UBC’s Francesco Duina explores how Americans make turning points into Hallmark moments.
Getting married. Having a child. Losing a loved one. These are major moments that mark the end of one chapter of your life and the beginning of another. But just how do we transition from one phase of life to the next? In his new book, Francesco Duina, a professor at UBC’s Dept. of Sociology, looks at how Americans look at life’s great transitions.
Your book is called Life Transitions in America– why the U.S.? Is there a distinctly American response to the same transitions found in many Western cultures?
Evidence shows that Americans are especially preoccupied with transitions in life: what they are, what they mean, how to talk about them. You can see it by looking at books sold on Amazon.com in the U.S. compared to the company’s sites in other countries. The dominant culture in the United States is very vocal about almost any transition – it makes many moments in life into a transition. The American interpretation is also rather unique: it’s a mixture of individualism, optimism, and reinvention coupled with an appreciation for life’s cycles, our connections to others and inevitability.
What are some of the transitions you looked at?
I looked at eight transitions including going to college, getting married, having a first child, losing a job, divorce, surviving a life-threatening disease, parents’ death and retirement.
Is there a disconnect between how transitions are portrayed in popular culture and how Americans experience them?
Yes, of course. The book acknowledges that popular culture is one thing, personal experience another. At the same time, popular culture is very powerful in giving us the basic cognitive elements that we use to inform our worldviews. For instance, our ideas about what is beautiful and ugly are heavily informed by the movies we watch. That’s why it’s important to study and understand transitions in the context of popular culture.
What do greeting cards say about how we value and celebrate transitions?
In the book I examine the texts of many of those cards. They show a general desire to mark moments in life as transitions – to raise awareness and celebrate them somehow. There is also a general tendency to interpret transitions as a positive, liberating thing.
Francesco Duina is head of UBC’s Dept. of Sociology and author of five books, including Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession. More information may be found here http://news.ubc.ca/2014/01/27/decoding-the-thirst-for-victory/