Deep in the jungles of Africa, members of an indigenous tribe go about daily routines as, from one home to the next, the women depart to tend to crops and collect food while the fathers stay behind to rear their children. Though not unheard of, the role of these fathers as primary caregiver is certainly not the norm. And while there is an increasing global perception that prescribed roles between women and men are blurring in these modern times, it turns out these Central African men are still very different from most of their fathering counterparts around the world.
It is these stark cultural differences despite the general perception of blurring social norms from one culture to the next that inspired one SUU psychology professor, Dr. David W. Shwalb, to undertake a global study of fatherhood, the scope of which has never before been tackled.
Shwalb, along with his wife Barbara J. Shwalb, a retired SUU professor, and Michael E. Lamb, director of the Division of Social and Developmental Psychology at the University of Cambridge, co-edited this research on fathers. The result: “Fathers in Cultural Context,” a case study on fatherhood that aims to identify the similarities and, more often than not, differences among fathers across every continent.
“Around the world we see a different take on the role of a father, with great variance from culture to culture, but the topic has not been extensively studied,” said Shwalb.
He and his colleagues set out to do just that, coordinating case studies, broad surveys, personal interviews and more to draw generalizations and indentify the differences that all work to define “fatherhood.”
Their findings, in broad swaths, according to Shwalb: “It is culturally seen in the majority of societies that the father is the secondary parent and is the main breadwinner, but that role is changing and developing from nation to nation—though not all in one direction.”
This proved surprising, even to a seasoned researched and working psychologist who has made the study of fatherhood his life’s work.
“It seems that even though the world is so interconnected, fatherhood is one role that isn’t merging and beginning to follow one trend,” said Shwalb.
For example, dramatic cultural and historical changes in Japan have shifted longstanding male perceptions among the nation’s young men and fathers. In a near 180-degree shift, Japanese men now view a stable family as more important than economic success, and the gender-based division of labor is shifting.
In Russia, however, a father’s perception is very different. Here, fathers are valued solely on their success as breadwinner, with little emotional attachment to children and a nearly complete detachment from the family as a whole.
Barbara Shwalb explains that while she was “very surprised” to learn of the stark disconnect between father and family in Russia, the surprising cultural norm is easier to understand in context—a long stagnant economy and high rates of depression and alcoholism—which is why she, David and Lamb knew a cross-cultural study would be the only way to truly understand fatherhood as a whole in a global context.
One may physically become a father at conception, but the manifestation of fatherhood is largely determined by long established cultural traditions and socioeconomic conditions largely beyond any one father’s control.
That is not to say, however, that one can’t learn from another’s experience. And Shwalb, a father himself and one of the field’s top academics in the study of fatherhood, says he and his colleagues find value in components of every culture’s take on this side of parenting.
“By expanding the map of the academic study of fathers the three of us, with the help of writers in each society, were able to pull all that research into one central location,” explains Shwalb. “We can see many different patterns and roles that a father has around the world, and each has the power to influence others.”
“Fathers in Culture Context” was released this fall and is the most comprehensive study of its kind in academia. Published through Routledge Press, it is available in either paperback or eBook, available through both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The paperback is also sold in the SUU Bookstore.
Several regional maps were customized for the book by Paul Larson, and the book cover was designed by Rohn Solomon, both also of SUU.