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Multimedia: Research seeks to benefit couples therapy by mining social class upbringing

March 26, 2010

  • Teresa McDowell, Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology
  • Gillian Sleeman '10
  • Nicky Ton '10

Associate Professor Teresa McDowell, along with a team of graduate student researchers, recently lifted the lid on a sensitive topic few, if any, professionals in the field of counseling psychology—researchers or practitioners—have ever addressed: how differences in social class can affect the health of couple relationships.

McDowell has spent much of her career working to reshape marriage and family therapy education in ways that better support social equity and cultural democracy. Her scholarship has focused on race and racism in family therapy practice and education, critical multicultural family research, and internationalizing family therapy programs. This latest research paper, “Exploring Social Class: Voices of Inter-class Couples,” explores how couples with different social class upbringings have built lasting relationship. 

McDowell discussed the relevance of social class research, and the unique setting of the Lewis & Clark graduate school to explore this complex counseling psychology issue.

What interested you in researching the impact of social class on couple relationships?

McDowell: Social class is typically included in contextual factors affecting individuals, couples, and families, yet there is very little family therapy research or practice literature on social class. When social class is discussed, there tends to be an assumption that all members of the family share a single social class. Social class is also typically talked about relatively only to lower and working class families. In general, social class is also not openly discussed in the U.S. due to the myths of meritocracy and a classless society. We know that social class deeply shapes the lives of individuals, couples, families, and communities, and have therefore begun researching and talking about it in the literature we are producing.

The interest in social class differences within couple relationships stems from multiple conversations among early researchers about cultural similarities and differences in marrying across lines in the dominant culture in the U.S. and the dominant culture in Peru. Both the authors who previously wrote about this also have personal experience that relates to the topic.

Why is this research important to the field of marriage and couple family therapy?

McDowell: We hope to open space for family therapists to begin addressing within-family social class differences and to shed light on the influence of the “invisible” dynamics around class.

Where might this research lead you next? What other questions does it spur?

McDowell: There are many areas related to social class that need to be explored, including:

  • Classism and internalized classism among family therapists
  • Dismantling classism/internalized classism via family therapy education
  • The role family therapists can play in raising social awareness within families of the dynamics of social class in liberation-based therapies, and many others

The first author and another colleague recently published an article on mapping social capital which addresses how family therapists can assist low status families through raising awareness and decision making relative to social class. The first author is currently completing a study of the experience of working and lower class students in family therapy training.

Do you think there’s anything unique about this research growing out of an educational institution like Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling?

McDowell: The social justice mission of the graduate school draws faculty and student researchers who are invested in social equity. The faculty-student collaboration around these issues is therefore a fairly natural fit. Numerous people drawn together with similar goals and interests increases synergy and provides support for critical researchers who often find themselves alone in their efforts.

What has been beneficial about having students involved in the research process?

McDowell: We include students in many of our research projects. We are committed to offering them opportunities to collaborate on research and professional writing. We believe it is mutually beneficial as students help move projects forward by completing many research tasks and the faculty mentors their work and guides the effort. Faculty also lead in writing the results for publication while student experience the process of submitting manuscripts, revising, etc. firsthand.

Five graduate students participated in McDowell’s latest research: Erin Althusius, Sarah Hergic, AJ Rogers, Gillian Sleeman, Nicky Ton.

Ton ’10 plans to pursue a doctorate in counseling psychology while Sleeman ’10 plans to counsel clients after graduation. While Ton and Sleeman will take different paths with their degrees in counseling psychology, both have taken away significant lessons from the research project.

In this audio clip, Ton discusses how her participation in this research project inspired her to think about her own experience with social class difference.

In this audio clip, Sleeman addresses the challenges couples from different social classes face and how Lewis & Clark’s efforts to improve cross-cultural understanding is preparing her for work in counseling.

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