Volume 77
Number 2

Making a Splash

Invincible Ink

Where the Heart Is

Commencement 2001

Emory University

Association of Emory Alumni

Current News and Events

Emory Report



Sports Updates



























































































































































































Twilight settles over the Dobbs home: A game of Nerf ball has just ended. Homemade macaroni and cheese, sauce-covered meatloaf, and a plate of chocolate-chip cookies wait on the kitchen counter. Out back in the barn, eleven chocolate lab puppies nestle into their mother.

The family–Denny, Cathy, twenty-one-year-old Bryan, twelve-year-old Luke, and eight-year-old Lane–is gathered on the comfortable back porch of their white, two-story house on the outskirts of Covington. This picturesque town thirty-five miles east of Atlanta was once mostly cotton fields and private farms. The historic town square remains so archetypally Southern it was featured in the television series In the Heat of the Night.

Denny Dobbs, an environmental engineer who held a spot in the Georgia legislature for eighteen years, was raised here on Dobbs Road in this hilltop house that has been in his family for eighty-five years.

“I can remember my daddy taking me up the stairs to bed, and me resting my head on his shoulders, the way I carry Lane up now,” he says.

Cathy, who was raised in a large, Irish-Catholic family in Nashville, has political experience and was her husband’s campaign manager. She is now a stay-at-home mom. This is the second marriage for each, and they made a conscious decision to raise their children here, in a small, familiar community.

Denny’s sister lives up the road, and often whips together Sunday brunch for special occasions. An assortment of beloved family dogs, cats, and even a horse, are buried in the back field. The boys run over pasture that used to be part of their grandfather’s dairy farm.

“Dad, did you ever milk cows with your hands?” Lane asks. When his father nods, he breaks into a grin. “Cool!”

EMORY ANTHROPOLOGIST Bradd Shore relaxes in a leather recliner in the midst of the Dobbs family, tape recorder by his side. He asks: What did you do for New Year’s? How did you celebrate your anniversary? Where do you go over summer vacation?

The answers come spilling out, everyone talking at once and laughing, remembering the rubber band tied around the kitchen sink sprayer that soaked mom on April Fool’s Day and the cookout for dad’s fiftieth birthday when his friends hobbled in leaning on canes, dressed like old geezers, and the deep-sea fishing trip when Luke hooked a huge manta ray.

Shore, director of the Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL), listens intently, fingers interlaced, as the stories show him the warp and woof of this family’s life.

As Shore tells it, an amazing thing happened to him a few years ago: the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation unexpectedly offered him $3.6 million to set up a research center at Emory to study Southern middle-class families. Funding could total more than $10 million over nine years if the contract is renewed.

Kathleen Christensen, program director of the Centers on Working Families, says the Sloan Foundation sought out Shore, a cultural anthropologist who specializes in the study of rituals.

“Some of the most profound social change is occurring in America’s middle-class families,” Christensen says. “Women have traditionally been the primary keepers of ritual. What happens to family and civic rituals when they go into the workforce and decrease their volunteer time? We want the MARIAL center to help us answer this question, and to help families find ways to keep rituals in their lives.”

Established in 1934 by the president of General Motors, the Sloan Foundation has created a nationwide network of scholars who will study American families and the impact of modern stressors such as divorce, dual careers, conflicting schedules, and new technologies.

So far, six Sloan Centers on Working Families have been set up. Cornell University is exploring the life course of the family. The University of Chicago is looking at adolescents. The University of California at Berkeley is examining child care. The University of Michigan is researching work and home issues. UCLA is video-recording everyday family interactions. And Emory is studying myths and rituals in Southern families.

“The Emory/Sloan Center is an exciting intellectual endeavor that will reach across the arts and sciences and into a number of our professional schools,” says Provost Rebecca S. Chopp. “And Emory, in turn, will contribute to what we know about the American family.”

For Shore, who spent his early career in the South Pacific studying Samoan history, politics, and local etiquette, this was an intriguing assignment.

