Family Panels to Build a Sociological Perspective on Work-Family Connections

Activity Description:

Authors: Michael Gortari, Erik Schwinger, Rebecca M. Thomas, and Clayton D. Peoples, University of Nevada, Reno


The relationship between work and family is crucial, and conveying this is one of the key tasks of teaching sociological perspectives on the family. But conveying this reality can be difficult given that directly demonstrating family life situations in the classroom is very difficult. In this paper, we describe an exercise that brings work-family situations into the classroom indirectly via a “family panel” of guest speakers trained in sociology talking openly about their own families. We expound upon a recent family panel we conducted, and evaluate its effectiveness. We find the panel is a positive learning experience for students and makes themes/concepts related to the crucial work/family connection more real and understandable.


The dynamic interplay between work and family is undeniably important. From the spillover of work stress into family life to the balancing of family and work responsibilities, the linkages between work and family are immutably significant. In fact, some argue that conveying the reality that work and family are inseparable is a critical task of teaching sociological perspectives on the family (e.g. Baca Zinn and Eitzen 1988). But accomplishing this task can be difficult given that directly demonstrating family life situations in the classroom is very difficult (Gunter 1974).

In this paper, we describe an exercise that brings work-family situations into the classroom indirectly via a “family panel” of guest speakers trained in sociology talking openly about their own families. After a brief review of the literature, we describe the exercise in some detail, providing illustrative work/family quotes from a recent panel we conducted. We then discuss the pros and cons of the exercise. Finally, we conclude by discussing the panel’s effectiveness and relevance for teaching about the work-family connection.


The relationship between work and family is crucial. One of the many characteristics of this crucial relationship is that it is far-reaching, often both intra- and inter-generational in its impact. The examples noted in the introduction carry both intra- and inter-generational importance—spillover can significantly affect both intimate and parent/child relationships; and parents are often concerned with balancing time with their children and the demands of work. Other examples of the work-family connection are similarly far-reaching. For instance, the well-documented effect of work structure on values is both intra- and inter-generational in impact, as work-derived values are both shared with contemporaries and passed down to the next generation (Kohn 1969).

While the relationship between work and family is clearly important, it is often under-recognized by those who are less familiar with the sociological perspective. This is likely the motivation behind calls for making the work/family connection a central theme of sociological portrayals of the family in the classroom (e.g. Baca Zinn and Eitzen 1988). But how to do so is a key question. A number of techniques have been developed to help accomplish this goal.

One technique involves utilizing the family experiences of students. For instance, Kerckoff and Baytala (1969) propose conducting surveys of the family situations of students at the beginning of a term, and then using those survey results later to highlight key points such as the work/family connection. Herald, Eastwood, Empringham, Gall, and McKendry (1973) recommend having students in the class serve as discussion leaders on different family-related topics, sharing their experiences. And Aminoff (1995) suggests the usage of detailed family histories to help students better understand their own family situations. While all of these exercises are likely helpful, they are somewhat restrictive in that they rely solely on the experiences of the students.

Another technique involves bringing outside family situations to students. But while literally exposing students to a real family situation in the classroom may be ideal, this is difficult as noted earlier. As such, some have attempted to do so indirectly. For example, Cosbey (1997) and Hall (2000) both argue for the use, and subsequent critique, of fiction novels in family sociology courses. Smarden and Margosian (1973) suggest conducting critical content analyses of magazines. Yet all of these exercises may be limited in making family situations more real given they are based on magazines and fiction. An alternative approach would be to expose students to real family situations outside the classroom. Gunter (1974) proposes sending students out to the community to spend time with a family. While likely very useful, such an exercise may not be feasible, and may be limited in its ability to relay a sociological perspective on the families observed. In this paper, we forward an exercise that (1) indirectly brings work-family situations into the classroom and (2) has a sociological perspective essentially built in.

The Exercise:

In our exercise, we gather a “family panel” of guest speakers who are all trained in sociology, and have them come speak openly in a given class session about their own family situations. Recent work praises the use of panels in the sociology classroom. For instance, Kubal, Meyler, Stone, and Mauney (2003) suggest that the diversity brought into the classroom by panels is rewarding for many students. Moreover, Crone (1997) shows that panels stimulate student involvement in class, motivate instructors, and reinforce material already covered in class. We therefore feel confident that our panel provides these general benefits in addition to illustrating the work-family connection.

