Someone once called Michelle Janning, a sociology professor at Whitman College, an archaeologist of contemporary society — the kind of person who rummages through your underwear drawer to figure out what’s going on in the world.
Indeed, given Janning’s research into domestic spaces and practices, the appreciation is more literal than figurative.
“I have a lot of stories about drawers of underwear – mine and those that people bring me,” she jokes.
Janning has published more than a drawer of books and articles on topics ranging from love letters to contemporary parenting, the spaces and things of contemporary family life, and the impacts of the pandemic on families.
A sociologist by professional training, she obtained her doctorate. in sociology at the University of Notre Dame – Janning’s thinking was also shaped by anthropological research, seeded as an undergraduate at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, when she was a sociology-anthropology major.
“The rich cultural context and the qualitative elements of inquiry that take time and depth – yes, sociologists do – of course we do,” she says. “But it was really my readings of anthropological research that inspired the importance of material culture as a symbol of people’s value systems and practices and access to resources.”
play at home
Janning’s interest in how everyday life and material objects reflect larger social forces has been with her since adolescence. She has vivid memories of how, at age 14, she begged her parents for a magazine subscription — not to Seventeen, like many girls her age, but to Elle Décor. The sleek design magazine featured high-end pieces, and Janning recalls questioning not just how beautiful the items were, but also who had them and who was in charge of managing them.
“That’s where class and gender stuck with me as areas of intersecting inequality for the questions I ask,” Janning says. “A lot of my research seems rather benign and apolitical, but what I’m really doing is pointing out where inequities are present in our access to valuable resources, including things considered aesthetically valuable.”
“A lot of my research seems rather benign and apolitical, but what I’m really doing is pointing out where inequities are present in our access to valuable resources, including things considered aesthetically valuable.”
By far, however, Janning’s biggest inspiration has been her mother, Yvonne. His mother taught home economics in their small town in rural Minnesota. So, growing up, Janning was constantly exposed to things like sewing, cooking, and home decorating. But Yvonne’s real passion was family relationships. She went on to earn a master’s degree in family education and became the community’s first-ever early childhood family education program director, creating programs for previously overlooked populations, such as teen parents, single fathers, and parents. Native American parents. Through her mother’s work, Janning became interested in the social forces that help contextualize family relationships: why some families don’t receive the same resources as others, or why some families distrust public institutions.
“I’m so grateful because she has so many stories about her experience with families that inform the larger data projects I work on,” says Janning.
Janning is one of those relatively rare scholars whose work appeals to both academics and the general public. It is not a coincidence; while research on domestic spaces and practices might inherently have some public appeal, Janning took deliberate steps to make his work accessible to the lay reader.
Its reach beyond academia is in part due to its involvement with the Council for Contemporary Families (CCF), which aims to improve the quality of national dialogue on family and domestic issues. Janning joined the CCF board in 2010, eventually serving as its chairman for four years. She has published numerous public-facing articles on the topics of her academic work on the CCF blog on The Society Pages website.
But much of Janning’s public success has come from his own commitment to sharing his research and expertise. When she left an administrative position in 2013, Janning made the decision to focus more on her writing. She started a blog and wrote the titles for what eventually became 65 blog posts over the next two years.
“I realized that the more I wrote, the more I wrote,” she says. “And so, in that sense, I had my voice out there in the ether, even without having completed all the projects that were swirling around in my head. And because of that, you’re quoted in various places, and then you are found, then you can put it on your website, then the editors ask you to write an edited volume on parenting.
For her next project, Janning is working on a book of social science research methods for architects and interior designers that aims to inform the design process with useful and empathetic data collection techniques about user experience. At the same time, she is involved with an interdisciplinary group of Whitman employees and faculty who are dedicated to exploring whether Whitman could implement a human-centered design program.
“I’m so grateful and happy that I was able to do what I had to do, and that Whitman is a place that has allowed me to get into so many different areas that have led to these paths and connections that I didn’t know it existed.