Alumni, sociologist gives talk on observing family life

It’s not every day that you open your drawer and ask your underwear to start telling you some stories. In fact, most people would think that this is a rather odd activity in which to partake, and might even question the sanity of those who do so. However, this is just the sort of exercise that sociologist Michelle Janning ’94 engages in every day.

Janning joined students, faculty and members of the Northfield community on Tuesday Nov. 7 to speak about her new book, “The Stuff of Family Life: How our Homes Reflect our Lives.” She is a writer, sociologist and “observer of social life.” Janning describes herself as “The social scientist who asks people to examine what’s in their underwear drawers to tell stories about their family life.”

Janning, currently a professor of sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla Washington, hosted her lecture similar to how she would host a class, first discussing her research and publishings, then opening the room to any questions that the audience might have. Her passion for sociology was evident even in the hour long lecture, and her enthusiasm for uncovering the underlying social meanings of the stuff of families was infectious.

What does Janning mean when she discusses “the stuff of family life?” Let’s think back to the underwear. Janning explained how she arranged the book so each chapter discusses a different room in a house and the family life stage that room represents. Within each room, two objects are explored and probed and questioned with hope to uncover what each item means in relation to the social construct of a family within a household.

For example, a chapter exploring the master bedroom represents the “couple” stage of family life. Within this chapter, Janning explores beds and love letters to unearth different elements of how couples socially interact with each other. In the case of love letters, Janning researched in depth how people treat their love letters: where they store them, what they mean to them and how generations cherish and keep love letters differently.

Perhaps a more resonant example would be one that is relevant to all college students; the chapter on the college dorm room. In this room, the “stuff” examined is stuffed animals and posters. Janning encouraged audience members to consider moving into their freshman dorm and how, consciously or subconsciously, we choose to portray our “image” through the decisions we make about things like our plush teddy bears. It means something totally different to leave your bear on your bed, under your sheets or in your dresser drawer, and considering these differences can reveal more about how we socially function.

According to Janning, it turns out that questioning your stuff – everything from bears to beds to underwear – can truly disclose stories and information regarding why we socialize the way that we do. So go ahead, try thinking like a sociologist and start talking to your underwear today!

If you would like to read more on the subject, you can buy Michelle Janning’s book, “The Stuff of Family Life: How our Homes Reflect our Lives,” online or at the St. Olaf bookstore.