From 2002-2005, a unique archive of video tapes was compiled by the Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) at UCLA, with the goal of studying a relatively new social phenomenon—the complex and often stressful lives of middle-class, multiple child, dual-earning, multi-tasking families. In a conference held a month ago, researchers presented findings on five themes—family aspirations, family consumerism, family intimacy, family responsibilities, and family resilience—based upon their analysis of the 1,540 hours of video tape that were shot in thirty-two Los Angeles area homes.
The $9 million study, funded by the Albert P. Sloan Foundation, offers up a surprisingly rich database of images and information. As Thomas S. Weisner, a professor of anthropology at U.C.L.A, described it, the video archive holds “up a mirror to people. They laugh. They cringe. It shows us life as it is actually lived.” Videos revealed, for example, that mothers spend nearly 27 percent of their time at home doing housework, compared with 18 percent for fathers and 3 percent for kids. Couples were alone in their home for only 10 percent of waking time. The whole family gathered in one room together only 14 percent of time.
“Entering these middle-class homes,” CELF’s project director Elinor Ochs said, “where privacy is conceived as a cultural entitlement of the highest sort, is a fearsome challenge.” But, as we’re seeing in our increasing video-taped and surveilled culture, what was once considered private is more and more willingly being offered up in public. The sanctity of family life, some argue, was shattered with the 1973 broadcast of An American Family, a 12-part, 1973 PBS documentary (edited down from 300 hours of shot footage) that tracked the lives of the Louds, another Southern Californian family, and startled viewers by revealing that family’s willingness to present themselves—warts and all—for national scrutiny and attention. It took a while longer before for the legacy of feel-good mid-to-late 20th century family sit-coms, like Father Knows Best (1954-60) and The Brady Bunch, (1969-74) would so give way to wince-inducing, guilty-pleasure reality show entertainments like The Osbornes (2002-5) and the current and successful Real Housewives franchise on cable TV.
Clearly, both the times and family life are changing. “I would never volunteer for a reality series,” said Ms. Repath-Martos, a CELF project participant, who is an administrator at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who was quoted in recent New York Times article on the UCLA study. “But I was curious. And I thought that—well, this is going to sound crazy—I thought that it wouldn’t be that invasive.” And so she, her husband and their two children received $1,000 for their participation and welcomed a small film crew (and a researcher armed with a handheld computer, who documented each family member’s location and activities at 10-minute intervals) into their 943-square-foot house to prove that when it comes to archiving data about who we are, and what and who we care about, there’s no place like home.