For our panel, the number of panelists is not necessarily a set figure, and is partially contingent upon the how many volunteer to participate (but at least two or three participants would make it a ‘panel’ and provide some diversity). To put together our panel, we send out an e-mail announcement to at the beginning of the term to all sociology graduate students and/or faculty, describing the panel and requesting their participation. We generally receive good response to our e-mail requests, although we do recognize that in exceptionally small departments, getting enough panelists within the sociology department may be more difficult, but can likely still be done by calling on the participation of colleagues in related fields and/or advanced undergraduates.

We typically do not request that panelists discuss the work-family relationship specifically, but, instead, prefer to keep our request open-ended to allow panelists to discuss whatever they feel comfortable discussing. It is our implicit assumption that among a group of sociologists the work-family relationship will emerge as one of the key themes of their family narratives. This assumption is inevitably confirmed. For instance, in a recent panel, which we will qualitatively expound shortly, the fifty-five minute session yielded over forty references to various facets of the work-family connection.

In terms of the structure of the panel session, while this is up to the individual instructor(s), we typically allow a set amount of time for each panelist to speak, permit a few questions directly after each speaker, and then open it up for more questions at the end, concluding by summarizing the ways in which key sociological views on the family (such as the centrality of the work-family connection) emerged in the panel.

Qualitative Expounding of a Panel:

The particular panel we expound upon here was composed of three graduate students. Two of the students are single, male sociology MA students in their twenties. The third panelist is a single mother and social psychology PhD student in her forties. These three panelists are from working class families. Their fathers were/are employed as an iron miner, a railroad worker, and a rehabilitation assistant in a psychiatric center; the mother of one of the panelists was diagnosed with a disease and was not employed, one died while the panelist was young, and one worked in hospital admission. A recurring theme in this panel was the inter-generational impact of the work patterns of the panelists’ parents on their familial relationships, roles, and values. Another key theme was the balancing of work and family responsibilities.

Two of the three panelists had split-shifting parents. One discussed split-shifting in a nuclear family situation: “I [got] home…whenever school [let] out; then, my father [got] home shortly thereafter, my mom [took] off for work and my dad [was] responsible for cooking us dinner, etc.” Another panelist noted split-shifting within a multi-generational extended family situation: “My grandfather was a bricklayer, [he] worked like 7-4…my grandma waited [tables] in the nighttime, so she would cook us dinner and put it all in foil and he would come home, she would go to work and then he would heat it up and feed us….”

The work patterns of the panelists’ parents affected their familial relationships and the roles the panelists adopted in their lives. For example, as noted above, one panelist’s father took on a homemaking role during the evenings by cooking, and the panelist noted that this pattern has continued in his own life. “I’ve lived with two girlfriends in the past… in both of those relationships I was the one doing the cooking every night.” Another panelist recalled assuming the caretaker role at a young age due to her mother’s illness and her father’s heavy work load. “I actually remember missing school to go to…functions to serve as [my younger sister’s] parent because my mom couldn’t go and my dad was working.”

The inter-generational transfer of work- and class-related values was exhibited in several instances during this panel exercise. For instance, one panelist recollected that she always wanted to become a college professor, but she lamented, “I was never encouraged to do that and there was much this expectation that when I got out of high school, I would get married and have kids.” She blamed this for delaying her entry into higher education. Another panelist noted pressure from his family to embrace working-class values and work ethic. He recounted his father telling him, “You don’t need to love your job, you don’t need to do something that’s going to make you happy, you need to do something that’s going to pay your bills, and be there in ten years as a job, in twenty years as a job.” The panelist noted that this pressure continues due to the fact that he is still in school and working part time. He said his family often asks him, “When are you going to get a job?”

The balancing of work and family responsibilities also emerged as a key theme in this panel. For instance, a student directed a question toward one of the panelists related to this theme, asking, “How do you balance, even now, school and kids?” The panelist’s response highlighted this balancing act well, answering, “The truth of it is…you get up every day and you do it. There are days when you’re exhausted, and days when you do a really good job and you are proud of yourself, and days when you worry about how the electric bill is going to get paid.”

