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Five questions with Jill Suitor, Distinguished Professor of Sociology


Fall 2018 | By David Ching. Photo by John Underwood.


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At the Friday, Dec. 7 Board of Trustees meeting, Jill Suitor officially became Purdue's newest Distinguished Professor of Sociology.

Suitor came to Purdue from LSU in 2004, three years after launching the Within-Family Differences Study (WFDS) -- a research project where she and a continuous stream of graduate assistants have studied the implications involved with parental favoritism and disfavoritism. In this condensed Q&A regarding her new title, Suitor discusses the WFDS, the value her many graduate assistants brought to the project, and why Purdue has been the perfect place to conduct her research:

Q: When you learned that you were going to receive this honor, what did that mean to you?

A: It’s really very meaningful to me because I feel Purdue has played such a major role in the success of my research. I came here almost 15 years ago and I had been studying family relations in adulthood, particularly how parent-child relationships and adult sibling relationships affect well-being. One of my incentives for coming here was that when I was being recruited, I was told that I would find really amazing graduate students to work with. And that has clearly been the case. I have had a stream of amazing graduate students, without whom I couldn’t get any work done. And because I’ve had the combination of wonderful researchers from my department, from the Center on Aging and the Life Course, I’ve been able to recruit these great students to come work on my project with me.

Q: Was that opportunity to work with graduate students the top priority when you were determining whether to work at Purdue? How high on the list was that when you decided to leave LSU and come here?

A: It was No. 1. When I first went to LSU, there had been several very prominent family sociologists there. They all were retiring or moving right before I came, which is probably why the lines were open. From that point on, I’d always find smart students to work on my projects, but the ability to recruit students who would know they had come to a department that was really well-known for family, and particularly for family and aging, where they could have a committee of people who were well-known in this area, just wasn’t possible there. And that was really important to me because it’s just a different way of working with students when they are equally excited about the particular project. For me, that was absolutely No. 1.

Ken Ferraro told me about the students he’d mentored over the previous decade and I knew their work and I knew where they were placed and I thought, ‘You know, this is a place where all students I’m working with could be coming to work on my project because they’re really excited about studying how these adult-family relationships affect people’s lives.’ That was the main draw, and I have not been disappointed. It really has been a wonderful ride.

Q: Would you say the opportunity to have those resources and attract that caliber of student has been why you have stayed at Purdue for the last 14 years?

A: It’s been 14 years and I’ve turned down job interviews with very good places several times. There was always this sense that there would be a risk trying to replicate what I have at Purdue anywhere else. And Purdue has been very good to me. So the combination that Purdue has been very good to me and very good for my research, and the office of the Vice President for Research has provided bridge funding for my students between grants, has provided me with pilot money that I needed before submitting new grants, I’ve had wonderful people work with me in pre-award and post-award, it’s such a supportive environment for someone who both needs graduate students and needs good, grad-savvy staff to make all of this work smoothly.

Q: What are you most proud of from your research process with the Within-Family Differences Study?

A: I think what I’m most proud of are two things. One is that this research has shed light on a very important aspect of family relationships that has profound effects on psychological well-being and individuals’ relationships with their adult siblings that, prior to this project, most people have perceived favoritism in their family. They’ve said to themselves, ‘Oh, this isn’t very important. It shouldn’t matter’ and felt like other people weren’t having this experience and it ‘shouldn’t bother them.’ I’ve had respondents who have said, ‘I know I shouldn’t worry about this anymore. After all, I’m 50 years old. But it still bothers me that my mom’s really disappointed in me and she’s really proud of my brother.' ... I think it’s really important that both the individuals who perceive that there’s favoritism and think, ‘Well, I’m just being petty by worrying about that. If I were really a mature person, it wouldn’t bother me.’ But no, basically this is one of the family processes that has long-term effects on people’s well-being and their relationships with other family members.

It also impacts caregiving. We know that moms who are cared for by children who are not the offspring they prefer to care for them do less well. They are more likely to develop depressive symptoms, they are more likely to feel that the care they are receiving is not adequate, and so in turn it affects both generations in different ways. We feel it’s also important that, for example, moms do have very strong feelings in most cases about who they would like to have care for them, and if that’s not the child that cares for them, they don’t do as well. That’s really important. So another piece of that that I’m really proud of is that, our research is out in the public, it has gotten a lot of media attention, so practitioners are more likely to know. We think a social worker in a hospital is more likely to say, ‘Hey, before I just send mom home with the kid who says they’re taking mom home, maybe I should talk to mom separately from those kids and see if that’s who she wants to take care of her for the next six weeks.’ Which child does she want to have doing it? Because that makes a difference in how well that caregiving goes and probably how likely that mom is when she needs help next time to ask for it rather than postpone because, ‘Ugh, that was not a great caregiving experience. Maybe if I just ignore it, this problem will go away.’ So we think there are a lot of implications for both the well-being of the adult children and the well-being of those older moms.

Q: What is the next step in your research?

A: Our hope is that we will be funded to do a third wave of the Within-Family Differences Study within the next couple of years that will be focused on how all of these processes impact your well-being after your mom or dad passes away. What we know so far from the pilot interviews we’ve done, thanks to funding from Purdue, is it’s not that adult children no longer think about these issues of favoritism and sibling rivalry after moms and dads pass away, it’s actually intensified usually. That’s often a time that siblings, where you might think they would draw closer – and in some families, they do – in some cases, they become alienated following the death of their mothers and fathers because of all of these processes of within-family differences earlier in their lives. So we think this is all very important, and other studies haven’t looked at this in adulthood. It’s just been seen as, ‘Oh yeah, so mom’s more proud of you and she’s more disappointed in me, but should that really matter?’ Whether it should matter or not, we know it does matter. That’s what this study has shown is that those are really important processes in people’s well-being, long-term and short-term.

One other thing, as part of this move into setting how all these processes affect well-being after parental loss is in this next phase of the study, we’re also bringing adult grandchildren into the picture. We have requested funds to interview about 1,300 of the adult grandchildren. ... Grandparents may not be very important in some young adults’ or midlife adults’ lives, but with some, they are very important – in some cases, as important as the parents. In many cases, those grandparents played a very big role in raising those adult grandchildren. There have been no real large-scale studies of how favoritism and disfavoritism processes affect adult grandchildren, so that is another piece of the pie as we move into looking at bereavement is also looking at grandchildren and how these tangled relationships reach across generations.

Now we can add that third generation to the study, so we are very excited. We think we are getting much closer to being able to conduct this third wave. We hope that this happens and we’re very excited about it. And again, a lot of this happened because of being at Purdue and the sort of support that I’ve gotten from the College, the department, the Center on Aging and the Life Course, the Vice President's office. There’s a lot that goes into the kind of research that I do, which is large-scale surveys, and a lot has to go into making it happen. And Purdue’s really good at facilitating that kind of research.