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Two Incomes, With Kids and a Scientist's Camera

Videocams in hand, researchers will study the everyday lives of 30 working

A team of UCLA social scientists is about to begin a three-year study of a common species rarely observed in its natural habitat: the dual-earner, middle-class family. Like primatologists studying chimpanzees in the wild, the researchers will follow 30 families from West Los Angeles in the course of their workaday activities, taping their every move from getting out the door in the morning, to conversations in the car, work and school interactions and evening rituals.

Hardly anything will be too mundane for the researchers' cameras. "We're going to have people open up their refrigerators and medicine cabinets," said team leader Elinor Ochs, a linguistic anthropologist. The team will examine household "artifacts" and house rules to see "how we organize space according to our values and our priorities," she said. Using methods from anthropology, psychology and linguistics, the researchers involved in the $3.6-million study will analyze the information they'll gather on thousands of digital cassettes, CD-ROMs and pages of transcripts to clarify what and how modern families are doing. The results will be housed in a collection to be called the UCLA/Sloan Working Family Archive, where researchers can glean information about the everyday lives of early 21st century families for generations to come.

Even though both parents work in 51% of two-parent families, little is fully understood about how mothers and fathers run their homes and raise their children while holding down two jobs, said Kathleen Christensen, a national director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York, which has funded this and five other projects on how work has transformed family life.

"There's an old saying: 'A fish doesn't know there's water,"' she said.

The intense taped documentation of everyday life is the first of its kind, said sociologist Barrie Thorne, co-director of the UC Berkeley Center for Working Families. "The archive they're creating will be unique," she said.

Previous studies that have looked at issues of dual-earner families, such as stress and division of labor, relied mostly on self-reports. The UCLA researchers want to see what the families do, in addition to what they say they do.

It is thought, for instance, that while men's stress levels drop when they arrive home, women's stress doesn't drop significantly until they go to sleep at night. In the study, stress will be measured by cortisol levels found in the saliva samples of each member of the family in the morning, at midday, when they get home and at bedtime. The higher the cortisol level, the higher the level of stress.

It is also widely believed, based on an eight-year UC Berkeley study published in 1989, that working women take on a "second shift" of cooking, cleaning and laundry at home. That study, however, relied on short home visits and did not videotape the families, Thorne said. The UCLA researchers will spend a week with each family and believe they will be able to illuminate how much responsibility fathers are shouldering.

What's more, taping will capture information that eludes self-reports and surveys. Data will be used for research into married couples' relationships, child development, health practices, recreational and socialization patterns. Taping will show how much multi-tasking is required in managing home life. Children will also be asked to videotape and talk about their environment, providing a rare, child's-eye view of family life.

Despite the accumulation of detail, researchers know they won't be able to capture the whole picture. Ethical considerations require that parents have final say in what will and will not be taped or kept in the archives.

"At any time, they can ask to review the tapes, we can be asked to shut off the cameras, we can be asked to erase the tapes," said Ochs, an international scholar, recognized for bridging disciplines. In 1998, she received a MacArthur Foundation genius award. The presence of a camera always affects people's behavior to some degree, acknowledged Ochs, who videotaped 20 families for a 1989 study of dinner-time conversations. That study, done with researcher Carolyn Taylor, looked at the relationship between language and power. It showed how the conversations established a family pecking order, with fathers at the top and children ranking higher than their mothers. For studies like that, and the upcoming family project, she said, "you need to know how to handle the camera. If you don't know what you're doing with the camera, if it's not a part of your body, then it's very awkward and much more intrusive."

As television shows such as MTV's "Real World" or the 1973 documentary about Santa Barbara's Loud family revealed, observed people cannot hide their true natures for long. "You can vacuum the floor, serve some casserole dish and make it seem like you ate like this every night," Ochs said. "But it's really difficult to control the dynamic of a family that's been building up over the years. It comes through."

Researchers are currently recruiting middle-class, dual-earner families for the study. They are seeking homeowners with two to three children and want to include diverse racial and ethnic families and gays, they said. The families will be paid $500 each to participate in the study.

After the material is collected, some researchers will be comparing the Angeleno families to what is known about Native Americans and nonhuman primates, Ochs said. After all, she observed, most species of parents over time have been "dual earner" families.

July 29 2001