I just returned from a the recent conference of the Council of Contemporary Families, an organization that’s dedicated to providing better and more rigorous sociological data to inform public opinion and public policy. It was exhilarating to learn of the new directions in sociological research and U.S. families, and I’m using this blog entry to reflect on some of the questions the sessions raised for me as I think about how those in media studies might respond in a similarly forward-thinking way about changing families and the roles that various media play in them.
Several people in the conference’s first panel reported that close to 1 in 7 U.S. families are now part of a multiracial family. Yet although interracial marriage has become more common, economic disparities remain important in relation to how people from differing ethnic groups come to meet one another and develop relationships. Much of our ethnic divisions in the U.S. are strongly rooted in geographies, as Nick Jones of the U.S. census said; several urban areas already include a majority of Latinos or African Americans. This made me wonder about Craig Watkins’ research into digital and mobile media use among urban communities, and the implications as to how social networks may participate in either redrawing networked geographies — or reinforcing geographic divisions. Watkins often cites the Pew research finding that Blacks and Latinos are more likely than Whites to use their mobiles to download music or play games, demonstrating that urban populations are among the leaders in mobile adoption and use. Yet we still don’t know much about how diverse populations communicate with one another modally. I suspect that urban populations are also leaders in this area of identity negotiation. I was reminded of this yesterday when one of my students observed with some humor that although she probably has an ipod full of a range of music that’s similar to her urban professional friends, she’d be horrified if some of her other professional acquaintances were to hear what’s on it. She only puts professional info on her Facebook page; she considers her ipod strictly private. Does this mean that some devices are becoming more private and personal than others, or that we are becoming more selective in how we participate in various online-related activities? Or perhaps it signifies that some communities have long had the experience of revealing certain parts of themselves selectively, and so the dilemmas of identity and new technologies aren’t all that new for everyone.
This also made me wonder whether or not families communicate about this kind of online negotiating directly, or if it happens through observation. One thing I learned from this conference is that it does seem that families that communicate openly about feelings concerning racial ethnic identity tend to do better than those that do not. This was an especially poignant observation made by one of the people who spoke about interracial adoptions and the tendency for white couples to want to be “color blind” – much to the detriment of young people who may interpret their approach instead as “my mom and dad don’t look like me and/or they don’t have friends who look like me.”
Interracial adoptions were a particularly interesting part of the discussion at this conference. USA Today reporter Sharon Jayson published a summary of Adam Pertman’s research of adoption conducted with the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. They have found that about 40% of all U.S. adoptions now involve multiracial families, and biracial and multiracial children are four times more likely to be put up for adoption than monorace children.
Pertman offered an instructive quiz to the conference’s attendees, asking us which did we believe was the most popular method of adoption: infants adopted domestically, international adoptions, or adoptions from the foster care system. Whereas the audience was split about evenly, we – like most in the U.S. – were way off. Fully 68% of adoptions occur through the foster care system. International adoption has been dropping and now accounts for 15% of all adoptions, and domestic infant adoption accounts for another 17%. It certainly demonstrated the discrepancies between public opinion and reality when it comes to adoptive families, making me wonder: why are these stories of foster families told in such limited (and often negative) ways? Probably because the other two kinds of adoptions are most noticeable in the middle class ‘burbs, aka the people who read newspapers and the people television advertisers favor in relation to programming.
When those of us studying family media uses think about how technology plays a role in the lives of these growing families, it seems that there are all kinds of new questions we could be asking with regard to representation, as well as negotiation of identity in online as well as offline spaces. There are also questions about usage: I met one research group that’s exploring how divorced parents use the mobile to avoid interacting with one another and instead communicate directly with their child. That reminded me of Danny Miller’s studies on how mothers who work transnationally utilize mobiles to keep in touch with their children, with varying degrees of success according to those children.
This conference was all very helpful, as my research team and I are heading into Denver’s most diverse high school tomorrow to continue our experiences in teaching digital media literacy there. In addition to teaching, we’re learning from the students themselves about what they would teach others about their own experiences in negotiating identities among diverse populations both online and off. I was glad to be reminded of the CCF’s commitment to think deeply about structural factors that influence family forms and technological uses, and was also challenged to consider how I might frame my own research so that it challenges rather than echoes a simple “deficit model” in relation to diversity. I am sure that this research will raise many more questions than it will answer, and I look forward to seeing where it goes.