Last week, I had the opportunity to present at the Pacific Sociological Association’s annual meeting. I presented a work-in-progress study investigating class differences in how women consider work and family decisions—a project partially inspired by Sarah Damaske’s 2011 book, For the Family: How Class and Gender Shape Women’s Work.
Damaske’s book challenges the traditional belief that working and middle-class women have distinct work trajectories, with working-class mothers, unlike their middle-class counterparts, forced into employment due to financial need. Breaking down this working-class need vs middle-class choice myth, Damaske found working-class women’s lack of financial resources to be a hindrance to steady employment, as it limited access to reliable childcare. Building on this, I began interviewing working-and middle-class employed expectant mothers last year to observe these women’s work-family decision-making processes in progress and to explore any class-based differences in those processes.
I presented findings from six initial pilot interviews at the conference. From this small number of early interviews, I noted an emerging theme. Working-class women described a workplace context conducive to work-family balance. These women described their supervisors and co-workers as very supportive of work-family balance, and counterintuitively, their rigid work schedules seemed to protect them from intrusive work-family overlap by making a clear, unwavering distinction between “work time” and “personal/family time.” While my middle-class respondents also described supportive work environments, they included caveats about the need to meet deadlines, no matter what. Thus, the results-focused work environments of these middle-class women were associated with an anxiety around their anticipated work-family balance, despite greater access to formal work-family policies.
At this stage in the research process, it is difficult to see whether this theme will continue to be salient as I interview more women. In particular, it may begin to dissipate once I interview working-class women with non-standard work schedules and those not working in female-dominated work environments. Nevertheless, it was interesting to share the initial findings with other researchers to gain their thoughts and insights.
For me, one of the most valuable aspects of the presentation came during the Q&A when someone in the audience asked the following question: “Are you concerned that someone may take these findings [if they were to hold true after additional interviews] and use them as evidence to support policies that are not in the best interest of women, particularly working-class women?” It’s true; placed in the wrong context, the findings could be used against working-class mothers, perhaps exacerbating attacks against these women’s work and family decisions. The findings could also potentially be used to argue that women should remain in low-income positions to better facilitate work-family balance.
My initial response to this question was to emphasize my need to be thorough as a researcher, ensuring that my sample is reasonably representative and my findings are placed in the appropriate contexts. More broadly, however, the question caused me to rehash my own thoughts, questions and concerns about the relationship between social research and policy and about the nature of objectivity.
Such questions are not new, yet many remain unresolved. On the one hand, researchers aim to be free of personal biases and separated from issues of policy. Researchers seek to observe and perhaps to explain but, in most cases, not to directly promote change. Yet, at what point can or should this research “hat” come off? At the completion of the study? Ever? In particular, what is the researcher’s responsibility if and when their findings enter political discussions and/or movements?[i]
Further, is this objective researcher “hat” ever really on? As many researchers and theorists before me have questioned[ii], can we ever truly be objective? Is objectivity, in and of itself, not influenced by the norms, values and beliefs of science, much of which is based upon the privileged positions of white, often upper-class men? Are the subjects of our scientific studies not influenced by the social world in which we live? As Weber noted, do our research questions not originate from “practical questions”? I don’t have answers, but I do think such questions remain pertinent for researchers, and I’m grateful for the timely reminder to revisit these concerns during last week’s presentation.
[i] A classic example of this question is Karl Marx, whose work was used in horrific ways that extended far beyond his initial intent. How do we make sense of this? In what ways might he be held responsible (or freed from responsibility) for the subsequent uses of his ideas?
[ii] For examples, see Weber (1949), Smith (1974), Bourdieu (1990), Luhmann (1996)