Professor honoured for exploring family ties
By Paul Mayne
November 14, 2013
The support and action offered by the parents and siblings of gay men and women are crucial to improving their lives, and the relationship of all family members.
In a study by Western Sociology professor Ingrid Connidis, she compared the lives of two gay men (one through interview, one through memoir) and found the stories of their family lives underscore the significance of family members as third-party advocates and catalysts for change.
“I’ve been drawn to studying the lives of gays and lesbians in families, not as just their lives, but look at the context of their relationship with their siblings, parents,” Connidis said. “What is revealing, when you do that, is how similar it is. They are dealing with a different social reality. However supportive their families were, they typically went through a period of time where they were feeling pretty much on their own. It may be their parents were eventually supportive, or the siblings. There is a pretty strong eternal struggle. There is isolation.”
Connidis’ research, Interview and Memoir: Complementary Narratives on the Family Ties of Gay Adults, was recently published in the Journal of Family Theory & Review. She was also lauded for her latest work with the inaugural 2013 Alexis Walker Award, which honours original scholarship in family studies.
The award is even more significant given Connidis was a visiting scholar at Oregon State University in 2001, where Walker was a professor.
“She was just terrific and an amazing person,” Connidis said. “She makes things happen; she changed things. We did some writing together and got together at conferences. This is an honour and it means a lot to me. I really admired and liked her.”
With Connidis’ primary research interest on family ties and aging, she focused on one case from her recent study of 10 multi-generational families, who would be a good comparison to Dan Savage, a well known gay American author and journalist. Savage wrote a memoir the same year Connidis had interviewed ‘Christopher’ for her study.
“It has occurred to me over the years you can learn a lot about life from reading memoirs,” she said. “Then, of course, in a research setting, when you’re doing an interview, you’re trying to make it conversational, but it’s not the same as someone is writing about themselves.
“I started to be curious and asked myself, ‘What if I compared what I learned from an interview in a research project to what I learned from a memoir? What’s good and bad with each approach?’”
First off, Connidis added, when someone writes a memoir, you know they’re ready to talk. At the same time, however, they also choose what they want to say. In an interview, where someone starts talking about something that matters, you’re going to ask them to tell you more, which you can’t do with a memoir.
“Depending on who has written the memoir, that person gets the chance to set the agenda, and I like that about it; it’s not up to the researcher to decide what matters, they’ve decided what matters,” she said. “As a researcher, I love doing interviews. You get to feel you’re getting to know the person. In a sense, they are in charge because they have the perspective you’re trying to learn from. But with a memoir, it really can present you with the unexpected because you may not have thought to ask about something.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a technique for doing research that is going to be the perfect one. So, you get as many sources as you can. One of the things that happens in social science is ‘our way’ of trying to sound convincing is to sound like were scientists. I think we can learn a lot from the arts, and social science has a nice position between, in a sense, the sciences and the arts.”
In her comparison of the two men, Connidis found even though circumstances were different, including one being American and one Canadian and the interview subject older than Savage, they both tended to have supportive families, even though it was still tough to come out when they were young, having to deal with issues associated with being gay in a culture that, and the time, wasn’t that receptive.
“It’s getting better,” Connidis said. “By including this in mainstream research, we can break down the ‘us-and-them’ idea. I think that is important in research to be inclusive. Social change matters; but there is not a magic bullet.”
Connidis looks to continue her research in this area by studying the ongoing relationships gay and lesbian adults have with their sibling and parents as they age.
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