Work and Family Define Sociologist’s Interests
It was the late 1970s. Professor Naomi Gerstel (sociology) was a PhD candidate at Columbia University. “The feminist movement was blossoming, but it hadn’t yet changed campuses,” she recalls. “Our department only had one woman faculty member. The study of work and family barely existed.” Gerstel made it her business to change that.
“My research originated with my own experience and politics,” she says. “I was focused on changing women’s place in our society and studying the conditions sustaining or devaluing them.” For her dissertation, which later became the book Commuter Marriage, she traveled around the country interviewing wives and husbands who lived apart so that they could maintain commitment to marriages and professional careers.
“I did that—and so did lots of other couples,” Gerstel says. “The expectation for so many years was that loving couples would live together—and that it was the wife who became the trailing spouse. But when women started career building—and raising families—things started to change.”
The commuters Gerstel interviewed told her that people they met assumed women who pursued careers could not be committed to their partners. These couples insisted that they put a lot of effort into pursuing their careers, but also worked very hard at maintaining their partnerships. Commuter marriages, she said, showed how the economic system’s demand for mobile workers clashed with the standard-issue nuclear family.
What Gerstel discovered as she continued to study families was that the commuters’ departure from the nuclear family was not so unusual. “Our work/family experiences are tied to where we are in the class structure,” Gerstel says. “If we focus just on affluent professionals, we misunderstand who constitutes a family. Sisters and brothers, for example, often take care of each other. Cousins take care of each other. Grandparents provide crucial assistance to raise kids. And those with less money and less education are much more likely to rely on these extended kin because they need each other more.”
“These caregivers, however, are often left out of the ways so many imagine family. As a result, they are left out of so-called family-friendly policies: These extended kin, while crucial for the survival of so many in America, don’t qualify for family leaves offered by the federal government or benefits offered through the workplace.”
Another issue Gerstel has recently addressed is why Americans work so hard—whether on the job or at home. Her recent work with Dan Clawson, also a UMass Amherst sociologist, examines the many processes that shape the hours and schedules worked by women and men in different social classes. “In addition to looking at people’s official and actual schedules, we did a lot of interviews with doctors, nurses, nursing assistants and EMTs. We also observed in hospitals, nursing homes, and fire stations.”
These days one hears a lot of talk about work flexibility, but that is not available to low-wage workers. Gerstel explains: “Let’s look at nursing assistants, for example, who earn really low wages. They don’t have any flexibility either at home or at work. Often, they need to work for really long and odd hours so they can provide for their children. But working this way makes it difficult to care for their children and other extended family members. It all leads to enormous stress.”
Having arrived at UMass Amherst from New York City, with a newly minted PhD, Gerstel recalls her initial culture shock. “I couldn’t find a restaurant open at 2:30 a.m. No people were on the street. The area was so quiet.” But it didn’t take long for Gerstel to be seduced by the natural beauty around her. “And I really am so lucky to be paid for doing what I enjoy so much in this beautiful place.”
All of Gerstel’s work, ultimately, is driven by the themes of family and work, gender and class. A member of the steering committee for the Center for Research on Families on campus, she thinks it important that the university boost its impact and visibility. “The Center is a great place,” Gerstel says, “not only for helping faculty obtain research grants but for bringing together interdisciplinary research that relates to family life and disseminating this information to the public.”
Over the years, numerous grants have come Gerstel’s way, from the National Science Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others. “Stuff like that is just the result of being focused on my work, which is very suited to these kinds of grants,” she says modestly, pointing out that all of her research is collaborative with colleagues and graduate students who make it all happen.
Some top awards too pop out of Gerstel’s CV, though she doesn’t like to talk about that either. Pressed a bit, Gerstel acknowledges that the UMass Amherst Distinguished Teaching Award in 2005 is the one that means the most to her.
“My teaching and research really cross-pollinate and continually inform each other, making me rethink, revisit and revise what I teach and what I write. Typically, I’ve taught large courses, which I will continue to do, but I’m really excited about next semester when I’ll also be teaching Gender and Society for 25 students. The department recently made a decision to offer more of these small classes so that we can get to know our students more intimately and make learning for our sociology students more interactive and personal. It’s an exciting direction.”
April 14, 2010