Theories to “Real World” Decisions, A Paper Project

Activity Description:

Author: Kathryn Hynes, Penn State University


This project is designed to help students develop a deeper understanding of theories about maternal labor force participation by comparing theoretical models to the actual experiences of people who have children. The project includes reading a review of theories of maternal labor force participation (Hattery 2001), conducting a semi-structured qualitative interview, and writing an empirical paper that uses the interview data as a test of the theoretical models.

Rationale for the Project and Goals for Student Learning:

Lower-level undergraduates often have a difficult time getting interested in comparing and contrasting competing theoretical frames. They also often have a hard time in learning about the strengths and weaknesses of various empirical strategies. This project is designed to facilitate these processes by having them examine whether people’s “real lives” fit into, or contradict, existing theoretical models of behavior. Students also gain hands-on experience with the research process by learning about and completing a qualitative interview. This practical experience provides a good opportunity to help student become better consumers of empirical research, creating easy opportunities to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of quantitative and qualitative methods, the challenges of conducting high quality research, and the complex interactions between theory and data. Students typically enjoy practicing and conducting the interviews, and, having collected data themselves, become quite engaged in the process of integrating theory and empirical findings.

Project Description:

In a 200-level sociology course on work and family, students begin the semester by learning about changes in women’s and men’s work and family roles over the past decades. After establishing a basic understanding of trends, students are asked to read a chapter from Angela Hattery’s book, Women, Work, and Family (2001), that reviews theories about maternal labor force participation. We discuss these theories, having one student describe each theory to the class, to ensure that students have a basic understanding of the models and a chance to ask clarifying questions. Students are then introduced to the paper writing project.

In order to ensure that students clearly understand the project, they are given an extensive written set of guidelines. These guidelines provide as much detail as possible about the project, including the goals and rationale for the project, the timeline, details on what they will do for each component of the project and during each class period, and information about what they are expected to include in each section of their papers.

The next two class periods provide time for students to learn about qualitative research methods and practical considerations involved in conducting research. At many universities, interviews conducted by students during class projects require IRB review and protection of human subjects. For this project, I developed the consent form and interview protocol (Appendix A) that the students would use, and I received IRB review before the semester started. During the first methods class, students can learn the rationale for human subjects protections, the protocol for protecting confidentiality and data that will be used for the project, and practicing (via role playing) asking their participant to be part of the study and getting informed consent. For the next class, students are asked to complete the human subjects training required by many universities.

The second part of the class period is a good time to go over the interview guide briefly so that students become familiar with the types of questions that they will be asking. If time permits, this is also a good opportunity to begin discussing the strengths and limitations of quantitative and qualitative research by considering the kinds of questions that are asked and the types of information that answers will provide, as well as the validity and generalizability of the findings. Now that students are familiar with the type of questions they will be asking, they are each asked to come to class the next time with two names of people that they would like to interview (in case one person is not interested in participating). The only criteria are that the respondents must be over 18 and have children.

The next class period is focused on learning how to conduct interviews. Faculty who have not done qualitative research may want to ask a colleague who has done qualitative research to help train the students. This class period focuses on discussing the role of the interviewer in the collection of high quality data, including topics such as the professional demeanor of an interviewer, ways to encourage detailed answers without “leading” respondents to various conclusions, strategies for asking probing questions to elicit additional information about interesting issues raised by respondents, and strategies for bringing interviews back on track when respondents move off topic. Students then team up and practice interviewing each other, which provides them with good experience and provides me with an opportunity to correct their techniques. They are encouraged to think about good “probing questions” and jot these down as they are practicing. Students are then given a reasonable amount of time to establish contact with their respondents and to conduct their interviews.

Once interviews have been conducted, students are asked to discuss their interviews in class. Several students are asked to describe their respondents and some of the answers that they found most interesting. We then discussed, as a class, how the stories that their respondents told about their lives matched or contradicted the theories that we read about maternal labor force participation. This is a good time to revisit the conversation about the strengths and limitations of qualitative data, now that students have experience with this technique and can think concretely about what went well and what was challenging.

Students then write an 8-9 page research paper in a standard academic format, including abstract, introduction, theory, data, methods, results, and discussion sections. The goal of their paper is to integrate their empirical findings from their interviews with the theoretical models described in the Hattery (2001) book.


Hattery, Angela. 2001. Women, Work and Family. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. “Theoretical Paradigms for Understanding Maternal Labor Force Participation.” p. 68-89.

Appendix A: Interview Protocol

I’d like to ask you a series of questions about how you made decisions about work and family over the course of your life, but particularly when you had young children.

  • First, let’s talk about your life before you had children. Before you had children, did you expect that you would work continuously as an adult or did you expect that you would leave employment for some amount of time to raise children?
    • What were your spouse/significant other’s expectations about this?
  • When you learned that you would be having your first child, were you working? If so, what kind of work were you doing? Did you enjoy it?
    • Was your spouse/significant other working? What kind of work was s/he doing and did s/he enjoy it?
  • I’d like to understand what you (and your spouse/significant other if applicable) decided to do to arrange your work and family life/lives after the birth of your first child, and why you made those decisions.
    • For instance, did either of you take time off from work when the baby was born (vacation or sick time, longer leave, quit job)? If so, for how long?
    • Then what happened? Did either of you work during your child’s first year? If so, was that full-time or part-time work?
    • Why did you choose this strategy?
      • Prompt here for whether different theories applied if the respondent does not directly address a particular theory in their initial answer. For instance:
      • Do you feel that certain work and family arrangements are better for children? Did your opinions about this influence your decisions?
      • Did you consider your financial needs while making these decisions? If so, how did your financial situation influence your decisions?
      • Did you consider factors such as the cost, availability and quality of child care in your area and if so, how did this influence your decisions?
    • How did you feel about these decisions?
    • How did your spouse/significant other feel about these decisions?
    • Did you feel that your family and friends supported or criticized your decisions and if so, why?
    • What happened next? Did you (and your spouse/significant other if applicable) use this same arrangement for several years or did you make changes? Why did you make those changes?
    • Do you have more than one child? If so:
      • Did you make similar or different decisions around the birth of your other children?
      • Repeat questions 3.1-3.6
    • Looking back, how do you feel about the decisions about balancing work and family that you made when your children were young? Would you do anything differently?
    • Is there anything else that you feel it is important for me to know to understand your decisions about work and family?

Thank you for participating in this interview!

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.

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