Evaluation of Exercise:

We believe this exercise was effective. It certainly facilitated lively discussion. On over 35 occasions during the panel, students posed insightful questions and comments on topics such as the effect of work on family relations and roles. Our observation was that students showed a genuine interest in the discussion and were able to relate the experiences of the panel members to topics covered in class. But to further examine the effectiveness of the exercise, we conducted an evaluation.

At the end of the panel, we gave the students anonymous evaluation forms to complete. The first five questions asked students to rate the experience from 1 to 4, strongly disagree to strongly agree. An additional 3 open-ended questions allowed students to express any likes, dislikes and to evaluate how effective they felt the panel was in helping them learn about families in new or different ways. The final question gave students the opportunity to provide any additional comments about the panel.

Overall, students found the panel helpful in making “family situations more real” to them: 92% of students agreed or strongly agreed on this point. Around 96% said the family panel helped them “better understand some of the family situations in the text,” and 92% agreed or strongly agreed that the family panel was a “learning experience” for them.

The open ended questions corresponded well with the answers given in the scale questions. When asked what they disliked about the panel, a few students noted a lack of racial and economic diversity in the panel (all panelists were white and came from either working class or poor backgrounds), with one student commenting, “I wish we had a more diverse panel as far as income situations go….” Most students, however, said there was nothing they disliked about the panel.

When asked to evaluate the effectiveness of the panel in helping them learn about new or different family situations, the most frequently cited response was that it made family situations more “real.” One student commented, “It was a great ‘hands on’ way of looking at peoples real life situations…,” and another, “It was good to have a concrete situation which we were able to see how specific families work and how they vary.” Students also mentioned that it made them start looking at their own family situations and how that relates to who they are today, with one student stating, “I always like to hear about other people’s experiences…and it even made me start analyzing my own family.”

When asked to evaluate how effective the panel was in helping them learn about family situations already covered in class, the student consensus was that it was effective, and that terms and themes from class made more sense to them now that they had a concrete reference point. For instance, students noted familiar concepts that emerged in the panel such as “split-shifting,” “conformity,” “traditional family “gender roles,” “poverty,” and “working class.” One student remarked, “[The panel] helped to be able to recognize [concepts] in real life families.”


In conclusion, we feel putting together a “family panel” of people trained in sociology to talk about their own family situations is an effective way of bringing real family situations to the students (at least indirectly) and building a sociological perspective on the family. And it is clear that important themes—particularly the critical work/family connection—emerge from such panels, enriching students’ knowledge and understanding of the dynamic interplay between work and family in both intra- and inter-generational forms. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, based on our evaluation of the particular panel expounded in this paper, students themselves overwhelmingly agree that family panels make family situations more real, help them better understand material, and make for an overall good learning experience. We therefore highly recommend using a family panel exercise to reinforce sociological themes/concepts and make the crucial work-family connection more real and understandable.


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Cosbey, Janet. 1997. “Using Contemporary Fiction to Teach Family Issues.” Teaching Sociology 25:227-33.

Crone, James A. 1997. “Using Panel Debates to Increase Student Involvement in the Introductory Sociology Class.” Teaching Sociology 25:214-8.

Gunter, B. G. 1974. “Using Volunteer Families in Teaching Family Sociology.” The Family Coordinator 23:261-7.

Hall, Kelley J. 2000. “Putting the Pieces Together: Using Jane Smiley’s ‘A Thousand Acres’ in Sociology of Families.” Teaching Sociology 28:370-78.

Herald, Edward S., Janice Eastwood, Charlotte Empringham, Beverly Gall, and Shirley McKendry. 1973. “Human Sexuality: A Student Taught Course.” The Family Coordinator 22:183-6.

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Smarden, Lawrence E. and Arthur H. Margosian. 1973. “Marriage in Magazines.” The Family Coordinator 22:177-82.

Activity Source:

Sweet, Stephen, Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, Joshua Mumm, Judith Casey, and Christina Matz. 2006. Teaching Work and Family: Strategies, Activities, and Syllabi. Washington DC: American Sociological Association.