Michelle Janning and two students
Photo by Matt Banderas

By Michelle Janning

According to a new book by Professor of Sociology Michelle Janning, looking at love letters in the digital age teaches us a lot about our social relationships.

For a scholar who studies people’s relationships, I sure do look at lot at their things. I’m not the sociologist who analyzes big datasets; I’m the sociologist who wants to know what’s in people’s backpacks and broom closets, and the stories behind them. The things we have and the places we put them tell us stories of our lives, and I am an eager seeker of stories.

written noteI look at what stuff people have, where they put it, what it says about their membership in certain social groups and how they talk about it. I do this in part because, as a product of a liberal arts background myself, I could never shake my devotion to the courses I’d taken in art history, communication, women’s studies, political science, studio art and what I finally ended up with as a major: sociology-anthropology. It has always been the material parts of social relationships that have interested me. By social relationships, I mean the everyday interactions with those we hold near and dear, but I also mean the really large groups in society of which we are a part—groups that shape our values, aesthetic judgment, and access to time and money and energy that matter in any consideration of what spaces we occupy and what objects we have.

Social scientists have a thirst for understanding human behavior. I find the most interesting parts of human behavior to study are those that are often connected to private objects and located in private spaces, and that uncover the often hidden, and sometimes devalued, meaning of everyday experiences.

The Thing about Studying Family Relationships in Sociology

Sociologists have a history of figuring out how objects and spaces matter in research on social relations, from early 20th century writing about the importance of sacred objects in religion and investigations of the role that urban housing plays in building ties or reinforcing inequalities among neighbors, to later works on the importance of objects such as clothing and cars as symbolic representations of identity and class status. But it has only been in the last couple of decades that sociologists have been identifying the sociology of things—or the significance of spaces and places—as central to our research questions.

I situate my work under the umbrella of family sociology. Family sociologists investigate how familial relationships demonstrate the multiple ways that our public and private worlds intersect, whether in terms of parent-child relations, marriage equality, demographic shifts in partnering practices, aging or romance. Included in these investigations is a turn toward the impact of information and communication technologies (ICT) on our everyday relationships, roles and networks. Because our digital world provides new and ever increasing ways that the different parts of our lives can intersect, studying how technology matters to today’s families is necessary in order to figure out how public and private boundaries are navigated. But family sociologists tend not to look at how spaces and objects matter in contemporary family life.

I have spent the last two decades studying different parts of families’ lives through the lens of material culture, including the ways that ICT has mattered. The book that I’m writing, The Stuff of Family Life: How our Homes Reflect our Lives (Rowman & Littlefield, due out in 2017), covers usual topics that family sociologists study (changing definitions of family, couplehood, parent-child relations, work-family boundaries, household division of labor, divorce and conflict, and aging and intergenerational relations), but with an eye toward domestic spaces and objects that highlight contemporary patterns in family lives in the United States, and by incorporating findings from several of my projects.

Among my past projects, these are highlighted in the book: how people’s briefcases and calendars show ways that paid work and family roles are kept separate or integrated; how women who watch decorating television shows incorporate power tools into their domestic roles; how young adults view relationships with parents in two homes, and their sleeping spaces therein, after their parents get a divorce; how the management of digital and paper family photos is a gendered task; how cohousing does and does not challenge traditional gender roles in communal tasks such as dining; and how digital and paper love letter saving, viewing and storing practices shed light on our understanding of contemporary romantic relationships.

The Thing about Love Letters in a Digital Age

My work on love letters came about as many projects do—by observing, and then asking questions about, my own life. Three years ago, I happened upon a box of letters I had saved from my early-1990s college years. For several hours, I read through the pile of letters and notes, and then began to wonder whether the place that I stored this memento box, and how often I looked at it, mattered in how much it meant to me. After all, the letters were in a bag in a box in a closet in a dark corner of our basement storage room. And I only visited this dark corner once every few years, usually while cleaning or looking for some long lost CD or tax form.

