The University Record, October 14, 1998

New center at ISR to study everyday life among working families in Midwest

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Anthropologist Tom Fricke has received a $2.8 million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to establish the Michigan Center for the Ethnography of Everyday Life at the Institute for Social Research.

The Center will sponsor research on middle-class, Midwestern families, using an innovative blend of techniques, including daily observation, informal conversations, formal interviews and survey research.

“This new initiative is exciting for a lot of reasons,” Fricke says. “One is that it has the potential to increase our understanding of a striking social and cultural transformation happening right in front of our eyes.

“You don’t have to go far to realize the extent of change in American family and work life,” he continues. “Any of us can look at our own lives or the lives of people we know and tick off major changes: Dual career families. New childcare issues. Our obligations to aging parents. New workplace strategies for accommodating the family. Statistics make it more than a personal issue.

“The percentage of married women in the workforce who have children under age 6 in their households increased from 11 percent in 1948 to 63 percent in 1996. The percentage of children spending time in day care centers increased dramatically over part of that period, too, from 6 percent in 1965 to 30 percent today.”

Like many anthropologists, Fricke has spent most of his academic career far from home. He studied the changing lives of families in an obscure Nepalese village, and now he will study the changing lives of families in an obscure town in North Dakota, just went of his own birthplace.

All of the research projects carried out through the new Center will take place in the 12 states of the Midwest, as defined by the U.S. Bureau of the Census: North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. The studies will start in homes and workplaces, in rural, suburban and urban areas. Their aim is to investigate the impact of the major changes in family life and work that are affecting how we define work and family, and how we understand the culturally defined obligations between the generations.

“We aren’t planning on moving into people’s spare bedrooms,” Fricke says. But the researchers, who come from a variety of academic backgrounds, including sociology, psychology and economics, will live among the people they’re studying, applying the same methods anthropologists have used in remote, exotic societies to modern, middle-class lives in the U.S. heartland.

The Michigan Center for the Ethnography of Everyday Life is the fourth Sloan center on working families. Others are affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Chicago and Cornell University.

U-M researchers forming the core faculty of the new Michigan Center include Frank Stafford, Abigail Stewart, Jennifer Robertson, Conrad Kottak, Sandra Hofferth, Arland Thornton, Leslie Perlow and Lawrence Root.


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