Finding sociology in summer camp romances

One thing I thoroughly enjoy about sociology is that you can find topics to study anywhere people are. Witness this example of a sociologist tackling romances in the laboratory of summer camp:

Faith wasn’t ready to be exclusive with Colyn. There were lots of boys at summer camp, and the seventh-grader wanted the chance to date some of them before the session ended. The thing was, Faith wasn’t so keen on the idea of Colyn going out with any other girls but her, and she protested when her friends told her she was being jealous and unreasonable. As she made her case, those of Faith’s fellow campers who were within earshot stared at her and shook their heads, muttering, “It’s not fair.” Nearby, a sociologist named Sandi Nenga sat with a notebook and wrote down every detail.

Nenga’s notes would eventually form the basis of an academic paper entitled “The Age of Love: Dating and the Developmental Discourse in a Middle School Summer Camp.” In the paper, the Southwestern University sociology professor describes infiltrating the children’s ranks and watching closely as they developed dating rituals and norms. “Simply keeping track of the beginning and ending of relationships constituted a significant portion of each day in the camp,” she found.

Nenga’s study might be a little jarring to those of us who remember going to summer camp as kids, and it’s not because we can’t vouch for her findings from personal experience. Rather, it’s because using summer camp as a place to study children has likely never occurred to most of us. But where we see boys and girls swimming in lakes and singing songs around the campfire, social scientists like Nenga see a research opportunity: an organized group of humans-in-training who have been made to grapple with one another in a strange new place. Where we see kids trying to make friends and getting crushes on each other, they see a controlled environment in which the inhabitants feel very much free—but can be observed and studied the entire time.

Like hot-rod mechanics eyeing an exceptional motor vehicle, in other words, social scientists look at summer camp and see a truly remarkable lab.

The rest of the article contains a fascinating overview of summer camp research which dates back decades. This reminds me of Ann Swidler’s idea of “unsettled times” where humans have to interpret new situations which involve following old strategies of action or developing new solutions.

I tell my students that sociology is valuable wherever people are doing things. I just hope Nenga was able to avoid “jargonized wishful thinking” in this intriguing research setting.

How the goal of marriage has changed over time

There has been a lot of recent discussion about marriage and its place in American society. Within this, researchers present new insights into how what people expect from marriage and their partners has changed over time:

The notion that the best marriages are those that bring satisfaction to the individual may seem counterintuitive. After all, isn’t marriage supposed to be about putting the relationship first?

Not anymore. For centuries, marriage was viewed as an economic and social institution, and the emotional and intellectual needs of the spouses were secondary to the survival of the marriage itself. But in modern relationships, people are looking for a partnership, and they want partners who make their lives more interesting.

Caryl Rusbult, a researcher at Vrije University in Amsterdam who died last January, called it the “Michelangelo effect,” referring to the manner in which close partners “sculpt” each other in ways that help each of them attain valued goals.

These findings would seem to have consequences for marriage as an institution and for society as a whole. While this particular article doesn’t really discuss these consequences, it is also interesting to be reminded how the institution of marriage has changed.

I would be curious to read work by people who have linked these findings about partnerships and shared goals and reconciled this with religious perspectives on marriage. This article also reminds me of Ann Swidler’s Talk of Love and her discussion about how individuals create new strategies between the cultural poles of romantic love and committed love.