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Anthropology professor finds men and women respond differently to division of household chores

Anthropology professor Anthony Graesch
Anthropology professor Anthony Graesch

For four days, anthropology professor Anthony Graesch and a team of researchers followed working parents and their children around their homes with video cameras to document their every move. What sounds like the basis for a new reality show was in fact all in the name of science. "It was like MTV's 'Real World' or maybe 'The Osbournes,' only less dramatic, less scandalous and completely unscripted," Graesch, an expert in archaeological anthropology, said. "Your typical MTV teenage viewer would find the hundreds of hours of footage exceedingly boring. For social scientists, however, it was a treasure trove of unique, in-the-home observational data on parenting, marriages, time use, health practices and consumption among dual-income families."

In addition to collecting observational footage, the team measured the levels of cortisol, a steroid hormone produced in response to stress, in the saliva of the study participants and found that the division of household labor between couples may have significant implications for physical health. Participants who devoted the most time to housework showed higher levels of cortisol, for example, which prevented them from "winding down" and recovering from the stress of the work day and could make them vulnerable to higher rates of mental and physical illness.

But the study also found that women and men respond differently to a division of labor. Stress levels in women decreased when their husbands' help with the housework increased. Conversely, levels dropped for men if they spent more time on leisure activities while their wives spent less time on leisure and more time on, well, picking up the slack. Another finding confirmed what both women and men have been self-reporting on surveys for years: women spend a lot more time on household chores than men. The study, published in the April 2011 edition of the Journal of Family Psychology, garnered lots of media attention, grabbing headlines across the country and providing plenty of fodder for bloggers. Graesch said that with the increasing prevalence of dual-income households, he is not surprised people are interested in the results. But he warned against reading too much into the catchy headlines.

"There is a public perception that the study is merely reporting commonly understood patterns of American behavior," Graesch said. "However, this study is unique in that it explores the physiological response of working parents not only in relation to their individual contributions to household work, but also in response to that of their spouses." The study was a collaboration between Graesch and two clinical psychologists - Dr. Darby Saxbe, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Southern California and the study's primary author, and UCLA Psychology Professor Rena Repetti.

It was part of the Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) project at UCLA, a nine-year interdisciplinary research endeavor addressing middle-class, dual-income households with children in the United States to understand how the fastest-growing household demographic copes with the challenges of raising a family while juggling two careers. Graesch explained that the center was created, in part, to remedy the impact of using the antiquated, male-breadwinner model of the American household to shape U.S. public policy. And while it might be unusual for an archaeologist to team up with psychologists and sociologists, Graesch is an ardent supporter of cross-disciplinary and mixed-method approaches to social science. Not one to study himself into a corner, his own research and teaching interests are incredibly diverse, spanning several centuries and blurring the lines between disciplines. "I don't think there are many archaeologists who contribute to sociology, communication and psychology journals, but there are some important connecting threads," Graesch said. "Anthropology, in general, emphasizes a holistic approach to the study of human behavior."

A professor at Connecticut College since 2010, some of Graesch's current research interests are in the field of urban ethnoarchaeology, which examines the role of built spaces and objects in everyday life by applying archaeological methods of study to ethnographic research. He is leading a research team of students, including some who participated in his new "Urban Ethnoarchaeology" seminar, in a study exploring how cigarette smoking and disposal can index identity groupings in urban environments. The group is also exploring the anthropological significance of text and art inscribed in public bathroom spaces, much in the same way archaeologists today study rock art.

"Our possessions and built environments play as agentive a role in our everyday decisions in the contemporary as they did in the past," Graesch said. "Of course, the difference between focusing on objects in the present rather than the past is that you can actually observe and talk to people interacting with their material worlds."

July 28, 2011