Study will focus on issues of "marriage"' and "'fatherhood"

Experts affiliated with a new institute at Cornell University will closely examine a radically evolving social institution -- the modern family, with a special focus on marriage and fatherhood.

The Institute for the Social Sciences (ISS), established earlier this year at Cornell, has chosen "The Evolving Family: Family Processes, Contexts and the Life Course of Children" as its first interdisciplinary theme for the period 2004-07. Some of the questions that will be studied include: How do race, ethnicity and social class influence marriage and fatherhood? How has the meaning of marriage and sexual partnerships changed over the past 30 years, and how do these changes affect children? What factors influence the timing of fatherhood? What determines responsible fathering? How do the behaviors of non-human animals inform issues regarding marriage and fatherhood?

"The number of children born into married-parents households is declining, while at the same time the number of children born outside of marriages is increasing," says David Harris, Cornell professor of sociology and director of ISS. "We've chosen the evolving family as the first theme for ISS because for the last several decades, trends regarding marriage and fatherhood have changed radically. We want to take an interdisciplinary look at how they have changed and how they affect children."

About a dozen eminent social scientists from across Cornell's campus will work on the institute's theme, conducting collaborative research, sponsoring seminars and outreach activities, offering new courses and engaging students, faculty and staff in interdisciplinary discussions pertaining to the evolving family, worldwide.

The project leader is H. Elizabeth Peters, professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell. "We're bringing together a select group of faculty from a range of disciplines, including anthropology, biology, demography, economics, human development, policy analysis, psychology, sociology and women's studies to participate in weekly research seminars that will discuss works-in-progress, develop collaborative projects and, ultimately, produce research papers and policy briefs pertaining to marriage and fatherhood," Peters says.

"Although there have been dramatic changes in the meaning of marriage and the role of fathers over the last three decades, with high levels of divorce, different kinds of families and increases in non-marital childbearing, there is no real consensus about why these demographic trends have occurred, how family processes vary across different types of families or how these processes lead to different outcomes for children," Peters adds.

Through the various theme-related activities, the researchers will use various kinds of methodologies to address the causes of changes in the family and how such changes affect family and child well-being in different types of families.

"We think that our activities will put Cornell at the forefront of research on the family, the causes of family change, their broader impacts on society, and their impact on individual life course development of men, women and children," says Peters, an economic demographer who uses large data sets to study trends in marriage, divorce, welfare reform and father involvement.

Peters' colleagues will take very different research approaches in addressing the theme. Elizabeth Adkins-Regan, a biological psychologist, animal behaviorist and behavioral neuroendocrinologist, will, for example, use her studies of bird behavior to inform the issues.

"I was interested immediately in this project because some of the questions working with humans are similar to my work with Zebra finches in regard to families, long-term pair bonds and juvenile development with their parents," says Adkins-Regan, a professor of psychology and neurobiology and behavior.

Kathryn March, a professor of anthropology and feminist, gender and sexuality studies, uses ethnographic methods to study society and culture in Himalayan Asia and how migration affects immigrant wages. "As an anthropologist, my primary responsibility will be to remind the researchers that families come in many, many forms and that we need to make sure that the questions we ask and research designs we come up with are responsive to a wide range of families," says March, who also will conduct research related to the theme from an anthropological angle.

"Other studies of migration to the United States, for example, have shown how the male-only pattern of immigration has created startling levels of domestic violence as the stresses of accommodating to a new place and a different culture take their toll," March says. "Also, many of these immigrants enter at the bottom of the wage scale, which can produce profound contradictions for fathers as family providers."

Other core team members at Cornell include: Stephen Emlen, an evolutionary biologist and professor of neurobiology and behavior; Maureen Waller, a cultural sociologist and assistant

professor of policy analysis and management; and Elaine Wethington, a medical sociologist and associate professor of human development and of sociology. At least three more team members will be selected through a competitive process in the fall.

"Another exciting thing is that the investment that Cornell makes in this three-year project has the potential to lead to longer-term external funding to sustain this effort," says Peters. "We plan, in fact, to submit a proposal at the end of this project to seek funding for a Population Center from the National Institutes of Health."


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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