“To study American families is not as easy as, say, studying a Samoan ritual, which is all new and fascinating. When you’re fluent in a language and a culture, you tend to take everything for granted,” Shore says. “If we’re going to say something interesting, we need to think hard in novel ways.”

Shore has begun a three-year study of about twenty middle-class families from Newton County, like the Dobbses, with plans to focus on rural and suburban families in later research. In each of these settings, he’s interested in comparing the cultures of families in which both parents work with those that have a stay-at-home parent.

He will follow each of the families for about a year, conducting in-depth interviews with them to get a picture of their yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily routines. The family members also will be given Palm personal digital assistants and asked to plot their actions for several weeks.

This evening’s interview is the second with the Dobbs family, who volunteered to participate in the research. Shore is progressing through family holidays, celebrations, and vacations that take place at the same time each year. He starts by asking where they observed the millennium.

“We had a PJ party at a friend’s house,” Cathy says. “There were fireworks and we had mimosas and breakfast casseroles that morning. There was a huge game of Trivial Pursuit between the women and the men. Bryan would have been proud of me–I got the question about what MLS stands for because he made me watch so many Major League Soccer games with him.”

In January, the family usually all goes skiing at a Colorado resort, but this year, Bryan, who attends Oxford College of Emory University, couldn’t make it. “The school breaks don’t line up anymore,” Denny says.

Next comes Valentine’s Day. Cathy laughs as she recounts her “romantic” gift of a new cell phone.

As the discussion turns to birthdays, the family tradition of being able to choose “anything you want” for dinner is one that’s a clear favorite with the younger boys.

The family grows pensive as they remember the birthday dinner always requested by Michael, Denny’s son from a previous marriage who was killed in a car accident when he was eighteen–the week before he was to head off to Georgia Tech.

“Chicken cordon bleu . . . pound cake . . . homemade ice cream, . . .” the boys chime in, smiles returning as they remember their brother’s favorite foods.

“Lane used to ask me all the time when he was smaller if we could go to see Michael’s place,” Cathy says, meaning Michael’s grave at the Lawnwood Cemetery in Covington. “He would leave a little Matchbox car or something for him.”

RITUALS, WHILE OFTEN associated with ceremony and tradition, actually include any repeated behaviors that anchor people and give meaning to their experiences. They can be sacred–a Catholic mass, a bar mitzvah, singing a familiar hymn–or secular–the Fourth of July parade, an American Legion meeting, a birthday party with friends. Some rituals are social while others are deeply personal, occurring within a family’s or an individual’s routine. “Perhaps you take a walk every afternoon and get coffee along the way. You grow to count on that time,” Shore says. “It has become ritualized.”

Social rituals occur in shared spaces such as the workplace, the community (clubs, sports teams, schools), or the home. Historically, their purpose might have been to communicate values, synthesize experience, or ease anxieties.

“Rituals tend to develop during transitional states. Ambivalence is often a marked feature,” Shore says. “In humans, ritual develops from the emergence of routines. For young children, bedtime and mealtime routines become rituals. . . . Bedtime rituals reveal the conflict underlying all rituals. It’s a time of intense closeness before separation. It really has the quality of a transitional object.”

Rituals are more about frame of mind than content–people are vested in the action, which has on some level become symbolic. Take food rituals, those surrounding planting, picking, slaughtering, cooking, and eating. American food rituals have evolved from fall harvest festivals and early morning egg gathering to microwave dinners and Friday night pizza and videos.

This, Shore says, is the beauty of rituals. They are portable and adaptable–the very characteristics that make him believe rituals are still vital and present in twenty-first-century families.

Likewise, myths flow through contemporary American lives as surely as they did through those of ancient Greeks and Romans. These stories with which we make sense of our existence are in some ways fictional and in some important ways, true. They can be family tales about eccentric or legendary relatives that have grown larger than life over the years, or shared community lore, such as the stories explaining why General Sherman bypassed a certain home or neighborhood on his fiery march through Georgia. And then, of course, there is the family as defined by Leave it to Beaver, The Brady Bunch, and Hallmark greeting cards.

