November 15, 2012

The Sociology of Busyness

SternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

If you are a student, and even if you are not, chances are this time of year means you are very busy. Whether it’s the upcoming holidays, exams, term papers, or other obligations, for some reason the end of the year can mean a lot of busyness.

I recently had a student come to my office hours to talk about his progress, and the student admitted that he was overcommitted to many campus activities and that it had affected his coursework. I’m sure he is not alone; students regularly struggle with their workload and find that it is virtually impossible to devote the amount of time to each of their classes as they would like to.

I can relate, as I have been busy grading and juggling my own deadlines and workload. What can sociology add to our understanding of busyness?

While being busy might just be something we take for granted or might seem not worth studying, in fact many sociologists study how people make use of their time. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) even collects data on how Americans spend their days in the American Time Use Survey (ATUS). ATUS is meant to find out how much time people spend working, caring for family members, volunteering, or other leisure activities. The BLS uses the data collected to get a better snapshot of worker productivity, and to understand the kinds of unpaid work that people engage in regularly.


As you can see from the chart above, college students report engaging in multiple activities over the course of a day. This represents the national average, so your activities might vary from the chart above. (You might want to think about your schedule compares: are there other responsibilities or activities this chart leaves out?)

ATUS can also help us identify important trends. The most recent ATUS survey results indicate that nearly forty million Americans provided unpaid eldercare in 2011, yielding important policy information about the aging population and their caregivers. This information gives us useful data on the time crunches people might encounter due to family obligations, particularly for women between 45 and 64, who are the most likely caregivers to elderly relatives. We can look at long term trends to make policy decisions about eldercare for our aging population, and better understand the time crunches that people—who often work in the labor force as well—face on a daily basis.

ATUS data also tell us that women do more of the caregiving (56 percent of all eldercare providers) and are also more likely do household work on a daily basis than men (83 percent versus 65 percent). This finding is consistent with data collected by sociologists in their own smaller studies.

For instance, in her book, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home, sociologist Arlie Hochschild studied families up close using ethnography to understand how families divided household labor and attempted to balance these responsibilities with jobs in the labor force.  She describes how women tended to do more work at home than men, ironically even more so within couples that espoused more egalitarian ideas about gender.  Sociologist Annette Lareau also studied families in their homes and found that for more affluent families, much of their time was spent shuttling children around from activity to activity, as she describes in Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life.

Hochschild’s more recent book, The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work involved interviews with employees at every level of a Fortune 500 company to discuss how they attempted to balance the demands of home and work. For some employees with stressful homelives and family conflicts, work ironically became more of a refuge than home.

While busyness might seem like just an inevitable fact of life, we can learn a lot about gender, race, and class in studying how people spend their time. Although we might think that work life and family life are entirely separate, the reality is these “separate spheres” often overlap and we have to work to negotiate between them.

Think about what’s keeping you and those around you busy: how might sociology help you understand the patterns that shape our everyday lives?


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Smartphones really make students addicted to it. They can't even control themselves from not using it. Because of this, smartphones are now considered a big factor in sociology in busyness.

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