Research News

Golann receives National Science Foundation grant for video-ethnographic study of diverse families with preschool-aged children

By Jenna Somers  

Joanne W. Golann, assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development, has received a $251,327 grant from the National Science Foundation for a project that aims to improve early parenting support programs by helping them address the needs of diverse and low-income families.   

The project, “Forming habit(us): A video-ethnography of everyday interactions inside 21 American families,” will analyze how families from different social classes develop early-life skills, attitudes and expectations in their children—which renowned French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “habitus.” It will also examine the differences and similarities in childrearing practices across social classes and how they are shaped by societal resources—Bourdieu’s concept of “capital.” 

Joanne Golann (Vanderbilt University)

Few sociological studies have examined how families and parents shape their children’s habitus, and previous video-ethnographic studies of parenting predominantly included middle-class white families, Golann said. According to Golann, “Forming habit(us)” is the first attempt by anyone of an in-home video study of this breadth, intensity and duration.  

“Teaching largely middle-class, white parenting strategies may not translate to the patterns and expectations of a diverse set of families,” Golann said. “Developing parenting initiatives that better address families’ daily needs and reflect their knowledge and expertise requires a deeper understanding of the circumstances of children’s lives.” 

To that end, Golann and her team will analyze data culled from an unprecedented 11,470 hours of in-home video footage contained in 463,000 discrete video clips from the New Jersey Families Study based at Princeton University. NJFS is a video-ethnographic study of 21 families from different social classes, races, ethnicities and family structures, each with a child aged 2 to 4. Golann is a co-investigator on the NJFS, which she began participating in while she was earning her Ph.D. at Princeton.

From birth to age 5 is typically regarded as the period with the most rapid brain development, which is why the United States invests billions of dollars annually on parenting support programs for these early years. However, these programs often have little effect on children’s outcomes, possibly because they do not consider the essential needs, knowledge and expertise of low-income families.  

By examining diverse families holistically in their homes and daily routines, Golann’s team has an unparalleled opportunity to understand how parents support their children’s early development, which could ultimately improve programs designed to support parenting behaviors and practices.  

“Because parenting is shaped and constrained by social, economic and cultural contexts, more studies of parenting should be conducted in naturalistic contexts in addition to laboratory settings,” Golann said.  

An example of how social, economic and cultural contexts intersect and constrain each other is reflected in organized activities intended to cultivate children’s talents and develop their skills. Low-income parents may be encouraged to enroll their children, but they may not have the resources to afford the associated fees. Rather than see parenting programs continue to suggest unattainable solutions to these families, Golann and her team want to foster a better understanding of their lives so that future programs can better address their needs.    

By the end of this project, the researchers plan to provide rich descriptions of the daily parenting practices of families with preschool-aged children, engage in public conversations about the accomplishments and difficulties families face in raising young children, and propose new measures of parenting behaviors and new concepts to test in future studies.