My husband noticed me sitting in the letter pile in our living room. He looked at me funny—maybe because some of the letters were from past boyfriends or maybe because he figured he’d be vacuuming all of the paper shreds after my little nostalgia party was done. Then he paused and noted that he had a much smaller pile of saved letters, but had no idea where it was. He also said that, when we entered college, there was no widespread internet or email use; by the time we left, we were all using email. Surely, he claimed, we must represent the last generation of paper letter writers. A few weeks later, I had two lunches with two women from two different generations, during which I raised the topic of love letter saving practices. My older friend reminisced about her box of saved paper love letters from her husband, and how she printed out emails when she first started receiving them from him. My younger friend talked about an email folder she had created on her phone: “Messages from Cute Boys.”

iPhoneInspired by these interactions, I sought information about whether digital objects could have as much meaning to people as physical ones. I flagged news stories about apps that mimicked memento boxes to save virtual love notes. I began a new line of research that asked how people saved their love letters, whether gender and generation affected the meaning people attached to them, and whether the format of a love letter—digital or paper—mattered in that meaning.

I’m in good company when it comes to studying the impact of the digital world on romantic relationships. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg and comedian Aziz Ansari wrote a highly successful book last year entitled Modern Romance, in which the authors investigated how people’s ideals and definitions of romance have been affected by, among other things, the seemingly ubiquitous presence of smartphones with apps that allow swiping left or right to indicate interest in a potential partner (or restaurant) nearby. In addition, as noted by the Pew Research Center, Americans are not only increasingly likely to view online dating as a good way to meet people, they are also increasingly likely to meet and partner with people they first encounter online. In our world of digital encounters, we are a far cry from the days of dating and marrying the boy who lived down the hall in the same apartment building or the girl from the neighboring farm. We are also a far cry from the days of assuming either long-term dating or marriage is a desired outcome of a romantic encounter.  

My research looks at what happens after a long-term romantic relationship has begun (and sometimes ended), and how the communication between partners, and the likelihood that the communication will be saved and looked at again, may be shaped by changing technologies. My work is inspired by researchers Sherry Turkle and danah boyd, who look at the (sometimes negative, always changing) impact of digital communication practices on relationships. But since I am interested in meaningful objects in home spaces, I study the curatorial practices of love letter saving. In other words, rather than looking at the content of the love letter itself, or whether virtual communication has replaced face-to-face interaction, I examine how the letter is saved and looked at later. I want to know if the format of a love letter matters too, so I include paper letters, cards and notes, as well as video and audio calls, texting, email, digital messaging and even Snapchat in my definition of love letter.

The survey data I collected in 2013 reveal several interesting findings. First, generation and gender matter in love letter saving practices. I discovered, not surprisingly, that younger people save fewer handwritten letters than older people. I found that women save letters (and any relationship memento, really) more than men, but men look at the letters they save more frequently than women. In addition, men tend to store their love letters in visible and accessible places, while women store them in, under or behind other objects. Finally, I learned that younger generations can find deep meaning in letters sent electronically, but many people under 30 are making an extra effort to handwrite letters to lovers because it connotes a thoughtfulness and devotion to taking one’s time that seems to be often lost in the bustle of our daily digitally-saturated lives.  

The survey responses revealed that people of all ages are more likely to save paper love letters over digital ones. And yet, nearly 90 percent of respondents believe that the practice of handwritten love letter writing is fading away. What this tells me is that we are at an interesting communication crossroads with a few possible outcomes over the coming years. Perhaps we are going to see an increasing number of disappointed people who wish their partners had not replaced their stationery with an iPad. Perhaps we will see a backlash against the influx of ICT into our romantic lives, whereby people return to an idealized nostalgic past of handwritten letters, as some younger survey respondents are doing. Or perhaps we will see a redefinition of meaningfulness as technologies bridge our desire for love and our preference for ease.

Letters—and paper ones at that—seem to matter a lot now because there are some who perceive a threat to the preservation of them as a threat to the preservation of romantic love. A threat to collective memory, even. If you can’t write it down on paper, fold it, send it, store it in a box and find it later to hold in your hands, it can seem less real. So we fear the loss of us when we can’t hold our texts in our hands. Some say there’s a similar feeling when we fear the loss of literature if we can’t hold a real book in our hands. The answer to the question of whether the decline in handwritten letter writing is detrimental is a complex one. What I like to say, like all good sociologists would, is this: whether we think a particular format of communication is more or less meaningful, impactful, emotionally charged, real or effective, is by itself constructed socially in a particular time and place. 