“The American family is not just a social reality, but a mythic one as well,” Shore says. “Films, television, and advertising are very powerful generators of modern myths. We live in a myth-laden world, it’s absolutely drenched, but we don’t call it that anymore.”

The talk turns to Mother’s Day at the Dobbs household.

Denny and Bryan are skeptical of commercialized holidays that make them feel forced into grandiose displays of affection instead of simple, heartfelt gestures.

“It’s so hyped now: ‘Make it special, buy her a diamond,’ “ says Denny, quoting a television commercial about Mother’s Day. “I’d rather give a card or pick out a bunch of flowers.”

“He did give me something shiny this year,” says Cathy, laughing. “A new faucet from Home Depot.”

“We picked you a bunch of little flowers down by our tree house,” says Lane, crawling up into his mother’s lap. “Like, about fifty of them.”

“If there was no school, I’d cook her breakfast,” adds Luke.

TO VISIT THE MARIAL CENTER is to see American family life broken down into its subatomic particles, analyzed, then reconstructed. Recent guest speakers have included a curator from the Smithsonian Institution on the origins of the modern American round-the-clock work schedule, a professor of linguistics from UCLA on the intricacy of personal narratives, a task force from a local church on developing a rite of passage ceremony for adolescents.

Shore and his colleagues are set up in a wing of Building B at Emory’s West campus off Briarcliff Road. The stark, institutional building formerly was the main psychiatric hospital for the Georgia Mental Health Institute–steel bars still crisscross the windows. But the MARIAL group has done its best to personalize the space with Persian rugs, leather chairs, and an espresso machine, transforming the mood, says Shore, from “somewhat creepy” to serene.

The center has become a second home to eight faculty (anthropologists, psychologists, and other social scientists), twelve postdoctoral and graduate student fellows, and three undergraduate research fellows. They frequently give lively presentations on their work, open to anyone who drops by.

Postdoctoral fellow Felicity Paxton, who is from England, is studying the prom. “It’s one of the few American rituals that transcend race, ethnicity, gender, and religion,” she says. “Every high schooler either goes to it or makes the decision not to go, which is just as important.”

Another fellow, Chris McCollum, is taking on the myth of romantic love and how American families foster the concept by telling stories to children about meeting that “one unique and special person.” The Southern “barbecue culture” is the starting point for fellow Jarrett Paschel, as he examines how taste develops and whether food preferences are individual or collective. Undergraduate Faith McCollister did a thesis on family conflicts engendered by Southern funerals and rituals of remembrance, looking at how families decide on coffins, hymns, eulogies, burial sites, and tombstone inscriptions.

Mark Auslander, an assistant professor of anthropology at Oxford College of Emory and one of MARIAL’s core faculty, is conducting research on family history, narrative, and ritual performance in African-American communities in Georgia. Other MARIAL research focuses on adolescent sexuality, planned communities, public policy and childcare, gender issues on Wall Street, family health crises, and rituals of the body.

The Dobbses are talking about Denny’s infamous marathon sessions at Home Depot. An active outdoorsman who enjoys fishing and hunting, Denny also enjoys fixing things around the house.

“If dad asks us if we want to go to Home Depot, we all say ‘No!’ “ says Luke. “We know we’ll be there for hours.”

“I always tell the kids if they don’t behave, ‘I’ll send you to Home Depot with dad,’ “ Cathy says.

Shore nods understandingly.

“Dads are always the first eccentric relative,” he says. “Who does everyone roll their eyes at? He serves a function. I know I do in my family.”

CONTEMPORARY AMERICANS, Shore says, are nomadic wanderers filled with nostalgic longing for a sense of home we have never known. Our suburbs are boroughs of rootlessness; we attach ourselves more to things than to places. “Home,” Shore says, “is where we put our stuff.”

Even the all-American game of baseball is a metaphor for Western individuality, he says, with the lone batter making a circular journey around sacred landmarks toward home.

And the cyberpunk heroes of the twenty-first century–hybrids of man and machine like Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner or James Cameron’s Terminator–are high-tech totems that embody the stress of living in a nonorganic world. Fittingly, the cover of Shore’s latest book, Culture in Mind: Cognition, Culture, and the Problem of Meaning, shows a face that is half-tribal mask, half-computerized digital icon: the schematic split of the ancient and the abstract.

