By Tanya Portch.
When I saw the opportunity for a summer internship with a member of the Sociology team, I was eager to get involved. Having read Dr Julia Carter’s previous work on young women’s relationships, and in particular weddings, I was excited for the opportunity to assist a lecturer in their academic research. I was ecstatic when I got the call to say I had been accepted. Not only would I be studying an area that held personal interest for me, I would also be getting invaluable experience in terms of research, methodology and sociological analysis.
The aim of the internship and research project was to build upon the data obtained during the previous year’s internship and in Julia’s ongoing research, and to further the insight into modern women’s relationships. In particular, we wanted to focus on the discourse surrounding weddings and marriage, and how decisions regarding a wedding are affected. There were a number of subcategories we aimed to explore, which included name changing/retaining, wedding traditions, body image in the lead up to weddings, and the concepts of traditional versus alternative weddings. In order to investigate this we decided to analyse discussions that took place on online public forums that focused on weddings. We eventually settled on the discussion threads on hitched.com, as this was the most comprehensive and popular UK based forum.
We began our research by first logging a selection of threads that discussed each of the four topics we wished to explore, and how many comments had been made on each thread. This quantitative data made it easy to see at a glance which topics were the most prevalent. It was immediately clear to us that the subject of name changing was the most discussed. Following this, each of the discussion threads were imported to NVivo, a qualitative data and mixed methods software programme. Each of the chosen threads were copied into NVivo, and we began to categorise certain themes and topics that were apparent, otherwise known as coding. This coding would form the basis for our analysis.
The findings from the research were not wholly unexpected. Unsurprisingly, women felt under pressure to look perfect, to have the perfect day and to make perfect decisions. But our focus was on the reasoning behind their decisions, and certain themes were recurrent, not just amongst one topic of discussion, but across several.
The topic that garnered the most attention online, and certainly provided the most interesting data, was the question of whether the brides would (and should) change their surnames after marrying. This is not a new discussion by any means but given the progression of women’s rights and feminism, the option for a bride to not change her surname to that of her husband’s has never been more available. The most common reason cited, for either retaining or changing their name, was that of identity. Individual and familial identity were frequently discussed.
For many of the women (and indeed the few men who were active on the site), the concept of identity was the principal reason behind their decision to either change or retain their name. Some discussed the importance of changing their surname to symbolise a new family identity- “I want my little family (H2B, me and future littles!) to be tied together with one name” . Others spoke about how their surname was a link to their own family: “I really don’t want to loose my surname as its a very special connection with my dad & my grandparents” [sic]. Individual identity was also discussed, with one commenter stating “our names form a fundamental part of our identity”. One contributor stated that “double-barrelling is a way to stay true to your original identity as well as incorporate the new identity that emerges with marriage”. It was evident that the notion of identity could be used to support (and also oppose) any decision regarding naming practices.
The topic of wedding traditions provided more notable discourse. For many, it would appear that societal norms and expectations play a major role in the decisions surrounding how a wedding should be. Many commenters felt obliged to include certain wedding traditions, simply because they were expected to. One contributor asked “How can you find a balance between your family’s expectations of a traditional wedding ceremony and the sort of fun, unique, quirky experience we, as a couple, actually want?” and this was a major theme throughout the thread. Brides felt compelled to strike a balance between their own wishes for their big day, and the wants and needs of family and friends. In addition, this concept of family expectations was cited in the arguments for and against name changing and retaining.
These were just a few of the many comments, themes and beliefs that were perpetuated within this online community. It became clear to us that despite the fact the wedding day is about the couple getting married, it was not free of the rules and regulations that permeate society in a whole manner of ways.
As someone who has just finished their first year of university and is going into the second, I found the internship to be hugely beneficial in terms of preparing me for the topics I would be studying in my second year. It also provided an opportunity to exercise the knowledge I had gained in the first year of my degree, as well as expand my academic understanding of an area that I had previously not studied in depth. For me, the prospect of having a four month long summer break with no academic work to do filled me with a kind of dread and boredom. As pretentious as that sounds, conducting this research instilled a sense of purpose in my chosen degree.
Sociology is not just, after all, knowing a lot of theories and doing a lot of reading. It is also about pragmatically using and applying this knowledge. The research project was the perfect opportunity for me to do that, and I would strongly urge students to take part in an internship, for what I consider to be an invaluable experience.