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
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,
who was raised in a large, Irish-Catholic family in Nashville,
has political experience and was her husbands 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.
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 grandfathers
did you ever milk cows with your hands? Lane asks. When
his father nods, he breaks into a grin. Cool!
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 Years? How did you celebrate your anniversary?
Where do you go over summer vacation?
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 Fools Day and the cookout for
dads 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.
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
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.
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.
of the most profound social change is occurring in Americas
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.
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.
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.
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.
Shore, who spent his early career in the South Pacific studying
Samoan history, politics, and local etiquette, this was an intriguing
study American families is not as easy as, say, studying a Samoan
ritual, which is all new and fascinating. When youre fluent
in a language and a culture, you tend to take everything for
granted, Shore says. If were going to say
something interesting, we need to think hard in novel ways.
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, hes interested in comparing the cultures of
families in which both parents work with those that have a stay-at-home
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.
evenings 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.
had a PJ party at a friends 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 meI
got the question about what MLS stands for because he made me
watch so many Major League Soccer games with him.
January, the family usually all goes skiing at a Colorado resort,
but this year, Bryan, who attends Oxford College of Emory University,
couldnt make it. The school breaks dont line
up anymore, Denny says.
comes Valentines Day. Cathy laughs as she recounts her
romantic gift of a new cell phone.
the discussion turns to birthdays, the family tradition of being
able to choose anything you want for dinner is one
thats a clear favorite with the younger boys.
family grows pensive as they remember the birthday dinner always
requested by Michael, Dennys son from a previous marriage
who was killed in a car accident when he was eighteenthe
week before he was to head off to Georgia Tech.
cordon bleu . . . pound cake . . . homemade ice cream, . . .
the boys chime in, smiles returning as they remember their brothers
used to ask me all the time when he was smaller if we could
go to see Michaels place, Cathy says, meaning Michaels
grave at the Lawnwood Cemetery in Covington. He would
leave a little Matchbox car or something for him.
associated with ceremony and tradition, actually include any
repeated behaviors that anchor people and give meaning to their
experiences. They can be sacreda Catholic mass, a bar
mitzvah, singing a familiar hymnor secularthe 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 familys or an individuals
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.
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.
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. Its
a time of intense closeness before separation. It really has
the quality of a transitional object.
are more about frame of mind than contentpeople 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.
Shore says, is the beauty of rituals. They are portable and
adaptablethe very characteristics that make him believe
rituals are still vital and present in twenty-first-century
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.
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, its absolutely drenched, but we dont call
it that anymore.
talk turns to Mothers Day at the Dobbs household.
and Bryan are skeptical of commercialized holidays that make
them feel forced into grandiose displays of affection instead
of simple, heartfelt gestures.
so hyped now: Make it special, buy her a diamond,
says Denny, quoting a television commercial about Mothers
Day. Id rather give a card or pick out a bunch of
did give me something shiny this year, says Cathy, laughing.
A new faucet from Home Depot.
picked you a bunch of little flowers down by our tree house,
says Lane, crawling up into his mothers lap. Like,
about fifty of them.
there was no school, Id cook her breakfast, adds
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.
and his colleagues are set up in a wing of Building B at Emorys
West campus off Briarcliff Road. The stark, institutional building
formerly was the main psychiatric hospital for the Georgia Mental
Health Institutesteel 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.
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.
fellow Felicity Paxton, who is from England, is studying the
prom. Its 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.
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.
Auslander, an assistant professor of anthropology at Oxford
College of Emory and one of MARIALs
core faculty, is conducting research on family history, narrative,
and ritual performance in African-American communities in Georgia.
research focuses on adolescent sexuality, planned communities,
public policy and childcare, gender issues on Wall Street, family
health crises, and rituals of the body.
Dobbses are talking about Dennys infamous marathon sessions
at Home Depot. An active outdoorsman who enjoys fishing and
hunting, Denny also enjoys fixing things around the house.
dad asks us if we want to go to Home Depot, we all say No!
says Luke. We know well be there for hours.
always tell the kids if they dont behave, Ill
send you to Home Depot with dad, Cathy says.
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.
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
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.
the cyberpunk heroes of the twenty-first centuryhybrids
of man and machine like Ridley Scotts Bladerunner or James
Camerons Terminatorare high-tech totems that embody
the stress of living in a nonorganic world. Fittingly, the cover
of Shores 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.
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.
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.
all, Shore made more than twenty trips to Samoa, sometimes living
with a family in the village of Salailua.
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.
Shore graduated with a doctorate in anthropology from the University
of Chicago in 1977 and joined the faculty of Emorys anthropology
department in 1982. As director of the MARIAL
Center, he has come full circle. Im a child of the
suburbs, he says. I know these families. They are
like my family. And that is the challenge.
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.
summer we all tried to bury me in the sand, Lane says.
And we caught a baby shark one year.
we go deep sea fishing, adds Luke, who snagged the manta
ray with the fifteen-foot wing span.
then comes my birthdayJuly 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
he was young, Luke says, he always thought the fireworks
on the Fourth were for him.
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.
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.
Dobbses share a very powerful story, he says. Twice,
theyve had to consciously remake their familyonce
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.
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.
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 runssleepovers, going off to camp,
Shore says. It masks our ambivalence about this task,
the contradiction that children arent properly raised
if they cant 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.
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.
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.
family, Shore says, remains societys most
potent anchor point as to who you are.