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Documenting working families

A team of UCLA faculty is gearing up for a landmark study of a species under considerable stress: the middle-class, dual-income family.

Armed with a $3.6-million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and a wide range of anthropological, linguistic and psychological research methods, the nine researchers will devote the next three years to filming and documenting the everyday routines of 30 families residing in the greater Los Angeles area. The material will then be housed in the UCLA/Sloan Working Family Archive, where it can be studied in depth by researchers seeking to understand a sector of the American public that stands at a crossroads.

"No one has ever created a digital video archive of this sort," said Elinor Ochs, the team's leader and winner of a 1998 MacArthur Fellowship. "Of course, there have been television documentaries that focus on a single family, and there have been studies of families carried out within separate disciplines. The new center, however, will promote broad interdisciplinary tracking of how middle-class families day by day balance the responsibilities of work and family life."

From the pleasures of sharing a home-cooked meal to the tedium of folding laundry to the tensions of getting everyone out of the house on Monday morning - no aspect of family life will be too mundane for a team that expects to fill 1,080 digital cassettes and 3,000 CD-ROMs with 800 hours of family interaction.

"The idea is to get a sense of one week in the lives of 30 families," said Ochs, a professor of anthropology and applied linguistics. "We want to capture a rich enough record so that people from many different disciplines can garner profound meaning from the material, and do so for many generations to come."

The project is being conducted under the auspices of the newly established UCLA/Sloan Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF), which is devoted to detailed, ethnographic research on middle-class families and home life.
CELF was created with a $3.6-million grant from the New York-based Sloan Foundation, which sponsors research in a range of areas, including family life. Since 1995, the Sloan Foundation has established five other university centers that conduct research on working families. CELF is the only Sloan-sponsored center attempting to capture on video what researchers are calling "the drama of the working family."

"What has been missing among our centers is a sharp focus on everyday life," said Kathleen Christensen, program director of the Sloan Foundation's Family-Work Research Program. "We thought UCLA researchers could help us understand what is happening on a minute-to-minute basis in these families, which are leading complexly structured lives."

Actually several studies within a single study, the new UCLA research project brings together researchers in biological anthropology, archaeology, medical anthropology, primatology, linguistics, clinical psychology and education.

"The overarching concern is how family and household activities help members of dual-earner, middle-class families to bond and thrive," Ochs said.

The team will collect data for research into marital relations, stress management, child development, space utilization, language development, health practices, and recreational and socialization patterns.

The project will begin in earnest later this year, with three ethnographers tracking and videotaping one family every other week. The CELF team will begin recruiting families this fall.

UCLA Today