Raised in suburban New Jersey in a middle-class family, Shore left home for the University of California at Berkeley, where he graduated with a degree in English. In 1969, he went to work as a Peace Corps volunteer in Western Samoa. On this tropical island of tribal villages, dirt roads, gardens, and lagoons he found a communal culture rich in oral and ceremonial traditions with little privacy or personal space.

“It’s difficult to live in an open house with no walls, no sense of being left alone,” he says. “It turns out, Americans are really the unusual ones in that regard. The U.S. is way off the charts in terms of obsession with privacy and individuality.”

In all, Shore made more than twenty trips to Samoa, sometimes living with a family in the village of Sala’ilua.

“Samoans have a more expansive notion of kinship,” he says. “They are constantly pulling outsiders into their family systems. Our idea of family is based on shared blood. They believe, in addition, that you can become family through care, feeding, even empathy, what they call alofa.”

Ultimately, Shore graduated with a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Chicago in 1977 and joined the faculty of Emory’s anthropology department in 1982. As director of the MARIAL Center, he has come full circle. “I’m a child of the suburbs,” he says. “I know these families. They are like my family. And that is the challenge.”

Summer vacation for the Dobbs family means South Litchfield Beach, South Carolina. Each June, they load bicycles, fishing poles, and boogie boards into their Chevy Suburban and head out for a week in a rented condo on the same strip of beach.

“Last summer we all tried to bury me in the sand,” Lane says. “And we caught a baby shark one year.”

“And we go deep sea fishing,” adds Luke, who snagged the manta ray with the fifteen-foot wing span.

“And then comes my birthday—July 5,” says Lane, who celebrated by taking six friends to see Star Wars: Episode I, eating at the Varsity, and spending the night in sleeping bags in the study.

“When he was young,” Luke says, “he always thought the fireworks on the Fourth were for him.”

The family has more stories to share, but Lane is getting restless and the hour of bedtime is approaching. Luke and Lane are sent up to shower, and Cathy shows her guests out through the foyer, past family photos and homemade Valentine cards, onto the front porch with its large, sturdy columns. Shore takes his leave as the family returns to its nighttime routine.

Like many families, says Shore, the Dobbses are trying to protect annual traditions and time spent together from the intrusiveness of work and school and the hectic pace of modern life.

“The Dobbses share a very powerful story,” he says. “Twice, they’ve had to consciously remake their family–once when they got divorced and remarried fourteen years ago and blended family cultures and again after Michael was killed, when they became ever aware of the possibility of loss. Family, for them, is not taken for granted.”

Underlying these efforts, however, is a not-always-conscious fear and anxiety that Shore senses in almost every American family: that it will one day need to break apart in order to replace itself.

“American families are unique, in that their main goal is their own destruction. All of childhood is working toward this day. We practice it a lot with trial runs–sleepovers, going off to camp,” Shore says. “It masks our ambivalence about this task, the contradiction that children aren’t properly raised if they can’t leave and create their own families.”

Insights like this, as well as the plethora of contemporary research Shore and others at the MARIAL Center are doing, have made them popular pundits with the national media, which is itself trying to figure out how to cover the ever-changing lexicon of the American family.

Around Christmas, the Wall Street Journal contacted Shore for an article reporting that Americans are “bending, folding, spindling, and mutilating holiday traditions with abandon to suit rushed lifestyles, 24/7 jobs and diverse families.” As proof, the article cited Thanksgiving breakfasts, Christmas celebrations in mid-January, personal shoppers who will find “just the right gift” for loved ones, and mass e-mail holiday greetings.

But Shore remains optimistic. He loves American families, with their foibles and eccentricities, odd relatives and deviled-egg reunions, kitchen calendars crowded with piano lessons and Little League games, and the gut-level loyalty that ties us to the very people who drive us insane.

“Your family,” Shore says, “remains society’s most potent anchor point as to who you are.”




© 2001 Emory University