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Historical comparisons are an interesting and illuminating way to teach about social change across a range of areas and, I would suggest, family life is no exception.

When looking at reasons for divorce in contemporary societies, for example, it can be useful to get students to list possible reasons for divorce now, as compared to 100 years ago, and delete any reasons common to both lists (such as “falling out of love”). Once students have done that they’ll be left with a (small) number of contemporary reasons (such as the legal availability of divorce) they can use to explain historical changes in divorce rates.

Comparative research, particularly in areas that are close to students’ own lives and experiences, can also be fun (in an academic-sort-of-way) because the differences they demonstrate between lives as once lived and lives as now lived can be both surprising and revealing – as illustrated by “Tests for Husbands and Wives”, a “marital-compatibility” test devised by Dr. George Crane, a psychologist and university professor in 1930’s America.

The ”Tests” take the form of a simple questionnaire containing 50 questions completed by wives and 50 questions completed by their husbands that attempts to measure individual “merits” and “demerits” to arrive at a composite “marital rating scale” ranging from “very poor” to “very superior”.

How you use the Tests in your class is, of course, entirely up to you but I’d suggest that even a brief analysis of the questions posed [tests for h and w.docx] will give your students a general understanding of the assumptions being made about a range of concepts – from cultural ideas about marriage, through marital norms and values in the past to masculine and feminine identities around and within family life – they can compare with their contemporary understanding of these ideas.

Take the Online Test…
  • The Tests could be useful for understanding changing ideas about things like marriage, masculinity and femininity in the context of areas like family and personal life or changing family roles and responsibilities.
  • They could also be used to think about a range of methodological problems with historical documents of this type. They can, for example, provide valuable insights into past behaviour, but we need to be careful they’re not unrepresentative of different populations. The document, for example, cost 20 cents in 1930’s and that’s now the equivalent of $3.86 / £3.00 in current money – does this mean the Tests were likely to be applicable to a particular social audience and, if so, how representative might they be of people’s actual behaviour and ideas at the time?
  • In addition, students might also want to consider the authenticity of historical documents. While the provenance of Tests for Husbands and Wives is relatively easy to authenticate the same might not necessarily true of something like “The Good Wife’s Guide” that purports to describe the role of a “1950’s American wife”. This is a good opportunity to see if students can take advantage of the Internet as a way of trying to assess document authenticity.
  • Alternatively, as Dr. Crane wisely noted, both young men and young women “contemplating marriage might very profitably use this test as a valuable guide” and, to this end, there’s an online version your students can use to assess their own “marital rating”…

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