Why I believe in Family Science

Today I am publishing the first publicly available ranking of Human Development and Family Science programs in North America, at least the first ranking that I am familiar with.  Why did I go to the trouble of creating this ranking? Because I believe in human development, and in particular, family science, and you should too.

photo credit: Alain Bachellier via photopin cc

photo credit: Alain Bachellier via photopin cc

When I first got my job at Ohio State, I did not like the name of our department. Human Development and Family Science?  My degrees from Illinois and Penn State were both in Human Development and Family Studies. In all honesty, I thought family science was some kind of strange term for scholars that studied families, but were not rigorous researchers. What came to mind were cross-sectional, community-based studies, where the major topic of interest was some abstract concept associated with some other abstract concept. At the point I was hired, I had just gotten done working with an economist for two years, so my use of the term endogenous was at an all time high, as was my dismissal of scholarship that I put in the “family science” category. Sometimes I would talk about my program as “family studies” because I was embarrassed of the term.

Over time, however, the term family science has grown on me. Family science used to seem like this exclusive term, whereby you had to be in a particular club, or get your PhD from a particular program, to be a “family scientist”. But, now that I have learned more about family science, I realize that it is actually an inclusive term. Actually, my article using econometrics to examine the mental health consequences of cohabitation vs. marital dissolution is family science. And so is my article looking at how playing with a “fake baby” determines your co-parenting after the real baby is on the scene. Family science is diverse, interesting, and includes a range of research topics related to the family, from family demography to family psychology, from qualitative to quantitative methods, from large, secondary datasets to small, community samples.

In particular, family science really started to become salient to me as a way to describe my scholarship with the growth of “psychological science”. I have been a member of the Association for Psychological Science, a professional organization “dedicated to the advancement of scientific psychology”. The term psychological science has grown in popularity as psychological scientists have sought ways to distinguish their work as scientific researchers from clinicians and practitioners of psychology. Some of the top journals in psychology are Psychological Science, Clinical Psychological Science, and Developmental Science. You can read an interesting article about the term here.

I was asked by Diane Cushman, the executive director of the National Council on Family Relations’, to be on the Future of Family Science task force. One of the first orders of business the task force took on was how to increase the prominence of family science. Why do we  need to increase the prominence? I recently went to an awesome workshop focused on same-sex relationships at the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University. I met two undergraduates who were seniors, and were interested in graduate study. I asked them if they had considered HDFS, and they had never heard of it. After I explained what HDFS was all about, they got really excited. But it was too late – they had already applied and been accepted to disciplinary programs. Urgh. Maybe if I had talked to them sooner, they would have been in an HDFS graduate program, instead of a graduate program with a single disciplinary focus.

photo credit: benjaminasmith via photopin cc

photo credit: benjaminasmith via photopin cc

One barrier to getting the word out about family science, and by extension, human development and family science, is our lack of ranking in national publications such as US News and World Report. You might think that HDFS is too small to be ranked, but only 36 schools were surveyed for their Criminology rankings. HDFS has 52 doctoral programs, thus we could easily be listed in national publications ranking graduate schools.

Why can’t we get the word out? Dr. Jason Hans of the University of Kentucky pointed out in a recent paper in Family Relations, that there are 103 different names for 217 HDFS-type academic units he considered. Thus, sitting at this meeting, I really wanted us to vote on a name, a name that could unify all of the HDFS type departments. As you can read in this article by Diane Cushman, the task force unanimously supported the term family science. Perhaps you have always been on board with the term family science, or perhaps you are in a department using family studies, family ecology, or family relationships. If you are in the latter category, and are hesitant about the term family science as I once was, consider the term in light of the growth of psychological science.  Or, think of family science as Diane Cushman does “the field of study where the primary goals are the discovery, verification, and application of knowledge about families”, or consider what Paul Amato recently said “viewing our field as family science reminds us that we should use the best available empirical methods to study our subject matter. It also signals to non-social scientists that our work is based on the collection and analysis of data and not on personal opinions.”. I think all family scientists/scholars can get on board with these descriptions.

Thus, as you look over the rankings, consider what you can personally do to help grow Human Development and Family Science. Maybe you can talk to family and friends about what HDFS is. Maybe you can use the term family scientist to describe yourself. Maybe you can write an article about HDFS for your campus newspaper. Maybe you can advocate for your department to change its name. Maybe you can serve in leadership positions at your university, and use new connections to advocate for HDFS. Whatever you do, do something to help grow HDFS. I strongly believe in the interdisciplinary training I received, and I think that my own scholarship is much improved because of the incredible scholars, from a range of disciplines, who trained me, and introduced me to several different approaches to studying humans and their relationships, and challenged me to consider human development and context. I think the social sciences could benefit from more scholars trained across disciplines, and some of the biggest, most pressing problems in society will likely be solved, at least in part, by those of us trained in human development and family science.

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