple, I would encourage them to make sure they were honest with one another about their expectations of themselves and of each other. One of the assignments that I have my students do in my Marriage, Intimate Relationships, and Family Life course is one that my mentor, Ted Greenstein, created: a Marriage Contract. Students are asked to complete the contract with their partner, or someone who could be their partner. One of the things I hear often about that assignment is how much that students learn about their own expectations for their marriages that they never thought to voice before. My own research on beliefs about gender in relationships has taught me that those beliefs influence decisions made about fertility, the division of housework, and divorce. Talking through what they believe and what they want in advance, really talking about it and not making presumptions or assumptions, can help couples be prepared when decisions need to be made later.
— You’ve been teaching on the Sociology faculty at George Mason University for 7 years now. What’s your teaching philosophy?
— My ‘official’ teaching philosophy is that I want to excite, engage, and empower my students through my courses. Although I have many goals as an instructor of sociology, I desire most that the students become excited about the material, are engaged in our discussions in the classroom and are empowered to take responsibility for their learning through discussions and outside activities which interest them. I believe strongly that students should be exposed to the research process from the beginning of their time at the university. Even if students do not choose to perform independent research, I want every student, especially those who take my research methods courses, to be critical consumers of social research. As sociologists, we have a unique perspective on the world.
I want students to engage their sociological imaginations and try to make sense out of all of the data that is thrown at them every day. I want my students to be able to critique, both positively and negatively, what they are told about the social world, using their sociological lenses and their sociological skills. The more advanced the class, the more advanced I expect their skills to be (and hope that I’m training them at that advanced level!).
— Is it your first time in Moscow? How do you see the development of cooperation with the HSE?
— Yes, this is my first time in Moscow. I have been so appreciative of the kindness extended by everyone I have talked with (both electronically and in person). I am excited by the possibilities that the cooperation between Mason and HSE affords faculty and students in both locations. The first few years of the relationship have been the ‘getting to know you’ years, where students and faculty are learning more about one another. We are sharing our strengths and weaknesses, ideas and questions, opportunities and exemplars. I hope that we can now move to the next phase of cooperation such that we can begin producing tangible markers of our relationship. I know that students have had remarkable experiences as they have spent time on one another’s campuses. It is my hope that the work produced through those exchanges becomes part of the theoretical and empirical literatures that both sets of faculty and students will be able to draw upon. The faculty exchanges have also been wonderful opportunities for intellectual conversations. I hope to see those exchanges lead to the submission of grant proposals, book proposals, and research articles.
Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News Service
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