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.