Someone once referred to Whitman College sociology professor Michelle Janning as an archaeologist of contemporary society—the kind of person who pokes around in your underwear drawer to figure out what’s going on with the world.
Indeed, given Janning’s research on domestic spaces and practices, the appraisal is more literal than figurative.
“I’ve got lots of underwear drawer stories—both mine and the ones people bring me,” she jokes.
Janning has published more than a drawerful of books and articles on topics ranging from love letters to contemporary parenting, to spaces and stuff of contemporary home life, and to the impacts of the pandemic on families.
A sociologist by professional training—she earned her Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Notre Dame—Janning’s thinking has also been shaped by anthropological research, seeded as an undergraduate at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, when she was a sociology-anthropology major.
“The rich cultural context and qualitative elements of inquiry that take time and depth—yes, sociologists do that—of course we do,” she says. “But it was really my readings about anthropological research that inspired the significance of material culture as symbolic of people’s value systems and practices and access to resources.”
Janning’s interest in how everyday life and material objects reflect larger social forces has been with her since adolescence. She has a vivid memory of how, as a 14-year-old, she begged her parents to get her a magazine subscription—not to Seventeen, like many girls her age, but to Elle Décor. The stylish design magazine featured high-end pieces, and Janning remembers wondering not just about the beauty of the objects, but about who got to have them and who was in charge of managing them.
“That’s where social class and gender have stuck with me as areas of intersecting inequality for the questions I ask,” Janning says. “A lot of my research feels quite benign and apolitical, but really what I’m doing is pointing out places where inequalities are present in our access to valuable resources, including things that are deemed aesthetically valuable.”
“A lot of my research feels quite benign and apolitical, but really what I’m doing is pointing out places where inequalities are present in our access to valuable resources, including things that are deemed aesthetically valuable.”
By far, though, Janning’s biggest inspiration has been her mom, Yvonne. Her mom taught home economics in their small town in rural Minnesota, so as Janning was growing up she was constantly exposed to things like sewing, cooking and home decor. But Yvonne’s real passion was family relationships. She went on to earn a master’s in family education and became the first-ever director of the community’s Early Childhood Family Education program, creating programs for previously overlooked populations, such as teen parents, single dads and Native American parents. Through her mom’s work, Janning became interested in the social forces that help contextualize family relationships: why some families don’t receive the same resources as others, or why some families are leery of public institutions.
“I really am grateful, because she’s got so many stories about her experience with families that are informing the larger data projects that I’m working on,” Janning says.
Janning is one of those relatively rare scholars whose work appeals to both academic and general audiences. This is no accident; while research on domestic spaces and practices might inherently have some public appeal, Janning has taken deliberate steps to make her work accessible to the lay reader.
Her reach beyond academia is thanks in part to her involvement with the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF), which aims to improve the quality of national dialogue around family and domestic issues. Janning joined the CCF board of directors in 2010, eventually serving as chair for four years. She’s published many publicly oriented articles on the subjects of her scholarly work on the CCF’s blog on The Society Pages website.
But most of Janning’s public success has come from her own commitment to sharing her research and expertise. When she stepped down from an administrative position in 2013, Janning made the decision to focus more on her writing. She created a blog and wrote down titles for what eventually became 65 blog posts over the following couple of years.
“I realized that the more I wrote, the more I wrote,” she says. “And so, in that sense, I got my voice out there in the ether, even without having completed all the projects that were mulling about in my head. And because of that, then you get quoted in various places, and then you get found, and then you can put it on your website, and then you get asked by publishers to write an edited volume about parenting.”
For her next project, Janning is working on a social sciences research methods book for architects and interior designers that aims to inform the design process with helpful and empathetic user-experience data collection techniques. At the same time, she’s involved in an interdisciplinary group of Whitman staff and faculty dedicated to exploring whether Whitman could implement a human-centered design program.
“I’m just so grateful and happy that I’ve gotten to do what I’ve gotten to do, and that Whitman is a place that’s allowed me to dabble in so many different fields that have led to these paths and connections that I didn’t know existed.”