Families are unique, and those within any family dynamic help to define what it is to be part of that family. Michelle Janning has been learning about families for years, as she has continued to be a student of sociology and anthropology long after completing her own formal education. The 1990 Redwood Falls-Morton High School graduate attended St. Olaf College where she earned degrees in sociology and anthropology and then continued her education at the University of Notre Dame.
Along the way, she felt the influence of her own family on life. As the daughter of two educators, Heinz and Yvonne Janning, the pull to education led her to her role today as a professor of sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.
What she has learned over the years of observing people, asking questions and discovering trends has been compiled into a book she has written entitled “The Stuff of Family Life: How Our Homes Reflect Our Lives.”
Janning, who was home in November, offered a public presentation about her book at the Redwood Falls Public Library and also met with some of the early childhood staff in the Redwood Area School District to talk about what she has discovered and how that can be applied to the day-to-day interactions within society.
“It is great to be back in Redwood Falls,” said Janning as she talked about her book and what has been going on since high school from the living room of her parents’ home.
Studying families tells one a lot about society, explained Janning, and one can tell a lot about a family by the things they have in each room of their home. The book she has written takes the reader from one room in the house to the next, as she talks about everything from what people value to why they value it. For example, Janning explained, one of the chapters addresses how families react and interact with the items that remain after the passing of a loved one. The items that loved one has left behind tell a lot about that person, but how those who look at it from an outside perspective also reveals their relationship with that person and their personal values.
A chipped teacup for one individual might bring back a stream of emotions for the one who is recalling the many times they remember their loved one sitting at the dining room table enjoying a cup of tea.
Another person might see that chipped teacup as nothing more than a cup that has no practical purpose.
A third person might look at that cup and wonder if it has any financial value.
Janning also talked about people’s love letters, photo albums, heirlooms and other similar items as part of what helps to define them and how they fit into the bigger picture of their family.
Objects like these, added Janning, cause us to think about how family intersects with the rest of our life and defines our family role.
Janning surveyed a number of people as part of the study that led to the writing of her book. While Janning has had articles published in the past, this is her first venture in book writing. She said the book is going to be available some time next year.
“It’s exciting,” she said, adding she learned a lot about the process along the way. “I am excited to be able to share this with others.”
Janning does do speaking engagements talking about her research, which have taken her across the United States. Her studies have also included data she gleaned during times outside of the U.S.
Janning is married to Neal Christopherson, who is also a professor at Whitman College, and they have a son named Aaron.
One can learn more about Janning and the 20 years of research she has gathered by visiting her blog on the “between-ness” of everyday life at www.michelle janning.com.