When I teach the importance of having a sociological imagination—to be able to see any phenomenon as a combination of individual stories and larger sociohistorical context—I first ask my students to situate themselves in a particular time, place and demographic. I then ask whether any of those things matters in their estimation about whether the fine art of handwritten letters on the decline makes them sad, happy, or ambivalent. Turns out, as my data reveal, these things matter.

The Thing about Whitman

Sometimes I lecture about love letters in my Whitman classes when I want to highlight gender roles, generational differences, the importance of technology in understanding larger social processes or how spaces and things matter to sociologists. Inevitably, after such a lecture, a couple of students will share their stories with the class—stories that tell a complicated picture about how meaning is attached to particular communication formats. Usually one story goes something like this:

My boyfriend and I have handwritten letters to each other every week since we started college. We do this because we think there’s something special about writing it on paper. I have them saved in an acid-free archival storage box because I just know I’m going to want to read them when I’m 60 and show them to my future kids.

written noteAnd then another student tells a different story:

I love sending texts to my girlfriend every day that contain little inside jokes that only she and I share. There is nothing more special and romantic than having a daily communication about a private joke. When I get a new smartphone, I always check to make sure my text conversations can be transferred in case I want to look at them next year.

During class discussion, I love hearing students’ interpretations, especially about the gender differences. Some students propose, for example, that men are more romantic than women, justified by their greater frequency of looking at past saved letters. Others say that men “display” their love letters as trophies, justifying past research findings that romantic conquest is constructed to be a powerful driving feature of contemporary masculinity. Still others interpret women’s storage of letters in, under and behind things as evidence that women are still charged with maintaining the tidiness of household organization. I say Whitman students are particularly gifted when it comes to interpreting social scientific data with curiosity and sophistication, often with their own stories intertwined with their interpretations.

Thanks to the ideas and energy of several Whitman students in this project (especially Emma Snyder ’14, Hannah Palkowitz ’14, Ailie Kerr ’13, Wenjun Gao ’17), I have learned that love letters (and all letters, really) matter because they are the texts of our identities. Sometimes, when we think things, we write them down. And sometimes we find these thoughts written down to be worthwhile to share. And then we have not just an imagined audience, but a real one. Letters are the textual renditions of our interactional processes. Saving these and looking at them means we are looking at the processes of self-definition, discovery and disclosure, and the social processes and audiences that surround these. If we want to understand relationships, I believe that we must look at the curatorial practices surrounding love letters, especially since those practices and the relationships themselves are impacted by changes in communication technologies.

While it may be tempting to look longingly at the lost art of handwritten letters, it is also the case that our scrutiny of a letter’s meaning must be contextualized in light of the letter writer’s view about the meaningfulness of the platform on which it is written. In other words, I love handwritten stuff, and many of you might, too. I love touching the folded paper in the box of stored letters in my basement, and I love using nice pens to write an occasional letter. It’s what has most inspired my research. But I also know that my students today may find just as much meaning in a clever text at an opportune moment from a lover as I may have found in a folded piece of paper from my college boyfriend. So, while I love nostalgia and I appreciate its sociological utility, it may be that just as much nostalgia, collective memory and self-definition, discovery and disclosure will be present in the digital love letters of the future. Even if it is typed on a smartphone surreptitiously while two lovers look longingly across the table at each other at Starbucks in downtown Walla Walla, and then save the messages in a folder on the phone that the lovers make sure is transferred to their next phone when their plan expires, the words about love will still be words to remember.

Based on conversations with current students in my office, wise words from my wonderful student research assistants and survey responses in my love letters research, and despite the proliferation of articles and stories about people losing relationship closeness because they’re looking at their smartphones instead of longingly into each other’s eyes across the table at Starbucks, love letters are still alive and well. People still save them. But technology has influenced their format and meaning, and we see demographic differences in how people save and store them. Maybe love letter saving in the future will require more swiping than handwriting, and maybe swiping will become socially defined as romantic. Maybe not. The important thing for a sociologist to say in all of this is that people are the ones who get to decide which practice is meaningful, why and to whom. And when they decide this, I’ll be right there to study it and ask for interpretations from my students.  

Michelle Janning is professor of sociology at Whitman College. Her forthcoming book, The Stuff of Family Life: How Our Homes Reflect Our Lives, takes readers inside the changing world of families through an examination of their stuff, looking at how our choices about our spaces and objects impact our lives, and how we relate to each other, from dating to marriage, from parenting to divorce and aging.